Milking the He-Goat: The Only Proverb You Need Today

Polybius, Book 33 16a fragmenta incertae sedis (Full text on the Scaife viewer)

“20. As soon as the masses are compelled to love or hate people excessively, every excuse is sufficient for them to complete their plans.

21 But I worry that I might overlook the fact that the oft-cited saying applies to me: “who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket* to catch it?”

For, I also seem, in reporting what is agreed upon as a lie and in dragging out the process to do something very similar. For this reason, it is pointless to talk about these things, unless someone also wants to write down dreams and examine the fantasies of someone who is awake.”

*koskinos here actually means “sieve”, which makes the whole process even more futile. I simplified to “bucket” to make it easier to understand…

20. Ὅτι ὅταν ἅπαξ οἱ πολλοὶ σχῶσιν ὁρμὴν πρὸς τὸ φιλεῖν ἢ μισεῖν τινας ὑπερβαλλόντως, πᾶσα πρόφασις ἱκανὴ γίνεται πρὸς τὸ συντελεῖν τὰς αὑτῶν προθέσεις.

21. Ἀλλὰ γὰρ ὀκνῶ μή ποτ᾿ εἰς τὸ περιφερόμενον ἐμπεσὼν λάθω, πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἀφρονέστερος ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑπέχων· δοκῶ γὰρ δὴ κἀγὼ πρὸς ὁμολογουμένην ψευδολογίαν ἀκριβολογούμενος καὶ τὸν ἐπιμετροῦντα λόγον εἰσφέρων παραπλήσιόν τι ποιεῖν. διὸ καὶ μάτην τελέως περὶ τούτων λέγειν, εἰ μή τις καὶ γράφειν ἐνύπνια βούλεται καὶ θεωρεῖν ἐγρηγορότος ἐνύπνια.

Diogenianus writes on this proverb (Centuria 95.3; Cf. Mantissa Proverb., 2.68)

“Who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket to catch it? You should say the [one who milks] the male-goat”

Πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἀφρονέστερος, ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑποτιθείς; εἴποις, ὁ τὸν τράγον:

Arsenius, Centuria 17 41a7

“To milk a he-goat”: this is applied to those who do something incongruous and ignorant. From this we also get the saying from Diogenianus: “Who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket to catch it?”

“Τράγον ἀμέλγειν: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνάρμοστόν τι ποιούντων καὶ ἀνόητον. ὅθεν καὶ Διογενιανός· πότερον ὁ τὸν τράγον ἀμέλγων ἢ ὁ τὸ κόσκινον ὑποτιθεὶς ἀφρονέστερος;

From Medieval Bestiary: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, Folio 15r

Only Bad Dudes Want Statues in the First Place

Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft  820b (Full text on the Scaife viewer)

“Cato, since Rome was then already getting full of statues, would not allow one of himself. He said, “I would rather have people ask why there isn’t a statue of me rather than why there is one.” Indeed, these kinds of things do create envy and many believe that they owe gratitude to people who have not received them but that those who have taken them have oppressed them, as when people ask for payment for something they have done.

So, just as a person who has sailed passed the Syrtis and overturned his ship right near the channel has done nothing great nor worthy of awe, so to the man who has served in the treasury and guarded the public coffers but has done a poor job in other offices finds himself wrecked on a cliff near the sea. No, the best person is one who doesn’t want any of these kinds of things, avoiding and refusing them when needed.”

ὁ δὲ Κάτων, ἤδη τότε τῆς Ῥώμης καταπιμπλαμένης ἀνδριάντων, οὐκ ἐῶν αὑτοῦ γενέσθαι “μᾶλλον,”ἔφη, “βούλομαι πυνθάνεσθαί τινας, διὰ τί μου ἀνδριὰς οὐ κεῖται ἢ διὰ τί κεῖται.” καὶ γὰρ φθόνον ἔχει τὰ τοιαῦτα καὶ νομίζουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ τοῖς μὴ λαβοῦσιν αὐτοὶ χάριν ὀφείλειν, τοὺς δὲ λαβόντας αὑτοῖς καὶ βαρεῖς εἶναι, οἷον ἐπὶ μισθῷ τὰς χρείας ἀπαιτοῦντας. ὥσπερ οὖν ὁ παραπλεύσας τὴν Σύρτιν εἶτ᾿ ἀνατραπεὶς περὶ τὸν πορθμὸν οὐδὲν μέγα πεποίηκεν οὐδὲ σεμνόν, οὕτως ὁ τὸ ταμιεῖον φυλαξάμενος καὶ τὸ δημοσιώνιον ἁλοὺς δὲ περὶ τὴν προεδρίαν ἢ τὸ πρυτανεῖον, ὑψηλῷ μὲν προσέπταικεν ἀκρωτηρίῳ βαπτίζεται δ᾿ ὁμοίως. ἄριστος μὲν οὖν ὁ μηδενὸς δεόμενος τῶν τοιούτων ἀλλὰ φεύγων καὶ παραιτούμενος·

Marcus Porcius Cato

A Good Law?

