Ingens exinde verberonem corripit trepidatio et in vicem humani coloris succedit pallor infernus, perque universa membra frigidus sudor emanabat. tunc pedes incertis alternationibus commovere, modo hanc modo illam capitis partem scalpere, et ore semiclauso balbutiens nescio quas afannas effutire, ut eum nemo prorsus a culpa vacuum merito crederet.
(Apuleius, Met. 10.10.1-2)

At this point a mighty fit of trembling seized the scoundrel, a deathly pallor took the place of his normal complexion, and cold sweat flowed over hir entire body. He shuffled his feet unsteadily, scratched first one part of his head and then another, and muttered with his mouth half-closed, babbling some sort of nonsense. Absolutely no one could reasonably believe that he was free of guilt. (tr. John Arthur Hanson)


Igitur rex Theodericus illiteratus erat et sic obtuso sensu, ut in decem annos regni sui quattuor litteras subscriptionis edicti sui discere nullatenus potuisset. de qua re laminam auream iussit interrasilem fieri, quattuor litteras “legi”* habentem; unde si subscribere voluisset, posita lamina super chartam, per eam pennam ducebat, ut subscriptio eius tantum videretur.
(Excerpta Valesiana 79)

Now King Theodoric was without training in letters, and of such dull comprehension that for ten years of his reign he had been wholly unable to learn the four letters necessary for endorsing his edicts. For that reason he had a golden plate with slits made, containing the four letters “legi”*; then, if he wished to endorse anything, he placed the plate over the paper and drew his pen through the slits, so that only this subscription of his was seen.
* “I have read (it).” Or perhaps ΘΕΟΔ.

(tr. John C. Rolfe, with his note)

Ὅπως δὲ μαρτυρίαν τῆς βασιλέως χειρὸς ἔχοιεν, οἷς δὴ ἐπίκειται τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο, ἐπενοήθη τάδε. ξύλῳ εἰργασμένῳ βραχεῖ ἐγκολάψαντες μορφήν τινα γραμμάτων τεττάρων, ἅπερ ἀναγνῶναι τῇ Λατίνων φωνῇ δύναται, γραφίδα τε βαφῇ βάψαντες, ᾗ βασιλεῖς γράφειν εἰώθασιν, ἐνεχειρίζοντο τῷ βασιλεῖ τούτῳ. καὶ τὸ ξύλον, οὗπερ ἐμνήσθην, τῷ βιβλίῳ ἐνθέμενοι, λαβόμενοί τε τῆς βασιλέως χειρὸς, περιῆγον μὲν ξὺν τῇ γραφίδι ἐς τῶν τεττάρων γραμμάτων τὸν τύπον, ἐς πάσας τε τὰς τοῦ ξύλου αὐτὴν περιελίξαντες ἐντομὰς οὕτω δὴ ἀπηλλάσσοντο, τοιαῦτα βασιλέως γράμματα φέροντες.
(Procopius, Anecd. 6.14-16)

But in order to obtain formal ratification by the imperial hand*, those who supervise this matter devised the following scheme. Onto a small strip of polished wood they carved the shape of four letters that spelled, in the Latin language, the word “I have read.” They dipped the pen into the special ink that is used for imperial subscriptions and put it into the hands of this emperor*. Then they placed the slat of wood that I mentioned upon the document and, holding the emperor’s hand, traced the pattern of the four letters with the pen, following the curving lines that were cut into the wood. And so, they would complete their business with the emperor in this way, having obtained his handwritten letters, such as they were. (tr. Anthony Kaldellis)

* Justin I.


Turner - Hannibal
Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (J.M.W. Turner, 1812)

Τῇ δ’ ἐπαύριον ἀναζεύξας ἐνήρχετο τῆς καταβάσεως. ἐν ᾗ πολεμίοις μὲν οὐκέτι περιέτυχε πλὴν τῶν λάθρᾳ κακοποιούντων, ὑπὸ δὲ τῶν τόπων καὶ τῆς χιόνος οὐ πολλῷ λείποντας ἀπέβαλε τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἀνάβασιν φθαρέντων. οὔσης γὰρ στενῆς καὶ κατωφεροῦς τῆς καταβάσεως, τῆς δὲ χιόνος ἄδηλον ποιούσης ἑκάστοις τὴν ἐπίβασιν, πᾶν τὸ παραπεσὸν τῆς ὁδοῦ καὶ σφαλὲν ἐφέρετο κατὰ τῶν κρημνῶν.
(Polybius, Hist. 3.54.4-5)

Next day he broke up his camp and began the descent. During this he encountered no enemy, except a few skulking marauders, but owing to the difficulties of the ground and the snow his losses were nearly as heavy as on the ascent. The descending path was very narrow and steep, and as both men and beasts could not tell on what they were treading owing to the snow, all that stepped wide of the path or stumbled were dashed down the precipice. (tr. W.R. Paton)




Χρόνου δὲ διελθόντος νόσῳ ὑδερικῇ περιπίπτει, καὶ ὁρῶν τὸ πάθος δυσίατον – ἐπὶ τοσοῦτο γὰρ ἐπετείνετο ὡς καὶ ἡνίκα ἀπουρεῖν ἤμελλε σανίδα κατὰ τοῦ ἤτρου ἐπετίθει· ἐστρέφετο γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸ αἰδοῖον καὶ κατὰ τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ τὰ οὖρα ἔπεμπεν. ἔλεγχος δὲ ἦν τοῦτο τῆς παρανομίας τῆς ἑαυτοῦ, ὑπὲρ ἧς ταύτην δίκην ὑστάτην ἐξέτισε τοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀνεψίαν τὴν οἰκείαν γάμου. διαθήκας οὖν ἐξετίθει, ὥστε Κωνσταντῖνον καὶ Ἡράκλειον τοὺς υἱοὺς αὐτοῦ βασιλεῖς ἰσοτίμους εἶναι, καὶ Μαρτῖναν τὴν αὐτοῦ γυναῖκα τιμᾶστθαι παρ’ αὐτῶν ὡς μητέρα καὶ βασίλισσαν. ἐκ τούτου λοιπὸν ἐτελεύτα ζήσας ἔτη ἓξ καὶ ἑξήκοντα, ἐν δὲ τῇ βασιλείᾳ διανύσας ἔτη τριάκοντα μῆνας τέσσαρας ἡμέρας ἕξ.
(St Nicephorus, Breviarium 27)

