Return to The End of Paganism

Altar of Victory

"Not with altars nor ground wheat is auspicious victory prevailed upon to come. It is tireless toil, rude courage, surpassing energy of spirit, burning zeal, forcefulness, painstaking, that bestow victory, and stark strength in handling arms. If men at war lack these, then even though a golden Victory unfold her flashing wings in a marble temple, a lofty figure that cost a great price, she will not be at their side, and their spears turned about will seem to show her offended....It is a man's own right hand, and almighty God, no she-warrior with dressed hair, hovering bare-footed, girt in with a band, while the robe that clothes her swelling breasts flows in lose folds over her bosom....Would'st thou, wealthy Rome, adorn thy senate-house? Hang up the spoils that arms and blood have won; heap up, to mark thy victory, the crowns of kings thou hast slain; but break the hideous ornaments that represent gods thou hast cast away. Then will be preserved for thee in the midst of the temple the memory of victory not gained on earth only but beyond the stars."

Prudentius, Contra Symmachum (Against Symmachus II)

Sparta's only colony was Tarentum, one of numerous early Greek settlements along the coast of southern Italy that comprised Magna Graecia. In 280 BC, Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus, defended the town against the Romans who, confounded by his war elephants, were defeated. But Pyrrhus lost his best troops and most trusted generals (Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, XV.1ff; hence the term "Pyrrhic victory" to signify a nominal victory won at such cost to be tantamount to defeat). Nevertheless, he erected a gilded bronze statue of Victory to commemorate the battle. Tarentum was recaptured by the Romans in 272 BC and again in 209 BC, when the statue likely was taken to Rome. Syracuse had been sacked two years before, its spoils evoking an admiration for Greek art and a concomitant desire for the ornaments of other despoiled cities (Livy, History of Rome, XXV.40.2; Plutarch, Life of Marcellus, XXI.3-4). Tarentum was duly plundered of its paintings and statues, with only the largest figures being left behind (Livy, XXVII.16.7; cf. Plutarch, Life of Fabius Maximus, XXII.5-6; Strabo, Geography, VI.3.177, who relates that a colossal bronze statue by Lysippus was among the booty taken from Tarentum in 209 BC).

In 29 BC, two years after Octavian's own victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, he dedicated the Roman Senate House (Curia) and placed there an altar and the statue of Victory from Tarentum, which was decorated with the spoils of Egypt, "thus signifying that it was from her that he had received the empire" (Dio, Roman History, LI.22.1). That senators should perform their duties more conscientiously, they also were to offer incense and wine at the Altar before taking their seats (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, XXXV.3). Herodian implies that the statue was in the center of the chamber, before which each senator would burn incense and pour a libation of wine upon entering (Roman History, V.5.7). Later, he relates that some people were obliged to push past the Altar (VII.11.3), presumably having entered through the two doors on either side of the dais at the rear, where indeed traces of the statue pedestal have been found.

  One of the most common virtues represented on the reverse of Roman coins, Victoria (from vincere, "to conquer") was personified as a winged figure, usually holding a palm frond or laurel wreath, and descending in a flowing robe as a messenger of the gods to bestow them on the victorious. Together with Victoriola, a small cult statue of Victory standing on a globe and extending a wreath, she symbolized the gift of victory and the renown it conferred. The image continued to appear on coinage long after other pagan deities had been excluded, an evocative symbol of Rome's triumph but, in time, only as a personification and no longer divine.

In ridiculing the notion of a woman who "passes as a bird, a great vulture and a goddess both in one," the Christian poet Prudentius provides a brief description of how the statue may have looked (Against Symmachus, I. 59-60). By the time of Constantine in the fourth century, the winged Victory, its idolatrous association having begun to fade, was being transformed into the figure of an angel, the intermediary and attendant of God, and the palm branch, a symbol of victory over death and the church triumphantalthough, to be sure, there was a transitional period in which both angels and Victory coexisted. Often, the dress was so similar that an exposed breast served to designate Victory. By the late fifth century, wings become the defining characteristic of the angel, an understandable attribute for a creature that dwells in space between heaven and earth.


The life-size bronze statue (top) was discovered in 1826 in Brescia (Brixia), where it now is in the Santa Giulia Museo della Città. It derives from the Aphrodite of Capua in the National Archaeological Museum (Naples), which itself is a Roman copy of a fourth-century BC original. The small bronze statuette (above), which is in the National Archaeological Museum (Naples), suggests even more vividly the original appearance of Victoria.

Depicted as Venus Victrix, Aphrodite originally gazed at her reflection in the burnished shield of her lover Ares and rested her foot on his helmet. The addition of wings and clothing the nude torso have transformed the figure into a representation of Victoria inscribing the name and military achievements of the victor, the shield now turned away from the goddess to face the viewer. Indeed, the second-century AD statue may have been a votive offering dedicated to the goddess by just such a person.

Victoria was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Nike, the goddess of victory (in both war and peace), who in Hesiod's Theogony was the sister of Rivalry, Strength, and Force. In spite of being the children of a Titan, they joined the gods in the cosmic struggle against that race and were honored in turn by Zeus by being allowed to reside in Olympus (383ff; Apollodorus, Library, I.2.9).

References: Prudentius: Against the Address of Symmachus (1953) translated by H. J. Thomson (Loeb Classical Library); "Victory: The Story of a Statue" (1969) by H. A. Pohlsander, Historia, 18(5), 588-597; A Study on the Winged Angel: The Origins of a Motif (1968) by Gunnar Berefelt. The photograph (top) is by Stefano Bolognini.

See also Curia and Elephant.

Return to Top of Page