Herodotus, 2.177

“Amasis made this law for the Egyptians, that each one should reveal how he makes his living to the leader of his state each year and if he does not prove in some way that he lives justly to be punished by death. Solon took this law from Egypt and made it the rule among his people. May they keep this law forever because it is perfect.”

νόμον τε Αἰγυπτίοισι τόνδε Ἄμασις ἐστὶ ὁ καταστήσας, ἀποδεικνύναι ἔτεος ἑκάστου τῷ νομάρχῃ πάντα τινὰ Αἰγυπτίων ὅθεν βιοῦται· μὴ δὲ ποιεῦντα ταῦτα μηδε ἀποφαίνοντα δικαίην ζόην ἰθύνεσθαι θανάτῳ. Σόλων δὲ ὁ Ἀθηναῖος λαβὼν ἐξ Αἰγύπτου τοῦτον τὸν νόμον Ἀθηναίοισι ἔθετο· τῷ ἐκεῖνοι ἐς αἰεὶ χρέωνται ἐόντι ἀμώμῳ νόμῳ.

Solon - Wikipedia
Do I look just to you?

A Rich Man’s Plague from Kisses

Pliny, Natural History, 26 3

“This plague didn’t exist among our ancestors. It first invaded Italy during the principate of Tiberius Claudius when some Roman knight from Perusia, secretary to a quaestor, brought the infection with him after he had been serving in Asia Minor. Women, enslaved people, and those of the low or humble classes tend not to get this disease, but it spreads quickly through nobles thanks to a brief kiss. Many of those who endured the medicine for the sickness handled the scar more foully than the disease. It was cured by burning treatments and the symptom would return unless the flesh was burned up almost to the bone in that spot.

Many physicians came from Egypt—that parent of these kinds of blights—in order to dedicate themselves to this work only, gaining a considerable profit, since it is true that Manilius Cornutus, a man of praetorian rank and legate in Aquitania, paid two hundred thousand for the treatment of his disease.

It does often happen, however, that new kinds of diseases are experienced en masse. What discovery would be more surprising? Some afflictions appear in a certain part of the world and attack certain body parts or people of specific ages or stations—as if a sickness were selective—one harming children, another adults, this one for the nobles, and that one for the poor.”

III. Non fuerat haec lues apud maiores patresque nostros, et primum Ti. Claudi Caesaris principatu medio inrepsit in Italiam quodam Perusino equite Romano quaestorio scriba, cum in Asia adparuisset, inde contagionem eius inportante. nec sensere id malum feminae aut servitia plebesque humilis aut media, sed proceres veloci transitu osculi maxime, foediore multorum qui perpeti medicinam toleraverant cicatrice quam morbo. causticis namque curabatur, ni usque in ossa corpus exustum esset, rebellante taedio. adveneruntque ex Aegypto genetrice talium vitiorum medici hanc solam operam adferentes magna sua praeda, siquidem certum est Manilium Cornutum e praetoriis legatum Aquitanicae provinciae HS CC elocasse in eo morbo curandum sese. acciditque contra saepius ut nova genera morborum gregatim sentirentur. quo mirabilius quid potest reperiri? aliqua gigni repente vitia terrarum in parte certa membrisque hominum certis vel aetatibus aut etiam fortunis, tamquam malo eligente, haec in pueris grassari, illa in adultis, haec proceres sentire, illa pauperes?

Roman Emperor Trajan making offerings to Egyptian Gods, on the Roman Mammisi at the Dendera Temple complex, Egypt

Surprise! A Dictator and his Master of Horse

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 22 8

“Before any certain plans were completed, another disaster was suddenly reported: four thousand cavalry under the command of Gaius Cenentius and sent by the consul Servilius to his colleague in Umbria had turned around after hearing news of the Battle of Lake Trasimene and was trapped by Hannibal.

This news affected people differently: some, whose minds were overcome by a greater sorrow, believed that this recent loss of cavalry was a minor matter when compared to earlier events. Another group did not judge what happened on its own, but just as when a body was already sick any anguish, however minor, would be sensed more deeply than when in wealth, so too this should be judged not by some abstract measure but in realization of the fact that the country was sick and weakened and was incapable of withstanding any more grief.

