related to this article:

• Baltasar de Vitoria:

• Juan de Horozco:
Corpus of Spanish Emblem Books

Editions on CD:


• Corpus of Spanish Emblem Books

• The Golden Age of European Emblematics

• Emblems of Wither & Rollenhagen

• Alciato, Emblemata. Critical Edition

• Emblems of the Society of Jesus

• Renaissance Books of Imprese

• Baroque Repertories of Imprese


• Hieroglyphics

• Animal Symbolism

• Mythographies


• Renaissance Numismatics

• Complete Works of Hubert Goltzius

proverbial wisdom

• Erasmus’ Adagia. Versions and Sources


• Covarrubias, Tesoro de la lengua española

complete works

• Baltasar Gracián

Treasures of Kalocsa

• Book of Psalms
MS 382, c. 1438


Virgil’s Best Verse

Discite iustitiam, moniti, et non temnere divos

© Studiolum, 7-12-2004

In the chapter dedicated to Phlegyas – the king of the Lapithes, who burnt down the temple of Apollo at Delphi – Baltasar de Vitoria quotes and translates into Spanish a verse that Virgil puts into the mouth of the king. Phlegyas, for his impious act, was condemned to keep shouting aloud, in the Inferno, "Discite iustitiam, moniti, et non temnere divos" (learn justice, you admonished, and be not disrespectful towards the gods). But Baltasar de Vitoria also adds a surprising story:

And by the way I tell you the story that I heard from a priest, a man of great veracity, who, being called to one possessed by the devil, asked the demon which was the best verse of Virgil, and it responded that this was: Discite iustitiam, &c.

The judgement of the demon might be influenced by the fact that this verse of Virgil is pronounced in the Inferno, and will be ringing there for an eternity, and that those condemned for impious acts – indeed, such as Lucifer himself – must hear it with a special horror: this is the case of Salmoneus*, Tantalus, Sisyphus and other obstinate rebels against the gods. And its impact must be that much greater, as the commentary by Servius explicitly tells us that this imperative was directed towards those "now undergoing punishment". This does not lack in paradox, for how should they accomplish this order in those circumstances?

* On Salmoneus, king of Elis, who dared to compare himself to Jupiter, a complete tragedy was dedicated by Joost van den Vondel («Salmoneus», Amsterdam 1657), which bears on its frontispiece, as a motto of the work, this admonishment by Virgil (cf. its digital edition in dbnl).

Apart from the situation in which it is pronounced, the greatness of this verse is due to the perfect symmetry and sententiousness with which it marks the duties of the prince towards his inferiors and his superiors, towards his subjects and towards the gods. Exactly these duties are emphasized – although generalized, concerning everyone – by Lipsius in his De constantia.

Thus it is no surprise that in a copy of the authoritative Basel 1562 edition of Virgil's Opera omnia edited by Georgius Fabricius (1516-1571), conserved in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, this verse is underlined – as if it were a motto – by the same Renaissance hand who numbered the verses of this book:

That this verse in effect functioned as a kind of motto, or sentence of common use, is attested by its presence in many poliantheae: thus for example in that of Joannes Langius (Basel 1613), where it appears under the concepts "Justice" and "Fear of God". It also figures as a motto of emblems in Juan de Horozco's Emblemas morales (2.23, f. 45) or Juan de Solórzano Pereira (Emblem 19), always with reference to the work of judges.

Nevertheless, it is strange – and almost mysterious -- that in an edition of Virgil's Opera omnia by Petrus Burmannus Jun. (1746) we can find a commentary quoted from Georgius Fabricius that cannot be read in his own edition. This comment refers to the Humanist priest Lazzaro Bonamico (1477-1552), who asked a possessed Paduan girl – who was fluent in Latin and Greek, and well-lettered – which was the best verse of Virgil, and she pronounced in a loud and clear voice exactly this one that is quoted here.

At this point we have good reason to doubt the "great veracity" of the priest of Vitoria, who related this story as if he himself had lived it.

However, the story does not finish here. James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) attributed it to Melanchthon (in whose exhaustive index we cannot find a single word about it), transposing it from Padua to Bologna, and affirming that the girl otherwise "did not know Latin". The only certain fact is that Melanchthon starts with this quotation one of his epigrams as an admonishment to lyric poets "that have to warn us that God punishes the arrogant princes". Perhaps with this admonishment in mind, Hegel – albeit not in a lyrical vein – gave this verse as a title to his translation of Jean-Jacques Cart's pamphlet against small German tyrants.

However, the story ends with a twist on behalf of injustice and the contempt of gods: indeed, Poe censures Voltaire for having intentionally mistranslated this verse in order to deny the Judaic origins of monotheism...

And finally, while we might have had doubts in the "great veracity" of the priest mentioned by Vitoria, what reasons do we have for believing the assertion of a demon?


Baltasar de Vitoria, Teatro de los dioses de la gentilidad. Primera parte, 4.25.3. Madrid 1620, p. 644.

Sera en este articulo hazer vn largo discurso, para prouar este intento, y assi remito esto para que los curiosos lo puedan ver en los Autores alegados, donde se hallaran casos bien particulares, y extraordinarios: y vengamos aora al de Flegias, que por otros casos semejantes esta en el Infierno hecho predicador, contra los menospreciadores de Dios, y su culto santo, como lo dize Virgilio.

