Virtus, literally "manlihood", is the origin of English virtue and is often so translated. As far as I know, virtus mainly refers to "courage", "strength" and other "manly" characters.

Did ancient people use this word for women who have moral excellences? If not, what words or what expressions did they use?

  • 3
    Kotoba Trily Ngian: My school motto was, "ex leonibus virtus"; therefore, "virtus", could be used for lions (and lionesses): renowned for their bravery rather than their virtue. This may be irrelevant to your question, but is interesting nevertheless.
    – tony
    Sep 22 at 15:28

1 Answer 1


Yes, they did, with some caveats. And not just women, but inanimate things as well.

Here's but one example, from Juvenal's sixth satire, showing its more neutral use with which English adopted:

malo Venustinam quam te, Cornelia, mater
Gracchorum, si cum magnis uirtutibus adfers
grande supercilium et numeras in dote triumphos.

For ease of access, here's Kline's translation:

...I’d rather,
Much rather, have Venustina than you, Cornelia, O Mother
Of the Gracchi, if that proud expression has to accompany
Your weighty virtues, if triumphs are part of your dowry.

Juvenal is relatively late for Classical Latin, but even in earlier times this was possible. Cicero ascribes virtus to Caecilia, daughter of Baliaricus, in his defense of Sextus Roscius (147), though he uses a concessive clause to imply that it's somewhat unusual that a mulier could have virtus:

...Caecilia Baliarici filia, Nepotis sorore, spectatissima femina, quae cum patrem clarissimum, amplissimos patruos, ornatissimum fratrem haberet, tamen, cum esset mulier, virtute perfecit ut, quanto honore ipsa ex illorum dignitate adficeretur, non minora illis ornamenta ex sua laude redderet.

Here's Yonge's translation:

Caecilia, the daughter of Balearicus, the sister of Nepos, a most incomparable woman, who, though she had a most illustrious father, most honourable uncles, a most accomplished brother, yet, though she was a woman, carried her virtue so far, as to confer on them no less honour by her character than she herself received from their dignity.

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