Monday, July 15, 2013

PRISM: Ancient Persian Edition

The recent leaks from Edward Snowden have brought government spying into popular attention, particularly PRISM, which is an extensive NSA electronic surveillance program.  It turns out the U.S. government is using some advanced technology to keep an eye on us.  Fortunately, I don't need to worry about the NSA reading what I write here, because even super computers and government spies are bored by the history of the ancient world.

While the specific technologies may be new, government surveillance is quite ancient.  The rulers of ancient kingdoms needed to keep tabs on their subjects, and they developed surveillance and communication methods to make this happen.  Oppenheim states this quite strongly when he says: "Informers, accusers, internal spies, censors, secret agents and their like form, in all these civilizations, then as well as today, an effective and often unobtrusive web, that with constant vigilance and demonic effectiveness directs, controls and coerces the individual in his social setting." ("Eyes of the Lord" 180)

In Zechariah 4:10 we learn that YHWH himself may have a surveillance system, his "seven eyes" that roam the earth:

“These seven are the eyes of YHWH, which range through the whole earth.”

Some scholars think that this is an allusion to the Persian "king's eye(s)."  Several Greek authors mention either a single Persian official who was "the king's eye" or a number of "eyes and ears of the king" who may have passed along information to the king.  Some scholars present this as an organized system of royal spies scattered throughout the empire who enabled the king to know all of the seedy details of his realm without ever leaving the comfortable confines of his palace.  There does seem to be disagreement, however, about the nature and existence of the "king's eye(s)."  You might take a quick gander at some of these very brief comments:

Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, King and Court in Ancient Persia 559-331 BC, 47. (You might find his website interesting as well: particularly this post on the Persian Court.) 

The idea of an ancient network of royal spies is certainly interesting to think about, isn't it?  For you Hollywood big shots out there, this could form the plot for a blockbuster film (think ancient prequel to Mission Impossible).  The idea that ancient Jewish texts may have based their portrayals of angelic beings on imperial surveillance methods?  Well that's just downright fascinating.  If true, The Police's classic "Every Breath You Take" might become a candidate for hymnals. 

We'll leave you with some of the primary Greek sources that tell us about the eye(s) of the king and let you form your own historical judgments.  One must wonder if the primary function of the king's eye(s) really was espionage, or if that's just the way that some subject peoples and neighbors perceived them.  We must also wonder if we are encountering two different things in the sources: a single official known as the "king's eye," and a broader network of "eyes and ears" that the king uses to get information.  On an entirely different note, we might ask if some of our ancient sources that point to a roaming, surveilling eye influenced Tolkien's portrayal of Sauron.
 . . . when [Deioces] heard that a man was doing violence he would send for him and punish him as each offense deserved: and he had spies and eavesdroppers everywhere in his domain. (Herodotus 1.100.2; not about the king's eye, but a fun little statement about the spies of a Median king)
Then he assigned some of them to the building of houses, some to be his bodyguard, one doubtless to be the King's Eye; to another he gave the right of bringing him messages; to each he gave his proper work. (Herodotus, 1.114.2)
Who else was ever in a position like the Persian king to punish enemies who were distant a journey of many months? . . . Moreover, we have discovered that he acquired the so-called “king's eyes” and “king's ears” in no other way than by bestowing presents and honours; for by rewarding liberally those who reported to him whatever it was to his interest to hear, he prompted many men to make it their business to use their eyes and ears to spy out what they could report to the king to his advantage.  As a natural result of this, many “eyes” and many “ears” were ascribed to the king. But if any one thinks that the king selected one man to be his “eye,” he is wrong; for one only would see and one would hear but little; and it would have amounted to ordering all the rest to pay no attention, if one only had been appointed to see and hear. Besides, if people knew that a certain man was the “eye,” they would know that they must beware of him. But such is not the case; for the king listens to anybody who may claim to have heard or seen anything worthy of attention.  And thus the saying comes about, “The king has many ears and many eyes”; and people are everywhere afraid to say anything to the discredit of the king, just as if he himself were listening; or to do anything to harm him, just as if he were present. Not only, therefore, would no one have ventured to say anything derogatory of Cyrus to any one else, but every one conducted himself at all times just as if those who were within hearing were so many eyes and ears of the king. I do not know what better reason any one could assign for this attitude toward him on the part of people generally than that it was his policy to do large favours in return for small ones. (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.9-12
The Greeks could of course be quite funny.  Aristophanes included a brief appearance by "the king's eye" in his Acharnians (line 69ff), and this character's actor just might have worn some kind of big eye mask.

As Xenophon shows us, the feeling of being watched/listened to by your government is not exactly new.  This of course is not a pleasant sensation in the ancient or the modern world.  "The traumatic effect of the secret surveillance of the individual exercised by either king or god seems to be ascribed here to the continuous, ceaseless motion of these 'eyes.'  With uncanny speed they roam, unseen, among the terrified subjects." (Oppenheim, "Eyes of the Lord," 176)

Additional information: "Eye of the King."

Balcer, Jack Martin.  "The Athenian Episkopos and the Achaemenid 'King's Eye.'" The American Journal of Philology 98 (1977): 252-263.

Oppenheim, A.L. "The Eyes of the Lord." Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1968): 173-180.

Russel, S. Frank.  Information Gathering in Classical Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

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