Thursday 28 May 1970

Advice to Married Couples -- Plutarch


WHEN they were shutting you in your bridal chamber, the ancestral ritual was duly applied to you by the priestess of Demeter. I believe that now, if reason also were to take you in hand and join in the nuptial song, it would prove of some service, and would support the tune as prescribed. In the musical world they used to call one of the modes for the flute "the Horse-and-Mare", because, apparently, the strains in that key were provocative of union between those animals. Well, philosophy has many excellent sermons to give, but none more worthy of serious attention than that upon marriage. By it she exerts a spell upon those who come together as partners in life, and renders them gentle and tractable to each other. I have, therefore, taken the main points of the lessons which you have repeatedly heard, brought up as you have been in the company of Philosophy. I have arranged them in a series of brief comparisons to make them easier to remember, and am sending them as a present to you both. In doing so I pray that the Muses may graciously lend aid to Aphrodite, since, if it is their province to see that a lyre or a harp shall be in tune, it is no less so to provide that the music of the married home shall be harmonized by reason and philosophy. When people in olden times assigned a seat with Aphrodite to Hermes, it was because the pleasure of marriage stands in special need of reason; when to Persuasion and the Graces, it was in order that the married pair might obtain their wishes from each other by means of persuasion, and not by contention and strife


1. Solon bade the bride eat a piece of quince before coming to the bridegroom's arms--apparently an enigmatical suggestion that, as a first requirement, a pleasant and inviting impression should be gathered from an agreeable mouth and speech.

2. In Boeotia, after veiling the bride, they crown her with a wreath of thorny asparagus. As that plant yields the sweetest eating from among the roughest prickles, so a bride, if the groom does not run away in disgust because he finds her difficult and vexatious at first, will afford him a sweet and gentle companionship. One who shows no patience with the girl's first bickerings is as bad as those who let the ripe grapes go because once they were sour. Many a young bride is affected in the same way. First experiences disgust her with the bridegroom, and she makes as great a mistake as if, after enduring the sting of the bee, she were to abandon the honeycomb.

3. It is especially at the beginning that married people should beware of quarrel and friction. Let them note how vessels which have been mended will at first easily pull to pieces on the slightest occasion, but as time goes on and they become solid at the seams, it is as much as fire and iron can do to separate the parts.

 4. Fire is readily kindled in chaff, dry rushes, or hare's fur, but quickly goes out unless it gets a further hold upon something capable both of keeping it in and feeding it. So with that fierce blare of passion which is produced in the newly- married by physical enjoyment. You must not rely upon it nor expect it to last, unless it is built round the moral character, gets a hold upon your rational part, and so obtains a permanent vitality.

5. Doctoring the water is no doubt a quick and easy way of catching fish, but it renders them bad and uneatable. So when women work artificially upon their husbands with philtres and spells, and control them by the agency of pleasure, they have but crazy simpletons and dotards for their partners. While Circe derived no good from the men she had bewitched, and made no use of them when turned into swine and asses, she found the greatest pleasure in the rational companionship of the wise Odysseus.

6. A woman who is more desirous of ruling a foolish husband than of obeying a wise one, is like a traveller who would rather lead a blind man than follow one who possesses sight and knowledge.

7. Why should people disbelieve that Pasiphae, though consort to a King, fell in love with an ox, when they see that some women find a strict and continent husband wearisome, and prefer to live with one who is as much a mass of ungoverned sensuality as a dog or a goat?

8. When a rider is too weak or effeminate to vault upon a horse, he teaches the animal itself to bend its legs and crouch. In the same way some men who marry high-born or wealthy women, instead of improving themselves, put indignities upon their wives, in the belief that they will he more easily ruled when humbled. The proper course is, while using the rein, to maintain the dignity of the wife, as one would the full height of the horse.

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9. When the moon is at a distance from the sun, we see it bright and luminous. When it comes near him, it fades and is lost to view. With a properly conducted woman it is the contrary. She should be most visible when with her husband; in his absence she should keep at home and out of sight.

10. Herodotus was wrong in saying that when a woman lays aside her tunic she lays aside her modesty. On the contrary, a chaste wife puts on modesty in its place. Between married persons the token of greatest regard is greatest modesty.

