The Roman and Greek Questions, by Plutarch, tr. Frank Cole Babbitt, , at sacred-texts.com
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1. Why do they bid the bride touch fire and water?
Is it that of these two, being reckoned as elements or first principles, fire is masculine and water feminine, a and fire supplies the beginnings of motion and water the function of the subsistent element or the material?
Or is it because fire purifies and water cleanses, and a married woman must remain pure and clean?
Or is it that, just as fire without moisture is unsustaining and arid, and water without heat is unproductive and inactive, b so also male and female apart from each other are inert, but their union in marriage produces the perfection of their life together?
Or is it that they must not desert each other, but must share together every sort of fortune, even if they are destined to have nothing other than fire and water to share with each other?
2. Why in the marriage rites do they light five torches, neither more nor less, which they call cereones?
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Is it, as Varro has stated, that while the praetors use three, the aediles have a right a to more, and it is from the aediles that the wedding party light their torches?
Or is it because in their use of several numbers the odd number was considered better and more perfect for various purposes and also better adapted to marriage? For the even number admits division and its equality of division suggests strife and opposition; the odd number, however, cannot be divided into equal parts at all, but whenever it is divided it always leaves behind a remainder of the same nature as itself. Now, of the odd numbers, five is above all the nuptial number; for three is the first odd number, and two is the first even number, and five is composed of the union of these two, as it were of male and female. b
Or is it rather that, since light is the symbol of birth, and women in general are enabled by nature to bear, at the most, five children at one birth, c the wedding company makes use of exactly that number of torches?
Or is it because they think that the nuptial pair has need of five deities: Zeus Teleios, Hera Teleia, Aphrodite, Peitho, and finally Artemis, whom women in child-birth and travail are wont to invoke?
3. Why is it that, although there are many shrines of Diana in Rome, the only one into which men may not enter is the shrine in the so-called Vicus Patricius?
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Is it because of the current legend? For a man attempted to violate a woman who was here worshipping the goddess, and was torn to pieces by the dogs; and men do not enter because of the superstitious fear that arose from this occurrence.
4. Why do they, as might be expected, nail up stags’ horns in all the other shrines of Diana, but in the shrine on the Aventine nail up horns of cattle?
Is it because they remember the ancient occurrence? a For the tale is told that among the Sabines in the herds of Antro Curiatius was born a heifer excelling all the others in appearance and size. When a certain soothsayer told him that the city of the man who should sacrifice that heifer to Diana on the Aventine was destined to become the mightiest city and to rule all Italy, the man came to Rome with intent to sacrifice his heifer. But a servant of his secretly told the prophecy to the king Servius, who told Cornelius the priest, and Cornelius gave instructions to Antro to bathe in the Tiber before the sacrifice; for this, said he, was the custom of those whose sacrifice was to be acceptable. Accordingly Antro went away and bathed, but Servius sacrificed the heifer to Diana before Antro could return, and nailed the horns to the shrine. This tale both Juba b and Varro have recorded, except that Varro has not noted the name of Antro; and he says that the Sabine was cozened, not by Cornelius the priest, but by the keeper of the temple.
5. Why is it that those who are falsely reported to
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have died in a foreign country, even if they return, men do not admit by the door, but mount upon the roof-tiles and let them down inside?
Varro gives an explanation of the cause that is quite fabulous. For he says that in the Sicilian war there was a great naval battle, and in the case of many men a false report spread that they were dead. But, when they had returned home, in a short time they all came to their end except one who, when he tried to enter, found the doors shutting against him of their own accord, nor did they yield when he strove to open them. The man fell asleep there before his threshold and in his sleep saw a vision, which instructed him to climb upon the roof and let himself down into the house. When he had done so, he prospered and lived to an advanced age; and from this occurrence the custom became established for succeeding generations.
But consider if this be not in some wise similar to Greek customs; for the Greeks did not consider pure, nor admit to familiar intercourse, nor suffer to approach the temples any person for whom a funeral had been held and a tomb constructed on the assumption that they were dead. The tale is told that Aristinus, a victim of this superstition, sent to Delphi and besought the god to release him from the difficulties in which he was involved because of the custom; and the prophetic priestess gave response:
[paragraph continues] Aristinus, accordingly, chose the part of wisdom and
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delivered himself like a new-born babe into the hands of women to be washed, and to be wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and to be suckled; and all other men in such plight do likewise and they are called "Men of Later Fate." But some will have it that this was done in the case of such persons even before Aristinus, and that the custom is ancient. Hence it is nothing surprising if the Romans also did not think it right to admit by the door, through which they go out to sacrifice and come in from sacrificing, those who are thought to have been buried once and for all and to belong to the company of the departed, but bade them descend from the open air above into that portion of the house which is exposed to the sky. And with good reason, for, naturally, they perform all their rites of purification under the open sky.
6. Why do the women kiss their kinsmen on the lips?
Is it, as most authorities believe, that the drinking of wine was forbidden to women, a and therefore, so that women who had drunk wine should not escape detection, but should be detected when they chanced to meet men of their household, the custom of kissing was established?
Or is it for the reason which Aristotle b the philosopher has recorded? For that far-famed deed, the scene of which is laid in many different places, c was dared, it appears, by the Trojan women, even on the very shores of Italy. For when they had reached the coast, and the men had disembarked, the women set fire to the ships, since, at all hazards, they desired to be quit of their wanderings and their sea-faring.
