Sunday, May 23, 2021


Although originally the ancient Roman virtue of virtus was used to describe specifically martial courage, it eventually came to represent a host of qualities including valor, manliness, excellence, courage, character, and worth, perceived as masculine strengths.  Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics divided these cardinal virtues into prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (temperance, self-control), and fortitudo (courage).  But as the goals and ideals of the empire changed, the meaning of the word also shifted. No longer did virtus mean that a person was a brave warrior but it could also mean that he was a good man, someone who did the right thing. Especially during the later Empire the Roman upper class no longer thought of themselves as unmanly if they did not serve in the military as long as they complied with the appropriate tradition of public conduct in their navigation of the cursus honorum. The term did not apply in the private sphere but only in the pursuit of gloria for the benefit of the res publica.

For the nobility, virtus lies not only in one's personal "acta" but also that of one's ancestors. However Cicero, a novus homo, asserted that virtus was a virtue particularly suited to the new man just as nobilitas was suited to the noble. Cicero argued that just as young men from noble families won the favor of the people so too should the novus homo earn the favor of the people with his virtus. He even extended the argument that virtus and not one's family history should decide a man's worthiness. Virtus is something that a man earns himself, not something that is given to him by his family, thus it is a better measure of a man's ability. Cicero's goal was not to impugn the noble class but widen it to include men who had earned their positions by merit.

The historian Sallust, a contemporary of Cicero, asserted that it did not rightfully belong to the nobilitas as a result of their family background, but specifically to the novus homo through the exercise of ingenium (talent - sharpness of mind, sagacity, foresight and character). For Sallust and Cicero alike, virtus was defined as the winning of glory by the execution of illustrious deeds (egregia facinora) and the observance of right conduct through bonae artes.

Surprisingly, virtus could be attributed to foreigners, though, if they fought bravely in battle. Virtus could even be a cause to gain citizenship as in the case of Spanish cavalry men granted citizenship by Cn. Pompeius Strabo in 89 BCE for their virtus in battle.

Although Roman women could not possess virtus, the personification of virtus in art was that of a female with one breast bared resembling an Amazon from the Greek Classical tradition. In 65 BCE, Mn. Aquillius issued a coin to celebrate his ancestor's conquests in Sicily depicting Virtus wearing a helmet with an olive branch crest. Septimius Severus, Trajan and Caracalla used her image on their coinage as well.  

"Sometimes Virtue waves an olive twig. She sometimes holds a statuette of another personification, Victory. She often brandishes a spear and leans on a shield. But her most distinctive accoutrement is a parazonium or long, phallic triangular dagger, held at waist level," explains classicist Edith Hall.  "Sometimes she puts her foot on her helmet or sits on a cuirass. Philip I went furthest and simply has her as world-conqueror, one foot on a globe, her spear pointing downwards because His Virtue Has Triumphed Everywhere!"

"The humourless and amoral Caracalla began by putting a girlish Virtus in ankle boots on the obverse of his portrait coins but later cut to the chase and simply posed as Virtue himself," she concludes.

Hall points out that if a battle wasn't going well, generals like M. Claudius Marcellus built temples to Virtus like he did in 222 BCE.

Read her interestings blog post about signalling virtue like a Roman here:

Bronze statuette of Roma or Virtus, 50-75 CE, in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Villa location). Wearing a helmet and a short tunic, this figure probably depicts a goddess. The figure's striding pose and costume, which displays her right breast, show the strong influence of the Greek Classical tradition, drawing especially on depictions of Amazons. The figure is now missing her attributes, which would have securely identified her, but the position of her left hand clearly indicates that she held a spear. Her costume associates her with Roma, the personification of the city of Rome and the Roman Empire, but she might also be Virtus, the personification of valor. If she is Roma, her right hand would have held a statue of Victory, if Virtus, it would have been a sword. A hole on the back of this figure shows where it originally was attached to another object. This goddess was reportedly found with the Appliqué with Two Men, and the Statuette of a Goddess, Probably Ceres. Together these pieces probably formed a group of relief sculpture, which may have served as appliqué decorating the same object, perhaps a chariot or a piece of furniture.

Helmeted VIRTUS of M. Aquillius courtesy of Edith Hall

Caracalla Poses as the Goddess VIRTUS courtesy of Edith Hal

Septimius Severus' VIRTUS courtesy of Edith Hall

Trajan's VIRTUS plus parazonium courtesy of Edith Hall

Third century CE Sacrificial altar of the dea Virtus, Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, Germany courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Hannibal21.
Virtus, Bronze, 1-3rd century CE, at the Archaeological Museum of Milan, Italy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dall'Orto.

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