11. If two notes are taken in accord, the lower of the two is the dominant. So, though every action in a well-conducted house is performed by both parties in tune, it will reveal the husband's leadership and priority of choice.

12. The Sun vanquished the North Wind. When the wind endeavoured to take off the man's cloak by violence and blowing a gale, he only tightened his mantle the more and held it the closer. But when, after the wind, the sun became hot, the man began to grow warm. When at last he sweltered, he took off not only his cloak but his tunic. This parable applies to the generality of women. When their husbands take violent measures to do away with extravagant indulgence, they show fight and temper; but if you reason with them, they give it up peaceably and practise moderation.

13. Cato expelled from the Senate a man who had kissed his own wife in the presence of his daughter. This, perhaps, was too severe a step. But if--as is the case--it is unseemly to be fondling and kissing and embracing each other in company, it is surely more unseemly to be scolding and quarrelling in company, and, while treating your love-passages as a sacred secret between you and your wife, to make an open display of fault- finding and reproach.

14. A mirror,1 though decorated with gold and precious stones, is of no use unless it shows you your form true to life. Similarly there is no advantage in a rich wife, if her conduct does not represent that of her husband and harmonize with it in character. If the reflection which it offers is glum when you are joyful, but wears a merry grin when you are gloomy and distressed, the mirror is faulty and bad. A wife is a poor thing and out of place if she is in the dumps when her husband is disposed for frolic or love-making, but is all fun and laughter when he is serious. In the former case she in disagreeable; in the latter, she slights you. Geometers tell us that lines and surfaces make no movement by themselves, but only in conjunction with the bodies to which they belong. In the same way a woman should be free from peculiar states of mind of her own, but should act as the husband's partner in his earnestness and his jest, in his preoccupation and his laughter.

1 Made of polished bronze.

"Mmmm...She Made Sammiches!
15. A man who dislikes to see his wife eating with him, teaches her to satisfy her appetite when she gets by herself. Similarly one who is never a merry companion to her, nor shares in her sport and laughter, teaches her to look for private pleasures apart from him.

16. When the Persian kings are dining or feasting, their legitimate wives sit at their side. But when they wish to amuse themselves or get tipsy, they send those wives away and summon their minstrel-women and concubines. The practice is a right one, at least to the extent that they do not permit their wives to take part in wanton and licentious scenes. So, if a private man, who lacks self-control or good-breeding in his pleasures, is guilty of a lapse with a common woman or a menial, the wife should not be indignant and resentful, but should reflect that, out of respect for her, he finds some other woman to share his riot and lasciviousness.

17. When kings are fond of music, they make many musicians; when of learning, learned men; when of athletics, gymnasts. So when the love of a husband is for the person, his wife will be all for dress; when for pleasure, she becomes lewd and wanton; when for goodness and virtue, she shows herself discreet and chaste.

18. When a Lacedaemonian girl was once asked whether she had already embraced a man, she answered, "No, indeed; but he has embraced me." Such, I believe, is the right attitude for a lady--not to shun or dislike caresses, when the husband begins them, nor yet to begin them of her own accord. The one course is bold and immodest, the other disdainful and unaffectionate.

19. The woman ought not to possess private friends, but to share those of the man. But first and greatest are the gods, and it is therefore right for the wife to reverence or acknowledge only those gods who are recognized by the husband. Her street-door should be kept shut to out-of-the-way forms of worship and alien superstitions. No deity finds gratification in ceremonies which a woman performs in secret and by stealth.
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20. Plato holds that a community is in a state of blissful well-being when the expressions "mine" and "not mine" are scarcely ever heard, inasmuch as the citizens enjoy, as far as possible, the common use of everything worth considering. Much more ought such language to be abolished from the married state. In the same way, however, in which medical men tell us that a blow on the left side produces an answering sensation in the right, it is proper for a wife to sympathize with her husband's concerns and the husband with the wife's. In this way, just as ropes, when interwoven, lend each other strength, so, through each party reciprocating the other's goodwill, the partnership will be maintained by both combined. Nature blends us through the body in such a way as to take a portion from each, and by commingling produce an offspring common to both, so that neither can define or distinguish an "own" part from "another's". The same sort of partnership between married persons should assuredly exist in respect of money also. They should pour it all into a single fund, and blend it in such a way that they never think of one part as "own" and one as "another's", but treat it all as "own" and none of it as "another's". And as we call a mixture "wine", though it may contain a greater proportion of water, so the property of the house should be said to belong to the man, even though the wife may contribute the larger share.

