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Cornelius Nepos: Lives of Eminent Commanders (1886)

pp. 305-450.

Translated by the Rev. John Selby Watson, MA


1. Miltiades.

2. Themistocles.

3. Aristides.

4. Pausanias.

5. Cimon.

6. Lysander.

7. Alcibiades.

8. Thrasybulus.

9. Conon.

10. Dion.

11. Iphicrates.

12. Chabrias.

13. Timotheus.

14. Datames.

15. Epaminondas.

16. Pelopidas.

17. Agesilaus.

18. Eumenes.

19. Phocion.

20. Timoleon.

21. Of Kings.

22. Hamilcar.

23. Hannibal.

24. Marcus Porcius Cato.  From the second book of Cornelius Nepos.

25. Titus Pomponius Atticus.






Remarks on the manners of the Greeks, I.----Youth and manhood of Epaminondas, II.----Excellencies of his character, III.----An instance of his freedom from covetousness, IV.----His ability in speaking, V.----An instance of his power of persuasion; the battle of Leuctra, VI.----His patriotism; his care for the army and its success, VII.----Is brought to trial for retaining his command longer than the law allowed; his defence and acquittal, VIII.----His death at Mantinea, IX.----His apology for not marrying; his horror of civil bloodshed; the glory of Thebes, X.

I. EPAMINONDAS was the son of Polymnis, and was born at Thebes. Before we proceed to write of him, the following caution seems necessary to be given to our readers; that they |376 should not confound the customs of other nations with their own, or think that those things which appear unimportant to themselves must be equally so to others. We know that skill in music, according to our habits, is foreign to the character of any eminent personage; and that to dance is accounted disparaging to the character; 143 while all such accomplishments among the Greeks are regarded both as pleasing and as worthy of admiration.

But as we wish to draw a correct picture of the habits and life of Epaminondas, we seem called upon to omit nothing that may tend to illustrate it. We shall therefore speak in the first place of his birth; we shall then show in what accomplishments, and by whom, he was instructed; next we shall touch upon his manners and intellectual endowments, and whatever other points in his character may deserve notice; and lastly on his great actions, which are more regarded by many than all the best qualities of the mind.144

II. He was the son, then, of the father whom we named, and was of an honourable family, though left poor by his ancestors; but he was so well educated that no Theban was more so; for he was taught to play upon the harp, and to sing to the sound of its strings, by Dionysius, who was held in no less honour among musicians than Damon or Lamprus,145 whose names are well known; to play on the flutes 146 by Olympiodorus; and to dance by Calliphron. For his instructor in philosophy he had Lysis 147 of Tarentum, a Pythagorean, to whom he was so devoted that, young as he was, he preferred |377 the society of a grave and austere old man 148 before that of all those of his own age; nor did he part with him until he so far excelled his fellow students in learning, that it might easily be perceived he would in like manner excel them all in other pursuits. These acquirements, according to our habits, are trifling, and rather to be despised; 149 but in Greece, at least in former times, they were a great subject for praise. After he grew up, and began to apply himself to gymnastic exercises, he studied not so much to increase the strength, as the agility, of his body; for he thought that strength suited the purposes of wrestlers, but that agility conduced to excellence in war. He used to exercise himself very much, therefore, in running and wrestling, as long as 150 he could grapple, and contend standing, with his adversary. But he spent most of his labour on martial exercises.

III. To the strength of body thus acquired were added many good qualities of the mind; for he was modest, prudent, grave, wisely availing himself of opportunities, skilled in war, brave in action, and possessed of remarkable courage; he was so great a lover of truth, that he would not tell a falsehood even in jest; he was also master of his passions, gentle in disposition, and patient to a wonderful degree, submitting to wrong, not only from the people, but from his own friends; he was a remarkable keeper of secrets, a quality which is sometimes not less serviceable than to speak eloquently; and he was an attentive listener to others, because he thought that by this means knowledge was most easily acquired. Whenever he came into a company, therefore, in which a discussion was going on concerning government, or a conversation was being held on any point of philosophy, he never went away till the discourse was brought to its conclusion. He bore poverty so easily, that he received nothing from the state but glory. He did not avail himself of the means of his friends to maintain himself; but he often used his credit to relieve others, to such a degree that |378 it might be thought all things were in common between him and his friends; for when any one of his countrymen had been taken by the enemy, or when the marriageable daughter of a friend could not be married for want of fortune, he used to call a council of his friends, and to prescribe how much each should give according to his means; and when he had made up the sum required, he brought the man who wanted it to those who contributed, and made them pay it to the person himself, in order that he, into whose hands the sum passed, might know to whom he was indebted, and how much to each. 

