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Symphosius’ Aenigmata: Latin Riddles for Students!


Symphosius’ Aenigmata: Latin Riddles for Students!

This painting on the base of an ancient cup shows Oedipus and the Sphinx, a winged monster with the body of a lion and the head of a woman. To rescue the people of Thebes from the monster's terror, Oedipus had to answer its riddle


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB

Have you heard of the Latin riddle-writer Symphosius? I hadn’t either until a few months ago when, during a search for Anglo-Saxon riddles, I stumbled on his “Aenigmata”, a collection of riddles written in the language of Cicero.

The book has been overlooked for centuries, not being part of the so-called “golden age of Latin literature”. It’s well worth reading though, and the style is perfect for intermediate-level Latin students who are not yet ready to tackle writers like Cicero and Suetonius.

Who Wrote the “Aenigmata”?

We know very little about the author who wrote under the name of Symphosius (the name is actually a pseudonym for “party-boy”); in fact, all that we known of his life is written into the riddles themselves. Even the date of composition is a matter of debate, which could have been any time from the third to the sixth century.

A Sample Riddle

Symphosius’ poetry is simple and easy to understand, and the book is not only useful for teaching students the language, but it also shows them that classicists and scholars have a sense of humor. Take a look at the riddle below. Can you guess the answer?

Dulcis amica ripae, semper uicina profundis,
Suaue cano Musis; nigro perfusa colore,
Nuntia sum linguae digitis signata magistris.

Sweet darling of the banks, always close to the depths, sweetly I
sing for the Muses; when drenched with black, I am the tongue’s
messenger by guiding fingers pressed.

A Second Riddle

You will need to read this second riddle more than once. It was several minutes before I finally figured it out. Let me give you a tip: The answer has something to do with an episode from Greek Mythology. Ready? Here it is:

Virgo modesta nimis legem bene seruo pudoris;
Ore procax non sum, nec sum temeraria linguae;
Vltro nolo loqui, sed do responsa loquenti.

A modest maid, too well I observe the law of modesty;
I am not pert in speech nor rash of tongue;
of my own accord I will not speak, but I answer him who speaks.


The answers to the two riddles are, respectively, the reed and the echo! I hope you enjoyed learning about this too-often-ignored medieval writer. Latin students will enjoy learning about Symphosius and challenging each other with his riddles.


Latin Language Teacher Resources

Click on the links below to browse our Latin teaching downloads. These include Latin Visual Vocab Sheets, Latin Preposition Diagrams, Ablative and Dative Use Lists, and Declension and Conjugation Charts.

Grey Fox Archives
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André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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