dead men don’t bite

The words put by Plutarch into the mouth of Theodotus, a teacher of rhetoric, advising the Egyptians to murder Pompey when he came seeking refuge in Egypt after his defeat at Pharsalia in 48 BC: PLUTARCH Pompeius LXXVII. νεκρὸς οὐ δάκνει, a dead man does not bite. Cf. ERASMUS Adages III. vi. mortui non mordent, the dead do not bite.

a 1547 E. HALL Chronicle (1548) Hen. VI 92v A prouerbe..saith, a dead man doth no harme: Sir John Mortimer..was attainted [convicted] of treason and put to execucion.

1655 T. FULLER Church Hist. Britain IX. iv. The dead did not bite; and, being dispatch’d out of the way, are forgotten.

1883 R. L. STEVENSON Treasure Island xi. ‘What are we to do with ’em anyway?.. Cut ’em down like that much pork?’.. ‘Dead men don’t bite,’ says he.

1902 A. LANG Hist. Scotland II. xii. The story that Gray ‘whispered in Elizabeth’s ear, The dead don’t bite’, is found in Camden.

1957 L. REVELL See Rome & Die xvi. A dead man cannot bite, as it says somewhere in Plutarch. Pompey’s murderers, I think. Anyhow, that was the way their minds worked then.


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