There is a common gesture: when we find something tiresome, when a perfectly avoidable annoyance was -- again! -- not avoided, when we know what is coming and wish it didn't ... we roll our eyes 🙄

Now I don't know if the Romans already rolled their eyes. Maybe the eyeroll was not invented yet. At least I suspect good old Aeneas was not mildly annoyed when

stetit acer in armis Aeneas volvens oculos dextramque repressit

(12, 938), given that he kept restraining his sword-hand for all of 20 lines ...

In any event, whether there is an original Roman expression or not, how can we say someone is rolling his eyes?

  • 2
    Stack Overflow warned me that "the question you're asking appears subjective and is likely to be closed" 🙄 Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 23:06
  • 1
    I was going to ask if you rolled your eyes, but that emoji answers the question.
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 5:59
  • ad nauseam? but apparently not classical
    – d_e
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 10:22

1 Answer 1


In Roman culture eye rolling was not associated with exasperation or frustration, but with various other things. Often it was an indication of torment. For example, at two different points in the Aeneid Dido rolls her eyes in anguish. Conversely, at other points in the Aeneid, men roll their eyes as an expression of thinking. When Aeneas is trying to decide whether to spare Turnus, he rolls his eyes (volvens oculos). The commentator Servius remarks about this, cogitantis est gestus. When Sallust describes the shifty Bocchus contemplating the betrayal of Jugurtha, he has him make the same expression: dicitur secum ipse multum agitavisse, voltu et oculis pariter atque animo varius.

The Romans also had the idea of twisting eyes, as opposed to turning eyes. A twisting eye indicated madness. So, for example, Cicero describes Catiline as having twisting eyes.

The standard gesture for frustration, annoyance or exasperation was either to slap the thigh or strike the forehead once with the heel of the hand, something we still do today. For example,

Femur ferire, quod Athenis primus fecisse creditur Cleon, et usitatum est et indignantes decet et excitat auditorem. Idque in Calidio Cicero desiderat: ‘non frons’ inquit ‘percussa, non femur.’
Institutio Oratoria, 11.3

  • "So, for example, Cicero describes Catiline as having twisting eyes." Huh, where does he do that? Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 18:05
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    @SebastianKoppehel Catiline 2.2 "retorquet oculos profecto saepe ad hanc urbem" Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 18:18
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    @SebastianKoppehel Also, from Apuleius re the twisting eyes of the insane Thallus: "Atqui contende, si vis, furorem tuum cum Thalli furore: invenies non permultum interesse, nisi quod Thallus sibi, tu etiam aliis furis. Ceterum Thallus oculos torquet, tu veritatem; Thallus manus contrahit, tu patronos; Thallus pavimentis illiditur, tu tribunalibus." Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 18:25
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    I would read the Cicero quote simply as Catiline looking wistfully back at Rome, whence he was evicted, although it is a curious way to phrase it (“bending back his eyes”) indeed. The Apuleius quote is also quite intriguing, not sure how to picture this … anyway, the slapping of the forehead is a good find and may be the best approach we have. Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 23:03
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    I believe that ipse refers to Bocchus himself as the subject of agitavisse. Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 14:45

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