What Was the Original Purpose of a Strip Search?

In compiling your list of the things you’d like to do over the holidays, it’s highly unlikely participating in a strip search is anywhere close to the top of the list. If we’re wrong about that, then we’re 100% confident that Commonplace Fun Facts is, by far, the least objectionable site in your web browser history.

Few things are more humiliating than the prospect of being deprived of one’s clothing while complete strangers loudly and conspicuously snap their rubber gloves and start looking in places typically reserved for the exclusive viewing of a proctologist. If you’ve ever been subjected to such an ordeal, you may have wished for the opportunity to turn the table on those who are viewing parts of you unseen by anyone other than the stork who delivered you. Such thoughts are more than idle fantasy; they are a nod toward historical reality. As originally designed, nudity in a strip search was reserved for the ones doing the searching.

Ancient Greek and Roman laws addressed how to conduct the search of the home of someone who was accused of theft. To make sure the homeowner was not framed through the planting of false evidence, those who were charged with searching the home were required to strip down to their birthday suits before entering the residence.

Aristophanes refers to this custom in his comedy The Clouds:

SOCRATES: All right, take off your cloak.

STREPSIADES: Have I done something wrong?

SOCRATES: No. It’s our custom to go inside without a cloak.

STREPSIADES: But I don’t want to search your house for stolen stuff.

The Clouds, 497-99

Without proper context, that exchange makes little sense to our ears. Apparently, 2,400 years ago, it was a real side-splitter.

Plato also references the practice, writing, “If anyone wishes to make a search on any man’s premises, he shall strip to his shirt and wear no girdle, and when he has first taken an oath by the appointed gods that of a truth he expects to find the object, he shall make his search….” (The Laws, Book XII, ¶ 7)

The Romans adopted the Greek practice, codifying the rules relating to searching another’s residence. The law required that the searcher be nude and also specified:

15a. The penalty for detected and planted theft shall be triple damages….

15b. …. by platter and by loincloth.

If the person conducting the search was found to have planted evidence, the offended party was not required to turn the other cheek (or any of the other three, for that matter). Instead, he or she was entitled to receive from the offender three times the value of the item alleged to have been stolen.

Are you scratching your head about the “platter and by loincloth” part? You’re not alone. The editors of Ancient Roman Statutes observe that these two laws “were apparently obscure, even to [later] Roman commentators.” Roman legal scholars who, unlike us, had full access to the entire statute, interpreted the Latin in 15b (nudus, licio cinctus, lancem habens) as meaning “nude, except for a loincloth.” It could also have meant “lightly clad [i.e., no toga] and carrying a platter.”

What’s with the platter? Was it for the purpose of carrying any stolen items found in the home? Was it to off a wee bit more modesty for the searcher? We can only speculate. We can tell you what we would do if we were in the searcher’s shoes, sandals, bare feet.

As for what you would do with the platter, we invite you to bare your soul, strip away our ignorance, share the naked truth…. (Editor’s Note: Oh, for crying out loud! Can’t we find anyone to write for us whose emotional intelligence exceeds that of a 5th-grade boy?) Just leave us a comment below, and we’d love to hear from you.

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