Latin Words and Grammar

Omnia Vincit Amor: Love in Ancient Rome

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Omnia vincit amor is one of the most famous of all Latin expres­sions. It is also one of the most used ones still today, both in the orig­i­nal Latin, in trans­la­tion and in its famil­iar “altered” ver­sion Amor vincit omnia.

We hear the phrase in wed­ding speech­es, we see it tat­tooed on men and women all over the world. Every oth­er author through­out his­to­ry has used it, para­phrased it or trans­lat­ed it. It has been used as book titles, as mot­toes, it has turned into songs and films, jew­el­ry, post­cards and fridge magnets.

Publius’ Pastoral Poem

The expres­sion Omnia vincit amor orig­i­nal­ly comes from the Roman poet Vir­gil, or Pub­lius Vergilius Maro. Vir­gil was born the 15th of Octo­ber 70 B.C in Andes, part of mod­ern Pietole, near Man­tua in Italy. He is most famous for his grand epos the Aenid.

The phrase Omnia vincit amor, how­ev­er springs from his first work, Bucol­i­ca or Eclogae.

Illustrated manuscript from the 5th century of Vergilius' Eclogues.
FIRST LINES OF ECLOGUES, OR BUCOLICA, FROM VERGILIUS ROMANUS — AN ILLUSTRATED MANUSCRIPT FROM THE 5TH CENTURY. BIBLIOTECA APOSTOLICA, COD. VAT. LAT. 3867.

Bucol­i­ca con­sists of ten pas­toral poems pub­lished in 37 B.C. Omnia vincit amor is found in the last of those ten poems.

The full line in Vir­gil reads:

“Omnia vincit amor: et nos cedamus amori”

— Vir­gil, Ecl. 10.69

i.e. “Love con­quers all; let us, too, yield to love!” (transl. Rush­ton Fairclough) 

The expres­sion needs very lit­tle expla­na­tion as to its mean­ing, it is self-explana­to­ry being so clear with­in itself: “Love conquers/overcomes all.”

What needs to be said though is that it is not a proverb. It is an expres­sion. A phrase uttered by a char­ac­ter in a poem. As time has passed, one could say that it has gained the weight of a proverb. But it is still just an expression.

White marble bust of a young Publius Vergilius Maro.
BUST OF PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO, FROM THE TOMB OF VIRGIL IN NAPLES — PHOTO A HUNTER WRIGHT.

Love for Lycoris

In Vir­gil’s poem, the words, Omnia vincit amor, are uttered by a love-sick man named Gal­lus as he is dying.

Gal­lus was so in love with a woman called Lycoris, that the god Apol­lo him­self asked Gal­lus why he con­tin­ued with the mad­ness of love:

“Galle, quid insanis?”

Also, Lycoris had left with some­one else.

To answer Apollo’s ques­tion: Yes, Gal­lus was mad. Mad with love.

Lycoris had left him and now he was dying in Arca­dia from love and a bro­ken heart. So great was his mad­ness that not only did Apol­lo try to inter­vene, but so did the gods Sil­vanus and Pan. Nei­ther of them succeeded.

Gallus’ Girl

In the poem, Gal­lus is sup­pos­ed­ly Gaius Cor­nelius Gal­lus (c. 70–26 B.C), a poet just like Vir­gil, taught by the same mas­ter as Vir­gil and a friend of the same.

The real Gal­lus wrote four books of ele­gies, now lost to us save for a few frag­ment­ed lines.

The ele­gies depict­ed his love for a woman whom he in his own and in Virgil’s works called Lycoris.

Lycoris was a poet­i­cal name for a famous actress named Cytheris, who was not only the love of Gal­lus, but the mis­tress of, amongst oth­ers, Mark Antho­ny and Bru­tus, though not at the same time. (Young Sel­l­ar, pp. 221–222)

White marble bust of Gaius Cornelius Gallus.
GAIUS CORNELIUS GALLUS, CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART.

Working the Vowels

Per­haps you are think­ing to yourself :

”But isn’t it sup­posed to be AMOR vincit omnia?!”

Well, no. And yes.

A syl­la­ble in Latin is either short or long and as such cer­tain words can only be placed at cer­tain places in the var­i­ous meters, which are like more or less flex­i­ble pat­terns of short and long syllables.

In the orig­i­nal words of Vir­gil, it is Omnia vincit amor and noth­ing else. Amor can­not stand first, as the poem is writ­ten in meter, hexa­m­e­ter, to be exact, and in order for the meter to work the first syl­la­ble must be long (omnia). The a in amor, how­ev­er, is short.

