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  • Between Republic and Principate:Vitruvius and the Culture of Transition
  • Elisa Romano

This paper aims to locate Vitruvius more precisely within the historical and cultural contexts of his time, building on important critical studies that have appeared in the past decades. More specifically, I will contribute to the outline of the physiognomy of Vitruvius as a man of the “transition”: he was educated in late republican times and worked in the cultural climate of the first years of the principate. Given the broad scope of this topic and the limited space allowed, I will analyze a small number of sample passages of de Architectura that I find especially important in illuminating this aspect of the author and his work. I intend to examine in greater depth elsewhere the comparison with other authors living in the period from the late republic to the Augustan age.


Let us begin by allowing the author himself to speak (1 pref. 2):

I thought that I should not let slip the opportunity to publish my writings on this subject, dedicated to you, as soon as possible, particularly since I was initially known to your father (parenti tuo) for my work in this field and was a devoted admirer of his courage. When, therefore, the heavenly council had consecrated your father in the residences of immortality and had passed his power into your hands, my enduring devotion to his memory was transferred to you and found favour with you (“idem [End Page 335] studium meum in eius memoria permanens in te contulit favorem”). And so, with Marcus Aurelius, Publius Minidius and Gnaeus Cornelius, I was put in charge of the supply and repair of ballistae, scorpiones and other types of artillery, and, with them, I received my reward: and it was you who granted it to me first and who continued it on the recommendation of your sister.1

As is well known, this is one of the few autobiographical comments in de Architectura. The remark occurs in the preface to the first book and thus in the preface to the whole treatise; it briefly sketches the major stages of Vitruvius’s career, from his work as a military engineer and follower of Caesar, to his subsequent service under Octavian, his retirement during the first years of the principate, and the renewal of the benefits granted to him for providing and repairing military machinery.

Vitruvius’s professional life ran its course between Caesar and Augustus, but this trajectory is not limited to his professional life: the continuity, which he emphasizes, between military service under Caesar and his decision to serve Octavian is the key feature of both his biography as a historical figure and his self-representation as a literary author. In other words, we may term him a man of the transition, to use the cultural and chronological periodization that is commonly applied to the last decades of the republic and the first years of the new system of institutions, the principate. This profile, which Vitruvius himself emphasizes by selecting it as his first self-presentation in the treatise, remains important throughout.

However, another aspect of this self-representation also emerges from this same first preface. Indeed, from the first words of this famous prefatory passage—with its excessive apostrophe to the imperator Caesar and the reference to his divine qualities (“divina tua mens et numen”; see below pp. 338ff.)—Vitruvius’s first description of himself is that of a writer closely associated with Augustus. Vitruvius thus authorizes the construction of an image that is mainly, if not exclusively, Augustan, and it is this image that has prevailed in recent scholarship, especially that of the last decade. A distinctive feature of the new wave of interest in Vitruvius in the first decades of the twenty-first century has been the strong emphasis given to the Augustan component of de Architectura, i.e., to those aspects [End Page 336] of the treatise that can be linked to the cultural climate of the early years of the principate and, more particularly, to the author’s relationship with Augustus. To cite just two examples of such an approach...


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pp. 335-351
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