The Most Famous Spies in History

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The world of espionage is shrouded in mystery. We attach romantic and idealized notions to being a spy, influenced by TV shows, books, and movies such as those featuring British agent James Bond — and these are all Bond movies ranked from worst to best.

But the reality is far more nuanced and complex — and far less glamorous. Alas, the only reason we know of many spies is because they were captured and often executed. 

24/7 Tempo’s list of famous spies throughout history is by no means exhaustive. These are also not necessarily the most successful spies, but among the most famous ones — largely because they were caught. We are likely not aware of many real successful spies, especially in more recent times, as their existence and deeds are kept in secrecy. 

Espionage has its roots in ancient times. Famed military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in “The Art of War” around 500 BC: “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.” And in the Old Testament, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho before conquering Canaan. There is documentation that ancient Greeks and Romans used espionage, too.

The men and women of the spy world learn subterfuge and other methods and tools of the trade. Many are ideologists, though some simply do it for the money and have few morals or core beliefs. Some have been very good at the trade, but a few were also quite inept and are famous simply because of their very public trials. Many are hailed as heroes in the country they were loyal to. Espionage carried out by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Klaus Fuchs in which atomic secrets were passed to the Soviet Union contributed to that nation developing atomic weapons. That accelerated the Cold War, contributing to crises that could have ended the world.