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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. I) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book I

 p97  Chapter 7
Periander (tyrant 625‑585 B.C.)

[link to original Greek text] 94 Periander, the son of Cypselus, was born at Corinth, of the family of the Heracleidae. His wife was Lysida, whom he called Melissa.​a Her father was Procles, tyrant of Epidaurus, her mother Eristheneia, daughter of Aristocrates and sister of Aristodemus, who together reigned over nearly the whole of Arcadia, as stated by Heraclides of Pontus in his book On Government. By her he had two sons, Cypselus and Lycophron, the younger a man of intelligence, the elder weak in mind. However, after some time, in a fit of anger, he killed his wife by throwing a footstool at her, or by a kick, when she was pregnant, having been egged on by the slanderous tales of concubines, whom he afterwards burnt alive.

When the son whose name was Lycophron grieved  p99 for his mother, he banished him to Corcyra. [link to original Greek text] 95 And when well advanced in years he sent for his son to be his successor in the tyranny; but the Corcyraeans put him to death before he could set sail. Enrolled at this, he dispatched the sons of the Corcyraeans to Alyattes that he might make eunuchs of them; but, when the ship touched at Samos, they took sanctuary in the temple of Hera, and were saved by the Samians.

Periander lost heart and died at the age of eighty. Sosicrates' account is that he died forty‑one years before Croesus, just before the 49th Olympiad.​1 Herodotus in his first book says that he was a guest-friend of Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus.

[link to original Greek text] 96 Aristippus in the first book of his work On the Luxury of the Ancients2 accuses him of incest with his own mother Crateia, and adds that, when the fact came to light, he vented his annoyance in indiscriminate severity. Ephorus records his vow that, if he won the victory at Olympia in the chariot-race, he would set up a golden statue. When the victory was won, being in sore straits for gold, he despoiled the women of all the ornaments which he had seen them wearing at some local festival. He was thus enabled to send the votive offering.

There is a story that he did not wish the place where he was buried to be known, and to that end contrived the following device. He ordered two young men to go out at night by a certain road which he pointed out to them; they were to kill the man they met and bury him. He afterwards ordered four more to go in pursuit of the two, kill them and bury them; again, he dispatched a larger  p101 number in pursuit of the four. Having taken these measures, he himself encountered the first pair and was slain. The Corinthians placed the following inscription upon a cenotaph:3

[link to original Greek text] 97 In mother earth here Periander lies,

The prince of sea‑girt Corinth rich and wise.

My own epitaph on him is:4

Grieve not because thou hast not gained thine end,

But take with gladness all the gods may send:

Be warned by Periander's fate, who died

Of grief that one desire should be denied.

To him belongs the maxim: Never do anything for money; leave gain to trades pursued for gain. He wrote a didactic poem of 2000 lines. He said that those tyrants who intend to be safe should make loyalty their bodyguard, not arms. When some one asked him why he was tyrant, he replied, "Because it is as dangerous to retire voluntarily as to be dispossessed." Here are other sayings of his: Rest is beautiful. Rashness has its perils. Gain is ignoble. Democracy is better than tyranny. Pleasures are transient, honours are immortal. [link to original Greek text] 98 Be moderate in prosperity, prudent in adversity. Be the same to your friends whether they are in prosperity or in adversity. Whatever agreement you make, stick to it. Betray no secret. Correct not only the offenders but also those who are on the point of offending.

He was the first who had a bodyguard and who changed his government into a tyranny, and he would let no one live in the town without his permission, as we know from Ephorus and Aristotle.  p103 He flourished about the 39th Olympiad and was tyrant for forty years.

Sotion and Heraclides and Pamphila in the fifth book of her Commentaries distinguish two Perianders, one a tyrant, the other a sage who was born in Ambracia. [link to original Greek text] 99 Neanthes of Cyzicus also says this, and adds that they were near relations. And Aristotle​5 maintains that the Corinthian Periander was the sage; while Plato denies this.

His apophthegm is: Practice makes perfect.​b He planned a canal across the Isthmus.

A letter of his is extant:

Periander to the Wise Men

"Very grateful am I to the Pythian Apollo that I found you gathered together; and my letters will also bring you to Corinth, where, as you know, I will give you a thoroughly popular reception. I learn that last year you met in Sardis at the Lydian court. Do not hesitate therefore to come to me, the ruler of Corinth. The Corinthians will be pleased to see you coming to the house of Periander."

Periander to Procles

[link to original Greek text] 100 "The murder of my wife was unintentional; but yours is deliberate guilt when you set my son's heart against me. Either therefore put an end to my son's harsh treatment, or I will revenge myself  p105 on you. For long ago I made expiation to you for your daughter by burning on her pyre the apparel of all the women of Corinth."

There is also a letter written to him by Thrasybulus, as follows:

Thrasybulus to Periander

"I made no answer to your herald; but I took him into a cornfield,º and with a staff smote and cut off the over-grown ears of corn, while he accompanied me. And if you ask him what he heard and what he saw, he will give his message. And this is what you must do if you want to strengthen your absolute rule: put to death those among the citizens who are pre‑eminent, whether they are hostile to you or not. For to an absolute ruler even a friend is an object of suspicion."

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 584‑580 B.C.

2 An unsavoury work by a scandal-monger who, to judge from the fragment of bk. IV, bore a grudge against philosophers, especially Academics: cf. Wilamowitz, Antigonos von Karystos, pp48 ff.

3 Anth. Pal. VII.619.

4 Anth. Pal. VII.620.

5 Periander is mentioned in the Politics of Aristotle (V.4, 1304a32), but not as one of the Seven Wise Men. In Plato's Protagoras, 343A, where the Seven Wise Men are enumerated, Periander's name is omitted, his place being taken by Myson. It would almost seem as if Diogenes Laertius knew of some passage in Aristotle in which Periander was called one of the Seven, though no such passage is extant.

Thayer's Notes:

a That is, he called her "honey" (in Greek, melissa).

b Literally, Take care of everything. My own preferred approximation: God is in the details.

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Page updated: 5 Dec 18