In hexa­m­e­ter, the quan­ti­ties of the phrase omnia vincit amor, work. But if you switch the words around to Amor vincit omnia – we no longer have a cor­rect hexameter.

Caravaggio’s Creation

So is it incor­rect to say Amor vincit omnia?

No. And yes.

It is incor­rect if you want to be a purist and fol­low Vir­gil to the end of the world and use a right and prop­er quote.

It is cor­rect if you just want to com­mu­ni­cate that love con­quers all, since the word order in Latin is very free.

But how has this altered word order become the stan­dard of the quote?

Well, it has a lot (though not all) to do with the Ital­ian painter Car­avag­gio who at the very begin­ning of the 1600’s made a paint­ing of Amor, the Roman god of Love in the form of a Roman cupid.

This paint­ing became very famous, and still is, and it was named ”Amor vincit omnia”.

Caravaggio's painting "omnia vincit amor" with Amor depicted as a young naked boy with large wings.
AMOR VINCIT OMNIA, BY CARAVAGGIO 1601–1602.

Amor Above All

When we speak of love, or more impor­tant­ly –tat­too it on our bod­ies– we want to make sure every­one under­stands that it is LOVE that con­quers all.

So we put it first.

Because what if some­one who does not under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of the Latin tongue sees the phrase Omnia vincit amor, and mis­tak­ing­ly trans­lates it into ”Every­thing con­quers love”?

That would be a disaster!

OMNIA VINCIT AMOR, OR THE POWER OF LOVE IN THE THREE ELEMENTS BY BENJAMIN WEST, 1809. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

Romance in Rome

We know very lit­tle about love in Roman times. We have count­less love poems, lines of affec­tion, sto­ries about polit­i­cal mar­riages, tales love-affairs and shame­less sex­u­al encounters.

Yet we know very little.

What we do know about love comes from the upper class and from mar­i­tal laws and regulations.

We know that mar­riage was quite sim­ple. No cer­e­monies were need­ed. You only need­ed to live togeth­er by con­sent as wife and hus­band, and you were married.

Divorce was the same.

Easy. You just split up. It was con­ven­tion­al to leave some expla­na­tion and rea­son for the sep­a­ra­tion, but noth­ing more. (Sid­well & Jones, p. 214)

Indecent Intimacy

We also have indi­ca­tions that pub­lic dis­plays of affec­tion was con­sid­ered indecent.

Flo­rence Dupont gives us a great exam­ple in Dai­ly life in Ancient Rome, where she retells the sto­ry of Manilius:

Manil­ius was expelled from the sen­ate by Cato the Cen­sor as he had hugged his wife in broad day­light – in front of their daugh­ter! (Dupont, p. 112–113)

Mar­riage was for the upper class­es many times a busi­ness deal, as it has been through­out his­to­ry. It was a polit­i­cal and finan­cial arrangement.

Alliances between fam­i­lies were many times sealed with some­one mar­ry­ing into the oth­er family.

Augus­tus, for instance, forced his step­son Tiberius to divorce his wife Vip­sa­nia Agrip­pina and mar­ry Agrip­pa’s wid­ow Julia for polit­i­cal rea­sons. Tiberius and Vip­sa­nia Agrip­pina cared too much for each oth­er though, so Augus­tus had to make sure they did not meet again. (Jones & Sid­well, pp. 227–228)

TIBERIUS AND AGRIPPINA (VIPSANIA) BY PETER PAUL RUBENS.

Yet it was not always just a mat­ter of busi­ness, there are numer­ous love poems and sto­ries of affec­tion­ate couples.

Real Romance

Pom­pey Mag­nus was, for instance, infa­mous for being in love with all of his wives.

Pliny the Younger expressed deep love and long­ing for his wife Calpur­nia in a most beau­ti­ful letter:

”Incred­i­bile est quan­to deside­rio tui ten­ear. In causa amor pri­mum, deinde quod non con­sue­vimus abesse. Inde est quod mag­nam noc­tium partem in imag­ine tua vig­il exi­go; inde quod inter­diu, quibus horis te vis­ere sole­bam, ad diae­tam tuam ipsi me, ut veris­sime dic­i­tur, pedes ducunt; quod denique aeger et maes­tus ac sim­ilis exclu­so a vac­uo lim­ine rece­do.” - Ep. 7.5

i.e. ”You can­not believe how much I miss you. I love you so much, and we are not used to sep­a­ra­tions. So I stay awake most of the night think­ing of you, and by day I find my feet car­ry­ing me (a true word, car­ry­ing) to your room at the times I usu­al­ly vis­it­ed you; then find­ing it emp­ty I depart, as sick and sor­row­ful as a lover locked out. ” (transl. Radice) 

Cicero, while in exile, so longed for his wife and chil­dren that he was suc­cumb by tears as he reads their letters:

“cum aut scri­bo ad vos aut ves­tras lego, con­fi­cior lacrim­is sic ut ferre non possim.”