For this reason, the people took refuge in a solution which had been neither desired nor used for a long time: the declaration of a dictator. But since the consul was away and they believed only he could announce a dictator, and because it was not easy to send a messenger or letter through an Italian countryside overcome by Carthaginian soldiers, the people did something that had never been done before that day: they made Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator and Marcus Mincius Rufus Master of Horse.”

Priusquam satis certa consilia essent, repens alia nuntiatur clades, quattuor milia equitum cum C. Centenio propraetore missa ad collegam ab Servilio consule in Umbria, quo post pugnam ad Trasumennum auditam averterant iter, ab Hannibale circumventa. eius rei fama varie homines adfecit. pars occupatis maiore aegritudine animis levem ex comparatione priorum ducere recentem equitum iacturam; pars non id quod acciderat per se aestimare sed, ut in adfecto corpore quamvis levis causa magis quam in valido gravior sentiretur, ita tum aegrae et adfectae civitati quodcumque adversi inciderit, non rerum magnitudine sed viribus extenuatis, quae nihil quod adgravaret pati possent, aestimandum esse.

Itaque ad remedium iam diu neque desideratum nec adhibitum, dictatorem dicendum, civitas confugit; et quia et consul aberat, a quo uno dici posse videbatur, nec per occupatam armis Punicis Italiam facile erat aut nuntium aut litteras mitti, quod nunquam ante eam diem factum erat, dictatorem populus creavit Q. Fabium Maximum et magistrum equitum M. Minucium Rufum

Jean Lievens, Quintus Fabius Maximus

A Tyranny Gained Through Luck

Sallust, Letter to Caesar 2.3

“While the courts just as in previous eras have been run by the three orders, those political factions still rule them: they give and take what they may, giving the innocent the runaround and heaping honors on their own. Neither crime nor shame nor public disgrace disqualifies them from office. They rob, despoil whomever they please. And finally, as if the city has been sacked, they rely on their own lust and excess instead of the laws.

And for me this would only be a source of limited grief if, in their typical fashion, they were pursuing a victory born from excellence. But the laziest of people whose total strength and excellence come from their tongue are arrogantly administering a tyranny gained through luck and from another person! For what treason or civil discord has obliterated so many families? Whose spirit was ever so hasty and extreme in victory?”

Iudicia tametsi, sicut antea, tribus ordinibus tradita sunt, tamen idem illi factiosi regunt, dant, adimunt quae lubet, innocentis circumveniunt, suos ad honorem extollunt. Non facinus, non probrum aut flagitium obstat, quo minus magistratus capiant. Quos commodum est trahunt, rapiunt; postremo tamquam urbe capta libidine ac licentia sua pro legibus utuntur.

Ac me quidem mediocris dolor angeret, si virtute partam victoriam more suo per servitium exercerent. Sed homines inertissimi, quorum omnis vis virtusque in lingua sita est, forte atque alterius socordia dominationem oblatam insolentes agitant. Nam quae seditio aut dissensio civilis tot tam illustris familias ab stirpe evertit? Aut quorum umquam in victoria animus tam praeceps tamque inmoderatus fuit?


Image result for ancient roman politics

Cruel, Bad, but Loved by the Bodyguards

Historia Augusta, Antoninus Caracella  9

“His way of life was bad and he was more cruel than his father. He was a glutton who was addicted to wine and hated by his own household and despised by every division except for the praetorian guard. There was nothing similar between him and his brother.”

Fuit male moratus et patre duro crudelior. avidus cibi, vini etiam adpetens, suis odiosus et praeter milites praetorianos omnibus castris exosus. prorsus nihil inter fratres simile.

White bust

I’m Not A Dictator…

Augustus, Res Gestae 30

“Even though the Roman people and the senate offered me the dictatorship when I was absent and there too, during the consulship of Marcellus and Lucius Arruntius, I did not accept it. I did not refuse the control of the grain supply when there was the most severe scarcity. I did this in such a way that after a few days I relieved the people of the fear and peril they found themselves at my own cost. I also did not accept the consulship when it was offered to me for a year or forever.”

