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An old man had a set of quarrelsome sons, always fighting with one another. On the point of death, summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks wrapped together. To his eldest son, he commanded, "Break it." The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the bundle. Each son in turn tried, but none of them was successful. "Untie the bundle," said the father, "and each of you take a stick." When they had done so, he called out to them: "Now, break," and each stick was easily broken. "You see my meaning," said their father. "Individually, you can easily be conquered, but together, you are invincible. Union gives strength."
History of the Fable
Aesop, if he existed, was a slave in the seventh century Greece. According to Aristotle, he was born in Thrace. His fable of the Bundle of Sticks, also known as the Old Man and His Sons, was well known in Greece. It spread to Central Asia as well, where it was attributed to the Genghis Khan. Ecclesiastes picked up the moral in his proverbs, 4:12 (King James Version) "And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken." The concept was translated visually by the Etruscans, who passed it along to the Romans, as the fasces-a bundle of rods or spears, sometimes with an axe in their midst. The fasces as a design element would find its way to the original design of the U.S. dime and the podium in the U.S. House of Representatives, not to mention the Italian Fascist Party; the flag of the borough of Brooklyn, New York; and the Knights of Columbus.
The "old man" in the fable as told by Aesop was also known as a Scythian king and 80 sons. Some versions present the sticks as spears. In the 1600s, the Dutch economist Pieter de la Court popularized the story with a farmer and his seven sons; that version came to supersede Aesop's in Europe.
De la Court's version of Aesop's story is prefaced with the proverb "Unity makes strength, strife wastes," and this conception came to influence the American and British trade union movements. A common depiction on the banners of trade unions in Britain was a man kneeling to break a bundle sticks, contrasted with a man successfully breaking a single stick.