21. Helen loved wealth, and Paris loved pleasure: Odysseus was wise, and Penelope discreet. Hence the union of the latter pair was happy and enviable, while that of the former brought upon Greeks and Asiatics an "Iliad of Woes".

22. When the Roman was admonished by his friends for having divorced a wife who was chaste, rich, and beautiful, he stretched out his shoe and remarked: "Yes, and this looks fine and new, but no one knows where it chafes me." The wife must not rely upon her dowry, her birth, or her beauty. The matters in which she touches her husband most closely are conversation, character, and companionship. Instead of making these harsh and vexatious day after day, she must render them compatible, soothing, and grateful. Physicians are more afraid of fevers which spring from vague causes gradually accumulating, than of those for which there is a great and manifest reason. So it is these little, continual, daily frictions between man and wife, which the world knows nothing of, that do most to create the rifts which ruin married life.
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23. King Philip was once enamoured of a Thessalian woman who was charged with bewitching him. Olympias [Philip's wife] thereupon became eager to get this person into her power. When, upon presenting herself, she not only turned out to be a handsome woman, but spoke with considerable nobility and good sense, Olympias said: "Those calumnies are all nonsense! Your witchcraft lies in yourself." How irresistible a thing is a married and lawful wife, if, by treating everything--dowry, birth, philtres, the very girdle1 of Aphrodite--as lying in herself, she conquers affection by means of character and virtue!

1 Which contained "every charm: love, desire, and sweet converse" (Homer, Il. xiv. 214).

24. On another occasion, when a youthful courtier had married a handsome woman of bad repute, Olympias remarked, "The fellow has no judgement; otherwise he would not have married with his eyes." Marriage should not be made with tile eyes; neither should it with the fingers, as it is in the case of some, who reckon up the amount of the dower, instead of calculating the companionable quality, of the wife they are marrying.

25. To young men who are fond of looking at themselves in the mirror Socrates recommended that the ugly should correct their defects by virtue, while the handsome should avoid spoiling their beauty by vice. It is a good thing for the married woman also, while she is holding the mirror, to talk to herself, and, if she is plain, to ask, "And what if I show myself indiscreet?" if beautiful, "And what if I show myself discreet as well!" The plain woman may pride herself on being loved for her character, and the handsome woman on being loved more for her character then her beauty.

26. When the Sicilian despot sent Lysander's daughters a set of costly mantles and chains, he refused to accept them. "These bits of ornaments," said he, "will rather take from my daughters' beauty than set it off." Lysander, however, was anticipated by Sophocles in the lines:
Nay, 'twould not seem, poor fool, to beautify,
But to unbeautify, and prove thee wanton.

As Crates used to say, "Adornment is that which adorns," and that which adorns is that which adds to a woman's seemliness. This is not done by gold or jewels or scarlet, but by whatever invests her with the badges of dignity, decorum, and modesty.

27. In sacrificing to Hera as goddess of marriage, the gall is not burned with the other portions of the sacrifice, but is taken out and thrown down at the side of the altar--an indirect injunction of the legislator that gall and anger should have no place in the married state. The austerity of the lady of the house, like the dryness of wine, should be wholesome and palatable, not bitter like aloes or unpleasant like a drug.

28. Xenocrates being somewhat harsh in character, though otherwise a high type of man, Plato recommended him to sacrifice to the Graces. Now I take it that a woman of strict morals stands in special need of the graces in dealing with her husband, so that--as Metrodorus used to say--she may live with him on pleasant terms and not "in a temper because she is chaste". A woman should no more forget to be amiable because she is faithful, than to be neat because she is thrifty. Decorum in a woman is rendered as disagreeable by harshness as frugality is by sluttishness.

