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p1013 Scytale

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on p1013 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SCY′TALE (σκυτάλη) is the namea applied to a secret mode of writing by which the Spartan ephors communicated with their kings and generals when abroad (Plut. Lysand. 19; Schol. ad Thucyd. I.131; Suidas, s.v.).b When a king or general left Sparta, the ephors gave to him a staff of definite length and thickness, and retained for themselves another of precisely the same size. When they had any communication to make to him, they cut the material upon which they intended to write into the shape of a narrow riband, wound it round their staff, 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. This rude and imperfect mode of sending a secret message must have come down from early times, although no instance of it is recorded previous to the time of Pausanias (Corn. Nep. Paus. 3). In later times, the Spartans used the scytale sometimes also as a medium through which they sent their commands to subject and allied towns (Xenoph. Hell V.2 § 37).


Thayer's Notes:

a The first meaning of σκυτάλη is a snake with prominent markings, said to confuse those who see it: Isidore, Orig. XII.4.19.

b See also Gellius, XVII.9.


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