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SCY´TALE

SCY´TALE (σκυτάλη, also κουτάλη; from σκῦτος, κύτος, leather or hide; see Curtius, Gr. Etym. § 683) is the name applied to a secret mode of writing by which the Spartan ephors communicated with their kings and generals when abroad (Plut. Lys. 19; Schol. ad Thuc. 1.131; Gel. 17.9; Schol. ad Aristoph. Birds 1283; Cornel. Nep. Pausan. 3). When a king or general left Sparta, the ephors gave to him a staff of a definite length and thickness, and retained for themselves another of precisely the same size. When they had any communication to make to him, they wound round their staff a narrow strip of leather (whence the name), and then wrote upon it the message which they had to send to him. When the strip of writing material was taken from the staff, nothing but single or broken letters appeared, and in this state the strip was sent to the general, who, after having wound it around his staff, was able to read the communication. Ausonius (Ep. 23), after suggesting to his friend writing with milk for secrecy, continues:
Vel Lacedanemoniam scytalen imitare, libelli

Segmina Pergamei tereti circumdata ligno
Perpetuo inscribens versu, qui deinde solutus Non respondentes sparso dabit ordine formas.

In later times, the Spartans used the scytale sometimes also as a medium through which they sent their commands to subject and allied towns (Xen. Hell. 5.2, § 37).

[L.S] [G.E.M]

hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Aristophanes, Birds, 1283
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.131
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 5.2
    • Cornelius Nepos, Pausanias, 3
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 17.9
    • Plutarch, Lysander, 19
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