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This webpage reproduces a portion of
Roman Questions


published in Vol. IV
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. IV) Plutarch, Moralia

 p111  Roman Questions

(Part 4 of 5 on this website)

73 281c Why was it forbidden to priests that had any sore upon their bodies to sit and watch for birds of omen?

Is this also a symbolic indication that those who deal with matters divine should be in no way suffering from any smart, and should not, as it were, have any sore or affection in their souls, but should be untroubled, unscathed, and undistracted?

Or is it only logical, if no one would use for sacrifice a victim afflicted with a sore, or use such birds for augury, that they should be still more on their guard against such things in their own case, and be pure, unhurt, and sound when they advance to interpret signs from the gods?​164 For a sore seems to be a sort of dmutilation or pollution of the body.

74 1   Why did King Servius Tullius build a shrine of Little Fortune, which they call Brevis?165

Is it because although, at the first, he was a man of little importance and of humble activities and the  p113 son of a captive woman, yet, owing to Fortune, he became king of Rome? Or does this very change reveal the greatness rather than the littleness of Fortune, and does Servius beyond all other men seem to have deified the power of Fortune,​166 and to have set her formally over all manner of actions? eºFor he not only built shrines​167 of Fortune the Giver of Good Hope, the Averter of Evil, the Gentle, the First-Born,​168 and the Male; but there is also a shrine of Private Fortune, another of Attentive Fortune, and still another of Fortune the Virgin. Yet why need anyone review her other appellations, when there is a shrine of the Fowler's Fortune, or Viscata, as they call her, signifying that we are caught by Fortune from afar and held fast by circumstances?

Consider, however, whether it be not that Servius observed the mighty potency of Fortune's ever slight mutation, and that by the occurrence or non-occurrence of some slight thing, it has often fallen to the lot of some to succeed or to fail in the greatest enterprises, and it was for this reason that he built the shrine of Little Fortune, teaching men to give great heed to events, and not to despise anything that they encountered by reason of its triviality.

75 1   Why did they not extinguish a lamp, but suffered it to go out of itself?169

Did they reverence it as akin and closely related to the inextinguishable and undying fire, or is this also a symbolic indication that we should not destroy  p115 nor do away with any living thing, if it does us no harm, since fire is like a living thing? For it needs sustenance, it moves of itself, and when it is extinguished it gives out a sound as if it were being slain.

Or does this custom teach us that we should not destroy fire, water, or any other necessity when we have enough and to spare, but should allow those who have need of these things to use them, and should leave them for others when we ourselves no longer have any use for them?

282º 76 Why do they that are reputed to be of distinguished lineage wear crescents on their shoes?170

Is this, as Castor says,​171 an emblem of the fabled residence in the moon, and an indication that after death their souls will again have the moon beneath their feet;​172 or was this the special privilege of the most ancient families? These were Arcadians of Evander's following, the so‑called Pre-Lunar​173 people.

Or does this also, like many another custom, remind the exalted and proud of the mutability, for better or worse, in the affairs of men, and that they should take the moon as an illustration:174

bWhen out of darkness first she comes anew

Her face she shows increasing fair and full;

And when she reaches once her brightest sheen,

Again she wastes away and comes to naught?

 p117  Or was it a lesson in obedience to authority, teaching them not to be disaffected under the government of kings, but to be even as the moon, who is willing to give heed to her superior and to be a second to him,

Ever gazing in awe at the rays of the bright-gleaming Sun-god,

as Parmenides​175 puts it; and were they thus to be content with their second place, living under their ruler, and enjoying the power and honour derived from him?

77 1   Why do they believe that the year belongs to Jupiter, but the months to Juno?

cIs it because Jupiter and Juno rule the invisible, conceptual deities, but the sun and moon the visible deities? Now the sun makes the year and the moon the months; but one must not believe that the sun and moon are merely images of Jupiter and Juno, but that the sun is really Jupiter himself in his material form and in the same way the moon is Juno. This is the reason why the Romans apply the name Juno to our Hera, for the name means "young" or "junior," so named from the moon. And they also call her Lucina, that is "brilliant" or "light-giving"; and they believe that she aids women in the pangs of childbirth, even as the moon:176

On through the dark-blue vault of the stars,

dThrough the moon that brings forth quickly;

for women are thought to have easiest travail at the time of the full moon.

 p119  78 1   Why of birds is the one called "left-hand" a bird of good omen?

Is this not really true, but is it the peculiarity of the language which throws many off the track? For their word for "left" is sinistrum; "to permit" is sinere; and they say sine when they urge giving permission. Accordingly the bird which permits the augural action to be taken, that is, the avis sinisteria, the vulgar are not correct in assuming to be sinistra and in calling it so.