29. A wife who is afraid to laugh and joke with her husband for fear of seeming bold and wanton, is as bad as the woman who, from fear of being thought to use ointments on her head, does not even oil it,1 and, to avoid seeming to rouge her face, does not even wash it. We find that when poets and orators avoid appealing to the vulgar by bad taste and affectation in respect of their diction, they practise every art to attract and stir the hearer with their matter, their treatment, and their moral quality. So the lady of the house, because she avoids and deprecates--as she is quite right to do--extravagant or meretricious demonstration, ought all the more to bring the graces of character and conduct into play in dealing with her husband, thus habituating him to proper ways, but in a pleasurable manner. If, however, a wife shows herself strait-laced and rigidly austere, her husband must put the best face upon it. When Antipater required Phocion to perform an improper and degrading action, he answered, "I cannot serve you both as your friend and your toady." In the same way, when a woman is staid and strait-laced, our reflection should be, "The same woman cannot behave to me as both a wife and a mistress."

1 The use of oil to soften the hair was practically universal.

30. By a national custom the Egyptian women wore no shoes, so that they might keep at home all day. In the case of most women, to deprive them of gold-worked shoes, bangles, anklets, purple, and pearls, is to make them stay indoors.

31. Theano, in putting on her mantle, once showed a glimpse of her arm. Upon some one saying, "A beautiful forearm!" she retorted, "But not for the public!" A well-conducted woman will keep, not only her forearm, but her speech, from publicity. She will be as shy and cautious about her utterances to the outside world as if they were an exposure of her person, inasmuch as, when she talks, they are a revelation of feelings, character, and disposition.

32. Pheidias, in representing the Elean Aphrodite with her foot upon a tortoise, meant women to take it as a symbol of home-keeping and silence. A woman should talk either to, or through the medium of, her husband; nor should she resent it if, like a player on the clarinet, she finds a more impressive utterance through another tongue than through her own.
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33. When rich or royal persons pay respect to a philosopher, they do honour both to themselves and to him. But when a philosopher pays court to rich people, he is not conferring distinction upon them, bur lowering his own. The same is the case with women. By submission to their husbands they win regard; by seeking to govern them they demean themselves worse than the men so governed. Meanwhile it is only right that the husband, in controlling the wife, should not be like an owner dealing with a chattel, but like the mind dealing with the body--sympathetic with the sympathy of organic union. It is possible to care for the body without being a slave to its pleasures and desires, and it is possible to rule a wife and yet do things to please and gratify her.
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34. Compound objects are classified by philosophers as follows. In some the parts are distinct, as in a fleet or army. In some they are conjoined, as in a house or ship. In others they form an organic unity, as in all living creatures. We may say much the same of marriage. The marriage of love is the "organic unity"; the marriage for a dowry or for children is that of persons "conjoined"; marriage without sharing the same couch is that of persons "distinct", who may be said to dwell together, but not to live together. With persons marrying, there should be a mutual blending of bodies, means, friends, and relations, in the same way as, according to the scientists, when liquids are mixed, the mixture runs through the whole. When the Roman legislator forbade married couples to exchange presents, he did not mean that they should not impart to each other, but that they should look upon everything as joint property.

35. At Leptis in Africa it is a traditional custom for the bride, on the day after marriage, to send to the bridegroom's mother to borrow a pot. The latter refuses, saying she has none. The intention is that the bride may realize from the first the "step- mother" attitude of her mother-in-law, so that, if anything more disagreeable happens afterwards, she may not be vexed or irritated. The wife should understand this fact and apply treatment to its cause, which is, that the mother is jealous of her son's affections. There is but one treatment for this state of mind. While winning the special affection of her husband for herself, she must avoid detaching or lessening his affection for his mother.
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36. Mothers appear to be more fond of their sons, because those sons are able to help them, and fathers of their daughters, because daughters need their help. Maybe also it is out of compliment to each other that both parties desire to be seen making much of that which is more akin to the other. This, perhaps, is a trait of no importance, but there is another which is charming. I mean, when the wife's respect is seen to incline rather to the husband's parents than to her own, and when, in case of anything troubling her, she refers it to them and conceals it from her own people. If you are thought to trust, you are trusted; if you are thought to love, you are loved.

