Some time ago we dedicated an article to the frumentarii and agentes in rebus, who constituted what we might consider the Roman Empire’s secret services, although in reality that body performed more functions – including postal and supply duties – because, after all, we’re talking about another era. Julian the Apostate abolished it, leaving only seventeen agents and assigning the bulk of espionage work to slaves, but in the Eastern Roman Empire it persisted until the late 7th century, coexisting with another institution that would be the equivalent of an intelligence section: the Scrinium Barbarorum or Bureau of Barbarians.

Barbarian (βάρβαρος) is a term that since the 5th century BC was used in Greece to refer to foreigners who had no relation to Greek culture and language, later expanded to include those peoples who did not know freedom and lived under monarchies and empires. This highlighted the superiority of the Greek world over others, from Egyptians to Persians through Jews, Syrians, Gauls, and Carthaginians. For this reason, the Romans later adopted it, obviously excluding themselves, and thus sublimated Greco-Latin classical culture above others.

From the 3rd century AD, barbarians began to flow towards the West, crossing imperial borders and becoming so widespread that Emperor Caracalla had no choice but to promulgate the Constitutio Antoniniana, an edict granting citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This forced an adaptation of the administration to control this condition and address the specific issues posed by such people.

The barbarian invasions between the 1st and 5th centuries AD
The barbarian invasions between the 1st and 5th centuries AD. Credit: Ewan ar Born / Wikimedia Commons

The department responsible for this was the aforementioned Scrinium Barbarorum, whose name appears for the first time in the Notitia Dignitatum, a document of the Roman chancellery detailing the administrative organization of the two empires, the Western and the Eastern. It explains that this office was divided into four sections, each led by a subadiuva or secretary under the orders of the magister officiorum (a kind of chancellor or general superintendent).

The magister officiorum was in charge of the Sacra Scrinia, which grouped several more administrative departments, such as the Scrinium Memoriae, the Scrinium Epistolarum, the Scrinium Libellorum, and the Scrinium Dispositionum. They were the managers of bureaucracy, paperwork, as they were responsible for drafting official notifications, processing requests and queries, organizing files, classifying reports, accrediting appointments, preparing judicial resources before the emperor, designing his agenda, etc.

Given that the information provided in the Notitia dignitatum refers to the Eastern Roman Empire, it is understood that the scope of competence of these subadiuvae was the dioceses of Asiana, Pontus, the East (later united in the praefectura Oriens), and the set formed by Thrace and Moesia (later converted into the praefectura Illyricum).

Administrative distribution of dioceses and prefectures in the Western and Eastern empires
Administrative distribution of dioceses and prefectures in the Western and Eastern empires. Credit: Claude Zygiel / Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, the Scrinium Barbarorum would also perform specific diplomatic functions, such as protocol or the translation of ambassadors; in short, everything related to the barbarians that gave it its name.

Some historians go a step further and suggest that perhaps it carried out tasks typical of secret services, such as espionage. We already saw that this was done – as a complement to their normal work – by the agentes in rebus, who since Diocletian acted on the ground replacing the frumentarii, but the circumstance arises that among them were precisely appointed the four secretaries of the office; that is, each subadiuva had previously been an agens or had worked in one of the mentioned scrinia.

However, there is no data to corroborate this spy activity by the Scrinia Barbarorum, so it is believed that, in any case, its work in that sense would rather be that of an intelligence service. Although this and espionage are similar concepts and related, they maintain that subtle difference between obtaining information and processing it. The Scrinia Barbarorum would dedicate itself to the second function and as a complement to the bureaucratic one already mentioned, derived from its dealings with the barbarians living within the imperial sphere.

Frumentarii in their daily work of gathering grain, as depicted on the Trajan Column
Frumentarii in their daily work of gathering grain, as depicted on the Trajan Column. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

After all, paraphrasing Von Clausewitz, Roman philosophy – including that of the Eastern Empire – understood diplomacy as a way of waging war by other means, avoiding armed confrontation as much as possible in favor of more subtle and cunning tactics. It seems plausible that the office officials gathered information from the barbarians by taking advantage of the fact that they had to manage their administrative affairs through it.

In fact, there is some historian who claims that all foreigners visiting Constantinople were supervised by the Scrinia Barbarorum and that it would be subordinated to the logothetes tou dromou or postal logothete, the senior official in charge of mail, internal security, and foreign affairs; in such a case, it would be from AD 762 onwards, the year in which the office of magister officiorum began to lose competences.

Emperor Leo III had undertaken a reform of the magister officiorum position which ended with its definitive suppression and with it, the Scrinia Barbarorum, although a lead seal from the 9th century identifying one Peter as protospatharios and in charge of the barbarians is preserved (the protospatharios was the chief of the palace guard; the chartoularioi tou dromou, in exchange, officeholders, had the rank of spatharios).

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 10, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Scrinium Barbarorum, el departamento del Imperio Romano de Oriente encargado de los asuntos de los bárbaros


Antonio Fernández de Buján, Orden interno, seguridad ciudadana y servicio secreto en el marco de la administración pública romana | Juan Antonio Arias Bonet, Los «agentes in rebus». Contribución al estudio de la policía en el Bajo Imperio romano | Otto Seeck, Notitia Dignitatum. Accedunt Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae Laterculi Prouinciarum | J. B. Bury, The Imperial Administrative System in the Ninth Century | Arnold Hugh Martin Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284-602 | Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order | Wikipedia

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