July 23, 2007

Parietes habent aures

In English: The walls have ears.

After my previous post about parietes, "walls," I thought this saying would make a good follow-up. The saying "the walls have ears" or "even the walls have ears" is still quite well-known in English, as you can see from this Google Search for the phrase.

The idea, of course, is that even when you think you are alone, someone could be listening! So this saying can be used as a warning to someone you are speaking with, letting them know to be careful what they are saying... since you can never be sure that no one else is listening.With modern electronics, we are used to the idea that rooms could be bugged, with invisible microphones, etc. Yet this Latin saying is found in both ancient and medieval authors, too - as long as there have been people talking, there have been people snooping around, trying to hear conversations that are supposed to be secret.

Consider, for example, this passage in Ammianus Marcellinus, the last great historical writer of ancient Rome. Here, in Book 14 (the first 13 books of his writings are lost), he is writing about events under the reign of Gallus Constantius, "Caesar of the East" during the rule of the emperor Constantius II. Gallus was the youngest son of Julius Constantius, and thus half-brother to the famous Julian the Apostate, who became emperor in 361 A.D. Ammianus has nothing good to say about Gallus, as you can see from this report about Gallus's network of spies and informants:
excogitatum est super his, ut homines quidam ignoti, vilitate ipsa parum cavendi ad colligendos rumores per Antiochiae latera cuncta destinarentur relaturi quae audirent. [...] ideoque etiam parietes arcanorum soli conscii timebantur.

After these events, it was devised that certain unknown men, who were little to be feared on account of their utter unimportance, were sent to gather rumores throughout all the corners of Antioch and to report back what they heard. [...] And so even the walls, the lone confidantes of secrets, were feared.
Today, we have Homeland Security, but in centuries gone by, it was the spy network of Antioch listening in on conversations, even inside the walls of your house.

Meanwhile, no secrets here: you can listen to today's proverb read out loud, without employing hidden surveillance of any kind!

1463. Parietes habent aures.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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