c. 357 BC | Stymphalus

Inked In

The secret messages of ancient Greece.

In regard to secret messages, there are all sorts of ways of sending them, but a private arrangement must be previously made between the sender and the receiver.

In one case a message was sent in this way: in with merchandise or other baggage there was inserted a book, or some other chance document, of any size or age, and in this a message had been written by marking the letters of the first, second, or third line with dots, very small and discernible only to the recipient. Then, when the person intended received the book, he made a transcript, and by setting down in order the marked letters from the first line and the second and the others in the same way he discovered the message.

And among the ancients the following scheme was once contrived. Histiaeus, wishing to tell Aristagoras to revolt, had no other safe means of communicating, since the roads were guarded and it was not easy for a letter carrier to escape notice, but shaving the head of his most faithful slave, he tattooed it and detained him until the hair had grown again. And as soon as it had grown, he dispatched him to Miletus and gave the tattooed man no other orders except that when he had come to Miletus, into the presence of Aristagoras, he should request him to shave his head and examine it, whereupon the marks indicated what was to be done.

About This Text

Aeneas Tacticus, from On the Defense of Fortified Positions. The earliest surviving work on military strategy from the Greek world, this treatise includes a section on signal fires that explains the tactic used in the opening of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, during which a watchman learns long-distance that Troy has been captured. A general of the Arcadian League—a confederation of city-states allied with Sparta—Aeneas used practical experience to detail how to defend city walls against battering rams and how to solve an army’s internal disagreements.