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Fortuna and Risk: Embodied Chance in the Roman Empire

Anna Francesca Bonnell-Freidin

Princeton University

The goddess Fortuna provided Romans with an abstract yet embodied means to contemplate the nature of chance. Related to, but not entirely continuous with her Greek counterpart Tyche, she is found in a wide range of contexts, from lararia to imperial iconography. Drawing on material and literary evidence, this paper explores Fortuna’s development under the Roman Empire as a vehicle for understanding chance, luck, precarity, and power. I argue that her identity – iconographic and otherwise – constituted a discursive toolkit for thinking about risk, binding together the very fabric of the empire with the hearth and home. In particular, I focus on her combination of reproductive, agricultural, and seafaring associations, and how this blend can help us think about risk. The paper ends by addressing how risk was gendered in Roman culture.

As Mary Douglas and other cultural theorists have argued, risks are perceived and constructed differently by groups based on their cultural systems, values, and hierarchies (see, e.g., Douglas 1992; Douglas and Wildavsky 1983; cf. Eidinow 2007). While there is no direct equivalent in Greek or Latin for risk, this paper uses the term as a heuristic device, to describe what Greeks and Romans would call ‘danger’ (periculum, kindunos) and more generally, to describe the possibility of a negative outcome in situations where the stakes are high and the end result is uncertain. Fortuna, as a goddess of good luck, also projects its inverse – the possibility of loss and failure.

In the first part of the paper, I focus on Fortuna’s numismatic footprint. The goddess’ imagery draws on Tyche, who was important for Hellenistic kings as a protector of city and empire. Fortuna and Tyche, both implicated in dynastic succession, were kingmakers. In conversation with Hellenistic models, Fortuna’s iconography was standardized in imperial Rome, especially on coins (Arya 2002; cf. Kajanto 1981; Lichocka 1997). Combining agricultural and seafaring imagery, she is usually pictured holding a cornucopia in one hand – a symbol of fertility and abundance – and a ship’s rudder in the other, a sign that she ‘steers’ events, while implying the perils of sea travel. In the Flavian period, she is often pictured with a globe, on which her rudder rests, symbolizing Rome’s victory and stability, thanks to Fortuna’s positive disposition towards the imperial project. Globes, however, can roll and rotate, they are inherently precarious. They symbolize time and can also point to the fixity of the human lifespan and perhaps an empire’s too.

The second half of the paper turns to Fortuna in a domestic setting. The goddess had a range of associations and was sometimes blended with other gods. In imperial Pompeii, for example, Fortuna was blended with Isis (known among scholars as ‘Isis Fortuna’), opening up a wider range of salvific, as well as reproductive, associations. Indeed, the majority of figural representations of Isis from Pompeii are in the form of Fortuna – with rudder and cornucopia (Beaurin 2008). Isis Fortuna seems to have been linked to the hearth and featured in household worship. Isis was also associated with vegetal growth and maritime activity, and her identity as ‘Isis Fortuna’ draws together domestic and reproductive associations with seafaring (symbolized by her rudder) and the earth’s fertility (the cornucopia).

Altogether, reproduction, seafaring, and vegetal growth constitute a discursive toolkit for understanding gain, loss, success, and failure. In their own ways, each of these activities is bound up with perceptions of risk – of high stakes and the possibilities of success and failure. In the polyvalent goddess Fortuna, we find the interplay and entanglement of these activities. She suggests a conceptualization of luck and chance, which also conveys a distinctly gendered view of risk and its rewards.

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Approaching Risk in Antiquity

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