37. The Greeks who accompanied Cyrus received the follow- ing order from their commanders: "If the enemy come shouting to the attack, await them in silence; if they come in silence, charge to meet them with a shout." When a husband has his fits of anger, if he raises his voice, a sensible wife keeps quiet; if he is silent, she soothes him by talking to him in a coaxing way.
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38. Euripides is right in blaming those who have the lyre played to them at their wine. Music is more properly called in to cure anger and grief than to encourage further abandon- ment on the part of those who are taking their pleasure. So I would have you believe that it is a wrong principle to share the same bed for the sake of pleasure, and yet, when you are angry or fall out, to sleep apart. That is exactly the time to call in the Goddess of Love, who is the best physician for such cases. This is practically the reaching of the poet, when he makes Hera say:

And their tangled strife will I loosen,
When to their couch I bring them, to meet in love and in union.

39. At all times and everywhere a wife should avoid offending the husband, and a husband the wife; but especially should they beware of doing so when together at night. In the story, the wife, in the vexation of her throes, used to say to those who were putting her to bed: "How can this couch cure a trouble which befell me upon it." So quarrels, recriminations, and tempers which are begotten in the chamber are not easily got over in another place or at another time.

40. There appears to be a truth in Hermione's plea:

'Tis wicked women's visits have undone me.

This occurs in more than one way, but especially when connubial quarrels and jealousies offer to such women not only an open door, but an open ear. At such a time, therefore, should a sensible woman shut her ears, keep out of the way of slanderous whispers which add fuel to the fire, and be ready to apply the well-known saying of Philip. We are told that when his friends were trying to exasperate that monarch against the Greeks-- on the ground that, though he treated them well, they abused him--he remarked, "Well, and what, pray, if we treat them badly?" So, when the scandalizers say, "Your husband grieves you, in spite of all your affection and chastity," you should retort, "And what, pray, if I begin to hate and wrong him?"

41. A man caught sight of a slave who had run away some time before, and gave chase. When the slave was too quick, and took refuge in a mill, he observed, "And in what better place could I have wished to find you than where you are?''1 So let a woman who is declaring for a divorce through jealousy say to herself, "And where would my rival be more glad to see me? And what would she be more pleased to see me doing, than harbouring a grievance, at feud with my husband, and actually abandoning the house and the marriage-chamber?"

1 A common punishment for a slave was to put him to hard labour in turning the mill, in place of a horse or ass.

42. The Athenians observe three sacred ploughings; the first at Sciron, in memory of the oldest sowing of crops; the second in the Rharian district; and the third--known as the Buzygian festival--close to the Acropolis. More sacred than all of these is the connubial ploughing and sowing for the procreation of children. It is a happy expression of Sophocles, when he calls Aphrodite "fair-fruited Cytherea". Man and wife should therefore be especially scrupulous in this connexion, keeping pure from unholy and unlawful intercourse with others, and forbearing to sow where they desire no crop to grow, or, if it does, are ashamed of it and seek to conceal it.

43. When Gorgias the rhetorician once read to the Greeks at Olympia a discourse upon peace and harmony, Melanthius exclaimed, "Here is a man giving us advice about peace and harmony, when in private life he has failed to harmonize three people--himself, his wife, and his maidservant." For Gorgias, it appears, was enamoured, and his wife jealous, of the domestic [maidservant]. A man's house ought to be in tune before he offers to set in tune a state, a public meeting, or friends. The public is more likely to hear of offences against a wife than of offences committed by her.

44. They say that the cat is driven frantic by the smell of unguents. If it had been the case that women were provoked out of their senses by the same means, it would have been a monstrous thing for men not to abstain from unguents, and to let their wives suffer so cruelly for the sake of a trifling gratification of their own. Now since, though the husband's use of unguents does not so afflict them, his dealings with other women do, it is unjust to cause such vexation and distress to a wife for the sake of a little pleasure. On the contrary, husbands should come to their wives pure and untainted by other intercourse, just as they would approach bees, who are said to show disgust and hostility rewards any one who has been so engaged.
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45. People never dress in bright clothes when approaching an elephant, nor in red when approaching a bull, since the animals in question are particularly infuriated by those colours. Of tigers it is said that, if you beat drums all around them, they go mad and tear themselves to pieces. Surely, then, inasmuch as some men cannot bear to see scarlet or purple clothes, and some are irritated at cymbals and tambourines, it is not asking too much for women to leave such things alone, and not harass or exasperate their husbands, but practise quietude and con- sideration in their society.

