Socrates’s city of sows lacks roses & lilies contending beautifully

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates constructs with words a first city in which men cooperate without competing. Glaucon disparages this first city as a “city of sows {ὑῶν πόλις}.” The first city’s sows are like Odysseus’s men living a simple, carefree life in the house of Circe. That’s certainly more humane than epic violence against men. Yet competition among men doesn’t necessarily imply violence against men. Competition among men can be like roses and lilies contending in beautifying a holy altar at the community’s center.

Socrates’s first city evokes aspects of an annual ancient Greek festival called the Thesmophoria, but differs significantly from it. Both the first city and the Thesmophoria involve primitive sleeping conditions, eating of wheat and barley cakes, communal banqueting, and religious ritual. Most importantly, both the Thesmophoria and the first city are gender-exclusive. The Thesmophoria excluded men. The first city is constructed without any reference to women. The Thesmophoria could endure as a representation of the gynocentric order within Greek society as a whole. In contrast, the first city, lacking women, cannot reproduce and endure.[1]

Socrates constructs a “beautiful city {καλλίπολις}” that contains women and men, yet limits the harm to men from competition among men. War historically has been gender-structured as violence against men, But in Socrates’s beautiful city, the warrior class isn’t distinguished by gender. To realize that ideal in practice, arrangements would need to be made to ensure roughly equal representation of women and men among soldiers, as well as among soldiers dying in battle. Just as they could establish policies to produce lifespan gender equality, ruling philosophers, if so required, surely could figure out arrangements to produce substantive gender equality in military service.[2]

chariot race on poster for Ben Hur Broadway play

A more beautiful city than Socrates’s beautiful city would include women and men engaged in beautiful competition. Beautiful competition doesn’t promote violence against men or establish men’s sexual disadvantage relative to women. Such circumstances are difficult to imagine. In a poem addressed to two women, the sixth-century poet Venantius Fortunatus began with a conventional change of seasons:

The world is chained in winter’s ice,
light dies away from the flowerless field,
yet spring, when the Lord laid Tartarus low,
raises the grass heads, foliage now more than joyous.
Men decorate pulpits, doorposts with blossoms.
A woman fills her lap with fragrant roses.

{ Frigoris hiberni glacie constringitur orbis
totaque lux agri flore carente perit.
Tempore vernali, dominus quo Tartara vicit,
surgit aperta suis laetior herba comis.
Inde viri postes et pulpita floribus ornant,
hinc mulier roseo complet odore sinum. }[3]

Dante shockingly placed ice in the deepest pit of Hell’s inferno. Fortunatus here depicts the laughably wonderful resurrection of Jesus in Easter’s spring. Men’s work is directed outward to adorning raised, solid structures with blossoms. The woman’s action is directed toward herself. Fragrant roses have historically figured women’s vaginas. Fortunatus’s poem thus begins with a conventionally gendered depiction of change from winter to spring. In spring, multiple men seek to fill one woman’s lap.

mosaic of victorious red charioteer in ancient Rome

Fortunatus’s poem then changes extraordinarily. The change occurs with the action of the two women, Radegund and Agnes, whom Fortunatus addresses:

But you bring aromas not to yourselves but to Christ —
for the holy churches you give these buds.
You have dressed festive altars in colored wreaths,
painted them fresh with flowery threads.

{ At vos non vobis, sed Christo fertis odores,
has quoque primitias ad pia templa datis.
Texistis variis altaria festa coronis,
pingitur ut filis floribus ara novis. }

Radegund and Agnes didn’t establish a static harmony that couldn’t endure. They established beautiful competition. It was vigorous competition like that of men on blue and green chariot-racing teams in ancient Rome and Constantinople.[4] This different form of competition, however, was much less dangerous to men’s lives and was explicitly directed toward beauty and sensuous allure:

From crocuses a golden line goes forth, here a purple row
of violets, there scarlet glowing red meets milky white.
The Blues and Greens take their stands. Colors wage flowery war.
Imagine — in this place of peace, plants forming battle lines:
the lily pleasantly white, the rose with ruddy allure,
the lily teasingly fragrant, the rose prettier in pink,
flowers competing in varied beauty. Their colors are brighter
than any jewel, no incense more fragrant than they.

{ Aureus ordo crocis, violis hinc blatteus exit,
coccinus hinc rubricat, lacteus inde nivet.
Stat prasino venetus, pugnant et flore colores
inque loco pacis herbida bella putas.
Haec candore placet, rutilo micat illa decore;
suavius haec redolet, pulchrius illa rubet.
Sic specie varia florum sibi germina certant,
ut color hic gemmas, tura revincat odor. }[5]

This riot of beauty and fragrance doesn’t kill any men. It’s beautiful competition among flowers. Flowers have historically been gendered as female. Men’s beauty should be better appreciated. In a “true city {ἀληθινὴ πόλις}” and a “healthy one {ὑγιής τις},” men and women would both engage in beautiful competition.[6]

flower rows racing

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates verbally constructs for his students a city of sows and a beautiful city. The only adults in the city of sows are piggish men. The women and men in the beautiful city live politically dictated lives in which they are unable to see another person as individually beautiful. Venantius Fortunatus offers an alternative: beautiful competition in adorning communal altars. Building a city in that way happens through the actions of individual persons moving beyond violence against men.