 (Dictatura)m et apsent(i et praesenti a populo et senatu Romano mihi oblatam2) | (M. Marce)llo e(t) L. Ar(runtio consulibus non accepi. Non recusavi in Summa) | (frumenti p)enuri(a c)uratio(ne)m an(nonae, qu)am ita ad(ministravi, ut intra) | (paucos die)s metu et per(i)c(lo praesenti populu)m univ(ersum meis im-)ǁ (pensis liberarem). § Con(sulatum tum dat)um annuum e(t perpetuum non) | (accepi.) |

Αὐτεξούσιόν μοι ἀρχὴν καὶ ἀπόντι καὶ παρόντι | διδομένην (ὑ)πό. τε τοῦ δήμου καὶ τῆς συνκλήτου | Μ(άρκ)ωι (Μ)αρκέλλωι καὶ Λευκίωι 5Ἀρρουντίωι ὑπάτοις ǁ ο(ὐκ ἐδ)εξάμην. § Οὐ παρῃτησάμην ἐν τῆι μεγίστηι | (τοῦ) σ(είτ)ου σπάνει τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν τῆς ἀγορᾶς, ἣν οὕ|(τως ἐπετήδευ)σα, ὥστ᾿ ἐν ὀλίγαις ἡμέρα(ις το)ῦ παρόντος | φόβου καὶ κι(νδ)ύνου ταῖς ἐμαῖς δαπάναις τὸν δῆμον | ἐλευθερῶσα(ι). Ὑπατείαν τέ μοι τότε 10δι(δ)ομένην καὶ ǁ ἐ(ν)ιαύσιον κα(ὶ δ)ι(ὰ) βίου οὐκ ἐδεξάμην.

File:Bust of augustus.jpg

Such Unexpected Pain

Aeschylus Persians, 93-100

“What mortal person will escape
A god’s crooked deception?
Who steps with a light enough foot
To leap away through the air?
For destruction is at first friendly, even fawning
As it draws someone aside into a trap
From which it is impossible for any mortal to escape
Or even avoid.”

δολόμητιν δ᾿ ἀπάταν θεοῦ
τίς ἀνὴρ θνατὸς ἀλύξει;
τίς ὁ κραιπνῷ ποδὶ πηδή-
ματος εὐπετέος ἀνάσσων;
φιλόφρων γὰρ ποτισαίνουσα τὸ πρῶτον παράγει
βροτὸν εἰς ἀρκύστατ᾿ Ἄτα,
τόθεν οὐκ ἔστιν ὑπὲκ θνατὸν ἀλύξαντα φυγεῖν.


“Light does not shine on the poor no matter how strong they are
Nor do the masses honor undefended wealth.”

μήτ᾿ ἀχρημάτοισι λάμπειν φῶς, ὅσον σθένος πάρα,
μήτε χρημάτων ἀνάνδρων πλῆθος ἐν τιμῇ σέβειν


“I have been silent for a while, struck with pains
By these evils. The disaster runs over all bounds
of speaking or asking about its suffering.
Still, necessity forces mortals to endure the pains
The gods send us. Pull yourself together,
Tell us everything that happened…”

σιγῶ πάλαι δύστηνος ἐκπεπληγμένη
κακοῖς· ὑπερβάλλει γὰρ ἥδε συμφορά,
τὸ μήτε λέξαι μήτ᾿ ἐρωτῆσαι πάθη.
ὅμως δ᾿ ἀνάγκη πημονὰς βροτοῖς φέρειν
θεῶν διδόντων· πᾶν δ᾿ ἀναπτύξας πάθος
λέξον καταστάς, κεἰ στένεις κακοῖς ὅμως·


“This old life has seemed
to have run too long,
To witness such unexpected pain.”

ἦ μακροβίοτος ὅδε γέ τις αἰ-
ὼν ἐφάνθη γεραιοῖς, ἀκού-
ειν τόδε πῆμ᾿ ἄελπτον.


“Friends, whoever gains some practice in troubles
Understands that when a wave of troubles come
We mortals tend to fear everything.
But when a god makes things easy, you think
You’ll always sail under the same favorable wind.”

φίλοι, κακῶν μὲν ὅστις ἔμπειρος κυρεῖ,
ἐπίσταται βροτοῖσιν ὡς ὅταν κλύδων
κακῶν ἐπέλθῃ, πάντα δειμαίνειν φιλεῖ,
ὅταν δ᾿ ὁ δαίμων εὐροῇ, πεποιθέναι
τὸν αὐτὸν αἰὲν ἄνεμον οὐριεῖν τύχης.

Rock Relief of Xerxes

May You Count Yourself Lucky, Today

Sophocles, Trachinae 1-3

“People have an ancient famous proverb:
That you should not judge any mortal lives
You can’t see them as good or bad before someone dies

Λόγος μὲν ἔστ᾿ ἀρχαῖος ἀνθρώπων φανεὶς
ὡς οὐκ ἂν αἰῶν᾿ ἐκμάθοις βροτῶν, πρὶν ἂν
θάνῃ τις, οὔτ᾿ εἰ χρηστὸς οὔτ᾿ εἴ τῳ κακός·

Soph. Trach. 132-135

“For neither starry night
Nor the death spirits
Nor wealth remain for mortals,
But delight and loss disappear
And then each returns again.”

