Why You Should Be Reading Vitruvius

AnnMarie Patterson |

History, Biography, Oratory — It’s Not Just Columns and Brickwork

 The man dressed as Hercules is an architect. Jean-Baptiste Corneille, “Dinocrates Presents His Plan for Mt. Athos to Alexander.”
The man dressed as Hercules is an architect. Jean-Baptiste Corneille, “Dinocrates Presents His Plan for Mt. Athos to Alexander.”

Vitruvius was an architect working under Augustus at the start of the Roman empire. His treatise on architecture, published in 27 BCE, codified the discipline and created a set of building standards that show up all over the Roman world. Even having achieved such a feat, Vitruvius is one of the least-read authors from this period. Classicists, Latinists, and history buffs alike love works from the Augustan period. Authors like Livy, Horace, Ovid, and Virgil wrote some of our most-read favorites. Compared to these other writers, Vitruvius is the outcast, the ignored red-headed step-child of Augustan literature.

But Vitruvius’ sidelined status is much more our fault than his. Because architecture is his chosen topic, we’ve decided Vitruvius is boring. After all, the man did write an entire chapter about brickwork and dirt. How thrilling a read could he really be? This is where we’ve made a mistake. While Vitruvius did write a technical treatise peppered with procedural language and specific vocabulary, he also wrote in several other genres that we love. Weaved into the instructional sections of De Architectura are passages that read like the dramatic Athenian political speeches, thrilling historical episodes, philosophical hot takes, and scandalous snippets of biography.

Did you know the city of Halicarnassus was plagued by a fountain that caused Venereal disease? Read De Architectura (2.8.12). Would you like to read an amusing story about Queen Artemisia outwitting a rival navy by tricking them into giving her all their ships (2.8.13–15)? I, for one, didn’t know the Library of Alexandria was born of King Ptolemy’s need to “keep up with the Joneses” (7.praef.4–6) or that architects could be such gossips. After reading his work through and ear-marking the fun parts, I am now of the opinion that Vitruvius must have been a hoot at parties.

Here are some of the most interesting reads from De Architectura that have nothing to do with brickwork and dirt.

Historiography — Mausolus and Artemisia

Mausolus and his wife Artemisia, the regents of Caria, may already be familiar to lovers of Herodotus. Mausolus is most famous for lending his name the architectural form of the Mausoleum, which he famously had built in Halicarnassus, but it is Artemisia that encourages Vitruvius to try his hand at writing historical episodes.

Artemisia is also famous — or maybe infamous — in her own right. She appears in Herodotus’ Persian Wars as the Greek turncoat who acts as a naval general for the Persians. Clever and ambitious (though unvictorious) as she is in Herodotus’ narrative, Vitruvius writes an origin story for Artemisia in De Architectura book two which shows what she was made of as a leader. According to Vitruvius, Artemisia began ruling at Halicarnassus after her husband’s death. When a group of Rhodians attacks, she outmaneuvers them with a trick and seizes their abandoned fleet.

