BMCR 2020.10.07

Vitruvian man: Rome under construction

, Vitruvian man: Rome under construction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. ix, 251 p. ISBN 9780190696986. $74.00.


Over the past decade or so, Vitruvian scholarship has taken a new direction: the number of Anglophone publications has increased, and Vitruvius’ authorial voice and place in the Latin literary tradition are receiving more attention.[1] Vitruvian man: Rome under construction marks a new step in this new direction.[2] With compelling interpretations of specific episodes within De architectura (DA) arranged into a sophisticated reading of the text as a unitary whole, Oksanish takes a literary approach to DA, acknowledging its “participation in the textual world from which it emerged,” particularly with regard to its “involved intertextuality” (p. 4).[3] Attentive to Vitruvius’ use of bodily metaphors, Oksanish sees DA as a literary corpus, containing a body of architectural knowledge otherwise embodied by expert architects. According to Oksanish, Vitruvius models these architects and their civic roles in Augustan Rome on Ennius’ paradigmatic amicus minor and Cicero’s ideal republican orator.

In the introduction, warning against the habit of considering Vitruvius “only from the viewpoint of the presumed historical figure” (p. 4), Oksanish steers readers towards the Vitruvius found within the text, particularly the “didactic positionality” established in the paratextual dedication and prefaces.[4] DA is “a rhetorical performance of expertise” (p. 10), in which Vitruvius “constructs expertise” (p. 20), much as Cicero does in his writings on oratory. However, like most didactic and technical literature, DA is not a practical guide containing the information required for its readers to become experts. Architectural expertise hinges on the architect’s judgment (iudicium), a result of specialized knowledge (scientia) gained through training and experience. Vitruvius’ iudicium is what allows him to compose a brief, yet authoritative corpus architecturae – “the textual enactment of an embodied model of civic expertise” – that “domesticates” architecture (an overwhelmingly Greek discipline), for busy Roman elites, chief among them Augustus (p. 25).

In Chapter 1 (“Vitruvius, Man?”), Oksanish addresses the long-standing scholastic “failure to prioritize (and in some cases, simply to acknowledge) the textuality of DA and the literary ambitions of its author” (p. 36). Eschewing long-standing debates about the historical Vitruvius (which cloud our vision of Vitruvius’ imago within DA), Oksanish finds a number of models for Vitruvius’ authorial voice in Roman literary culture. Vitruvius praises his literary maiores who recorded history for the benefit of posterity (1.1.18, 4, and invokes certain authors whose literary outputs secured their immortality, especially the poets Ennius and Accius (whose simulacrum and figura continue to appear to readers, Like these poets, Vitruvius adapts Greek subject matter for a Roman audience. Operating as both laudator and advisor to important Romans like Scipio Africanus, Ennius offers a particularly meaningful model for the Vitruvian imago.[5] Oksanish likens Vitruvius’ authorial voice – with his deference to Augustus’ cura (, his negation of fame and wealth (, and his self-conscious brevitas (on which, see below) – to the Ennian amicus minor, “both proximate to the elite and on their margins, a paradoxical station that in tandem allows him to advise his superior and to enjoy the rewards of service” (p. 52). Nichols has compared Vitruvius’ self-effacement with Horace’s self-proclaimed marginality,[6] but Oksanish suggests that the Augustan authors modeling themselves on the amicus minor framework were in fact connected by “their relatively elite status as men who not only had the emperor’s ear, but also were experts in artistic media on which their dedicatee’s legacy depended” (p. 57).

