Make a Greek Scytale Cipher

Happy New Year! Are you like me with  a house full of wrapping paper for recycling? We have lots and also a few of these great cardboard cylinders that were in the middle of some rolls of Christmas wrapping paper. What could be better for a spot of Ancient Greek code breaking?

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The scytale is a coding device that was first used by the ancient Greeks and Spartans back  the 5th Century BC. It consists of  two identical wooden cylinders around which you wrap a strip of leather or parchment and write your message. When you unwrap the strip the message is scrambled and can only be read if someone with an identical cylinder uses it to read the message.

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According to Simon Singh in his excellent book ‘The Code Book’, the messenger could sometimes disguise the strip by wearing it as a belt! In 404 BC a Spartan Admiral called Lysander was confronted by a messenger, bloody and battered, only one in five to have survived the arduous journey from Persia. The messenger handed his belt to Lysander, who wound it around his scytale to learn that the Persians were planning to attack him. Thanks to the scytale, Lysander was prepared for the attack and beat them off.

How to make a Spartan scytale

  • 1 long cardboard cylinder
  • a strip of paper (we divided a piece of A4 paper int0 6 long strips then taped them together but if you have a long bit of wrapping paper that would be great)

Cut 2 equal length pieces of cylinder. Wrap the strip of paper round the cylinder. Write your message on it. Fold up the paper and pass it to your messenger. They can take it to your general who will be able to read your message using the other half of the cylinder.

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We had great fun with this. Why not set up a treasure hunt round the house and the kids can use the scytale to decode the clues? Or divide them into groups – two groups will have to send messages via a messenger without being intercepted by the third group who will have to try to decode the message if it falls into their hands!

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