IV. His indifference to money was put to the proof by Diomedon of Cyzicus; for he, at the request of Artaxerxes, had undertaken to bribe Epaminondas. He accordingly came to Thebes with a large sum in gold, and, by a present of five talents, brought over Micythus, a young man for whom Epaminondas had then a great affection, to further his views. Micythus went to Epaminondas, and told him the cause of Diomedon's coming. But Epaminondas, in the presence of Diomedon, said to him, "There is no need of money in the matter; for if what the king desires is for the good of the Thebans, I am ready to do it for nothing; but if otherwise, he has not gold and silver enough to move me, for I would not accept the riches of the whole world in exchange for my love for my country. At you, who have made trial of me without knowing my character, and have thought me like yourself, I do not wonder; and I forgive you: but quit the city at once, lest you should corrupt others though you have been unable to corrupt me. You, Mycithus, give Diomedon his money back; or, unless you do so immediately, I shall give you up to the magistrates." Diomedon entreating that he might be allowed to depart in safety, and carry away with him what he had brought, "That," he replied, "I will grant you, and not for your sake, but for my own, lest any one, if your money should be taken from you, should say that what I would not receive when offered me, had come into my possession after being taken out of yours." Epaminondas then asking Diomedon "whither he wished to be conducted," and Diomedon having answered, "To Athens," he gave him a guard in order that he might reach that city in safety. Nor did he, indeed, think that precaution sufficient, but also arranged, with the aid of Chabrias the Athenian, of whom we have spoken above, that |379 he should embark without molestation. Of his freedom from covetousness this will be a sufficient proof. We might indeed produce a great number; but brevity must be studied, as we have resolved to comprise, in this single volume, the lives of several eminent men, whose biographies many writers before us have related at great length.151

V. He was also an able speaker, so that no Theban was a match for him in eloquence; nor was his language less pointed in brief replies than elegant in a continued speech. He had for a traducer, and opponent in managing the government, a certain Meneclidas, also a native of Thebes,152 a man well skilled in speaking, at least for a Theban, for in that people is found more vigour of body than of mind. He, seeing that Epaminondas was distinguished in military affairs, used to advise the Thebans to prefer peace to war, in order that his services as a general might not be required. Epaminondas in consequence said to him, "You deceive your countrymen with words, in dissuading them from war, since under the name of peace you are bringing upon them slavery; for peace is procured by war, and they, accordingly, who would enjoy it long, ought to be trained to war. If therefore, my countrymen, you wish to be leaders of Greece, you must devote yourselves to the camp, not to the palaestra."153 When this Meneclidas also upbraided him with having no children, and with not having taken a wife, and, above all, with presumption in thinking that he had acquired the glory of Agamemnon in war, "Forbear," he rejoined, "Meneclidas, to reproach me with regard to a wife, for I would take nobody's advice on that subject less willingly than yours;" (for Meneclidas lay under a suspicion of making too free with other men's wives;) "and as to supposing that I am emulous of Agamemnon, you are mistaken; for he, with the support of all Greece, hardly took one city in ten years; I, on the contrary with the force of this |380 one city of ours, and in one day, delivered all Greece by defeating the Lacedaemonians."

VI. When Epaminondas went to the public assembly of the Arcadians, to request them to join in alliance with the Thebans and Argives, and Callistratus, the ambassador from the Athenians, who excelled all men of that day in eloquence, begged of them, on the other hand, rather to unite in alliance with Athens, and uttered many invectives against the Thebans and Argives, and among them made this remark, "that the Arcadians ought to observe what sort of citizens each city had produced, from whom they might form a judgment of the rest; for that Orestes and Alcmaeon, murderers of their mothers, were Argives, and that Oedipus, who, when he had killed his father, had children by his mother, was born at Thebes." Upon this,154 Epaminondas, in his reply, when he had done speaking as to other points, and had come to those two grounds of reproach, said that "he wondered at the simplicity of the Athenian rhetorician, who did not consider that those persons, to whom he had alluded, were born innocent, and that, after having been guilty of crimes at home, and having in consequence been banished from their country, they had been received by the Athenians." 155

But his eloquence shone most at Sparta (when he was ambassador before the battle of Leuctra), 156 where, when the ambassadors from all the allies had met, Epaminondas, in a full assembly of the embassies, so clearly exposed the tyranny of the Lacedaemonians, that he shook their power by that speech not less than by the battle of Leuctra; for he was at that |381 time the cause (as it afterwards appeared) that they were deprived of the support of their allies.

