"Help your friends, harm your enemies."

I have heard this was a motto of Roman life and foreign policy. It is the definition of justice that begins the discussion in Plato's Republic. I believe that the inscription on Cato's tomb was something like, "No man did more to help his friends or harm his enemies." But I can't find the exact phrase anywhere. I am a political scientist and I would like to reference the maxim but I can't find a direct quotation of it anywhere. Does anyone know of one? Also, how would the English phrase be translated into Latin properly?

2 Answers 2


The exact phrase did not survive antiquity. The phrase as it stands comes from Plutarch's Life of Sulla 38.4, which was written in Greek, not Latin. You are right that it was an epitaph, but it was about Sulla, not Cato. Moreover, Plutarch doesn't even give an exact translation, but rather the "gist" of it:

οὔτε τῶν φίλων τις αὐτὸν εὖ ποιῶν οὔτε τῶν ἐχθρῶν κακῶς ὑπερεβάλετο.

It's different from Polemarchus' definition of justice, though. The above is translated (not so literally by Perrin):

No friend ever surpassed him in kindness, and no enemy in mischief.

  • So there is no record of a saying like "help your friends, harm your enemies"? Polemarchus says something like "give good to friends and evil to enemies" and I have always heard that this was the common sense notion of justice in the Classical world. There is nothing in Latin with the same sense? Jul 7, 2017 at 19:40
  • @user3426752 The phrase exists in different forms, but if you're citing one thing in particular, the above is where you can cite the epitaph in question. brianpck has given you one example of a similarly worded saying.
    – cmw
    Jul 7, 2017 at 19:51


The Greek phrase is most famously preserved in the Republic, book 1, 332δ. In the quote, Polemarchus summarizes his interpretation of Simonides's definition of justice:

ἡ οὖν δὴ τίσιν τί ἀποδιδοῦσα τέχνη δικαιοσύνη ἂν καλοῖτο;

εἰ μέν τι, ἔφη, δεῖ ἀκολουθεῖν, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῖς ἔμπροσθεν εἰρημένοις, ἡ τοῖς φίλοις τε καὶ ἐχθροῖς ὠφελίας τε καὶ βλάβας ἀποδιδοῦσα.

τὸ τοὺς φίλους ἄρα εὖ ποιεῖν καὶ τοὺς ἐχθροὺς κακῶς δικαιοσύνην λέγει;

δοκεῖ μοι.

My literal translation:

Socates: [Given the above], the art that renders what thing to whom should be called justice?

Polemarchus: If we must keep with what has been said previously, Socrates, it is the art that renders help and harm to friends and foes [respectively].

Socrates: So [Simonides] says that justice is doing well to friends and ill to enemies?

Polemarchus: So it seems.

A very similar thought is expressed in Xenophon's Memorabilia 2.6.35:

...ἔγνωκας ἀνδρὸς ἀρετὴν εἶναι νικᾶν τοὺς μὲν φίλους εὖ ποιοῦντα, τοὺς δ᾽ ἐχθροὺς κακῶς....


A parallel Latin thought can be found in Plautus, Captivi, IV.1:

nam vél prodesse amico possum vel inimicum perdere,
ita híc me amoenitate amoena amoenus oneravit dies.


For now I can either benefit a friend or destroy an enemy,
for so has this wonderful day wonderfully heaped wonderful things on me.

Obviously, Plautus is not a philosophical authority, and this seems more like gloating than moralizing. I will update if I find more examples, but strangely enough it doesn't seem to have an explicit formulation in Latin literature.

Other Sources

Obviously, the primary source of this idea is from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explicitly goes against this idea:

Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου καὶ μισήσεις τὸν ἐχθρόν σου. (Mt 5:43)

The Vulgate has:

audistis quia dictum est diliges proximum tuum et odio habebis inimicum tuum.

It's a subject of contention where this previous idea comes from. The Old Testament speaks of "loving one's neighbor" but not of "hating one's enemy." A few sources (such as this one) attribute it to Qumran Community Rule discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls. What is clear, though, is that this was not an explicitly formulated rule bandied about by Romans.

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