Ars Am. 3. 627-30
tuta quoque est fallitque oculos e lacte recenti
littera (carbonis puluere tange: leges),
fallet et umiduli quae fiet acumine lini,
et feret occultas pura tabella notas.
‘Also safe and invisible is a letter written with fresh milk (sprinkle charcoal dust over it and it will become legible), and invisible, too, will be the letter which will be made with the point of moist flax, and an unmarked tablet will bear the hidden message.’
No one has ever explained how or why a letter should be written ‘with the point of moist flax’. Mr Kenney records sympathetically in his critical note Burman's declaration ‘locus sine dubio corruptas’, though he does not apply the obelus. Burman himself diffidently conjectured alumine limini in emulation of Heinsius' equally unhappy alumine nitri. Burman's note is not very illuminating, but it offers the only serious attempt I have seen to confront the problems of the passage. He assumes – and no one has questioned the assumption, which I shall later suggest may be false – that the first couplet alludes to the use of milk on paper; and he assumes, rightly, that the second couplet alludes to the use of a wax tablet. But when he suggests that the occultae notae may have been written on wood and then concealed beneath an overlay of wax, he forfeits conviction. Crispinus, the Delphin editor, expressed the opinion, which prevails in modern translations,3 that the words acumine lini allude to the use of the stalk of the flax plant in the manner of a pen; it is small wonder that he added ‘sed potiora habemus nos, quibus chartas nostras inficimus, succum puta ceparum, citreo-rum, immo lotium’. P. Brandt in his edition of 1902 contributes a mixture of irrelevance and evasion.