VII. That he was of a patient disposition, and ready to endure wrongs from his countrymen, because he thought it species of impiety to show resentment towards his country, there are the following proofs. When the Thebans, from some feeling of displeasure towards him, refused to place him at the head of the army,157 and a leader was chosen that was ignorant of war, by whose mismanagement that great multitude of soldiers was brought to such a condition that all were alarmed for their safety, as they were confined within a narrow space and blocked up by the enemy, the energy of Epaminondas began to be in request (for he was there as a private 158 among the soldiers), and when they desired aid from him, he showed no recollection of the affront that had been put upon him, but brought the army, after releasing it from the blockade, safely home. Nor did he act in this manner once only, but often; 159 but the most remarkable instance was, when he had led an army into the Peloponnesus against the Lacedaemonians, and had two joined in command with him, of whom one was Pelopidas, a man of valour and activity;----on this occasion, when, through the accusations of their enemies, they had all fallen under the displeasure of their countrymen, and their commission was in consequence taken from them, and other commanders came to take their place, Epaminondas did not obey the order of the people, and persuaded his colleagues to follow his example, continuing to prosecute the war which he had undertaken, for he saw that, unless he did so, the whole army would be lost through the incautiousness and ignorance of its leaders. But there was a law at Thebes, which punished any one with death who retained his command longer than was legally appointed. Epaminondas, however, as he saw that this law had been made for the purpose of preserving the state, was unwilling to |382 make it contribute to its ruin, and continued to exercise his command four months longer than the people had prescribed. 

VIII. When they returned home, his colleagues 160 were impeached for this offence, and he gave them leave to lay all the blame upon him, and to maintain that it was through his means that they did not obey the law. They being freed from danger by this defence, nobody thought that Epaminondas would make any reply, because, as was supposed, he would have nothing to say. But he stood forward on the trial, denied nothing of what his adversaries laid to his charge, and admitted the truth of all that his colleagues had stated; nor did he refuse to submit to the penalty of the law; but he requested of his countrymen one favour, namely, that they would inscribe in their judicial record of the sentence passed upon him, 161 "Epaminondas was punished by the Thebans with death, because he obliged them to overthrow the Lacedaemonians at Leuctra, whom, before he was general, none of the Boeotians durst look upon in the field, and because he not only, by one battle, rescued Thebes from destruction, but also secured liberty for all Greece, and brought the power of both people to such a condition, that the Thebans attacked Sparta, and the Lacedaemonians were content if they could save their lives; nor did he cease to prosecute the war, till, after settling Messene,162 he shut up Sparta with a close siege." When he had said this, there burst forth a laugh from all present, with much merriment, and no one of the judges ventured to pass sentence |383 upon him. Thus he came off from this trial for life with the greatest glory.

IX. When, towards the close of his career, he was commander at Mantinea, and, pressing very boldly upon the enemy with his army in full array, was recognized by the Lacedaemonians, they directed their efforts in a body against him alone, because they thought the salvation of their country depended upon his destruction, nor did they fall back, until, after shedding much blood, and killing many of the enemy, they saw Epaminondas himself, while fighting most valiantly, fall wounded with a spear hurled from a distance. By his fall the Boeotians were somewhat disheartened; yet they did not quit the field till they had put to flight those opposed to them. As for Epaminondas himself, when he found that he had received a mortal wound, and also that if he drew out the iron head of the dart, which had stuck in his body, he would instantly die, he kept it in until it was told him that "the Boeotians were victorious." When he heard these words, he said "I have lived long enough; for I die unconquered." The iron head being then extracted, he immediately died.