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[paragraph continues] But they were afraid of their husbands, and greeted with a kiss and a warm embrace such of their kinsmen and members of their household as they encountered; and when the men had ceased from their wrath and had become reconciled, the women continued thereafter as well to employ this mark of affection towards them.
Or was this rather bestowed upon the women as a privilege that should bring them both honour and power if they should be seen to have many good men among their kinsmen and in their household?
Or is it that, since it is not the custom for men to marry blood relations, a affection proceeded only so far as a kiss, and this alone remained as a token of kinship and a participation therein? For formerly men did not marry women related to them by ties of blood, just as even now they do not marry their aunts or their sisters b; but after a long time they made the concession of allowing wedlock with cousins for the following reason: a man possessed of no property, but otherwise of excellent character and more satisfactory to the people than other public men, had as wife his cousin, an heiress, and was thought to be growing rich from her estate. He was accused on this ground, but the people would not even try the case and dismissed the charge, enacting a decree that all might marry cousins or more distant relatives; but marriage with nearer kin was prohibited.
7. Why is it forbidden for a man to receive a gift from his wife or a wife to receive a gift from her husband? c
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Is it that, Solon having promulgated a law a that the bequests of the deceased should be valid unless a man were constrained by force or persuaded by his wife, whereby he excepted force as overriding the free will, and pleasure as misleading the judgement, in this way the bequests of wives and husbands became suspect?
Or did they regard giving as an utterly worthless token of affection (for even strangers and persons with no kindly feelings give gifts), and so deprived the marriage relationship of this mode of giving pleasure, that mutual affection might be unbought and free, existing for its own sake and for no other reason?
Or is it that women are most likely to be seduced and welcome strangers because of gifts they receive from them; and thus it is seen to be dignified for them to love their own husbands even though their husbands give them no gifts?
Or is it rather that both the husbands’ property should be held in common with their wives and the wives’ with their husbands? For anyone who accepts what is given learns to regard what is not given to him as belonging to another, with the result that by giving a little to each other they deprive each other of all else that they own.
8. Why among the Romans is it forbidden to receive a gift from a son-in-law or from a father-in-law?
Is the father-in-law prevented from receiving a gift from his son-in-law, in order that the gift may not appear ultimately to reach the wife through her father? And is the son-in-law similarly prevented, since it is obviously just that he who may not give shall also not receive?
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9. Why is it that, when men who have wives at home are returning either from the country or from abroad, they send ahead to tell their wives that they are coming?
Is it because this is the mark of a man who is confident that his wife is not up to any mischief, whereas coming suddenly and unexpectedly is, as it were, an arrival by stratagem and unfair vigilance; and are they eager to send good tidings about themselves to their wives as if they felt certain that their wives would be longing for them and expecting them?
Or is it rather that the men themselves long to hear news of their wives, if they shall find them safe at home and longing for their husbands?
Or is it because during their husbands’ absence the wives have more household duties and occupations, and also dissensions and outbursts against those of the household? Therefore the notice is given in advance that the wife may rid herself of these matters and make for her husband his welcome home undisturbed and pleasant.
7:a Cf. Varro, De Lingua Latina, v. 61. The genders are those of ignis and aqua, not those of the Greek words.
7:b Cf. Moralia, 650 n; Servius on Virgil, Aeneid, iv. 167; Lactantius, Institutiones Divinae, ii. 9. 21.
9:a p. 8 Cf. the Lex Coloniae Genetivae, column 62 (C.I.L. i.2 594 = ii. 5439), where it is specified that the aediles shall have the right and power to possess, among other things, "cereos".
9:b Cf. Moralia, 288 D–E, infra, 374 A, 429 A, and 388 A with the note on the last passage; Lydus, De Mensibus, ii. 4.
9:c p. 9 Cf. Moralia, 429 F. A few authenticated cases of sextuplets have occurred since Plutarch's day. See also the passages of Aulus Gellius and Aristotle quoted in Classical Journal, xxx. p. 493.
11:a Cf. Livy, i. 45; Valerius Maximus, vii. 3. 1.
11:b Müller, Frag. Hist. Graec. iii. p. 470.
15:a p. 14 Cf. Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa, chap. iii. (77 B); Polybius, vi. 11a. 4; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, ii. 25. 6; Cicero, De Republica, iv. 6; Valerius Maximus. ii. I. 5; vi. 3.9; Pliny, Natural History, xiv. 13 (89); Aulus Gellius, x. 23. 1; Tertullian, Apol. vi.
15:b Frag. 609 (ed. V. Bose).
15:c p. 15 Cf. Moralia, 243 E and the note ad loc. (Vol. III. p. 480).
17:a Hatzidakis objects to the form συγγενίδας; but the very fact that Pollux, iii. 30, characterizes it as ἐσχάτως βάρβαρον proves (as do inscriptions also) that it was in use.
17:b Cf. Tacitus, Annals, xii. 5–7.
17:c Cf. Moralia, 143 A.
19:a p. 18 Cf. Life of Solon, chap. xxi. (90 A); [Demosthenes] xlvi. 14; Hypereides, Against Athenogenes, 17, 18.