Agnes, Radegund, this is what you built.
May your fragrances breathlessly mingle with eternity’s flowers.

{ Vos quoque quae struitis haec, Agnes cum Radegunde,
Floribus aeternis vester anhelet odor. }[7]

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[1] Plato’s Republic creates its first city in words from about section 369b to section 372e. Scholars variously call this first city the primitive city, the city of pigs, and the city of sows. Aristotle calls it the “first city” in discussion beginning at Aristotle, Politics IV.4.1291a11. “City of sows {ὑῶν πόλις}” is specifically Glaucon’s disparaging phrase. Glaucon’s disparaging phrase shouldn’t be used as an established name for the city, as in “City of Sows.” On parallels between the Thesmophoria and the first city, McCoy (2015) and Zander (2019).

Socrates’s account of the first city explicitly refers to men inhabitants, but never refers to women inhabitants. Scholars apparently have inferred heterosexual sexual intercourse from a reference to its inhabitants engaging in communal wine-drinking and singing of the gods “while living in harmony with each other, not producing children beyond their means {ἡδέως συνόντες cἀλλήλοις, οὐχ ὑπὲρ τὴν οὐσίαν ποιούμενοι τοὺς παῖδας}.” Republic 372b, ancient Greek text and English translation from Emlyn-Jones & Preddy (2013). The phrase ἡδέως συνόντες cἀλλήλοις can also be translated as “being together with one another with pleasure.” Sawatzky (2013) p. 16. In Plato’s Republic, συνεῖναι “always denotes a state of ongoing interactions, usually between companions.” Id. n. 53. Sawatzky interpreted Republic 372b to imply “citizens being in their festive homes with their children” and “ongoing interactions of all sorts between spouses – including, but not limited to, sexual relations.” Festive activities are more likely to be communal than activities of nuclear families within “festive homes.” Id. Imagining conjugal sexual intercourse is a tendentious interpretive stretch not warranted in the context of Socrates’s imaginary first city.

Immediately after Socrates’s descriptions of feasting in the first city, Glaucon exclaims, “You seem to make these men have their feast without relishes {Ἄνευ ὄψου, ἔφη, ὡς ἔοικας, ποιεῖς τοὺς ἄνδρας ἑστιωμένους}.” The word ἄνδρας, the accusative plural of ᾰ̓νήρ, is a term specifically for men. The first city is best interpreted as implying convivial conversational intercourse among men, and possibly also men having sex with men or boys.

The abrupt disappearance of the first city from Socrates’s discourse is consistent with the first city’s inability to reproduce itself. The presence of children, which might include girls, doesn’t imply the first city’s ability to reproduce itself. Children, even children of both sexes, cannot reproduce demographically a city whose only adults are men. The men of the city pass on a similar life to their children (Republic, 372d) in all but the most important aspect of demographic structure. Cf. Zimbelman (2018).

Some scholars have interpreted the first city as impossible in light of human nature, inconsistent with human nature, or unstable. E.g. Bloom (1991) pp. 367-8 (inconsistent with human nature), Barney (2002) (impossible), McKeen (2004) (unstable). Recent scholarship has tended to up-value the first city, but without any particular concern for men as a gender. Socrates is serious “when he dubs the city of pigs true and healthy.” Lara (2018) p. 1. Men surely have better health as pigs than as tools for slaughter in wars such as the Trojan War. The first city is unified. Rowe (2017). But that unity involves a cramped, bureaucratic sense of justice: “justice in each city depends upon each citizen doing her job and no more than her job.” Lara (2018) p. 1.

[2] Mating competition historically has generated relatively large mating inequality among men. In Socrates’s beautiful city, mating is centrally arranged eugenically. The mating planners could thus eliminate the sexual suffering disproportionately concentrated among involuntarily celibate men. Moreover, if nothing men could do would improve their mating opportunities, men would compete less aggressively for women. That would improve men’s welfare as a whole. Brown (2017) considers whether Plato’s Republic supports feminism, but fails to consider whether it supports meninism.

[3] Venantius Fortunatus, Carmina 8.7, vv. 1-6, Latin text from Roberts (2017), English translation (modified) from Pucci (2010) p. 82. Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition differing little from Roberts’s Latin edition. The subsequent three quotes above are similarly sourced from Carmina 8.7 and cover the whole poem seriatim.

[4] On chariot-racing competition between the Blues and Greens, Cameron (1976).

[5] Fortunatus’s Carmina 11.11 describes sensuous competition at a lavish feast in Radegund and Agnes’s Abbey of the Holy Cross:

Lucky guest, consider these glad delights
that fragrances furnish and taste proves:
burning red, a horde of flowers softly smiles;
in the lap of lavender, milky lilies fade to white,
a place freshly fragrant with rivalry’s smells.
Dinner is an insult to dewy buds made to play tablecloth —
why accost these lovely roses so?

