The Journal of Military History 68.2 (2004) 577-578
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Espionage in the Ancient World: An Annotated Bibliography. By R. M. Sheldon. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2003. ISBN 0-7864-1365-4. Glossary. Index. Pp. ix, 232. $45.00.
The esoteric processes of gathering, evaluating, and applying intelligence information have preoccupied governments and fascinated observers ever since antiquity. That becomes clear from even a cursory glance at Espionage in the Ancient World, an immensely useful compilation of sources on intelligence "tradecraft" in the premodern era assembled by the leading authority on the subject, Dr. Rose Mary Sheldon. This volume is, above all, comprehensive, containing more than eight hundred works, by ancient authors as well as modern scholars. The collection's range extends far beyond what its title indicates, taking in the medieval world as well as Byzantium, Islam, Russia, China, India, and Africa. Sheldon recognizes that what constitutes "intelligence activities" is an open question, particularly in the context of the premodern world; consequently, she has included not only works on intelligence collection, counterintelligence, espionage, and cryptography, but also on covert action, tactical and strategic intelligence, internal security, and policing. Still, limits had to be set on what was included, and Sheldon acknowledges the subjective nature of the choices she made in doing so. She has included only works in major European languages. She has omitted works that mention intelligence activities in passing, as well as those that deal with undeciphered languages and occult topics. On the whole, her choices seem reasonable, though the inclusion of a hundred and fifty titles on the unsolved Sator Rebus seems odd, when set against the exclusion of works on numerology and magic.
The organization of the collection is solid and intelligent. The various titles are arranged in the customary geographical and chronological units: Ancient Near East, Greece, Hellenistic Age, Roman Republic, Roman [End Page 577] Empire, etc. Where particular subjects have generated extensive literatures of their own, Sheldon wisely has given them their own sections or subsections. Thus, the Sator Rebus literature is grouped separately. The literatures on the Spartan krypteia (the so-called "secret service"), Roman signaling, and Greek fire are gathered in their own subsections. Dr. Sheldon has written informative introductions to the major divisions and most of the subsections. Her commentaries on the individual works provide the expected summaries of the works' contents, but often also very helpful evaluations of a work's context within the broader literature on the subject, and the soundness of its scholarship. Occasional touches of wit lighten the summaries and make scanning the selections a more pleasant task.
There is little to criticize about the volume, except by challenging Sheldon's subjective but well-informed choices about what to include, and exclude, with equally subjective, but less informed, choices of one's own. Perhaps the only important criticism is the simple and obvious one that the volume's title does no justice to the topical, chronological, and geographical sweep of the contents. All else is minor: Several items are duplicated; one is misplaced; the glossary of terms is almost entirely Roman. But these do not detract from the work's value. It is a significant, and useful, contribution by a major scholar to a fascinating and complex, field.
Cedar Falls, Iowa