Or is it, as Dionysius​177 says, that when Ascanius, son of Aeneas, was drawing up his army against Mezentius, and his men were taking the auspices, a flash of lightning, ewhich portended victory, appeared on the left, and from that time on they observe this practice in divination? Or is it true, as certain other authorities affirm, that this happened to Aeneas? As a matter of fact, the Thebans, when they had routed and over­powered their enemies on the left wing at Leuctra,​178 continued thereafter to assign to the left the chief command in all battles.

Or​179 is it rather, as Juba​180 declares, that as anyone looks eastward, the north is on the left, and some make out the north to be the right, or upper, side of the universe?

But consider whether it be not that the left is by nature the weaker side, and they that preside over auguries try to strengthen fand prop its deficient powers by this method of equalization.

 p121  Or was it that they believed earthly and mortal matters to be antithetical to things heavenly and divine, and so thought that whatever was on the left for us the gods were sending forth from the right?

79 1   Why was it permitted to take up a bone of a man who had enjoyed a triumph, and had later died and been cremated, and carry it into the city and deposit it there, as Pyrrhon​181 of Lipara has recorded?

Was it to show honour to the dead? In fact, to other men of achievement, as well as to generals, they granted, not only for themselves, but also for their descendants, the right to be buried in the Forum, 283as they did to Valerius​182 and to Fabricius; and they relate that when descendants of these men die and have been conveyed to the Forum, a lighted torch is placed beneath the body and then immediately withdrawn; thus they enjoy the honour without exciting envy, and merely confirm their prerogative.

80 1   Why was it that when they gave a public banquet for men who had celebrated a triumph, they formally invited the consuls and then sent word to them requesting them not to come to the dinner?183

Was it because it was imperative that the place of honour at table and an escort home after dinner should be assigned to the man who had triumphed? But these honours can be given to no one else when the consuls are present, but only to them.

81 1   Why does not the tribune wear a garment with the purple border,​184 balthough the other magistrates wear it?

Is it because he is not a magistrate at all? For tribunes have no lictors, nor do they transact business  p123 seated on the curule chair, nor do they enter their office at the beginning of the year​185 as all the other magistrates do, nor do they cease from their functions when a dictator is chosen; but although he transfers every other office to himself, the tribunes alone remain, as not being officials but as holding some other position. Even as some advocates will not have it that a demurrer is a suit, but hold that its effect is the opposite of a suit; for a suit brings a case into court and obtains a judgement, while a demurrer takes it out of court and quashes it; in the same way they believe that the tribune­ship is a check on officialdom and a position to offer opposition to magistracy rather than a magistracy. cFor its authority and power consist in blocking the power of a magistrate and in the abrogation of excessive authority.

Or one might expound these matters and others like them, if one were to indulge in the faculty of invention; but since the tribunate derives its origin from the people, the popular element in it is strong; and of much importance is the fact that the tribune does not pride himself above the rest of the people, but conforms in appearance, dress, and manner of life to ordinary citizens. Pomp and circumstance become the consul and the praetor; but the tribune, as Gaius Curio used to say, must allow himself to be trodden upon; dhe must not be proud of mien, nor difficult of access nor harsh to the multitude, but indefatigable on behalf of others and easy for the multitude to deal with. Wherefore it is the custom that not even the door of his house shall be closed, but it remains open both night and day as a haven of refuge for such as need it. The more humble he is  p125 in outward appearance, the more is he increased in power. They think it meet that he shall be available for the common need and be accessible to all, even as an altar; and by the honour paid to him they make his person holy, sacred, and inviolable.​186 Wherefore if anything happen to him when he walks abroad in public, it is even customary for him to cleanse and purify his body as if it had been polluted.

e 82 1   Why are the rods of the praetors carried in bundles with axes attached?

Is it because this is a symbolic indication that the temper of the official should not be too quick or unrestrained? Or does the deliberate unfastening of the rods, which creates delay and postponement of his fit of temper, oftentimes cause him to change his mind about the punishment? Now since some badness is curable, but other badness is past remedy, the rods correct that which may be amended fand the axes cut off the incorrigible.

83 1   When the Romans learned that the people called Bletonesii,​187 a barbarian tribe, had sacrificed a man to the gods, why did they send for the tribal rulers with intent to punish them, but, when it was made plain that they had done thus in accordance with a certain custom, why did the Romans set them at liberty, but forbid the practice for the future? Yet they themselves, not many years before, had buried alive two men and two women, two of them Greeks, two Gauls, in the place called the Forum Boarium. It certainly  p127 seems strange that they themselves should do this, and yet rebuke barbarians on the ground that they were acting with impiety.

