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Virtus was a specific virtue in Ancient Rome. It carries connotations of valor, manliness, excellence, courage, character, and worth, perceived as masculine strengths (from Latin vir, "man"). It was thus a frequently stated virtue of Roman emperors, and was personified as a deity.


The origins of the word virtus can be traced back to the Latin word vir, "man". The common list of attributes associated with virtus are typically perceived masculine strengths, which may indicate its derivation from vir. Originally virtus was used to describe specifically martial courage but it eventually grew to be used to describe a range of Roman virtues. Virtus was often divided into different qualities including prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (self-control), and fortitudo (courage). This inclusion leads to the belief that at one time virtus extended to cover a wide-range of meanings that covered one general ethical ideal. The use of the word began to grow and shift to fit the new idea of what manliness meant.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. During the time of the decline of the Roman elite virtus the Roman upper class no longer thought of themselves as unmanly if they did not serve in the military.

Who could have it?

Virtus and Women

Virtus was rarely attributed to women, likely because of its association with vir. The highest regarded female virtue was pudicitia"modesty" or "chastity". Cicero, however, attributes this characteristic to females several times. He uses it once to describe Caecilia Metella when she helps a man who is being chased by assassins. Twice more he uses it when describing his daughter, Tullia, portraying her in his letters as brave in his absence. He uses it again to describe his first wife Terentia during his exile.

Virtus and Children

Virtus was not a term commonly used to describe children. Since virtus was primarily attributed to a full grown man who had served in the military children were not particularly suited to obtain this particular virtue.

Virtus and Slaves

While a slave was able to be homo ("man") he was not considered a vir. Slaves were often referred to as puer to denote that they were not citizens. Since a slave could not be a vir it follows that they would not be allowed to have the quality of virtus. Once a slave was manumitted he was able to become a vir and he was also classified as a freedman but this did not allow him to have virtus. A good slave or freedman was said to have fides, but no virtus.

Virtus and Foreigners

Foreigners in the Roman world could be attributed with virtus, especially if they were enemies of Rome. If they fought bravely they could be said to have virtus. Virtus could also be lost 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 B.C.E. for their virtus in battle.

How was it used?

Virtus and Sexuality

While in many cultures the virtue of manliness is also seen as being partly sexual, in the Roman world virtus apparently did not have sexual connotations. Similar words deriving from the same stem often have sexual connotations. In the Roman world virtus dealt with a great many areas such as martial courage, honor, and being morally upright but it does span to cover the sexual manliness that someone might possess.

Virtus and the Private

While in many cultures around the world it is considered "manly" to father and provide for a family. Family life is considered in the Roman world to be part of the private sphere. During this time there was little place for virtus in the private sphere. Most uses of virtus to describe any part of private life are ambiguous and often refer to another similar quality. In the Roman world the oldest living patriarch of the family was called the pater familias and this title inferred that he was able to make all legal and binding decisions for the family; he also owned all the money, land, and other property. His wife, daughters, sons, and his sons’ family were all under his potestas. The only time a son was seen as separate from his fathers control in the eyes of other Romans was when he assumed his public identity as a citizen. He could earn his virtus by serving in the military, and thus could only demonstrate their manliness outside of the family setting. This is another reason that virtus is not often used to describe the Roman private life.

Virtus and the Public

Virtus comes from the aristocratic tradition in which it is a specific type of public conduct. It is really only applicable in the cursus honorum, certainly by the late republic at least. It is not a "private" virtue in the way that moderns might consider it. Valor, courage, manliness are not something pursued in the private sphere of the individual or the individual's private concerns. There could be no virtue in exploiting one's manliness in the pursuit of personal wealth, for example. Virtus is exercised in the pursuit of gloria for the benefit of the res publica resulting in the winning of eternal memoria. According to D.C. Earl "Outside the service of the respublica there can be no magistratus and therefore, strictly speaking, no gloria, no nobilitas, no virtus". For the nobility virtus lies not only in one's personal acta but also that of one's ancestors.

In everyday life a typical Roman, especially a young boy, would have been inundated with the idea of virtus. Since military service is a part of most Roman men's life military training would have started fairly early. Young boys would have learned how to wield weapons and military tactics starting at home with their fathers and older male relatives and later in school. Also as a young boy one would have heard numerous stories about past heroes, battles, and wars. Some of these stories would have surely told of the virtus of past heroes, and even family members. Publicly it was easy to see the rewards of virtus. Public triumphs were held for victorious generals and rewards were given to brave fighters. All of this propaganda would have encouraged young boys coming into their manhood to be brave fighters and earn the attribute of virtus. It was the duty of every generation of men to maintain the dignitas which his family had already earned and enlarge it. This pressure to live up to the standards of one’s ancestors was great. In achieving virtus on could achieve gloria. By gaining virtus and gloria one could hope to aspire to high political office and great renown.

Pompey is another prominent example of virtus. In 55 Pompey inaugurated his grand theatre complex and dedicated several shrines to different gods, one of these being Virtus. This consecrated Pompey’s link with virtus. He gained a reputation with the public as being a man of virtus. Cicero, throughout his speech, the De imperio Cn. Pompei, connects Pompey with "divina virtus". Pompey was so closely connected with virtus that once during a production of the play Ludi Apollinares one of the characters makes fun of Pompey by stating "eandem virtutem istam veniet tempus cum graviter gemes", "The time will come when you bitterly resent that same virtus". The audience did not need him name to know that Pompey was being referenced.

