Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find a phrase below, in one ancient language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.
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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who will guard the guards themselves?
The phrase, as it is normally quoted in Latin, comes from the Satires of Juvenal, the 1st–2nd century Roman satirist. Although in its modern usage the phrase has universal, timeless applications to concepts such as tyrannical governments, uncontrollably oppressive dictatorships, and police or judicial corruption and overreach, in context within Juvenal’s poem it refers to the impossibility of enforcing moral behaviour on women when the enforcers (custodes) are corruptible (Satire 6, 346–348):
|audio quid ueteres olim moneatis amici,|
“pone seram, cohibe.” sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? cauta est et ab illis incipit uxor.
|I hear always the admonishment of my friends:|
“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who will guard the guardians? The wife plans ahead and begins with them.
Modern editors regard these three lines as an interpolation inserted into the text. In 1899 an undergraduate student at Oxford, E. O. Winstedt, discovered a manuscript (now known as O, for Oxoniensis) containing 34 lines which some believe to have been omitted from other texts of Juvenal’s poem. The debate on this manuscript is ongoing, but even if the verses are not by Juvenal, it is likely that it preserves the original context of the phrase. If so, the original context is as follows (O 29–33):
|… noui consilia et ueteres quaecumque monetis amici,|
“pone seram, cohibes.” sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? qui nunc lasciuae furta puellae hac mercede silent crimen commune tacetur.
|… I know|
the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt:
“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who can watch the watchmen? They keep quiet about the girl’s secrets and get her as their payment; everyone hushes it up.