Itaque post mortem Mausoli Artemisiam uxorem eius regnantem Rhodii indignantes mulierem imperare civitatibus Cariae totius, armata classe profecti sunt, uti id regnum occuparent. Tum Artemisiae cum esset id renuntiatum, in eo portu abstrusam classem celatis remigibus et epibatis conparatis, reliquos autem cives in muro esse iussit. Cum autem Rhodii ornata classe in portum maiorem exposuissent, plausum iussit ab muro his darent pollicerique se oppidum tradituros. Qui cum penetravissent intra murum relictis navibus inanibus, Artemisia repente fossa facta in pelagum eduxit classem ex portu minore et ita invecta est in maiorem. Expositis autem militibus classem Rhodiorum inanem abduxit in altum. Ita Rhodii non habentes, quo se reciperent, in medio conclusi in ipso foro sunt trucidati. Ita Artemisia in navibus Rhodiorum suis militibus et remigibus inpositis Rhodum est profecta.
Rhodii autem,cum prospexissent suas naves laureatas venire, opinantes cives victores reverti hostes receperunt. Tum Artemisia Rhodo capta principibus occisis tropaeum in urbem Rhodo suae victoriae constituit aeneasque duas statuas fecit, unam Rhodiorum civitatis, alteram suae imaginis, et ita figuravit Rhodiorum civitati stigmata inponentem. Id autem postea Rhodii religione inpediti, quod nefas est tropaea dedicata removeri, circa eum locum aedificium struxerunt et id erecta Graia statione texerunt, ne qui possit aspicere, et id abaton vocitari iusserunt.
And so, after the death of Mausolus, the Rhodians were upset that his wife Artemisia, a woman, was ruling and in control of the citizens of all Caria. With an armed fleet, they set out to take her kingdom. When this was relayed to Artemisia, she ordered her fleet to be concealed in the secret harbor with the oarsmen hidden and soldiers gathered together, she then ordered the remaining citizens to stay within the walls. When, with their fleet set in motion, the Rhodians arrived at the larger harbor, she ordered that they applaud them from the wall, and to promise that they would hand over the town. When the Rhodians had entered into the walls, with their empty ships left behind, Artemisia dug a trench and immediately led her fleet into the sea from the smaller harbor and turned into the larger harbor. And so, her soldiers revealed themselves and she led the unmanned Rhodians’ fleet into the open sea. Thus the Rhodians, no longer having ships, where they collected themselves, were closed into the middle of the Forum and were killed. Then Artemisia having placed her soldiers and oarsmen in the Rhodians’ ships, set off for Rhodes.
The Rhodians, when they saw their ships arriving in laurels, thinking that their citizens were returning victorious, received the enemies. Then Artemisia, after she captured the city of Rhodes and killed its leaders, set up a trophy of her victory in the city of Rhodes: she made two bronze statues, one of the Rhodians’ city, the other an image of herself, and she shaped the statue of herself placing a brand on the city of the Rhodians. After this, the Rhodians, prevented by their customs — since it was prohibited that a trophy, once dedicated, be removed — built a structure around that place and they roofed it over with a Greek watchtower, so that nobody would be able to see it, and they ordered that it be called ‘abaton’ (2.8.14–15).

The architecture of Mausolus’ palace is an important feature of the story, but it is Artemisia’s practically Odyssean cunning that steals the show. Whenever I read about an unsuccessful Artemisia in Herodotus’ Histories, I like to think of her intimidating origin story from Vitruvius.

Oratory– Plagiarizing Isocrates’ Panegyricus

Vitruvius must also have been a fan oratory. Each of his ten books begins with a preface, and each of these tends to be written with quite a bit of oratorical flair. They include a bit of ad hominem and praeteritio content, that would have made Cicero proud. Some of them are clearly influenced by famous speeches from Greece and Rome, but my absolute favorite is the preface from book nine. Here Vitruvius nearly copy/pastes Isocrates’ famous Panegyricus speech — a fourth-century Athenian classic.

Isocrates opens his speech by comparing the glory an athlete wins in competition to the lesser glory of great thinkers, and how their respective glory should be reversed. Vitruvius does not take Isocrates’ speech word for word, but he clearly borrowed the speech’s beginning to open his 9th book.

Nobilibus athletis, qui Olympia, Isthmia, Nemea vicissent, Graecorum maiores ita magnos honores constituerunt, uti non modo in conventu stantes cum palma et corona ferant laudes, sed etiam, cum revertantur in suas civitates cum victoria, triumphantes quadrigis in moenia et in patrias invehantur e reque publica perpetua vita constitutis vectigalibus fruantur. Cum ergo id animadvertam, admiror, quid ita non scriptoribus eidem honores etiamque maiores sint tributi, qui infinitas utilitates aevo perpetuo omnibus gentibus praestant. Id enim magis erat institui dignum, quod athletae sua corpora exercitationibus efficiunt fortiora, scriptores non solum suos sensus, sed etiam omnium, cum libris ad discendum et animos exacuendos praeparant praecepta.
The ancestors of the Greeks decided upon great honors for the well-known athletes who won at Olympia, Isthmia, and Nemea, so that not only when standing in the winner’s circle do they bear the palm and crowns and praise, but even when they’ve returned to their own cities with victory and are brought on a four-horse chariot into the walls, triumphing into their homeland, they enjoy a stipend decided on by the government for the rest of their lives. When therefore I notice this, I am shocked that the same and even greater honors were not allotted to writers, who have established endlessly useful things for all people through all time. This was more worthy of designated honors because athletes make their own bodies stronger by exercises, however, writers not only nurture their own senses but also those of everyone else, when they put down their teachings in books for the learning of all and the sharpening of minds. (9.praef.1).

