Classics Vitruvius
Marden Nichols
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0322


Vitruvius is the author of De architectura (c. 20s BCE), the only text devoted to architecture that survives from classical antiquity. On the basis of internal evidence, scholars date Vitruvius’s De architectura to c. 27–22 BCE. Across ten books of Latin prose dedicated to the emperor Augustus, Vitruvius lays out an ambitious and idiosyncratic vision of architecture. De architectura’s subject matter includes the education of architects and the principles of architecture (Book 1); building materials (Book 2); the construction of temples (Book 3 and Book 4); public buildings (Book 5); houses (Book 6); architectural decor (Book 7); sources of water (Book 8); astronomy, dials, and clocks (Book 9); and machines of war (Book 10). Nothing is securely known about the author, nor is his name attached to any other surviving texts. The readership and influence of De architectura in the ancient world remains mysterious: before Pliny the Elder names Vitruvius as one of the sources for his Naturalis Historia in the 1st century CE, there are no unmistakable signs of Vitruvian influence in Roman literature or architecture. The intelligentsia of the Italian Renaissance, by contrast, poured over De architectura and strenuously attempted to apply its principles, as witnessed by Andrea Palladio’s architectural designs and Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man.” For archaeologists, classical art historians, and scholars of ancient science and engineering, Vitruvius remains a unique and precious source, and De architectura holds a place of honor within the academic curriculum of aspiring architects to this day. Nevertheless, ambiguity, inconsistency, and anachronism are but three challenges that dog any interpretation of De architectura as a factual account of Roman engineering, design, or building practices. Likewise, due to the perceived awkwardness and naivety of his prose (as well as his technical subject matter), Vitruvius traditionally has attracted little interest among scholars of classical literature.


Baldwin 1990 remains a good starting point for both students and scholars interested in Vitruvius’s life and background. Masterson 2004 (cited under the Education of the Architect), Nichols 2009, and Nichols 2017 (cited under Monographs) demonstrate that Vitruvius’s persona responds to 1st-century BCE social pressures and literary tropes. Gros 2006 and Cuomo 2011 consider how Vitruvius’s tenure of the government post of scriba armamentarius (a scribe whose duties relate to military engineering) may have shaped the form and content of the treatise. Fögen 2009 reveals that, throughout the text, Vitruvius’s self-fashioning echoes the conventions of ancient technical treatises. Thielscher 1961 relays the tantalizing theory that Vitruvius was none other than Catullus’s invective target Mamurra. In the wake of Ruffel and Soubiran 1962, this idea quickly lost traction, though Palmer 1983 considers the implications of a possible family connection.

  • Baldwin, Barry. 1990. The date, identity and career of Vitruvius. Latomus 49.2: 425–434.

    Readable introductory survey of internal and external evidence pertaining to Vitruvius’s life and times.

  • Cuomo, Serafina. 2011. Skills and virtues in Vitruvius’ book 10. In War in words: Transformations of war from antiquity to Clausewitz. Edited by Marco Formisano and Hartmut Böhme, 309–332. Transformationen der Antike 19. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Demonstrates that Vitruvius’s tenth book draws upon the author’s military background, as well as his careful reading of Athenaeus Mechanicus’s On Machines.

  • Fögen, Thorsten. 2009. Vitruv: De architectura. In Wissen, Kommunikation und Selbstdarstellung: zur Struktur und Charakteristik römischer Fachtexte der frühen Kaiserzeit. 106–151. Zetemata 134. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck.

    A chapter on Vitruvius, within a monograph on self-fashioning in ancient technical treatises, that lays particular stress on the author as a model for Galen.

  • Gros, Pierre. 2006. Munus non ingratum: le traité vitruvien et la notion de service. In Vitruve et la tradition des traités d’architecture. Fabrica et ratiocinatio. By Pierre Gros, 311–326. Rome: École française de Rome.

    Demonstrates that De architectura bears the markings of having been composed as part of Vitruvius’s duties as a scriba armamentarius (a scribe whose duties relate to military engineering). Originally published in Le projet de Vitruve: Objet, destinataires et réception du De architectura. Edited by Pierre Gros, 75–90. Collection de l’École française de Rome 192 (Rome: École française de Rome, 1994).

  • Nichols, Marden Fitzpatrick. 2009. Social status and the authorial personae of Horace and Vitruvius. In Perceptions of Horace: A Roman poet and his readers. Edited by L. B. T. Houghton and Maria Wyke, 109–122. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Argues that Vitruvius’s authorial persona shares features in common with that of Horace—and that both respond to 1st-century BCE stereotypes of scribes as ambitious upstarts.

  • Palmer, Robert E. A. 1983. On the track of the ignoble. Athenaeum 61:343–361.

    Draws out implications of a potential familial or professional acquaintance between Mamurra and Vitruvius, both of whom sprung from families socially compromised by engagement in commerce.

  • Ruffel, Pierre, and Jean Soubiran. 1962. Vitruve ou Mamurra? Pallas 11:123–179.

    DOI: 10.3406/palla.1962.994

    Rebuttal of Thielscher 1961. After extended consideration of Thielscher’s hypothesis, concludes that Vitruvius and Mamurra could not have been the same person, due to character differences between the profligate Mamurra and the poor and humble Vitruvius. Includes epigraphical appendix of attested Vitruvii.

  • Thielscher, Paul. 1961. Vitruvius. Paulys-Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft 9a.1. Edited by Georg Wissowa, cols. 427–489. Stuttgart: Druckenmuller.

    Proposes that the author Vitruvius was in fact one “Lucius Vitruvius Mamurra,” and that this otherwise unattested historical figure was also Julius Caesar’s chief engineer Mamurra.

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