— Cicero, Ad Famil­iares 14.4

i.e. ”when I write to you at home or read your let­ters I am so over­come with tears that I can­not bear it.” (transl. Shack­el­ton Bailey)

You can lis­ten to, and read, the entire let­ter in Latin here

He also called his wife mea vita, ”my life”, in the same let­ter and in anoth­er (Ad. Fam. 14.2) he calls her mea lux, meum desideri­um – ”my light, my heart’s longing”.

And then of course we have one of history’s most famous love sto­ries belong­ing to Mark Antho­ny and Cleopatra.

Their pas­sion end­ing in tragedy as Antho­ny believed Cleopa­tra was dead and so stabbed him­self with his sword. When he found out she was not, he was car­ried to her and died in her arms. 

THE DEATH OF MARK ANTHONY, FROM SHAKESPEARE’S ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, ACT 4, SCENE 15 BY NATHANIEL DANCE-HOLLAND. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.

How­ev­er, we don’t know how things looked for the low­er classes.

If you want to know more about love, affec­tion, mar­riage and sex in Rome, but not dive into this vast sub­ject and drown (as it is easy to do), I would rec­om­mend read­ing the chap­ter about the Roman fam­i­ly in Peter Jones’ and Kei­th Sid­well’s The world of Rome: and intro­duc­tion to Roman cul­ture.

Love in Life & Litterature

What­ev­er we know and don’t know about love in Rome, from the sources one thing is quite clear: Love and Duty was at war.

Love vs. Duty is the under­ly­ing theme of many love sto­ries. Duty to Rome, duty to the fam­i­ly, duty to des­tiny, duty to the gods…etc.

In real life we find such exam­ples as that with Tiberius, Vip­sa­nia and Julia; or Marc Antho­ny being mar­ried to Octavian’s sis­ter but hav­ing a pas­sion­ate love for Cleopatra.

In Vergil’s Aeneid we find Aeneas strug­gling with his love for Dido and his duty towards his peo­ple, his old coun­try deserv­ing to be res­ur­rect­ed, his duty and loy­al­ty towards the gods, his duty towards his old father and his son. He sac­ri­ficed his love.

DIDO AND AENEAS, RUTILIO MANETTI, 1630.

The Roman ide­al was a sort of hero, but with­out the hap­py sense of adven­ture and youth­ful­ness. It was a heav­ier ide­al, a seri­ous hero. (Wis­trand, p.60)

Vergil’s Veritas

Per­haps there was no war between love and duty at all, per­haps the rela­tion­ship with love was sim­ple, per­haps Vir­gil put the desire and belief of all of Rome into the mouth of Gal­lus as he defies gods and rea­son in Bucol­i­ca with his refusal of san­i­ty declar­ing loudly:

“Omnia vincit amor”

– Love con­quers all!

We will nev­er know.

References & Recommended Reading

Cicero. Let­ters to Friends, Vol­ume I: Let­ters 1–113. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by D. R. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley. Cam­bridge M.A, 2001.

Dupont, Flo­rence, Dai­ly life in Ancient Rome, 1992.

Jones, Peter & Kei­th Sid­well, eds.,The World of Rome: An Intro­duc­tion to Roman Cul­ture, Cam­bridge, 1997.

Pliny the Younger. Let­ters, Vol­ume I: Books 1–7. Trans­lat­ed by Bet­ty Radice. Cam­bridge M.A, 1969.

Plutarch. Lives, Vol­ume IX: Demetrius and Antony. Pyrrhus and Gaius Mar­ius. Trans­lat­ed by Bernadotte Per­rin. Cam­bridge M.A, 1920.

Vir­gil. Eclogues. Geor­gics. Aeneid: Books 1–6. Trans­lat­ed by H. Rush­ton Fair­clough. Revised by G. P. Goold. Cam­bridge M.A, 1916.

Wis­trand, Erik, Poli­tik och lit­ter­atur i Antikens Rom, Göte­borg, 1978.

Young Sel­l­ar, William, The Roman Poets of the Augus­tan Age: Horace and the Ele­giac Poets, Cam­bridge 2010.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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