De Viris Illustribus (Petrarch)

De Viris Illustribus (Petrarch)

De viris illustribus (English: On Illustrious Men) is an unfinished collection of biographies, written in Latin, by the 14th century Italian author Francesco Petrarca. These biographies are a set of Lives similar in idea to Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The works were unfinished however he was famous enough for these and other works to receive two invitations to be crowned poet laureate. He received these invitations on exactly the same day, April 8, 1341, one being from the Paris University and the other from the Roman Senate.[1] He accepted the Roman invitation.[2]

It is composed of two books:

  • Liber II includes 12 moral biographies of Biblical and mythical figures (much like that found in the Hebrew Bible, Greek mythology, and Islamic prophets).[1]

There is as yet no English translation, however Harvard University has it under contract to appear in the I Tatti Renaissance Library sometime in the future.


Liber I

These are 36 biographies of Petrarch's subjects starting with Romulus, the mythological founder of Rome, and going through Trajan.[3] All of these are mentioned in Petrarch's epic poem Africa. He revised the list many times over the years in different "plans." Some "Illustrious Romans" ended with Titus.[4] Another plan of "Illustrious Romans" added Julius Caesar as the twenty-fourth biography.[5] The adjacent 1476 Table of Contents introduction is old Italian and says something to the effect: Repository of the book here present where will be shown the chapters on 36 "illustrious men" whose deeds are extensively described by the honorable poet, Sir Francesco Petrarca, and beginning as appears below. Listed among these are Titus, Pompey, Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar.

1476 table of contents of Petrarch's Illustrious Romans, beginning with Romulus and ending with Trajan.
Subjects of De Viris Illustribus in Latin[3] Subjects of De Viris Illustribus appearing in Africa [1] Page references in Africa translation[6]
Romulo primo Romanorum rege Romulus 19, 20, 80, 116, 144, 232, 253, 270
Numa Pompilio secundo Romanorum rege . Numa Pompilius 244
Tullo Hostilio tertio Romanorum rege Tullus Hostilius 245
Anco Marzio quarter Romanorum rege Ancus Marcius 245
Iunio Bruto primo Romanorum consule Lucius Junius Brutus 66, 67, 68, 254, 269
Horatio Cocle Horatius Cocles 214, 269
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Cincinnatus 253
Marco Furio Camillo Marcus Furius Camillus 213, 246, 247, 259
Tito Manlio Torquato Titus Manlius Torquatus 248
Marco Valerio Corvo Marcus Valerius Corvus 253
Publius Decius Publius Decius Mus 253
Lucio Papirius Cursor Lucius Papirius Cursor 253
Marco Curio Dentato Curius Dentatus 253
Fabritio Lucino Gaius Fabricius Luscinus 253, 270
Alexandro Macedonian Alexander III of Macedon 27, 185, 187, 252, 266, 267, 271
rege Pyrro Epyrotarum Pyrrhus of Epirus 152, 185, 190, 253, 264
Hanibal Carthaginensium Duce Hannibal of Carthage 123-129, 131-134, 142-145, 149-154
Quinto Fabio Maximo Cuntator Fabius Maximus Cunctator ("the Delayer") 14, 15, 144, 217, 244, 255, 263
Marco Claudio Marcello Marcus Claudius Marcellus 14, 130, 147, 244, 253, 261
Claudius Nero Gaius Claudius Nero 200-204, 246, 260, 268
Livius Salinatore Marcus Livius Salinator 135
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Maiore Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus 134-138, 163-164, 182, 189, 204
Marco Porta Cato Censors Cato the Elder 28, 59, 246, 253
Cesare Vlio dementflimor Julius Caesar 242, 246, 247
Tito Quinto Flimmio Titus Quinctius Flamininus 248
Anthiocore de Asiae Antiochus XIII Asiaticus 27, 193, 245, 246, 259, 267
Scipionenasiae Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica 246
Pavlo Emilio Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus 14, 244, 265
Quinto Caecilo Metello Quintus Caecilius Metellus 135, 246, 254, 262
Scipioneafricano emilianae Scipio Aemilianus 204, 246, 249, 269
Mario Arpinater Gaius Marius 213, 246, 247, 259
Pompeo Magno Pompey 246, 247
Octaviano Auguflos Augustus 136, 195, 197
Vespasiano Vespasian 247
Tito Vespasiano Titus 248
Traiano Trajan 248

Liber II

These are the subjects of Petrarch's 12 biographies starting with the first person of the Bible. Petrarch influenced Giovanni Boccaccio Lives On Famous Women of 106 biographies which starts with the first woman of the Bible. Below is the first person of the Bible and above in Liber I is the first mythical figures that started Rome.[1]


Petrarch was working on De viris illustribus at the same time he was working on his epic poem Africa with Scipio Africanus being the center figure for both.[7] The Africa was conceived as a poetic parallel of De Viris Illustribus.[8] Petrarch conceived his first plan for De viris illustribus of biographies of illustrious men of Jewish, oriental, Greek and Roman famous figures in 1337-38. He wrote up his list of "Illustrious Men" from Adam to Hercules and Romulus to Titus in 1337-38 about the same time as he was writing up the Africa.[9] Petrarch's earliest reference to writing a series of biographies of Lives can be found in the third book of his work Secretum which was originally written up around 1337.[4] St. Augustine speaks to Petrarch