Did they think it impious to sacrifice men to the gods, but necessary to sacrifice them to the spirits? 284Or did they believe that men who did this by tradition and custom were sinning, whereas they themselves did it by command of the Sibylline books? For the tale is told that a certain maiden, Helvia, was struck by lightning while she was riding on horseback, and her horse was found lying stripped of its trappings; and she herself was naked, for her tunic had been pulled far up as if purposely; and her shoes, her rings, and her head-dress were scattered apart here and there, and her open mouth allowed the tongue to protrude. bThe soothsayers declared that it was a terrible disgrace for the Vestal Virgins, that it would be bruited far and wide, and that some wanton outrage would be found touching the knights also. Thereupon a barbarian slave of a certain knight gave information against three Vestal Virgins, Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia, that they had all been corrupted at about the same time, and that they had long entertained lovers, one of whom was Vetutius Barrus,​188 the informer's master. The Vestals, accordingly, were convicted and punished; but, since the deed was plainly atrocious, it was resolved that the priests should consult the Sibylline books. They say that oracles were found foretelling that these events would come to pass for the bane of the Romans, cand enjoining on them that, to avert the impending disaster, they should offer as a sacrifice to certain  p129 strange and alien spirits two Greeks and two Gauls, buried alive on the spot.189

84 1   Why do they reckon the beginning of the day from midnight?190

Is it because the Roman State was based originally on a military organization and most of the matters that are of use on campaigns are taken up beforehand at night? Or did they make sunrise the beginning of activity, and night the beginning of preparation? For men should be prepared when they act, and not be making their preparations during the action, as Myson,​191 who was fashioning a grain-fork in winter-time, is reported to have remarked to Chilon the Wise.

dOr, just as noon is for most people the end of their transaction of public or serious business, even so did it seem good to make midnight the beginning? A weighty testimony to this is the fact that a Roman official does not make treaties or agreements after midday.

Or is it impossible to reckon the beginning and end of the day by sunset and sunrise? For if we follow the method by which most people formulate their definitions, by their perceptions, reckoning the first peep of the sun above the horizon as the beginning of day, and the cutting off of its last rays as the beginning of night, we shall have no equinox; ebut that night which we think is most nearly equal to the day will plainly be less than that day by the diameter of  p131 the sun.​192 But then again the remedy which the mathematicians apply to this anomaly, decreeing that the instant when the centre of the sun touches the horizon is boundary between day and night, is a negation of plain fact; for the result will be that when there is still much light over the earth and the sun is shining upon us, we cannot admit that it is day, but must say that it is already night. Since, therefore, the beginning of day and night is difficult to determine at the time of the risings and settings of the sun because of the irrationalities which I have mentioned, there is left the zenith or the nadir of the sun to reckon as the beginning. The second is better; ffor from noon on the sun's course is away from us to its setting, but from midnight on its course is towards us to its rising.

85 1   Why in the early days did they not allow their wives to grind grain or to cook?193

Was it in memory of the treaty which they made with the Sabines? For when they had carried off the Sabines' daughters, and later, after warring with the Sabines, had made peace, it was specified among the other articles of agreement that no Sabine woman should grind grain for a Roman or cook for him.

86 1   Why do men not marry during the month of May?194

Is it because this month comes between April and June, 285of which they regard April as sacred to Venus and June as sacred to Juno, both of them divinities of marriage; and so they put the wedding a little earlier or wait until later?

 p133  Or is it because in this month they hold their most important ceremony of purification, in which they now throw images from the bridge into the river,​195 but in days of old they used to throw human beings? Wherefore it is the custom that the Flaminica, reputed to be consecrate to Juno, shall wear a stern face, and refrain from bathing and wearing ornaments at this time.

Or is it because many of the Latins make offerings to the departed in this month? bAnd it is for this reason, perhaps, that they worship Mercury in this month and that the month derives its name from Maia.​196

Or is May, as some relate, named after the older (maior) and June after the younger generation (iunior)? For youth is better fitted for marriage, as Euripides​197 also says:

Old age bids Love to take her leave for aye

And Aphroditê wearies of the old.

They do not, therefore, marry in May, but wait for June which comes next after May.

87 1   Why do they part the hair of brides with the point of a spear?198

Does this symbolize the marriage of the first Roman wives​199 by violence with attendant war, cor do the wives thus learn, now that they are mated to brave and warlike men, to welcome an unaffected, unfeminine, and simple mode of beautification? Even as Lycurgus,​200 by giving orders to make the  p135 doors and roofs of houses with the saw and the axe only, and to use absolutely no other tool, banished all over-refinement and extravagance.

Or does this procedure hint at the manner of their separation, that with steel alone can their marriage be dissolved?

