Let's say we have a small civilization that built a wall (Great Wall of China as an example, but with no open sections, all contiguous, besides gated castles) of 300 miles all around their country, totally closing access to their mainland from North, East and South and having its west border facing a sea.

That civilization was able to domesticate a sort of flying lizard that enables them to have a small air cavalry. As the flying lizards don't have a large autonomy, they have to be used defensively only.

They also found, by raw chance, that by leaving stale bread around moldy lemons they were able to get a kind of mold that, if powdered and eaten, reduces inflammation and helps fight infection.

As well they invented repeating crossbows with poisoned arrows. The poison they use paralyzes a man or animal, and stops their hearth in two or so minutes. Crossbowmen use those to man their walls and shoot at any approaching invading army. Their flying lizards cavalry is also used to drop volleys of those poisoned arrows from above along with a kind of flammable liquid, similar to Greek Fire. They also have Trebuchets that launch explosive balls with that Greek Fire of sorts.

Those flying lizards were domesticated by a tribe from the central hills on that country, and no other tribe was able to ever mount the lizards, as they are raised along their riders since their infancy. So, only riders from that tribe are able to successfully mount the flying lizards and take them to combat.

That civilization produces all food they need inside their walls, so they don't need to trade with neighboring civilizations for survival, but they keep a flourishing trade through their gates to a series of special open market cities along the walls were foreign presence is allowed. Foreigners are not allowed past those border cities, and if they get caught inside the country the punishment is death.

They have a very strong cultural unity, based on a religion that proclaims them as the single chosen people of a God that, for them, is the creator and ruler of all things. (let's say like ancient Israel for example) That religion also teaches them if they mix with foreigners they would break their covenant with their God and will suffer the fate of being conquered and enslaved by foreign powers.

Their technological and cultural level (and that of their neighbors) is equivalent to very early Middle Ages (5th century AD) and their region is like the Levant, a very populated and ancient region with plenty of markets and with at least three large and powerful Empires fighting for hegemony there.

My question is: how would that small civilization, while strong, and very well defended and entrenched, be able to avoid external powers to steal their knowledge, especially their flying lizards, the Greek Fire and the antibiotic mold medicine, through spies getting in or deserters going out?

There is no magic whatsoever of any kind (not even miracles through praying or any other ritual).

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    $\begingroup$ Well, the secret of the real Greek Fire was successfully protected by the (Eastern) Roman (= Byzantine) Empire. And the empire was throroughly cosmopolitan, with a very relaxed attitude towards foreigners coming and going. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 25, 2020 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ The question seems a basic "How do espionage and counter-espionage work?" appropriate for Wikipedia, which has very good articles upon the subjects. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 25, 2020 at 13:51

6 Answers 6


As AlexP mentioned in the comment the Byzantines were able to keep the Greek fire mostly secret despite using it for centuries at significant scale. Arabs also had access to fire weapons to some extent. The technology was (I think) originally developed in areas that were taken over by the Arabs so not much the Byzantines could do about that.

But they still largely succeeded and the Greek fire is assumed to have been superior to its Arab and Chinese counterparts. We do not really know because... secret.

Anyway the key was that it was a military secret of great strategic value. Its manufacture and use was controlled by the state and the secrets related to its manufacture and use were really only known by a small number of trustworthy men working at secure facilities under supervision. Actual weapons would be guarded by the military forces they were given to. And they would not be given to just anyone. And of course nobody in the field would have no idea how any of it was manufactured or the specifics of the design. At most they might know how to fix some common issues with the fire siphons.

All your "secrets" actually fall into this same "military secrets with strategic value" category.

Greek fire was already handled.

Single secure facility manufactures everything. Few people work their and they are constantly guarded. Deliveries to units using them are guarded and protected. Storage is guarded constantly. They are only taken out when use is specifically authorized. And as soon as they are not used they are all put back to guarded storage. Used, broken or expired weapons are transported back to that secure facility with the same secure system that brought them out. There is an emergency disposal plan for destroying the weapons to stop them from being taken by enemy if a fort is taken.

Although reasonably capturing such weapons is not very useful. People do not have the ability to do chemical analysis and figure out the formula.

This is even more true for antibiotics. There is no need to tell anyone they are made from mold and no real way for anyone to figure it out by inspecting the finished product.

So just have a secure facility for manufacture and make sure the antibiotic is properly obfuscated by mixing in things with strong odor, taste, and color. Also disguise texture by grinding everything to fine powder and pressing it into tablets. You probably want to additionally control distribution and use. Just make it into a strictly regulated government monopoly. Good source of money during times of peace and keeping price high and access limited keeps bacteria from getting resistance.

The flying cavalry is either going to be no issue or impossible. If taming the lizards is difficult, then just keeping them restricted to elite military units is enough. You need significant amount of lizards and trained people to copy the airborne cavalry, so as long as access to both is restricted within your borders there is nothing outsiders can do unless an entire unit defects.

And if the lizards are common outside and taming them is easy, you have few years after anyone sees your airborne cavalry and realizes it can be done before you lose your monopoly on this tech.

There is one additional thing. The most obvious use of the airborne cavalry would be for reconnaissance and for carrying messages. Neither of these requires flying near outsiders. Messages should be carried between special towers in areas forbidden to outsiders guarded by soldiers. Reconnaissance can be done at fairly large altitude. You want to be warned of movements of armies, not see individual people.

So if you camouflage the rider and his equipment with proper colors so that everything blends to either the lizard or the sky, it should be difficult to be sure there is a rider. So you can at least try to keep it secret.