X. He was never married; and when he was blamed on this account (as he would leave no children 163) by Pelopidas, who had a son of bad character, and who said that he, in this respect, but ill consulted the interest of his country, "Beware," he replied, "lest you should consult it worse, in being about to leave behind you a son of such a reputation. But neither can I," he added, "want issue; for I leave behind me a daughter, the battle of Leuctra, that must of necessity not only survive me, but must be immortal."

At the time when the Theban exiles, under the leadership of Pelopidas, possessed themselves of Thebes, and expelled the garrison of the Lacedaemonians from the citadel, Epaminondas, as long as the slaughter of the citizens continued, confined himself to his own house, for he would neither defend the unworthy, nor attack them, that he might not stain his hands with the blood of his own countrymen. But when the |384 struggle began at the Cadmea 164 with the Lacedaemonians, he took his stand among the foremost.

Of his merits and his life enough will have been said, if I add but this one remark, of which none can deny the truth; that Thebes, as well before Epaminondas was born, as after his death, was always subject to some foreign power, 165 but that, as long as he held the reigns of government, it was the head of all Greece. Hence it may be understood, that one man was of more efficacy than the whole people.


Phoebidas seizes on the citadel of Thebes; Pelopidas banished, I.----Pelopidas, with twelve followers, effects a return to Thebes, II.----He delivers his country from the Lacedaemonians, expelling their garrison, III.----His acts in conjunction with Epaminondas, IV.----His contest with Alexander of Pherae; his death, V.

I. PELOPIDAS, of Thebes, is better known to those acquainted with history than to the multitude. As to his merits, I am in doubt how I shall speak of them; for I fear that, if I begin to give a full account of his actions, I may seem, not to be relating his life, but to be writing a history, or that, if I touch only on his principal exploits, it may not clearly appear to those ignorant of Grecian literature how great a man he was, I will therefore, as far as I can, meet both difficulties, and provide against the satiety, as well as for the imperfect knowledge, of my readers.

Phoebidas, the Lacedaemonian, when he was leading an army to Olynthus,166 and marching through the territory of Thebes,167 possessed himself (at the instigation of a few of the Thebans, |385 who, the better to withstand the opposite faction, favoured the interest of the Lacedaemonians,) of the citadel of Thebes, which is called the Cadmea,168 and this he did of his own private determination, not from any public resolution of his countrymen. For this act the Lacedaemonians removed him from his command of the army, and fined him a sum of money, but did not show the more inclination, on that account, to restore the citadel to the Thebans, because, as enmity had arisen between them, they thought it better that they should be under a check than left at liberty; for, after the Peloponnesian war was ended, and Athens subdued, they supposed that the contest must be between them and the Thebans, and that they were the only people who would venture to make head against them. With this belief they committed the chief posts to their own friends, while they partly put to death, and partly banished, the leading men of the opposite party; and amongst them Pelopidas, of whom we have begun to write, was expelled from his country.

II. Almost all these exiles had betaken themselves to Athens, not that they might live in idleness, but that, whatever opportunity chance should first offer, they might avail themselves of it to regain their country.169 As soon, therefore, as it seemed time for action, they, in concert with those who held similar views at Thebes, fixed on a day for cutting off their enemies and delivering their country, and made choice of that very day on which the chief magistrates were accustomed to meet at a banquet together. Great exploits have been often achieved with no very numerous forces, but assuredly never before was so great a power overthrown from so small a beginning. For, out of those who had been banished, twelve young men (there not being in all more than a hundred who were willing to encounter so great a danger,) agreed to attempt the enterprise; and by this small number the power of the Lacedaemonians was overcome; for these youths made war on that occasion, not more upon the faction of their adversaries than upon the Spartans, who were lords of Greece, and whose |386 imperious domination, shaken by this commencement, was humbled not long after in the battle of Leuctra.

These twelve, then, whose leader was Pelopidas, quitting Athens in the day-time, with a view to reach Thebes when the sky was obscured by evening, set out with hunting dogs, carrying nets in their hands, and in the dress of countrymen, in order that they might accomplish their journey with less suspicion. Having arrived at the very time that they had desired, they proceeded to the house of Charon, by whom the hour and day 170 had been fixed.