Sometime later he* fell ill with the dropsy and realized that his disease was difficult to cure, for it grew to such an extent that when he was about to urinate, he would place a board against his abdomen: <otherwise> his private parts turned round and discharged the urine in his face. This was in reproof of his transgression (namely, his marriage to his own niece) on account of which he suffered this ultimate punishment. He set forth a testament whereby his sons Constantine and Herakleios were to be emperors of equal rank and his wife Martina was to be honored by them as mother and empress. So he died of this <disease> at the age of sixty-six after a reign of thirty years, four months and six days. (tr. Cyril A. Mango)

* Byzantine emperor Heraclius.



Est et alia in monumentis rerum Graecarum profunda quaedam et inopinabilis latebra barbarico astu excogitata. Histiaeus nomine fuit, loco natus in terra Asia non ignobili. Asiam tunc tenebat imperio rex Darius. is Histiaeus, cum in Persis apud Darium esset, Aristagorae cuipiam res quasdam occultas nuntiare furtivo scripto volebat. comminiscitur opertum hoc litterarum admirandum. servo suo diu oculos aegros habenti capillum ex capite omni tamquam medendi gratia deradit caputque eius leve in litterarum formas compungit. his litteris quae voluerat perscripsit, hominem postea quoad capillus adolesceret domo continuit. ubi id factum est, ire ad Aristagoran iubet et “cum ad eum,” inquit, “veneris, mandasse me dicito ut caput tuum, sicut nuper egomet feci, deradat.” servus, ut imperatum erat, ad Aristagoran venit mandatumque domini adfert. atque ille id non esse frustra ratus, quod erat mandatum, fecit. ita litterae perlatae sunt.
(Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 17.18-27)

There is also in the records of Grecian history another profound and difficult method of concealment, devised by a barbarian’s cunning. He was called Histiaeus and was born in the land of Asia in no mean station. At that time king Darius held sway in Asia. This Histiaeus, being in Persia with Darius, wished to send a confidential message to a certain Aristagoras in a secret manner. He devised this remarkable method of concealing a letter. He shaved all the hair from the head of a slave of his who had long suffered from weak eyes, as if for the purpose of treatment. Then he tattooed the forms of the letters on his smooth head. When in this way he had written what he wisehd, he kept the man at home for a time, until his hair grew out. When this happened, he ordered him to go to Aristagoras, adding: “When you come to him, say that I told him to shave your head, as I did a little while ago.” The slave, as he was bidden, came to Aristagoras and delivered his master’s order. Aristagoras, thinking that the command must have some reason, did as he was directed. And thus the letter reached its destination. (tr. John C. Rolfe)



“‘Inspice, nescio quid trepidat mihi pectus et aegris
faucibus exsuperat gravis halitus, inspice sodes’
qui dicit medico, iussus requiescere, postquam
tertia compositas vidit nox currere venas,
de maiore domo modice sitiente lagoena
lenia loturo sibi Surrentina rogabit.
‘heus bone, tu palles.’ ‘nihil est.’ ‘videas tamen istuc,
quidquid id est. surgit tacite tibi lutea pellis.’
‘at tu deterius palles, ne sis mihi tutor.
iam pridem hunc sepeli; tu restas.’ ‘perge, tacebo.’
turgidus hic epulis atque albo ventre lavatur,
gutture sulpureas lente exhalante mefites.
sed tremor inter vina subit calidumque trientem
excutit e manibus, dentes crepuere retecti,
uncta cadunt laxis tunc pulmentaria labris.
hinc tuba, candelae, tandemque beatulus alto
compositus lecto crassisque lutatus amomis
in portam rigidas calces extendit. at illum
hesterni capite induto subiere Quirites.”
(Persius, Sat. 3.88-106)

“‘Examine me. I’ve got strange palpitations in my chest, a sore throat, and my breathing comes hard. Please examine me.’ That’s what he says to his doctor. He’s ordered to take it easy, but when the third night sees his veins running steady, he’ll be round at a rich friend’s house with a pretty thirsty flagon, asking for mild Sorrentine1 to drink at the baths. ‘Hey, you’re looking pale, my friend.’ ‘It’s nothing.’ ‘Well, you should see to it, whatever it is. Your hide’s going puffy and yellow on you.’ ‘Well, ‘I’m not as pale as you. Don’t play the guardian. I buried mine a long time ago, but you’re still here.’ ‘OK, carry on, I’ll shut up.’ Stuffed from his feast this one goes to bathe, his belly white, his throat emitting long sulphurous stenches. But as he drinks, a fit of shivers comes over him and knocks the hot glass out of his hands, his bared teeth chatter, then the lavish flavourings slide from his slack lips. Then come the trumpet and candles, and finally the dear deceased, laid out on a high bier and plastered thick with perfumed balm, sticks out his stiff heels towards the door. And it’s yesterday’s new citizens2 wearing their new hats that carry him out.”

1 A light wine from Sorrento, recommended for invalids.
2 I.e. the slaves given their freedom and citizenship in the dead man’s will. They wear the cap of liberty (pilleum), cf. 5.82

(tr. Susanna Morton Braund, with her notes)