I was reading Dante's Divine Comedy, and this verse caught my attention (Hell 25.45 with my translation):

mi puosi 'l dito su dal mento al naso
I put my finger up from my chin to my nose

This is the typical finger gesture for hushing (image source: Getty Images):

Hushing gesture with a finger.

I was somewhat surprised that this gesture is old enough to be known to Dante in early 14th century Italy. Did the Romans have a similar — or even identical — finger gesture for hushing? A passage like the one from Dante with some commentary would be great. If there is no Roman record of this thing, later Latin attestations or some justification for non-existence would be nice.

Another well known finger gesture appears to have been known to Romans, so it seems genuinely possible that this one would be, too.

2 Answers 2


The Egyptian god Harpocrates was typically depicted as a boy with his finger held to his lips.

Example here.

He makes a few appearances in classical literature, such as Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.692:

inerant lunaria fronti
cornua cum spicis nitido flaventibus auro
et regale decus; cum qua latrator Anubis,
sanctaque Bubastis, variusque coloribus Apis,
quique premit vocem digitoque silentia suadet;
sistraque erant, numquamque satis quaesitus Osiris,
plenaque somniferis serpens peregrina venenis.


I found a non-classical reference to this gesture in the Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass) of Apuleius (AD 124-170):

At ille, digitum a pollice proximum ori suo admovens et in stuporem attonitus, ‘Tace, tace,’ inquit, et circumspiciens tutamenta sermonis, ‘Parce’ inquit, 'In feminam divinam, ne quam tibi lingua intemperante noxam contrahas.' (I.8)

  • This is great! I'll wait to see if someone finds a classical example or other similar passages, but I'll be happy to accept this one.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 16:01
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta I'd argue that Apuleius is early enough and his style is good enough to be considered Classical Latin.
    – cmw
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 12:47
  • @C.M.Weimer I trust your judgement on that. My fortunate problem is having to choose between two good answers. I'd give precedence to Ovidius, but on the other hand Apuleius speaks more about Roman culture instead of Egyptian. But perhaps it's safe to assume brianpck or cnread won't be upset by my accepting one instead of the other.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 13:31
  • 1
    @Joonas Ovid is definitely the better answer! It's earlier and shows that Romans not only knew the gesture but were familiar with a god who had that posture.
    – brianpck
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 13:56

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