In Chapter 2 (“History from the ground up: Vitruvius’ “textual” monuments”), Oksanish analyzes how, consciously or not, Vitruvius presents DA as essential to the success of the Augustan architectural program – specifically, its “proportional and permanent representation of the renewed Augustan city to posterity” (p. 60). Due to his concern with securing Augustus’ architectural legacy (, Vitruvius emphasizes that only a true architect can use his knowledge of historia to shape the interpretation (or reading) of buildings and monuments by both contemporaries and later generations. Buildings and monuments can become “legible” by appropriating “functions and goals otherwise associated … with texts and textual production,” a phenomenon which Vitruvius signals with formulaic combinations of posteri and/or memoria with tradere (p. 64). This language regularly appears in instances of “metaexemplarity” (“the valorization of commemoration itself,” p. 65), both in other literary genres (especially historiography) and in funerary inscriptions. Oksanish approaches Vitruvius’ history of caryatids and Persian statues (1.1.5-6) as a case study of an architect shaping narratives of commemoration. Presenting two different aetiologies of caryatids (the historicity of which has often been questioned), Vitruvius offers these stories as argumenta – plausible narratives “that reside between historiae and fabulae on a spectrum of truthfulness” (pp. 80-81), described by Quintilian as an aspect of narratio (5.10.8-12). The architect’s knowledge of history, his ingenium, and his iudicium allow him to judge an argumentum’s plausibility just like an orator. As Oksanish underlines with his reading of the capture of the helepolis by Diognetus of Rhodes (after the failure of the false architect Callias), only a true architect can judge what is a plausible, realistic, or proportional representation of reality.

In Chapter 3 (“The body in brief: De architecutra and the limits of somatic synopsis”), Oksanish outlines how the “synoptic unity” of the human body acts as a metaphor for Vitruvius’ organization and arrangement of architecture as a discipline into his textual body, “a unitary whole where none had previously existed” (98).[7] Condensing the entire corpus architecturae into a brief, proportional, and well-organized textual corpus, Vitruvius facilitates the audience’s “somatic synopsis.” Far from the first ancient author to use bodily metaphors to describe a text or the act of writing, Vitruvius participates in a tradition dating back to Socrates and Aristotle.[8] However, the οἰκονομία required of the Greek universal historians (especially Polybius) provides a model for Vitruvius’ collection, selection, and arrangement of material “within a perfectly representative and essential whole” and for its recognition as an original and important contribution (p. 104). The authorial agendas of Polybius and Vitruvius share other similarities, including a self-conscious brevity meant to engender a “similar ethos of trust” (p. 106). Vitruvius frames his brevitas similar to Polybius’ omission of sensationalizing extranea to show his “sensitivity to readers and their needs” (p. 106). Moreover, the two writers have a comparable teleological focus, since they both “allege that Roman hegemony … brought their subjects into existence and catalyzed their writing” (p. 107). Where Polybius points to the territorial expansion of the Roman empire, Vitruvius sees Augustus as the figure who secured “the necessary conditions under which he can (and should) publish on the subject” (p. 108). On the other hand, Oksanish points to Cicero as Vitruvius’ primary Latin literary model. While Cicero is not known for brevity, mediocritas does appear as a theme in certain letters addressing the presentation of unitary narratives and themes in textual bodies (Att. 2.1, Fam. 5.12, Q. Fr. 2.12(11) = SBQ 16). However, while Cicero’s concern with textual corpora comes from his desire to secure glory and fame within his lifetime and in subsequent generations, Vitruvius’ corpus architecturae “transcends its content to represent a distinctive professional and civic ethos” – that of the imperial Roman architect who secures the legacy of the princeps (p. 118).