Vitruvius never credits Isocrates as he does with other ancient authors whose work shows up in De Architectura, but the borrowed speech’s origin would have been apparent to ancient readers. At least Vitruvius pivots in a different direction than Isocrates. While Isocrates is focused on the political situation in Athens and the value of politicians, Vitruvius uses the concept of misattributed glory to comment on one of the DA’s central messages: it’s not only architecture that is glorious, it’s the architect. Even though Vitruvius takes it in a different direction, in these pieces of borrowed oratory, we can see in Vitruvius someone just as fascinated in the practice of ancient speech writing as we are today.



Biographical Sketch — Dinocrates

 The first plan Dinocrates submitted for the city of Alexandria, on Mount Athos.
The first plan Dinocrates submitted for the city of Alexandria, on Mount Athos.
In addition to his interest in grander genres like history and philosophy, Vitruvius was a purveyor of petty rumors. For every larger-than-life historical episode he narrates, Vitruvius includes one or two shorter tales of human interest. He also partakes in biographical writing, with conquerors like Alexander the Great as a recurring focus throughout the work. My favorite Alexander episode is the story of how Alexander met his architect. After an unsuccessful attempt to set up a meeting with the famed conqueror by bureaucratic means, the architect Dinocrates tried a different tactic. Evoking his inner Elton John, Dinocrates turned to the art of costume. It was only when dressed in a homemade Hercules cosplay that Dinocrates finally caught Alexander’s attention, and a long-lasting relationship between king and architect was born.
Dinocrates architectus cogitationibus et sollertia fretus, cum Alexander rerum potiretur, profectus est e Macedonia ad exercitum regiae cupidus commendationis. Is e patria a propinquis et amicis tulit ad primos ordines et purpuratos litteras, [quo] aditus haberet faciliores, ab eisque exceptus humane petit, uti quamprimum ad Alexandrum perduceretur. Cum polliciti essent, tardiores fuerunt idoneum tempus expectantes. Itaque Dinocrates ab his se existimans ludi ab se petit praesidium. Fuerat enim amplissima statura, facie grata, forma dignitateque summa. His igitur naturae muneribus confisus vestimenta posuit in hospitio et oleo corpus perunxit caputque coronavit populea fronde, laevum umerum pelle leonina texit, dextraque clavam tenens incessit contra tribunal regis ius dicentis. Novitas populum cum avertisset, conspexit eum Alexander. Admirans ei iussit locum dari, ut accederet, interrogavitque, quis esset. At ille: “Dinocrates,” inquit, “architectus Macedo qui ad te cogitationes et formas adfero dignas tuae claritati.”
When Alexander controlled everything, Dinocrates the architect, relying on his creativity and skill, set out from Macedonia to the army, wanting a royal audience. He brought letters from his associates and relatives in his home country to the principal officials of the court, so that he would have easier access. Having been kindly received by them, he sought to be led to Alexander at the first opportunity. When they promised it, they became rather slow, waiting for an opportune time. So Dinocrates, thinking that he was being teased by them, sought an audience himself. For he was very tall, lovely in face, and being of the highest form and dignity. Therefore, trusting in these gifts of nature, he left his usual clothes at the inn, anointed his body with oil, crowned his head with poplar leaves, and covered his left shoulder in a lion’s pelt. Carrying a club in his right hand, he proceeded in front of the tribunal of the king, who was giving his judgments. When the newness of this occurrence caught the attention of the people, Alexander caught sight of Dinocrates. Admiring him, he ordered space be made for him so that Dinocrates could approach, and Alexander asked him who he was. So he said, “I am Dinocrates, the architect from Macedon who bring you ideas and forms worthy of your fame” (2.praef.1–2).

Alexander and Dinocrates would eventually go on to build the city of Alexandria together. Their lives and the fate of their city are often returned to in De Architectura, but it is the moments of character building and personal flair that give their mini-biographies some flavor Suetonius himself would enjoy.

Vitruvius understood something about architecture that we don’t tend to give him credit for: it’s the story associated with the building, not just the building itself, that sparks our interest. By including so much from other genres in his work, Vitruvius is instructing us to think of architectural forms not just as shapes, but as objects with a storied past.

In doing so, Vitruvius has taken a treatise that could have otherwise been a dry, stiff, technical read and created something accessible and fun. In addition to my favorite sections, Vitruvius also weaves in interactions, his thoughts on the philosophy of the stoics and epicureans, the history of Greek science, and theories of education into De Architectura. In this work too long ignored, one can find a little of whatever they like.

AnnMarie Pattersonis a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California and a Paideia Rome fellow. She loves active Latin, Roman architecture, and Italian food.


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