Rota Fortunae: From a Roman Goddess to Medieval Allegory
By Sena Özbay
The Concept of Fortuna
Fortune, etymologically, coincides with the unpredictable and uncontrollable effect on human affairs, and it was personified as the Roman goddess Fortuna in Medieval literature. [i]
In Latin, Fortuna means ‘change, hap, luck, fate, ill or good fortune’,[ii] and it is generally accepted that it comes from Tyche, the goddess of unexpected fortune or misfortune. In ad Herennium, Marcus Pacuvius (ca 220-130 BCE) defined the nature of Fortuna with the following verses:
Figure 1: Cicero, Rhetorica ad Herennium.[iii]
Like Pacuvius’s negative rhetoric on Fortuna, many sources emphasize its negative nature. However, by its nature, fortune can be both good and bad. It could bring both victory and defeat, and for that very reason it is variable. The main question here is how the capricious goddess of the pagan past became a part of Medieval literature, rather that the nature of Fortuna.
After the rise of Christianity, one would expect the beliefs associated with paganism to disappear throughout time. Nevertheless, we see that during the Middle Ages, Rota Fortunae was incorporated into Medieval literature and continued to exist. The question here is: while the fate of all humans was in the hands of God according to Christian teaching, how could a goddess have any influence on the fortune and fate of the humans?
Inclusion of Fortuna in the Medieval Christianity
The key point in this transition is the composition of De Consolatione Philosophie. Written by Boethius (475-525 BC) in the 6th century, this text contemplated providence, fate/fortune and free will. In many aspects, the concept of Fortuna and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ continued to exist in Medieval literature with the image created by Boethius. The ideas of Boethius represented one of the most important bridges between Christian philosophy and Antiquity, whilst his very own life was closely linked with the concept of Fortuna. Boethius, a member of a prominent family, was a statesman and philosopher, but there was a significant turn in his own fortune, when he was accused of conspiracy against Theodoric the Great (454 – 526 BC) and sentenced to death.[iv] In his cell, he wrote De Consolatione Philosophie as a treatise of Christian issues with an approach from natural philosophy and the Classical Greek tradition.
Figure 2: Wheel of Fortune in ‘L’Épître Othéa’.[v]
In the first book, Lady Philosophy tries to drive Boethius away from worldly desires and possessions and have him find solace in philosophy from the unfortunate events that befell him.[vi] On the one hand, Boethius describes Fortuna as a ‘strange goddess’ who approaches those she wants to trick with a silver tongue but lets them down in the end.[vii] This two-faced goddess plays tricks by turning the wheel of fortune/fate as she wishes and displaces men from their positions of power or takes away their wealth.[viii] By its nature, fortune is fickle. It can turn any time and under any condition. On the other hand, Lady Philosophy reminded Boethius that wealth, possessions, power and fortune were temporary and that it was useless to search for happiness in these. Thus, Boethius created a concept of Fortuna that is closely related to fate and divine power in De Consolatione Philosophie.
As a ‘ghost’ of the pagan past, Fortuna survived in medieval art and literature in a certain form, which was clearly defined by Boethius. After Boethius, Fortuna was represented in many literary works as an allegory that symbolized fortune that was represented by divine providence instead of a pagan goddess. For instance, Boccaccio’s De casibus interprets Fortuna as ‘not a blind distributor of good or bad luck… but a general dispenser of Providence and of Divine Justice’.[ix]
Figure 3: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Carmina Burana.[x]
Rota Fortunae (Wheel of Fortune) is sometimes represented as a blindfolded queen that is turning a wheel. ‘Dame’ or ‘Queen Fortuna’ are generally accompanied with these four expressions describing segments of the wheel: regno ‘I reign’, regnavi ‘I have reigned’, regnabo ‘I shall reign’, and sum sine regno ‘I am without a kingdom’. This approach continued to exist throughout medieval literature, for example in Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, a reference to these expressions can be found:
‘Then Sir Launcelot sighed, and therewith the tears fell on his cheeks, and then he said thus: Alas, most noble Christian realm, whom I have loved above all other realms, and in thee I have gotten a great part of my worship, and now I shall depart in this wise. Truly me repenteth that ever I came in this realm, that should be thus shamefully banished, undeserved and causeless; but fortune is so variant, and the wheel so moveable, there is none constant abiding, and that may be proved by many old chronicles, of noble Ector, and Troilus, and Alisander, the mighty conqueror, and many more other; when they were most in their royalty, they alighted lowest.’[xi]
Fortuna reminded kings that glory, fame, power and wealth were temporary, because one day, Fortuna could turn her wheel and take everything away. For a king, Fortuna both seems to be an existing enemy and the best ally a king could ask for. However, it would be up to Fortuna and not the kings to decide on what to be.
It seems that Fortuna has continued its existence in literature with different interpretations and representations throughout the centuries. Indirectly through the concept created by Boethius, Fortuna was transitioned into Christian philosophy. Rota Fortunae was also an allegory of an ‘ideal moral order’ for all parts of society. It included a message for mortals, which explained that everything worldly was temporary and that whatever their status may be, it could be taken away when the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ spun. Perhaps the events that befall us since 2019 (Covid-19, war, economic recession) are the work of Fortuna herself.
Hacettepe University, Turkey
Sena Özbay is a PhD student at Hacettepe University in Turkey. She is also a part-time lecturer at Yüksek İhtisas University. To learn more about Rota Fortunae, you can find Sena on Twitter at @Eileanoirr .
[i] Sandra Billington and Miranda Green, The Concept of the Goddess (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 129-30. [ii] See ‘fortuna’ in A Latin Dictionary, ed. by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 773. [iii] Cicero, Rhetorica ad Herennium, trans. by Harry Caplan (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954), p. 122. [iv] N. Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University, 2011), p. 41. [v] Wheel of Fortune in ‘L’Épître Othéa’. BL Harley 4431; Christine de Pizan, L'Épître Othéa'; c.1410 CE-c.1414 CE; France, Central (Paris); f.129r. [online] Available at : https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=22604 [accessed 30th August 2022]. [vi] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. by David R. Slavitt (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,2008), pp. 1-27. [vii] ibid. p. 83. [viii] ibid. p. 89. [ix] V. Branca, Boccaccio: The Man and His Works, trans. by Richard Monges (New York: New York University Press, 1976), pp. 209. [x] Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Carmina Burana, BSB Clm 4660; 13th century (c.1230 CE) f.1r. [online] Available at: https://www.digitale-sammlungen.de/en/view/bsb00085130?page=1 [accessed 30th August 2022]. [xi] T. Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. and trans. by Helen Cooper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 517.