46. When Philip was once seizing upon a woman against her will, she said, "Let me go. All women are the same when you take away the light." While this applies well enough to adulterers and sensualists, it is particularly when the light is taken away that a wife should not be the same as any ordinary female. Her person may not be visible, but her modesty, chastity, decorum, and natural affection should make themselves palpable.

47. Plato used to recommend that respect should rather be paid by elderly men to the young, so that the latter might behave modestly to them in return. For, said he, "where old men lie shameless" the young acquire no modesty or scruple. A husband should bear this in mind, and show more respect to his wife than to any one else, since the nuptial chamber will prove to be her school of propriety or its opposite. The husband who indulges himself in certain pleasures, while warning her against the same, is as bad as the man who bids his wife fight on against an enemy to whom he has himself surrendered.

48. As to love of display, do you, Eurydice, read and endeavour to remember what Timoxena wrote to Aristylla. And you, Pollianus, must not expect your wife to refrain from showy extravagance, if she sees that you do not despise it in other matters, but that you take a pleasure in cups with gilding, rooms with painted walls, mules with decorated harness, and horses with neck-trappings. You cannot banish extravagance from the women's quarters when it has the free run of the men's. You are at the right age to cultivate philosophy. Adorn your character, therefore, by listening to careful reasoning and demonstration in improving company and conversation. Be like the bees. Gather valuable matter from every source. Carry it home in yourself, and share it with your wife by discussing it and making all the best principles agreeable and familiar to her. While

Thou unto her art father, and honoured mother, and brother,

it is no less a matter of pride to hear a wife say, "Husband, thou unto me art guide, philosopher, and teacher of the noblest and divinest lessons." It is studies of this kind that tend to keep a woman from foolish practices. She will be ashamed to be dancing, when she is learning geometry. She will lend no ear to the incantations of sorcery, when she is listening to those of Plato and Xenophon. When any one promises to fetch down the moon,1 she will laugh at the ignorance and silliness of women who believe such things; for she will possess a knowledge of astronomy, and will have heard how Aglaonice, the daughter of Hegetor of Thessaly, thoroughly understood eclipses of the full moon, how she knew beforehand the date at which it must be caught in the shadow, and how she thereby cheated the women into believing that she was fetching it down herself.
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We are told that no woman produces a child without the participation of the man, though there are shapeless and fleshlike growths--called "millstones"--which form themselves spontaneously from corrupted matter. We must beware of this occurring in women's minds. If they are not impregnated with sound doctrines by sharing in the culture of their husbands, they will of their own accord conceive many an ill-advised intention or irrational state of feeling.

As for you, Eurydice, above all things do your best to keep touch with the sayings of wise and good men, and to have continually in your mouth those utterances which you learned by heart in my school when a girl. By so doing, you will not only be a joy to your husband, but the admiration of other women, when they see how, at no expense, you can adorn yourself with so much distinction and dignity.

This rich woman's pearls, that foreign lady's silks, are not to be worn without paying a large price for them. But the ornaments of Theano, of Cleobuline, of Gorgo the wife of Leonidas, of Timoclea the sister of Theagenes, of the Claudia of ancient history, and al Cornelia the daughter of Scipio, you may wear for nothing; and with this adornment your life may be as happy as it is distinguished. Sappho thought so much of her skill as a lyrist that she wrote-- addressing a wealthy woman--

When thou art dead, thou shalt lie with none to remember thy name:
For no portion hast thou in the roses Pierian. . . .
You will assuredly have more occasion to think highly and proudly of yourself, if you have a portion, not only in the roses, but also in the fruits, which the Muses bring as free gifts to those who prize culture and philosophy.

1 A frequent pretence of ancient witches.


The preceding text is part of Plutarch's Moralia or Moral Essays, more specifically, it was taken from Selected Essays of Plutarch, Vol. 1, translated by T. G. Tucker, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1913, p. 96-112.

Certain minor modifications were made to the text to suit the medium and purpose used here. For example, page breaks and numbering were omitted, as well as marginal reference systems; footnotes were repositioned to fall under the numbered section in which they were used as opposed to the previous page bottom.

No attempt was made to Americanize or modernize the spelling, hopefully readers will have no trouble recognizing that, for example, connexion = connection.

This page was prepared by Spartacus, Editor of The Men's Tribune; repostings must include this link. Please report errors.

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