Virtus in Politics

Virtus was a crucial component a political career. Its broad definition lead to it being used to describe a number of qualities that the Roman people idealized in their leaders.

While young boys were encourage to earn virtus there were also limits put on showing virtus in public. Virtus was often associated with being aggressive and this could be very dangerous in the public sphere and the political world. Displays of violent virtus were controlled through several methods. Men seeking to hold political office typically had to follow the cursus honorum. Many political offices had an age minimum which ensured that the men filling the positions had the proper amount of experience in the military and in government. This meant that even if a man proved himself capable of filling a position or was able to persuade people that he was able be questionable methods he would not necessarily be able to hold the position until he had reached a certain age. This also served to make sure that in elections of public offices no one had a certain advantage over another person because by the time most men went into public office they would have retired from military service. Furthermore before any Roman soldier could partake in single combat he had to gain permission from his general. This procedure was meant to keep soldiers from putting their selves in extremely dangerous situations that they may or may not have been able to handle in order gain virtus.

Marcellus and the Temple

M. Claudius Marcellus, during the battle of Clastidiuminmarker 222 BCE, dedicated a temple to Honos and Virtus. This is one of the first times that Virtus had been recognized as divine. The connection with Honos would have been obvious to most Romans, demonstrations of virtus lead to election to public office and both were considered honos. The cult of Honos was already a long standing tradition in Rome. The marriage of the two deities ensured that Virtus would also get proper respect from the Romans. There was an objection made by the pontiffs who said that one temple could not properly house two gods, if a miracle happened in the temple there would be no way of knowing which god to sacrifice to.

Political Uses

The concept of virtus also tended to be a concept of morality as far as politics were concerned. This could range from the very literal definition of manliness seen in aggression and the ruthless acquisition of money, land, and power, or the lighter more idealistic political meaning which almost took on the extended meaning of pietas, a man who was morally upright and concerned with the matters of the state. Plautus in Amphitruo contrast virtus and ambitio. Virtus is seen as a positive attribute and while ambitio by itself is not necessarily a negative attribute but it is often associated with negative methods such as bribery. Plautus says that just as great generals and armies win victory by virtus so should political candidates. Ambitio “is the wrong method of reaching a good end.” Part of virtus, in the political sphere was to deal justly in every aspect of one’s life, especially in political and state matters.

One of the most well known demonstrations of virtus was shown by Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator in 458 BCE. Rome was in the midst of a battle with the Aequi and needed someone to take control. Messengers were sent to fetch him and they found him plowing in his field. When they told him of the appointment he wept saying “So my field will be unsown this year, and we shall be in danger of not having enough food to support us.” Then he gathered his things, kissed his wife goodbye and left. In 15 days he raised an army and defeated the Aequi. After the defeat Cincinnatus went back home and picked up the plough from where he left it and began plowing again. Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts this story to illustrate what type of leaders the men of Rome were. He says that they “worked with their hands, led self-disciplined lives, did not complain about honorable poverty, and far from pursuing positions of royal power.”

The Senate during the reign of Augustus voted that a golden shield inscribed with and throughout the empire, Augustus’ virtues be place in the Curia Iuliamarker. These virtues include virtus, clementia,iustitia, and pietas. These were now the founding qualities for anyone looking to join the world of politics and be successful.

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 by virtue of his virtus.He even extended the argument that virtus and not one’s family 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 punish the noble class but widen it to include men who had earned their positions by merit.

Pompey is another prominent example of ‘’virtus’’. In 55 Pompey inaugurated his great theatre complex and dedicated several shrines to different gods, one of these being ‘’Virtus’’. This consecrated Pompey’s link with ‘’virtus’’. He gained a reputation with the public as being a man of ‘’virtus’’. Cicero, throughout his speech, the De imperio Cn. Pompei, connects Pompey with “divina virtus”. Virtus was so closely connected with virtus that once during a production of the play Ludi Apollinares one of the characters makes fun of Pompey by stating “eandem virtutem istam veniet tempus cum graviter gemes”, “The time will come when you bitterly resent that same virtus”. The audience did not need him name to know that Pompey was being referenced.

Virtus and the Military

Since the battle field was the most likely place for a man to demonstrate virtus these ideas would have been closely linked in the minds of the Romans. Cicero says that military excellence supersedes all other virtues. “It is this that won the Roman people its fame, that won this city its ever-lasting glory.

Virtus in Literature

This term was used quite significantly by the historian Sallust. Sallust asserted that it did not rightfully belonging to the nobilitas by result of their family background but specifically to the novus homo through the exercise of ingenium (talent). For Sallust and Cicero alike, virtus is situated in the winning of glory by the execution of illustrious deeds (egregia facinora) and the observance of right conduct through bonae artes.

The comic poet Plautus makes use of the concept of virtus in his play Trinummus. He calls into play concepts about family virtus, honor and public office, and obligations to the state. He also makes commentary on the concept of virtus in Amphitruo (see above “Political uses”).

See also

Ancient Roman TopicsSee a list of Roman Virtues



  1. Cicero: "De imperio Cn. Pompei"
  2. Cicero: "In Defense of Murena"
  3. Dionysius: "Roman Antiquites"
  4. Earl, Donald; "The Political Thought Of Sallust". Hakkert, Amsterdam. 1966
  5. Earl, Donald; "The Moral and Political Traditions of Rome". Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York, 1967
  6. McDonnell, Myles; "Roman Manliness". Cambridge University Press, 2006

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