Think of the Roman army and you may well call to mind large forces of uniformed men in orderly marching columns and battle formations. You wouldn’t be wrong, but, according to a historian and archaeologist, you would be overlooking units akin to today’s SAS and Navy Seals that supported their regular military colleagues with special operations of extraordinary daring.
Operating far behind enemy lines to spearhead assaults, gather intelligence and act as snatch or assassination squads, these soldiers belonged to units with misleadingly innocuous names that have contributed to their subsequent obscurity. Seeking to restore them to their rightful place in Roman and military history in a new book, Dr Simon Elliott told History First: “This is the first work I am aware of which considers special forces and special ops in a Roman context. The most surprising finding was that there were so many candidates for consideration.”
Elliott’s contenders for Roman ‘special forces’
- Speculatores were scouting and reconnaissance specialists whose role expanded over time to include more complex covert operations at a tactical level. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar describes his speculatores scouting escape routes for his force when it was pinned down by a much larger Gallic army in a wide river valley in 57BC. Their actions enabled Caesar to slip away and gather his entire army, ultimately defeating the Nervii tribe in the close-run Battle of the Sabis. Increasingly, during the imperial period, speculatores acted as military police, bodyguards for senior officials and executioners rather than scouts.
- Protectores Domestici started as bodyguards of the later Roman emperors and, in time, took on duties as their general enforcers and spies. They also carried out special missions. One Flavius Abbinaeus, for example, was enrolled in the protectores before being ordered to escort a delegation of Africans back to their homeland deep in Nubia in a three-year round trip. The 4th-century soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus served as a protector and went on several operations into the territory of Rome’s Persian enemies — as well as a covert assignment, with others, to arrange the killing of a usurping general in Cologne.
Of Ammianus, Elliott says: “He is our greatest late Roman historian when it comes to political and military history, and, as I found out when writing the book, turns out to have been a special forces candidate himself given that he was an active protector. Basically, the Roman equivalent of Ian Fleming [the British intelligence officer and James Bond author]!”
- Exploratores were best-known for deep reconnaissance, deep strike and frontier surveillance roles. In Elliott’s analysis, their operations were of a more strategic nature than those of speculatores. These soldiers were recruited both from native people on the frontiers, including Germans, and from the wider ranks of the army. Individual exploratores named on tombstones include Respectus whose father was called Berus, a Suebian name meaning “bear”
Elliott also looks at the areani — irregular exploratores based in the far north of late Roman Britain who had local counterparts all around the imperial frontiers. According to the historian, it is only the exploratores and their irregular counterparts that meet his strict criteria as potential special forces.
So what set the exploratores and areani apart? Elliott says: “The key difference between them and other leading special force candidates was that in addition to the usual scouting, guarding, assassination and execution roles, they also carried out deep strike and reconnaissance deep in enemy territory with no umbilical to a mainstream military unit. In effect, they operated independently within the framework of their mission.”
As for their boldest operations, Elliott says: “The rescue of Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, in 69AD springs to mind — which I argue was carried out by exploratores.” The former client queen was then a prisoner of her ex-husband Venutius, who had deposed her and was leading a revolt against Roman authority in Britannia. With no legions immediately available, the provincial governor Marcus Vettius Bolanus sent a flying column 75 miles into enemy territory, to the Brigantian capital in today’s North Yorkshire, and rescued the Roman ally. As Elliott writes, it was “an operation so audacious it brings to mind [Otto] Skorzeny’s Operation Oak glider-borne rescue of Mussolini in September 1943.”
He also cites emperor Maximinus Thrax’s use of exploratores to spearhead an exceptionally deep penetration of German territory in 235AD when going after the Alamanni who were threatening the Rhine frontier. According to the late Roman Historia Augusta, Maximinus marched 300-400 Roman miles north from today’s Mainz. Although these figures are undoubtedly exaggerated, archaeological findings in Lower Saxony in 2008 suggest that Maximinus had advanced far into Northern Germany.
For their part, the areani were northern tribesmen who provided strategic intelligence for the Roman military headquarters in York. Elliott says they were probably recruited from north of Hadrian’s Wall and would have operated far into “barbaricum” in today’s Scotland and, possibly, Ireland. In 367-8, the areani turned coat and participated in — perhaps even instigating and coordinating — the Great Conspiracy, in which raiders from Scotland, Ireland and Germany allegedly attacked Roman Britain in coordinated waves.
Elliott used a modern understanding of military special forces, such as Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) and select US and Israeli units, to formulate his criteria for the status. These are:
- “Special forces comprise elite volunteers who are chosen through a demanding selection process.”
- “They are uniquely trained for non-regular warfare, with special skill sets and esprit de corps and access to specialist equipment.”
- “Special forces are used to secure operational and strategic advantage, rather than for normal military operations. This might, for example, include attacking hostile leaders and strategic assets deep in enemy territory. They are not merely elite combat units fielded in the normal line of battle.”
- “When required, the use of special forces is totally deniable.”
He focused primarily on forces operating in the centuries between the later Republican period, ending in 27BC, and the fall of the Western Roman empire in 476AD.
Forces that met some, but not all, of Elliott’s criteria included other specialist and elite units, from combat engineers operating forward of advancing Roman armies, to the Praetorian guard — the imperial bodyguards turned kingmakers. Among the more notable contenders were Batavian auxiliaries, recruited from the Rhine Delta and renowned for operations along river systems and coastlines. In the first stages of the conquest of Britain, in 43AD, a detachment of “Germans” believed to have been Batavians was said by historian Cassius Dio to have swum across a river in full armour at night and taken a British army by surprise. By targeting the Britons’ horses — prize military assets — they paved the way for a larger Roman force to cross and inflict a decisive defeat the following day. The site may have been at Aylesford on the Medway.
Elliott also considered intelligence-gathering forces, such as the frumentarii, who started as logistics specialists overseeing the distribution of wheat and evolved into a secret service. Their involvement in tax-collecting, their Orwellian snooping and their activities as death squads led to them becoming hate figures and they were disbanded by the reforming emperor Diocletian. Elliott says the intelligence agents known as agentes in rebus who were among the frumentarii’s successors were arguably “the equivalent of MI6 or the CIA today”. Just as modern agents may work under diplomatic or other cover, these agentes were officially couriers and “general agents” of the state.
As with the various other close calls, he said: “They sometimes operated in a manner close to being special forces. However, it was on too few occasions and in too few numbers.”
Spectacular special ops such as Maximinus Thrax’s northern campaign would certainly have helped to project Roman power and prestige. According to Elliott, the clandestine nature of a large part of these soldiers’ work makes it difficult to gauge their overall impact. “In a sense it is the same as today — it is difficult to determine, given that by their very nature special forces and special ops are often ‘black’ and their missions take place away from the gaze of the media today, or classical and late antique authors then. However, on occasion their use would have been crucial in maintaining Roman authority both within and without their enormous empire.”
Do his findings change our understanding of the Roman army or state more broadly? Elliott says: “Yes — in that I have clearly detailed how certain units, usually exploratores and areani, could operate completely independently behind enemy lines with recourse to using regular lines of communication until their mission was fulfilled.”
They may not have had the SAS motto of “Who Dares Wins”, but Roman thinking came close enough, with author of aphorisms Publilius Syrus writing: Pericla qui audet ante vincit quam accipit, “He who dares dangers overcomes them before he incurs them.”
Simon Elliott’s book is Roman Special Forces and Special Ops: Speculatores, Exploratores, Protectores and Areani in the Service of Rome. The top image shows a relief sculpture on the Arch of Constantine in Rome depicting the emperor addressing the army. Photo: Shutterstock