μένει γὰρ οὔτ᾿ αἰόλα
νὺξ βροτοῖσιν οὔτε κῆ-
ρες οὔτε πλοῦτος, ἀλλ᾿ ἄφαρ
βέβακε, τῷ δ᾿ ἐπέρχεται
χαίρειν τε καὶ στέρεσθαι.

Trachiniae 943-947

“whoever counts more than
Two days ahead in their life,
Is foolish. When it comes to living well
There’s no tomorrow before the present day is done.”

…ὥστ᾿ εἴ τις δύο
ἢ κἀπὶ πλείους ἡμέρας λογίζεται,
μάταιός ἐστιν· οὐ γὰρ ἔσθ᾿ ἥ γ᾿ αὔριον
πρὶν εὖ πάθῃ τις τὴν παροῦσαν ἡμέραν.


“No one can see what the future will be,
And our present is our pity
But their shame,
And hardest of all people
On the one who endures this ruin.”

τὰ μὲν οὖν μέλλοντ᾿ οὐδεὶς ἐφορᾷ,
τὰ δὲ νῦν ἑστῶτ᾿ οἰκτρὰ μὲν ἡμῖν,
αἰσχρὰ δ᾿ ἐκείνοις,
χαλεπώτατα δ᾿ οὖν ἀνδρῶν πάντων
τῷ τήνδ᾿ ἄτην ὑπέχοντι.


Herodotus, Histories 1.32

“I cannot answer what you ask me until I hear that you have ended your life well. Someone who is really rich is no more blessed than someone who has enough for just a day unless chance finds them keeping all the fine things and dying well. For many super wealthy people turnout unlucky and many of modest means fare well. The person who is really wealthy but unlucky is ahead of the merely lucky person in two ways but the lucky person has many advantages over the unlucky.

A wealthy person has the resources to do what they want and to hold out when disaster strikes. But a lucky person does not get disabled, sick, avoids suffering, has good children, and keeps looking good. If that person dies well in addition to these other things, well that’s the kind of person you’re looking for. Then someone is worthy of being called blessed.

But don’t call anyone blessed before they’re dead. Just lucky.”

ἐκεῖνο δὲ τὸ εἴρεό με, οὔκω σε ἐγὼ λέγω, πρὶν τελευτήσαντα καλῶς τὸν αἰῶνα πύθωμαι. οὐ γάρ τι ὁ μέγα πλούσιος μᾶλλον τοῦ ἐπ᾿ ἡμέρην ἔχοντος ὀλβιώτερος ἐστί, εἰ μή οἱ τύχη ἐπίσποιτο πάντα καλὰ ἔχοντα εὖ τελευτῆσαι τὸν βίον. πολλοὶ μὲν γὰρ ζάπλουτοι ἀνθρώπων ἀνόλβιοι εἰσί, πολλοὶ δὲ μετρίως ἔχοντες βίου εὐτυχέες. ὁ μὲν δὴ μέγα πλούσιος ἀνόλβιος δὲ δυοῖσι προέχει τοῦ εὐτυχέος μοῦνον, οὗτος δὲ τοῦ πλουσίου καὶ ἀνόλβου πολλοῖσι· ὃ μὲν ἐπιθυμίην ἐκτελέσαι καὶ ἄτην μεγάλην προσπεσοῦσαν ἐνεῖκαι δυνατώτερος, ὃ δὲ τοῖσιδε προέχει ἐκείνου· ἄτην μὲν καὶ ἐπιθυμίην οὐκ ὁμοίως δυνατὸς ἐκείνῳ ἐνεῖκαι, ταῦτα δὲ ἡ εὐτυχίη οἱ ἀπερύκει, ἄπηρος δὲ ἐστί, ἄνουσος, ἀπαθὴς κακῶν, εὔπαις, εὐειδής. εἰ δὲ πρὸς τούτοισι ἔτι τελευτήσει τὸν βίον εὖ, οὗτος ἐκεῖνος τὸν σὺ ζητέεις, ὁ ὄλβιος κεκλῆσθαι ἄξιος ἐστί· πρὶν δ᾿ ἂν τελευτήσῃ, ἐπισχεῖν, μηδὲ καλέειν κω ὄλβιον ἀλλ᾿ εὐτυχέα.

File:Solon before Croesus by Nicolaes Knüpfer, Getty Center.JPG
Solon before Croesus by Nicolaes Knüpfer