‘Virtus’ in Ancient Rome

1776 Virginia note with the deity ‘Virtus’ on the left / Wikimedia Commons

It was a frequently stated virtue of Roman emperors, and was personified as a deity—Virtus.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

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—Virtus.


Prudentia / Photo by G.dallorto, Wikimedia Commons

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. From the early to the later days of the Roman Empire, there appears to have been a development in how the concept was understood.

Iusticia / Photo by Waugsberg, Wikimedia Commons

Originally virtus was used to describe specifically martial courage, but it eventually grew to be used to describe a range of Roman virtues. It was often divided into different qualities including prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (temperance, self-control), and fortitudo (courage). This division of virtue as a whole into cardinal virtues is today classified as virtue ethics, as described by Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It implies a link between virtus and the Greek concept of arete.

Temperantia, by Luca Giordano / Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Wikimedia Commons

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.[1] The use of the word began to grow and shift to fit the new idea of what manliness meant.[2] 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.[3]

Fortitudo, by Sandro Botticelli / Uffizi Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Virtue as described by Aristotle was rediscovered in the medieval age by Muslim philosopher Averroes, which in turn influenced Thomas Aquinas to fuse virtue and ethics with Christianity in connection with the Renaissance of the 12th century.

In Roman Political Philosophy

The Roman cursus honorum / Muriel Gottrop, Wikimedia Commons

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 modern people might consider it. Valor, courage, and manliness are not things that can be 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 res publica there can be no magistratus and therefore, strictly speaking, no gloria, no nobilitas, no virtus“.[4]

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. Virtusis 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.[5]

The term was used quite significantly by the historian Sallust, a contemporary of Cicero. Sallust 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). 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.[6]

Who Could Have It

Cicero / Creative Commons

Virtus was not universally applicable to just anyone – generally (although not always exclusively) only adult male Roman citizens would be thought of as possessing virtus.


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.[10] He uses it again to describe his first wife Terentia during his exile.[11] Livy in Book 2 attributes it to Cloelia.


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.


While a slave was able to be homo (“man”) he was not considered a vir. Slaves were often referred to as puer (Latin for boy) to denote that they were not citizens.[12] 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.[12]


Foreigners in the Roman world could be attributed with virtus: If they fought bravely they could be said to have virtusVirtus 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 BC for their virtus in battle.[13]

How It Was Used

Virtus applies exclusively to a man’s behaviour in the public sphere, i.e. to the application of duty to the res publica in the cursus honorum. His private business was no place to earn virtus, even when it involved courage or feats of arms or other qualities associated to it if performed for the public good.

In Private

Bronze genius depicted as pater familias (1st century CE) / Photo by Luis Garcia, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Wikimedia Commons

While in many cultures around the world it is considered “manly” to father and provide for a family, family life was considered in the Roman world to be part of the private sphere. During this time there was no 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.[14] In the Roman world the oldest living patriarch of the family was called the pater familias and this title implied 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’ families were all under his potestas. The only time a son was seen as separate from his father’s 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 manliness outside of the family setting. This is another reason that virtus is not often used to describe the Roman private life.[15]

In Public

Bust of Plautus / Wikimedia Commons

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

In everyday life a typical Roman, especially a young boy, would have been inculcated with the idea of virtus. Since military service was 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 one could achieve gloria. By gaining virtus and gloria one could hope to aspire to high political office and great renown.

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 capable, he would not necessarily be able to hold the position until he had reached a certain age. This also served to ensure 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 themselves in extremely dangerous situations that they may or may not have been able to handle in order gain virtus.

