Aesop's Fable of the Lion and the Three Bulls

Politics on the Savannah

Lions attacking bull, bronze statue, from Temple of Athena, Vouni,
Lions attacking bull, bronze statue, from Temple of Athena, Vouni,. Credit: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Three bulls happily grazed in a field together in peace and amity. A lion on the hunt had long watched them in the hopes of making them his dinner, but the King of the Jungle knew that there was little chance for him so long as they all grazed together: Every time he approached, three pairs of horns warned convincingly against his attack. He therefore began secretly to spread evil and slanderous reports of one against the other.

The bulls became jealous and mistrustful of one another, and their pleasant mealtimes were upended. Before long, the bulls began to graze in separate fields, disgusted at the sight of one another. The lion, seeing how well his plans had come to fruition, attacked each bull one by one, easily dispatching them singly. Thus the quarrels of friends become opportunities of foes.

Interpretations and History

"United we stand, divided we fall" is the moral often appended to the Greek slave Aesop's story of the Lion and the Three Bulls. Aesop visited this well more indirectly in the fable of The Bundle of Sticks. It has become a byword for any number of political movements, often shortened to "United We Stand." The popularity of this phrase is in part due to its echo in the Bible, in Mark 3:25 ("And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand,") in Matthew 12:25 ("And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand,") and Luke 11:17 ("But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth.").

The phrase is particularly popular in America, where the federation of sovereign states has ready applicability. Patrick Henry uttered the phrase in his final public speech, given in March 1799, in which he condemned the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Outside of America, the phrase was popular in India around the time of independence from Britain.

Conversely, it has been invoked by the Ulster unionists of Northern Ireland to advocate membership in the United Kingdom.