Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Stijn Heeren: New views on the forfex of Virilis the veterinarian: shears, emasculator or twitch?
3 The forfex of Virilis the veterinarian: a twitch

From the 1970s onwards, hundreds of writing tablets have been found at Vindolanda (modern Chesterholm), a military fort on Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England. The tablets are written in ink on leafs of wood. The contents of the letters vary widely: some concern military matters like marching orders or furlough, but others are personal correspondence of soldiers and their families. The letters offer a fascinating insight into the everyday life of soldiers in a peacetime Flavian fortress (Birley 2005; Bowman & Thomas 1983).

Highly relevant to the above discussion on twitches and castration clamps is the writing tablet TV II, 310 (fig. 5). The text mentions a veterinarius named Virilis “…ask him whether you may send through one of our friends the forfex, which he promised me in exchange for money…” (translation Bowman & Thomas 1994, 291).

Adams (1990) discussed the possible translations of forfex and a synonym, forceps. In Republican times forceps meant pincers or shears in general, and forfex was used more specifically for dented pincers used for firm grip on an object, for instance to remove an arrow from a wound. However, from the Principate onwards both words were used interchangeably. In relation to the knowledge that Virilis was a veterinarian, Adams thought that there were two possible translations for the word forfex: either ‘shears’ (for the clipping of the mane for instance) or ‘emasculator’, since those are known to be dented pincers – following Kolling. Adams then proceeded to investigate all ancient literary references to methods of castration, as summarized above. Almost all procedures involve an operation, where a scalpel or a knife is used. No procedure concerning castration mentioned in the sources would require dented pincers. Adams concluded his overview with the observation that only tonsura, the clipping of the mane, would be an activity of a veterinarian that would involve an object named forfex, and therefore proposes to translate forfex with shears (Adams 1990).

There are two objections against this interpretation. The first is that shears are quite simple objects available almost everywhere. The writing tablet makes clear that the request to the veterinarian to send the object was made earlier and is now repeated. It seems unlikely that the writer of this letter would make this double effort when it concerns a widely available object like shears. It makes far more sense if the object was a specialised tool. This might have been the reason that T. Derks, in his Dutch translation of TV II, 310, chose Adams’ second possibility, ‘castration clamp’ (Roymans, Derks & Heeren 2007, 28). The second objection is that the pincers that were seen as castration clamps before, are now interpreted as twitches. The twitch is an object that could easily be associated with a veterinarian, much more than clipping shears, which will only incidentally be used by a veterinarian, as Adams himself pointed out. More importantly, the twitch is a pair of dented pincers, exactly the more specific meaning of the word forfex over forceps. We can therefore establish that forfex, in general translated as ‘shears’ or ‘pincers’, is to be translated as ‘twitch’ when found in a veterinarian context.