I am looking for a Latin idiom for disclosing a secret. In English one can spill the beans, but I am not aware of a similar idiom in Latin. Is any idiom or colorful expression for this attested in classical Latin, or should I use something more direct? How did the Romans express spilling the beans?
Alas, I couldn’t find an idiom, colourful or otherwise, for spilling the beans! But I did at least find some common ways of talking about letting secrets slip.
genua opsecro, ne indicium ero facias meo / I’m begging you on my knees, don’t spill the beans to my master (Plautus, Mostellaria, 3.2.57)
The first (and possibly most useful) is indicium facere. According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, indicium alone is a “disclosure of something intended to be secret”, while indicium facere is “to give away [that] secret”. Indicium profiteri is to “offer information, to ‘turn Queen’s evidence’”. We can see this use in Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae where someone confesses to his part in a theft in the hope of a lesser sentence: indicium profiteor (10.6). So, this seems to capture best the idea and tone of spilling the beans.
omnia hercle ego edictavi! / by Hercules, I’ve gone and blabbed everything! (Plautus, Menaechmi, 4.2)
However, there are a lot of secrets in Latin literature and they are being discovered all the time – too many to quote in full here! But looking at the most common verbs used, we see that they are shared (participo), made public (publico), exhibited and betrayed (prodo). They are transmitted and carried far (edicto, emitto, enuntio, expromo, defero) and sometimes they just fall out and escape (excidit). As Seneca writes:
nulla lex iubet amicorum secreta non eloqui / there is no law that orders you not to disclose your friends’ secrets (De Beneficiis, 5.21)
linguaque refert audita susurra / and with whispering tongues she reported what she had heard (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7.824)
A little less direct but perhaps of interest is the use of titubo, usually meaning to stagger (typically after too much to drink). But it is also used figuratively to mean to falter, stammer, hesitate and hence to give the game away. Thus in Miles Gloriosus, one character says to another, “let’s go inside and get our stories straight …”
ne quid, ubi miles venerit, titubetur / so that when the soldier comes, we won’t falter [and give the game away]
at vide ne titubes / but look out lest you stumble [over the details of the story and give the game away] (Pseudolus)
verum illa ne quid titubet / make sure she doesn’t give the game away (Terence, The Self-Tormentor)
Another phrase which is also a bit left-field is hinc illae lacrimae, which I have seen translated as “the cat’s out of the bag”*, another way of saying that the secret is out.
This proverbial expression was originally a line in Terence’s Andria. A father suddenly realises that his son was only pretending to be upset by something in order to win the affections of a girl:
percussit ilico animum. Attat! Hoc illud est, hinc illae lacrimae / the truth struck me at once. So! This is it, this is the explanation for the tears.
Cicero uses it when hearing about a case in which the servants have revealed their mistress’ sordid and secret affair (rem totam et maleficium … detulissent) and he says hinc illae lacrimae nimirum / now the cat’s well and truly out of the bag (Pro Caelio, 25.61).
*In R. Gardner’s 1958 Loeb translation of Cicero’s Pro Caelio