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    $\begingroup$ There were a couple of good answers, but I like yours the most so far. To keep secrecy through very restricted access by a group of priests is something they already do (the priests are like the Levites from Israel, so one cannot become a priest if does not belong to the priests' tribe). As for the lizards they are extinct everywhere else, and they are mean creatures. The only humans they respect and obey are the riders that were raised along them since the riders were like 8-years old and the lizard eggs hatched. Thanks again. This was my first question so I am happy to get such good replies. $\endgroup$
    – R B Eryth
    Feb 26, 2020 at 3:23

Mitigate the damage of defections by strategically dividing out the tasks among many people

Each recipe/technology is complicated, and your civilisation divides out the work so that no one person knows the full process. This means a large number of people must defect to the same rival Kingdom for the secret to become known.

There are a number of ways to further increase secrecy:

  • some people contributing to a vital process don't even know they are. For example a farmer: their herb is one of 12 vital ingredients of Greek fire. They think they can pay their taxes to the king in this herb because the princess is a notorious foody who likes to season her tea with it. They will never defect because they have no idea they have a secret to sell.

  • some people believe they are part of a vital process but their work is a red herring. One man spends his life smithing precise metal studs that he believes are implanted in the ear canal of the lizards to confuse their senses and make them docile. But when the palace receives a shipment they secretly melt it all down to make nails. If this man defects he will be 100% convincing because he honestly thinks he's telling the truth, but will just be wasting the resources of the rival Kingdom.

  • each process uses the input of dozens of professions, with a small number of overseers who know how to assemble the final product. These people are very well looked after to prevent defection, in fact they would probably make up the nobility or the royal family. Knowledge of these state secrets may even be the reason that they are nobles in the first place.


No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force - Helmuth von Moltke

It doesn't matter how well you plan your defences, how many contingencies you put in place, how harsh the punishment is for breaking the law. You will always overlook something, and eventually the secret will get out no matter how hard you try. You can minimise the option, but never eradicate it.

Especially defection or betrayal will be a concern. Even when your main religion dictates your people are far superior to the outsiders, due to human nature some people will be more, and some people will be less devoted to it. There will be a plethora of reasons someone could betray their country, almost too many to list. You could minimise this risk by limiting the amount of people with detailed knowledge about the technologies, but it will never be fully 0.

Your biggest problem is that your technology is desirable. If it is effective against your enemies, others will want it. This makes the knowledge worth quite a lot, and the more something is worth, the more people are willing to risk for it.

  • $\begingroup$ This from the "Information wants to be free" book $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2020 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi Can't say I've read that, but it seems common sense to me. If the title is anything to go by, the gist might be the same as what I am aiming at indeed. If you are hinting this answer is plagiarised, I assure you this is not the case. $\endgroup$
    – Plutian
    Feb 25, 2020 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ I could swear you were citing from that book. Oh, well, must be a case of great minds thinking alike. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2020 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi I will take that as a compliment! $\endgroup$
    – Plutian
    Feb 25, 2020 at 13:05

The major concerns would be the existence of such place. China was able to build the Great Wall with a population of around 160 Million while the propose country would optimistically reach 1 Million (the entire country would have an area comparable to modern day Beijing).

Regarding the actual question, should be fairly safe to maintain the secret around the major discoveries. All you require is having limited access to the recipes (for the antibiotics and Greek fire) and strict control of the individuals having such information (maybe consider them as a higher-ups in the clergy ranks). Also a low level of literacy would help with this.

For the lizards, the easy way would be the usage of drugs (same logic as above for the recipe and only limited quantity shared with the handlers). Making sure that without such drug or the antidote the lizard will die or became extremely aggressive. This however does not cover the risk of eggs being stolen but this should be covered by a guarded hatchery of some sort.

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    $\begingroup$ And... defection? On long term, the probability of whatever motivates a defector/traitor (greed, anger, not shared love, revenge, ... this box is insufficient) to act approaches 1. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2020 at 8:13

A practical answer to your question would be quite similar to how information is protected against espionage in the real world. Military hierarchy, compartmentalisation of information, distribution of tasks, different levels of access to information, proper screening of people before promoting them to posts with more control and access to information. And it works pretty well, or atleast fairly well enough for most militaries in the world to hold atleast some secrets to themselves.

Maintaining confidentiality of military secrets is a multi-billion dollar industry, so you can imagine there's tons of research on it, although not all of it is available in the public domain. For starters, try defining your attack surface more precisely - what are various forms of information theft you are anticipating, who are the potential bad actors, what powers do they have, so on and so forth. Given that it's fiction, you may not have to go into too much detail, but you always can, since it is possible.

Agreed this is not a very interesting solution, but it's the most practical one in a world sufficiently similar to ours - as shown by the fact that it's what is used in the real world.


They cultivate an image of pathetic lameness.

In their (tightly controlled) interactions with outsiders, your people go to great lengths to appear pathetic and diseased. Their clothes do not fit and hang shabbily off their misshapen bodies. They smell like they have rolled in something nasty, because they have and they are trying to scratch it off of themselves with nails left long for that purpose. They speak as though they are fighting a losing battle with mucus. Interactions take place in a sort of reverse Potemkin village built to ensure the impression of inbred filthy gurning backwardsness.

No-one wants to copy these folks or be like them in any way. They are the laughingstock of their world. The name of these people is used as an epithet worldwide. No-one wants to invade and steal their stuff either because it is dirty, infested with parasites, and worthless stuff anyway.

The actuality of your people is far different. Their little charade (which they pronounce to rhyme with odd, not raid) is a source of national pride and the people chosen to represent them are skilled actors, in possession of much soap and excellent showers. Sometimes these folks will put on their act on stage, for the education and entertainment of their people.


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