III. Here I would observe in passing, although the remark be unconnected with the subject before us,171 how great mischief excessive confidence is wont to produce; for it soon came to the ears of the Theban magistrates that some of the exiles had entered the city, but this intelligence, being intent upon their wine and luxuries, they so utterly disregarded, that they did not take the trouble even to inquire about so important a matter. Another circumstance was added, too, which may show their folly in a more remarkable light. A letter was brought from Athens by Archias the hierophant,172 to Archias, who then held the chief post at Thebes, in which a full account had been written concerning the expedition of the exiles. This letter being delivered to Archias as he was reclining at the banquet, he, thrusting it under the bolster, sealed as it was, said, "I put off serious matters till to-morrow." But those revellers, when the night was far advanced, and they were overcome with wine, were all put to death by the exiles under the command of Pelopidas. Their object being thus effected, and the common people being summoned to take arms and secure their liberty, not only those who were in the city, but also others from all parts out of the country, flocked together to join them; they then expelled the garrison of the Lacedaemonians from the citadel, and delivered their country from thraldom. The |387 promoters of the seizure of the Cadmea they partly put to death, and partly sent into exile.

IV. During this period of turbulence, Epaminondas, as we have already observed, remained quiet, so long as the struggle was between fellow-citizens, in his own house. The glory of delivering Thebes, therefore, belongs wholly to Pelopidas; almost all his other honours were gained in conjunction with, Epaminondas. In the battle of Leuctra, where Epaminondas was commander-in-chief, Pelopidas was leader of a select body of troops, which were the first to bear down the phalanx of the Spartans. He was present with him, too, in all his dangers. When he attacked Sparta, he commanded one wing of the army; and, in order that Messene might be sooner restored,173 he went ambassador to Persia. He was, indeed, the second of the two great personages at Thebes, but second only in such a way that he approached very near to Epaminondas.

V. Yet he had to struggle with adverse fortune. He lived in exile, as we have shown, in the early part of his life; and, when he sought to bring Thessaly under the power of the Thebans, and thought that he was sufficiently protected by the law of embassies, which used to be held sacred by all nations, he was seized, together with Ismenias, by Alexander, tyrant of Pherae, and thrown into prison. Epaminondas, making war upon Alexander, restored him to liberty. But after this occurrence, he could never be reconciled in feeling to him by whom he had been unjustly treated. He therefore persuaded the Thebans to go to the relief of Thessaly, and to expel its tyrants. The chief command in the expedition being given to him, and he having gone thither with an army, he did not hesitate to come to a battle the moment he saw the enemy. In the encounter, as soon as he perceived Alexander, he spurred on his horse, in a fever of rage, to attack him, and, separating too far from his men, was killed by a shower of darts. This happened when victory was in his favour, for the troops of the tyrant had already given way. Such being the event, all the cities of Thessaly honoured Pelopidas, after his death, with golden crowns and brazen statues, and presented his children with a large portion of land. |388 

143.  *. In vitiis poni.] "Is accounted among disparagements, disgraces, or vices."

144. † A plurimis omnium anteponuntur virtutibus.] "Are by many preferred to the best qualities of all." Many would rather hear of the actions than of the virtues of eminent men.

145. ‡ Damon was an Athenian, mentioned by Plutarch de Musicâ, Plato, de Rep., lib. iv., and Athenaeus, xiv. 11. Lamprus is also noticed by Plutarch in the same treatise, by Plato in his Menexenus, and by Athenœus, i. 16, ii. 2. Damon is said to have taught Pericles, and Lamprus Sophocles.

146. § Tibiis.] See the note on this word in the preface.

147.  || See Cic. de Orat. iii. 34; Off. i. 4; Diod. Sic. lib. vi. in Exc. Peiresc. p. 247; Pausanias, ix. 13; Aelian, V. H. iii. 17; Porphyr. Vit. Pythag. extr.; Jamblich. Vit. Pythag. c. 35. ... A letter of his to a certain Hipparchus is among the Epistles of the Greeks published by Aldus, and also among the fragments of the Pythagoreans added by Casaubon to Diogenes Laertius.----Bos.

148.  * Tristem et severum senem in familiaritate antepossuerit.] "He preferred a grave and austere old man in familiarity," i. e. as an associate.

149. † Levia et potius contemnenda.] The study of philosophy, at least in the time of Nepos, was not numbered by the Romans among despicable pursuits.