...thus, putting your hand to even greater works, you have tied yourself to a book of histories from the time of king Romulus to the emperor Titus, a task of immense duration and of very great labor.[5]

Petrarch went from these Lives of "Illustrious Men" into his work on the Africa using the research of De viris illustribus as the bases.[5][10] Petrarch was preoccupied with this idea of a series of biographies of Lives of ancient heroes of generals and statesmen for almost forty years.[4] There were several plans of De viris illustribus.[4] In 1348-49 Petrarch made a larger version of Lives.[5] Petrarch writes a letter to Luca Cristiani in 1349 concerning these Lives for De viris illustribus that he was doing in the valley at Vaucluse in France; place had afforded me more leisure or more exciting stimulation: that solitude has permitted me to collect in one scheme outstanding men from all lands and from all ages.[5]

Petrarch mentions in letters from Vaucluse around 1350 that he was working on a De viris illustribus that was wholly committed to those who were illustrious "from every country" and that he was "bringing together illustrious men from all lands and centries." This is known to scholars as an "all-ages" plan.[11] Petrarch added the "bio" of Julius Caesar, De gestis Cesaris ("On the Deeds of Caesar"), later as the twenty-fourth and last character of the Roman version finished about 1364 (fourteenth reigning year of John the Good) as an afterthought to his original "Famous Men."[5][12] He wanted to depict events that were controlled by the Roman leaders, not events that happened by luck or fortune.[13] He wanted to be a critical historian and convey these illustrious men in dignity.[13] For these reasons he is considered the first historian of the Renaissance.[14]


Petrarch worked on various "plans" and versions of De viris illustribus. He was not only influenced by ancient historians like Livy and Valerius Maximus, but by other historians of his time period that were working on similar ideas.[15] In the early part of the fourteenth century in northern Italy it was fairly commonplace among historians to write a series of biographies on famous men.[16] A friend of Petrarch's, Giovanni Colonna, authorized his version of a De viris illustribus before he left Avignon for Rome in 1338.[17] Another of Petrarch's friends, Guglielmo Pastrengo, had two works on lives of famous men, De viris illustribus and De originibus.[18] Petrarch's friend, Pastrengo, also wrote a work on De viris illustribus and De originibus.[19] The previous historian's works of De originibus are about the origins and definitions of geographical sites, peoples, and certain stone structures.[18]

Historian Kohn says that there was at least three different "plans" that Petrarch devised for his De viris illustribus. The first plan, prior to his famous epic poem Africa, was written around 1337. It is known as the "republican Rome" plan. The second plan started in 1350 entered in Christian figures, similar in style to Jerome's De viris illustribus and his "Church Fathers." It was finished around 1351-53 and called the "all-ages" plan. Petrarch enjoyed both the writings of ancient writers before the Christian era for their history of famous men and that of Jerome's Latin "Church Fathers" for their Christian viewpoints. He viewed both as a world being in decline. The third plan was a series of biographies of Romulus to Trajan and is referred to as "ancient secular heroes." In this plan most biographies are considered lengthy, while others are considered massive. For example, the biography of Cornelius Scipio is 20,000 words and that of the newly entered Julius Caesar is 70,000 words long. Petrarch's characters were of military heroes and civic leaders, while other authors wrote on most any notable men. Petrarch's overall goal attitude was to convey antiguity history balanced with the Christian tradition. He presented a moral aim of doing the right thing compared to actions of the past. He saw Jerome's "Church Fathers" as presenting moral virtues through Christian traditional viewpoints. He felt that by close examination of the ancient Roman leaders the reader could gain their virtues.[20][21]

morals virtues Livy, Jerome
aesthetic dignity Valerius Maximus, Cicero
critical truth Cicero

Petrarch intended his work to be instructional for teaching moral righteousness. He found comfort in the misfortunes of Old Testament figures such as Jacob and Joseph. He showed to his fourteenth century readers the lessons of common sense morality that could be learned from the ancient Roman leaders and Old Testament figures. He stressed these points over that of victories on the battlegrounds, which he considered as mere luck and incompetence of the enemies. He saw his duty of his work to be "describing illustrious men, not lucky ones."[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)". Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  2. ^ "Petrarch". Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  3. ^ a b De viris illustribus / Francesco Petrarca ; edited by Silvano Ferrone
  4. ^ a b c d Kohl, p. 133
  5. ^ a b c d e f Kohl, p. 134
  6. ^ Bergin and Wilson
  7. ^ Kirkham, pp. 113, 385
  8. ^ Kirkham, pp. 114, 385
  9. ^ Warner, p. 221
  10. ^ Kirkham, p. 106
  11. ^ Kirkham, p. 107
  12. ^ Kirkham, p. 110
  13. ^ a b Kohl, p. 136
  14. ^ Kohl, p. 137
  15. ^ Witt, p. 282
  16. ^ Witt, p. 283
  17. ^ Witt, p. 284
  18. ^ a b Kirkham, p. 104
  19. ^ Witt, p. 285
  20. ^ a b Kohl, pp. 133-36
  21. ^ Witt, pp. 282-289


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