—— Phlegiasque miserrimus omnes
Admonet, & magna testatur voce per vmbras,
Discite iustitiam, moniti, & non temnere diuos.

Flegias el miserable, sin paciencia,
Con grandes vozes, por las sombras dize:
Iusticia aprended todos, y clemencia
No desprecies à Dios como yo hize.

Y de camino dire lo que oî à vn Sacerdote hombre de mucha verdad, que estando conjurado à vn endemoniado, le pregunto al demonio, qual era el mejor verso de Virgilio, y el respondio que este: Discite iustitiam, &c.

Servius, In Vergilii Aeneidos, 6.620

Discite iustitiam. Hoc est, vel nunc in poenis locati.

Justus Lipsius, De constantia, lib. 2. cap. 10: Denique Punitionem ipsam bonam & salubrem esse: dei respectu, hominum, & eius qui punitur. Opera omnia Lipsii, Amsterdam 1637, I, 403.

At Punitio ad malos spectat, fateor: non tamen mala Bona enim primò, si deum respicis: cuius iustitiae aeterna & immota lex postulat, peccata hominum aut emendari, aut tolli. Castigatio autem, quae ablui possunt, emendat: quae nequeunt, Punitio tollit. Bona iterùm; si homines spectes. quorum stare aut perennare haec societas non potest, si violentis scelestisque ingenijs omnia sint impunè. Vt ad priuatam cuiusque securitatem, priuati furis aut sicarij supplicio opus est: sic ad publicam, illustri aliquo & communi. Animaduersiones istae in tyrannos, & orbis terrae latrones, aliquando interueniant necessum est, vt exempla sint quae admoneant:

Εἶναι δίκης ὀφθαλμὸν, ὃς τὰ πάνθ’ ὁρᾷ.
Iustitiae lumen esse, cuncta quod videt. [Imò etiam respectu punitorum. Diuina non vltio propriè, sed cohibitio.]

quae alijs regibus populisque inclament,

Discite iustitiam moniti, & non temnere diuos.

Virgilii Opera, cum integris commentariis Servii, Philargyrii, Pierii... Nicolai Heinsii, ed. Petrus Burmannus, Amsterdam 1746

Discite justitiam. Haec verba apud Pindarum loquitur ipse Ixion. apud Virgilium Theseus, ad Phlegyas, Ixionis populos, quorum urbs ob crudelitatem, & impietatem eversa est. Audivi ex Lazaro Bonamico, viro gravi & fidei pleno, puellam fuisse in agro Patavino fanaticam, quae Graece & Latine, omnium literarum ante insaniam expers, optime locuta sit. Haec cum interrogaretur, quaenam esset praestantissima apud Virgilium sententia, hunc versum voce clara ter pronuntiavit. FABRIC.

Horozco, Emblemas morales 2.23

Melanchthon, Epigrammata, ed. Petrus Vincentius, Wittenberg 1579, p. G5b, Anno 1558: De Lyricis Poetis

Discite iustitiam moniti, et non temnere Divos,
Nam sontes punit iudicis ira Dei.
Haec cum regna canunt eversa, ducumque furores,
Scriptores Lyrici nos meminisse iubent.
Pindarus haec melius Cygnea voce canebat,
Tu tamen et Flacci carmina saepe legas.

James Russell Lowell, Among My Books, footnote 112

Melancthon, however, used to tell of a possessed girl in Italy who knew no Latin, but the Devil in her, being asked by Bonamico, a Bolognese professor, what was the best verse in Virgil, answered at once:--

"Discite justitiam moniti, et non temnere divos,"--

a somewhat remarkable concession on the part of a fallen angel.

Edgar A. Poe, Marginalia (1844), p. 484

One of the most deliberate tricks of Voltaire, is where he renders, by

Soyez justes, mortels, et ne craignez qu'un Dieu,

the words of Phlegyas, who cries out, in Hell,

Dicite [sic] justitiam, moniti, et non temnere Divos.

He gives the line this twist, by way of showing that the ancients worshipped one God. He is endeavoring to deny that the idea of the Unity of God originated with the Jews.

and an addition by Graham Christian, Curator, Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies (thank you very much, Graham!):

This is a lovely little essay, but I have ... an addition: the critical moment of Isak Dinesen’s short story "The Monkey" (written circa 1934) turns around the Prioress' speaking of this very line, curtailed: "Discite justitiam et non temnere divos."


last minute

• Register to receive our news!

• 5.4: RSA: A Recapitulation

• 4.4: DVD edition of Covarrubias, Tesoro de la lengua española

• 18.3: Treasures of Kalocsa, Vol. 1: Psalterium MS 382



Sancho Panza and the Turtle

An Encounter with the Inquisition

Phoenix on the top of the palm tree

Canis reversus

His Master’s Voice

Virgil’s best verse

To eat turtle or not to eat it

blog of studiolum

•  Chinatown

•  Un viaje a la mente barroca

•  Unde Covarrubias Hungaricè didicit?


open library

• Bibliography of Hispanic Emblematics

• Horapollo, Hieroglyphica 1547

• Alciato, Emblemata 1531

• The Album Amicorum of Franciscus Pápai Páriz

• Ludovicus Carbo, De Mathiae regis rebus gestis (c. 1473-75)

• Epistolary of Pedro de Santacilia y Pax

medio maravedí

Texts and Studies of Medieval and Golden Age Spanish Literature