Arcanus, Miles Arcanus

The Roman fort at Vindolanda in northern Britain, established in the first century CE close to where Hadrian’s Wall would later be built, has yielded an amazing variety of documents written on wooden tablets. These sorts of tablets were used for everyday writing in parts of the Roman world for things like personal letters and shopping lists. I’ve talked about a couple of the finds from Vindolanda before (here and here), but today I’ll turn to one of the more perplexing finds from the site.

Vindolanda tablet 162 is a small strip of wood with two words on it: MILES ARCANU[S]. Miles is clear enough: it means ‘soldier,’ which you would have found plenty of in Vindolanda. Arcanus is more of a puzzle. It can be a personal name, although it’s not common, and it could have been the name of a soldier stationed at Vindolanda. The usual word order in that case, though, would be Arcanus miles, ‘Arcanus, the soldier.’ But as a word on its own, arcanus means ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’ The clearest reading of this tablet is: ‘Secret soldier.’

What is a secret soldier? The answer may lie in a mention from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his Res Gestae, written in the fourth century CE, referring a group in Britain called the areani. The word areani is itself a puzzle: it exists in no other recorded Latin text. It would seem to mean ‘people of the bare lands’ or possibly ‘people of the sheepfolds,’ and might be a reference to people who lived in the wilderness near the Roman frontier. One widely (though not universally) accepted suggestion, however, is that areani is a medieval scribe’s mistake for arcani, ‘secret ones.’

As for who these secret ones were, Ammianus gives us a pretty clear idea:

Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.

– Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 28.8.3

(My own translations)

This account pictures the arcani/areani as scouts or spies who operated outside the frontiers to gather intelligence on potential military threats. One product of their work may also be preserved at Vindolanda, a fragmentary tablet which seems to preserve a piece of a report on the fighting capabilities of the native Britons:

the Britons are naked [or lacking armor?]. They have lots of cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords. The Brits do not take position to throw javelins.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 164

We don’t know how widely the arcani existed in the Roman Empire, at least as an organized group. They are documented only in Britain and might have been a peculiarity of that frontier. One of Rome’s weaknesses as a world power was a lack of any centralized gathering of intelligence on the frontier and foreign peoples, and the emperors were often poorly informed as to what was happening at the edges of their empires. On the local level, though, Roman commanders on many parts of the frontier made use of scouts and patrols to keep an eye on the border regions that fell under their purview.

If this kind of scouting is what the Miles arcanus text refers to, why would the text itself have been written? Surely it isn’t a very sly spy who carries around a tablet saying: “I’m a spy.”

The dangers that this particular secret soldier faced, though, did not necessarily all come from the British side of the border. Roman soldiers on frontier patrol had a habit of abusing their power for personal gain, roughing up the locals and shaking down merchants. Another fragmentary letter from Vindolanda appears to be the draft of a complaint from a merchant to the provincial governor about just this sort of bad behavior by a soldier (the beginning is damaged, so we know less than we would like about the event in question):

… he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away…. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 344

Under such conditions, someone whose business required them to travel around beyond the frontier, probably blending in with the locals, but also report back regularly to a fort full of Roman soldiers, might be well advised to carry around something to prove that he was who he said he was: a spy for Rome.

Image by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

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