Or is it that most of the marriage customs were connected with Juno?​201 Now the spear is commonly held to be sacred to Juno, and most of her statues represent her as leaning on a spear, and the goddess herself is surnamed Quiritis; dfor the men of old used to call the spear curis; wherefore they further relate that Enyalius is called Quirinus by the Romans.202

88 1   Why do they call the money expended upon public spectacles Lucar?

Is it because round about the city there are, consecrated to gods, many groves which they call luci, and they used to spend the revenue from these on the public spectacles?

89 1   Why do they call the Quirinalia the Feast of Fools?203

Is it because, as Juba​204 states, they apportioned that day to men who did not know their own kith and kin?​205 Or was it granted to those who, because of some business, or absence from Rome, or ignorance, had not sacrificed with the rest of their tribe on the Fornacalia, that, on this day, they might take their due enjoyment of that festival?

The Editor's Notes:

164 Cf. Moralia, 383B; Leviticus, xxii.17‑21.

165 Hartman's theory (that Plutarch is rendering OccasioFortuna Brevis) is very doubtful.

166 Cf. 273B, supra.

167 Cf. 322F, infra: the Latin equivalents here are perhaps (p1313)Felix (?), Averrunca, Obsequens, Primigenia, Virilis, Privata, Respiciens, Virgo, Viscata.

168 Cf. 289B, infra.

169 Cf. Moralia, 702D ff.

170 Cf. Isidore, Origines, XIX.34; Juvenal, VII.192.

171 Jacoby, Frag. der griech. Hist. 250, Frag. 16.

172 Cf. Moralia, 943A ff.

173 Cf. Aristotle, Frag. 591 (ed. V. Rose); Apollonius Rhodius, IV.264; scholium on Aristophanes, Clouds, 398.

174 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p315, Sophocles, Frag. 787; or Pearson, no. 871: the full quotation may be found in Life of Demetrius, xlv. (911C). Cf. the variants there and in Moralia, 517D.

175 Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, I p162, Parmenides, no. B 14.

Thayer's Note: Quoted again by Plutarch in The Face in the Moon, 929B, where it is supplied with a different English translation and further references.

176 Timotheus, Frag. 28 (ed. Wilamowitz-Möllendorf); (p117)Edmonds, Lyra Graeca, III. p331; better Diels, Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, II p152. Cf. Moralia, 659A; Macrobius, Saturnalia, VII.16.27;º see also Roscher, Lexikon der gr. und röm. Mythologie, vol. I coll. 571‑572.

177 Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, II.5.5; Virgil, Aeneid, IX.630, and Conington's note on Virgil, Georgics, IV.7.

178 Cf. Life of Pelopidas, xxiii (289D-E).

179 Cf. Moralia, 363E, 888B.

180 Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. III p471.

181 Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. IV p479.

182 Cf. Life of Publicola, chap. xxiii (109D).

183 Cf. Valerius Maximus, II.8.6.

184 The toga praetexta.

185 They entered upon their office December 10th; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, VI.89.2; Livy, XXXIX.52.

186 Cf. Livy, III.55.6‑7; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, VI.89.2‑3.

187 Of Bletisa in Spain, according to Cichorius, Römische Studien (Berlin, 1922).

188 Cf. Cicero, Brutus, 46 (169); Horace, Satires, I.6.30, if the emendation is right.

189 Cf. Life of Marcellus, chap. iii (299D); Livy, XXII.57.

190 Cf. Plin. H. N. II.77 (188); Aulus Gellius, III.2; Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.3.

191 Similar foresight regarding a plough instead of a fork is reported by Diogenes Laertius, I.106.

192 Long before Plutarch's day the Greeks had calculated the angle subtended by the sun with an accuracy that stood the test of centuries, and was not modified until comparatively (p131)recent times. Cf. Archimedes, Arenarius, i.10 (J. L. Heiberg's ed. II. p248).

193 Cf. Life of Romulus, chap. xv (26D), xix (30A).

194 Cf. Ovid, Fasti, V.489.

195 Cf. 272B, supra.

196 The mother of Mercury.

197 From the Aeolus of Euripides; Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p369, Euripides, no. 23: Cf. Moralia, 786A, 1094F.

198 Cf. Life of Romulus, chap. xv (26E).

199 The Sabine women.

200 Cf. Moralia, 189E, 227C, 997C; and the Life of Lycurgus, chap. xiii (47C); cf. also Comment. on Hesiod, 42 (Bernardakis, vol. VII p72).

201 See Roscher, Lexikon der gr. und röm. Mythologie, II coll. 588‑592.

202 Cf. Life of Romulus, chap. xxix (36B); Dionysius of (p135)Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, II.48; Ovid, Fasti, II.475 ff.

203 Cf. Ovid, Fasti, II.513 ff.

204 Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. III. p470.

205 Curiae.

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