150. ‡ Ad eum finem quoad, &c.] Ad eum finem, as Bos observes, is the same as usque eo.

151.  * Multis millibus versuum.] "In many thousands of verses." Versus was used by the Roman as well for a line in prose as for a line in poetry.

152. † Indidem Thebis.] That is, "from the same place, Thebes."

153. ‡ Castris est vobis utendum, non palaestra.] That is, you must give your serious attention to the one more than to the other. You may in the palaestra inure yourselves to exercise; but you must remember that your thoughts are to be directed beyond the palaestra to the camp.

154. * Hîc.] Some read huic, "to him."

155. † The argument of Epaminondas, in these observations, is this, referring properly only to Orestes and Oedipus: that they were born, it must be granted, the one at Argos, and the other at Thebes, but that, as they were born innocent, neither of those cities can be blamed merely for having been their birth-place; after they were polluted with crimes, however, and were in consequence expelled from their native cities, they were received by the Athenians, who, by sheltering them, might be considered to have become partakers in their guilt.

156. ‡ Legati ante pugnam Leuctricam.] These words are rejected by Longolius, Magius, Lambinus, and Schottus, as a gloss that has intruded itself from the margin into the text. But as they are found in the best copies, Bos, who cannot but suspect them, is content with including them in brackets.

157.  * This was the army that was sent into Thessaly to rescue Pelopidas from Alexander of Pherae. See Diod. Sic. xv. 71, 72.

158. † He had been accused of treachery, and the people in consequence had taken from him his Boiwtarxi/a, and reduced him to a private station. Diod. Sic. ibid.

159. ‡ Saepius.] Nepos mentions, however, only two occasions; and no more are discoverable from other authors.

160.  * Collegae ejus.] His colleagues and himself.

161. † In periculo suo.] The word periculum, in this passage, greatly perplexed the old commentators; no one could find any satisfactory sense for it; and various conjectures were offered as to a substitute for it. At last Gebhard suggested that the passage might be interpreted "Epaminondam petiisse, ut in actis illis, in quibus suum periculum ad memoriam notetur, talia inscriberent," so that periculum, in his opinion, would be the same as "adnotatio sive commemoratio periculi illius in tabulis publicis," the record of his periculum in the public registers. Schoppius, Verisim. iv. 18, went farther, and said that periculum signified "libellum sive annalem publicum." This interpretation was adopted by Bos and Fischer, and subsequently by Bremi and others, and is approved by Gesner in his Thesaurus sub voce. Tzschucke interprets it elogium damnationis, or scripta judicii sententia.

162. ‡ Messene constituta.] He settled or built (e!ktise) Messene, and brought many colonists to it, says Diod. Sic. xv. 66. See Pausan. ix. 14, atque alibi.

163.  * Quod liberos non relinqueret.] These words, in most editions, are placed lower down, after consulere diceret, where Lambinus was the first to put them. Bos suspects that they may be altogether spurious.

164.  * Apud Cadmaeam.] The citadel of Thebes, said to have been founded by Cadmus.

165.  † Aliena paruisse imperio.] By these words it is not signified that Thebes was actually subject to any other power, but that it always held a secondary place.

166.  ‡ Phoebidas was sent to assist Amyntas, king of Macedonia, who was going to besiege Olynthus with the aid of his allies the Lacedaemonians, because its inhabitants had refused to make satisfaction to him. See Diod. Sic. xv. 19.----Fischer.

167.  § Per Thebas.] This is evidently the sense.

168.  * See Epaminondas, c. 10.

169.  † Ut quemque ex proximo locum fors obtulisset, eo patriam recuperare niterentur.] "Opportunity" seems to be the sense of locus in this passage, as in Hamilc. c. 1, locus nocendi. Quemque is for quemcumquei as Van Staveren remarks.

170.  * Tempus et dies.] Charon had not only settled the day, but the time of the day.----Bos.

171.  † Sejunctum ab re positâ.] By res, "the subject," we must understand the life of Pelopidas. Yet no apology was necessary for introducing the remark, as it is extremely applicable to the enterprise which Nepos is relating.

172.  ‡ Hierophante.] A hierophantes was one who understood and could interpret religious mysteries. Archias was high-priest of the Eleusinian rites of Ceres.

173.  * See Epaminondas, c. 8.

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