Spinning the Wheel of Fortune

I’ve been hearing a lot lately – with final assessments nearly due and exams looming – about luck. ‘Good luck!’ ‘Fingers crossed!’ ‘Touch wood!’ But looking for luck in the world of Classics is less simple than it sounds, and there are traps which await the unwary.

The Greek goddess of Fortune, Tykhe, could be a sympathetic figure – when it suited her. Aesop tells the story of the Foolish Traveller and Tykhe:

 A Traveller wearied from a long journey lay down, overcome with fatigue, on the very brink of a deep well. Just as he was about to fall into the water, Lady Tykhe (it is said) appeared to him and waking him from his slumber thus addressed him : ‘Good Sir, pray wake up: for if you fall into the well, the blame will be thrown on me, and I shall get an ill name among mortals; for I find that men are sure to impute their calamities to me, however much by their own folly they have really brought them on themselves.’

Aesop, Fables 261 (from Chambry & Babrius, Fabulae Aesopeae 49)


In other words, men are both stupid and unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of their own stupidity, and Tykhe is sick of suffering because of it. So she’s a reluctant source of help: but helpful nonetheless. Aeschylus’ Tykhe, too, is handy to have around, snatching people from the brink of disaster:

Ourselves, however, and our ship, its hull unshattered, some power, divine not human, preserved by stealth or intercession, laying hand upon its helm; and Saviour Tykhe chose to sit aboard our craft so that it should neither take in the swelling surf at anchorage nor drive upon a rock-bound coast.

Agamemnon 661


It was prudent to flatter Tykhe, of course, because her help was never to be taken for granted:

Tykhe, beginning and end for mankind, you sit in Sophia’s (Wisdom’s) seat and give honour to mortal deeds; from you comes more good than evil, grace shines about your gold wing, and what the scale of your balance gives is the happiest; you see a way out of the impasse in troubles, and you bring bright light in darkness, you most excellent of gods.

Greek Lyric V Anonymous, Fragment 1019 (from Stobaeus, Anthology)


However, the goddess Fortuna – the Roman equivalent of Tykhe – has a bit more of an edge to her. Fortuna can be fickle and deceptive, not to mention vicious. She is blind, and her blindness makes her reward the unworthy:

Learned men of old had good grounds for envisaging and describing Fortuna as blind and utterly sightless. That goddess, I mused, ever bestows her riches on the wicked and the unworthy, never favouring anyone by discerning choice, but on the contrary preferring to lodge with precisely the people to whom she should have given wide berth, if she had eyes to see.

Apuleius, The Golden Ass 7. 2


The second century BC playwright Pacuvius was even more blunt:

Philosophers say that Fortune is insane and blind and stupid,
and they teach that she stands on a rolling, spherical rock:
they affirm that, wherever chance pushes that rock, Fortuna falls in that direction.
They repeat that she is blind for this reason: that she does not see where she’s heading;
they say she’s insane, because she is cruel, flaky and unstable; stupid, because she can’t distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.

Pacuvius, Scaenicae Romanorum Poesis Fragmenta


Pacuvius’ ball-balancing Fortuna, wrecking lives at random as she lurches around, has little in common with Aesop’s cranky Lady Tykhe, rescuing man from his own stupidity.

Over time, Fortuna’s fickleness became more codified, turning into a systematic reversal of fortune for the most fortunate. As a result, Fortuna acquired some special equipment. The ball comes up a lot in descriptions of Fortuna (although not always as a circus-style balancing act), along with a ship’s rudder and sometimes a horn, but the most famous part of her kit was her Wheel of Fortune. By the time of Tacitus, the Rota Fortunae was common enough to be seen as a tired literary cliché: but like most clichés, it was popular for a reason, and it persisted.

The Wheel kept turning in the popular imagination, through the rise of Christianity and beyond, and eventually it became a fixture in medieval Latin thought. In the process, different bits of the Wheel were identified:

Characteristically, it has four shelves, or stages of life, with four human figures, usually labeled on the left regnabo (I shall reign), on the top regno (I reign) and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom).

(with thanks to Wikipedia!)


Edward Burne-Jones: The Wheel of Fortune.

Burne-Jones’ fabulous Wheel of Fortune, showing that even a crown does not protect you from being stood on.


So where does that leave the luckless classicist? Well, I would recommend avoiding the Roman Fortuna of Pacuvius and Apuleius when asking for help: you never know what she’s going to do, and she’s notorious for her poor judgement (not to mention the ball-balancing, which I think would be rather distracting in an exam situation). Tykhe might help you with your exam or dissertation: as Aesop points out, she has a reputation for saving people from their own foolishness. If you do something stupid enough, she might just step in to pull you back from disaster.


(I suspect there’s a limit to Tykhe’s ability to rescue the stupid.)


There’s something to be said, though, for the medieval Wheel of Fortuna. If you feel, right now, that you are without a kingdom (or without a prayer, or a functioning memory, or a real grasp of why we don’t say ‘Romanisation’ any more), then on the Wheel the only way is up. You’re heading for the optimistic regnabo, and it’s only a matter of time before you come out on top.

So hop on to the Wheel of Fortune, everybody! Just don’t think too far ahead…




Fortune Books for Further Reading


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