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.[16] Plautus in Amphitruo contrasted virtus and ambitio. Virtus is seen as a positive attribute, though ambitio itself is not necessarily a negative attribute but is often associated with negative methods such as bribery. Plautus said 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.[17]


Although the two concepts are related, virtus, for the Roman, did not necessarily emphasize the behavior that the associations of the present-day English term ‘virtue’ suggest. Virtus was to be found in the context of ‘outstanding deeds’ (egregia facinora), and brave deeds were the accomplishments which brought gloria (‘a reputation’). This gloria was attached to two ideas: fama (‘what people think of you’) and dignitas (‘one’s standing in the community’). The struggle for virtus in Rome was above all a struggle for public office (honos), since it was through aspiring to high office, to which one was elected by the People, that a man could best show his manliness by means of military achievement which would in turn cultivate a reputation and votes. It was the duty of every aristocrat and would-be aristocrat to maintain the dignitas which his family had already achieved and to extend it to the greatest possible degree, through higher political office and military victories. This system resulted in a strong built-in impetus in Roman society to engage in military expansion and conquest at all times.


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 rather than sexual manliness.[18]


Cincinnatus and Pompey

The sculpture of Cincinnatus in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Garden / Photo by Maclemo, Wikimedia Commons

One of the most well known demonstrations of virtus was shown by Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Before Cincinnatus was appointed dictator in 458 BC, Rome was in the midst of a battle with the Aequi and needed someone to take control. Messengers sent to fetch him found him plowing in his field. Upon being informed 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.”[19] Nevertheless, he dutifully gathered his things, kissed his wife goodbye and departed to raise an army and defeat the Aequi in a mere fifteen days. Upon returning home after the victory, Cincinnatus picked up the plough from where he left it and began plowing again. Dionysius of Halicarnassus recounts this story to illustrate the 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.”[20]

Pompey is another prominent example of virtus. In 55 BC, 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”.[21] Pompey was so closely connected with virtus that once during a production of a play at the Ludi Apollinares one of the characters spoofed 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 to hear his name to know that Pompey was being referenced.[22]

Marcellus and the Temple

212–210 BC coin of Marcellus, celebrating his conquest of Sicily / Wikimedia Commons

M. Claudius Marcellus, during the battle of Clastidium in 222 BC, dedicated a temple to Honos and Virtus. This was one of the first times that Virtus had been recognized as divine. The connection with Honos would have been obvious to most Romans as demonstrations of virtus led 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.


Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century / Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons

During the reign of Augustus, the Senate voted that a golden shield be inscribed with Augustus’ attributes and displayed in the Curia Iulia, including virtusclementiaiustitia, and pietas. These political catchwords continued to be used as propaganda by later emperors.

In Literature

The comic poet Plautus made use of the concept of virtus in his play Trinummus which concerned family virtus, honor and public office, and obligations to the state. He also offered commentary on the concept of virtus in Amphitruo (see above “Virtus and the Public”).[23]



  1. McDonnell (2006), p. 128
  2. McDonnell (2006), p. 141
  3. McDonnell (2006), p. 257
  4. Earl (1966), p. 27
  5. Earl (1966), pp. 47–49
  6. Earl (1966)
  7. Cicero (1930). Pro Quinctio. Pro Roscio Amerino. Pro Roscio Comoedo. On the Agrarian Law. Translated by J. H. Freese. Loeb Classical Library 240. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 255.
  8. Kaplan, Arthur (1976). “Sulla’s ‘Watergate'”. The Classical Outlook: 101.
  9. Cicero (7 June 2010). Dyck, Andrew R., ed. Cicero: ‘Pro Sexto Roscio’. Cambridge University Press. p. 96.
  10. Cicero: Fam 14.11 and Att. 10.8
  11. Cicero: Fam 14.1
  12. McDonnell (2006), p. 160
  13. McDonnell (2006), pp. 160–161
  14. McDonnell (2006), pp. 168–172
  15. McDonnell (2006), p. 180
  16. Earl (1967), pp. 20–22
  17. Earl (1967), pp. 32–34
  18. McDonnell (2006), pp. 165–167
  19. Dionysius: Roman Antiquities 10.17.5
  20. Dionysius: Roman Antiquities 10.17.6
  21. Cicero; De imperio Cn. Pompei
  22. McDonnell (2006), p. 301
  23. Earl (1967), pp. 25–26


Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.12.2015, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.