Chapters 4 (“Introducing the architectus”) and 5 (“Bodies as behavior: Corpus architectorum”) address the embodiment of architecture in the idealized architect and in Vitruvius qua author. In Chapter 4, Oksanish questions the long-standing interpretation of Vitruvius’ “inferiority complex” about architecture (p. 121). In fact, he attributes Vitruvius’ anxiety about architecture to its status as an esoteric and overwhelmingly Greek discipline. Using Latin terms whenever possible, Vitruvius “domesticates” architecture for Rome by framing it as the knowledge (scientia) embodied by the expert architect. Similar to Cicero in his discussions of oratory and its ideal practitioner,[9] Vitruvius refuses to delineate the bounds of the discipline beyond those imposed by the corpus architecti,[10] which “naturalizes and, to some extent, neutralizes the theoretical, intellectual basis of architecture” (pp. 125-126).[11] Chapter 5 contrasts Vitruvius’ goal (“to communicate the greatness of the Augustan present, a time of stability rather than crisis, to posterity”) with the discursive deliberation of republican oratory, which was “rooted in an always timely concern for the safety of a commonwealth on the brink of collapse” (p. 145). Since an imperial architect has an important role in shaping the legacy of the princeps, the need to distinguish between true architects and interlopers is acute. However, the embodied nature of architectural scientia makes accounting for all possible contingencies an impossible task for DA, and in his discussion of Socrates and interior virtues (, 3), Vitruvius warns that an architect’s success does not always reflect his expertise as much as it does his ambition (ambitio) and reliance on flattery (gratia). In fact, an architect’s obscurity may indicate his integrity. To support this interpretation, Oksanish juxtaposes a compelling reading of the Dinocrates-Alexander episode ( with Archimedes’ “Eureka!” ( Dinocrates ambitiously pursues Alexander’s attention by means of his body’s physical appearance, while Archimedes uses his physical body in the service of Hiero. Considering a variety of intertextual references, Oksanish suggests that Vitruvius likens both Dinocrates and Alexander to Antony (in some cases, via Hercules). Casting himself as the Archimedes to Augustus’ Hiero, Vitruvius highlights “the civic value of perfecting the textual body [e.g. Vitruvius’ corpus architecturae] by contrasting it with the self-aggrandizement (and civic uselessness)” of perfecting the physical body” (p. 180).

The epilogue (“Alternate realities — a palimpsestic corpus”) offers a final assessment of Vitruvius’ contradicting authorial voices and agendas. Although self-effacing and focused on Augustus’ cura, Vitruvius is keenly aware of his own expertise, which his textual corpus offers as a munus to its dedicatee. An exciting contribution to the study of Vitruvius, Augustan Rome, and the authorial voices of technical authors, this volume offers a glimpse into the scholastic and interpretive avenues opened by treating technical literature as literature. Oksanish successfully advocates for DA’s rich connections with the Greek and Roman literary traditions relevant to those working on the intellectual and literary milieu of late republican and Augustan Rome. Intended “as a catalyst for further study of the work in its context” (p. 3), Oksanish’s literary reading of DA in Vitruvian Man can (and should) catalyze scholarship on other technical literature, as well.


[1] Scholarship in continental Europe has otherwise dominated the discussion, with Louis Callebat, Mireille Courrént, Marco Formisano, Pierre Gros, Antoinette Novara, and Elisa Romano among the most prominent voices.

[2] This volume follows hot on the heels of M. Nichols, Author and Audience in Vitruvis’ “DA.” (Cambridge, 2017). The proximity of publication dates prevented Oksanish (who reviewed Nichols 2017 for BMCR in 2019: 2019.05.18) from fully accounting for Nichols’ arguments, a conundrum which speaks to the increased prominence of Vitruvian studies.

[3] For “involved intertextuality” (which scholars usually limit to non-technical writing), see G. Hutchinson, “Read the Instructions: Didactic Poetry and Didactic Prose.” Classical Quarterly 59.1 (2009), 196-211.

[4] For “didactic positionality,” see D. Fowler, “The Didactic Plot,” in M. Depew and D. Obbink, eds., Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society (Cambridge, MA, 2000), 205-2019.

[5] Oksanish refers to both Ennius himself, particularly the Cn. Servilius Geminus episode (Ann. I, fr. 268-86 Sk.) and the later construction of the author, especially Cic. Arch. 21-22.

[6] Nichols, Author and Audience (2017) and “Social Status and the Authorial Personae of Horace and Vitruvius,” in L. Houghton and M. Wyke, eds., Perceptions of Horace: A Roman Poet and His Readers (Cambridge), 109-122.

[7] Parts of this argument appeared in J. Oksanish, “Vitruvius and the Programmatics of Prose.” Arethusa 49.2 (2016), 263-280.

[8] See Pl. Phaedr. 264c and Ar. Po. 1451a4.

[9] See, e.g. Tusc. 1.5, De Orat. (more broadly), and J. Connolly, The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome (Princeton, 2007).

[10] DA begins not with a discussion of architectura but with architecti…scientia (1.1.1). A useful point of contrast overlooked by Oksanish is Varro’s painstaking discussion of what constitutes agriculture (Rust. 1.2.12-28).

[11] Oksanish likens the corpus architecti to the medical soma described by B. Holmes, The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece (2010, Princeton).