{ Respice delicias, felix conviva, beatas,
quas prius ornat odor quam probet ipse sapor.
Molliter adridet rutilantum copia florum;
vix tot campus habet quot modo mensa rosas.
Albent purpureis ubi lactea lilia blattis
certatimque novo flagrat odore locus.
Insultant epulae, stillanti germine fultae.
Quod mantile solet, cur rosa pulchra tegit? }

Carmina 11.11, vv. 1-8, Latin text from Roberts (2017), English translation from Pucci (2010) p. 97. The Latin text and a mediocre English translation of this poem is freely available online at Epistolae, which treats it as prose.

[6] Transitioning from describing the first city to considering a feverish city, Socrates declares:

Now the true city is in my opinion the one we just described — a healthy one, as it were. But, if you want to, let’s look at a feverish city.

{ ἡ μὲν οὖν ἀληθινὴ πόλις δοκεῖ μοι εἶναι ἣν διεληλύθαμεν, ὥσπερ ὑγιής τις· εἰ δ’ αὖ βούλεσθε, καὶ φλεγμαίνουσαν πόλιν θεωρήσωμεν· }

Plato, Republic 372e, ancient Greek text from Emlyn-Jones & Preddy (2013), English translation (modified slightly) from Bloom (1991). The above analysis thus explicitly disagrees with Socrates. Desire for excess, “pleonexia {πλεονεξία},” is neither inevitable nor necessarily unhealthful. Too much beauty is impossible. Beautiful competition creates a good fever.

[7] In his Carmina 8.8, Fortunatus gave Radegund a gift of flowers and associated flowers with “paradise {paradisus}.” Calling her back from her Lenten retreat, he declared to her:

Accept the gift I send you of many-colored flowers.
To these instead a blessed life calls you.

{ Suscipe missa tibi variorum munera florum,
ad quos te potius vita beata vocat. }

Carmina 8.8, incipit “O powerful queen, who hold gold and purple to be base {O regina potens, aurum cui et purpura vile est},” vv. 7-8, Latin text from Roberts (2017), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Pucci (2010) p. 83. The Latin text and an English translation of this poem are freely available online at Epistolae.

[image] (1) Chariot race with red and white charioteers on poster advertising the Broadway premiere of Ben Hur at the Manhattan Theatre, New York, NY, c. 1899. William Young adapted this play from Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Mosaic of victorious charioteer of the “red faction {factio russata}.” This mosaic was made in Rome in the second half of the third century or early in the fourth century. Preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid. Source image thanks to Carole Raddato, who shared it on flickr under under a CC BY SA 2.0 license. On mosaics of victorious charioteers, Dunbabin (1982). This mosaic is 17a / Fig. 11 in id., briefly discussed at id. p. 73. (3) Rows of flowers racing across Lompoc flower fields in La Salle, California, on May 30, 2015. Source image thanks to Harold Litwiler, who released this photo under a CC By 2.0 license.


Barney, Rachel. 2002. “Platonism, Moral Nostalgia, and the ‘City of Pigs.’Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium of Ancient Philosophy. 17 (1): 207–27.

Bloom, Allan, trans. with interpretative essay. 1991. The Republic of Plato. 2nd edition (1st edition , 1968). Basic Books.

Brown, Eric. 2017. “Plato’s Ethics and Politics in The Republic.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Cameron, Alan. 1976. Circus Factions: Blues and Greens at Rome and Byzantium. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. 1982. “Victorious Charioteer on Mosaics and Related Monuments.” American Journal of Archaeology. 86 (1): 65-89.

Emlyn-Jones, Christopher, and William Preddy, ed. and trans. 2013. Plato. Republic. Volume I: Books 1-5. Loeb Classical Library 237. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lara, Joel de. 2018. “Rehabilitating the ‘City of Pigs’: The Dialectics of Plato’s Account of his Beautiful Cities.” Journal of Ancient Philosophy. 12 (2): 1-22.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

McCoy, Marina. 2015. “The City of Sows and Sexual Differentiation in the Republic.” Ch. 9 (pp. 149-160) in Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas, eds. Plato’s Animals: Gadflies, Horses, Swans and Other Philosophical Beasts. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press. Review by Deborah Achtenberg.

McKeen, Catherine, 2004. “Swillsburg City Limits (The ‘City of Pigs’: Republic 370c-372d).” Polis. 21 (1-2): 70–92.

Pucci, Michael, trans. 2010. Poems to Friends: Venantius Fortunatus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Rowe, Christopher. 2017. “The City of Pigs: a Key Passage in Plato’s Republic.” Philosophie Antique. 17: 55-71.

Sawatzky, Nathan. 2013. “Socrates’ Proto-Liberal Feminism: Toward a Rereading of the Republic with a View to Necessity.” Online.

Zander, Shannon E. 2019. In Defense of Socrates’ City of Sows (370b7-372d3): the pedagogical role of prefiguration in the Republic. Honors Thesis. Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington, USA).

Zimbelman, Jacob. 2018. “Socrates’ Satisfied Pigs.” Global Tides. 12 (2): 1-8.

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