Rota Fortunae

Rota Fortunae

The Wheel of Fortune, or "Rota Fortunae", is a concept in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to the capricious nature of Fate. The wheel belongs to the goddess Fortuna, who spins it at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel - some suffer great misfortune, others gain windfalls.


The concept arose in antiquity; it was used by Cicero. The Wheel originally belonged to the Roman goddess Fortuna, whose name seems to derive from "Vortumna", "she who revolves the year". Fortuna eventually became Christianized: the Roman philosopher Boethius (d. 524) was a major source for the medieval view of the Wheel, writing about it in his "Consolatio Philosophiae".

I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune. ~ Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy ( [
] )

The Wheel of Fortune card in a Tarot pack connects it with the wheel mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel [; (10:9-13)] . However, exactly how much relation the Biblical passage has to the actual evolution of the concept is unclear: medieval writers made little reference to it in that context.

Use in the Middle Ages

Religious instruction

The Wheel was widely used as an allegory in medieval literature and art to aid religious instruction. Though classically Fortune's Wheel could be favourable and disadvantageous, medieval writers preferred to concentrate on the tragic aspect, dwelling on downfall of the mighty - serving to remind people of the temporality of earthly things. In the morality play "Everyman" (c. 1495), for instance, Death comes unexpectedly to claim the protagonist. Fortune's Wheel has spun Everyman low, and Good Deeds, which he previously neglected, are needed to secure his passage to heaven.

Geoffrey Chaucer used the concept of the tragic Wheel of Fortune a great deal. It forms the basis for the Monk's Tale, which recounts stories of the great brought low throughout history, including Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Balthasar, Nero, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and in the following passage, Peter I of Cyprus.

:O noble Peter, Cyprus' lord and king,:Which Alexander won by mastery,:To many a heathen ruin did'st thou bring;:For this thy lords had so much jealousy,:That, for no crime save thy high chivalry,:All in thy bed they slew thee on a morrow.:And thus does Fortune's wheel turn treacherously:And out of happiness bring men to sorrow.~ Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales", [ The Monk's Tale]

Dante also employes the Wheel in the "Inferno".

Fortune's Wheel often turns up in medieval art, from manuscripts to the great Rose windows in many medieval cathedrals, which are based on the Wheel. 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). For a largely illiterate population, visual imagery like this was an effective teaching method.

Political instruction

In the medieval and renaissance period, a popular genre of writing was "Mirrors for Princes", which set out advice for the ruling classes on how to wield power (the most famous being "The Prince" by Niccolò Machiavelli). Such political treatises could use the concept of the Wheel of Fortune as an instructive guide to their readers. John Lydgate's "Fall of Princes", written for his patron Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester is a noteworthy example.

Many Arthurian romances of the era also use the concept of the Wheel in this manner, often placing the Nine Worthies on it at various points.

...fortune is so variant, and the wheel so moveable, there nis none constant abiding, and that may be proved by many old chronicles, of noble Hector, and Troilus, and Alisander, the mighty conqueror, and many mo other; when they were most in their royalty, they alighted lowest. ~ Lancelot in Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", [ Chapter XVII) ]

Like the Mirrors for Princes, this could be used to convey advice to readers. For instance, in most romances, Arthur's greatest military achievement - the conquest of the Roman Empire - is placed late on in the overall story. However in Malory's work the Roman conquest and high point of King Arthur's reign is established very early on. Thus, everything that follows is something of a decline. Arthur, Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table are meant to be the paragons of chivalry, yet in Malory's telling of the story they are doomed to failure. In medieval thinking, only God was perfect, and even a great figure like King Arthur had to be brought low. For the noble reader of the tale in the Middle Ages, this moral could serve as a warning, but also as something to aspire to. Malory could be using the concept of Fortune's Wheel to imply that if even the greatest of chivalric knights made mistakes, then a normal fifteenth century noble didn't have to be a paragon of virtue in order to be a good knight.

Carmina Burana

The Wheel of Fortune motif appears significantly in the "Carmina Burana" (or "Burana Codex"). Excerpts from two of the collection's better known poems, "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" (Fortune, Empress of the World)" and "Fortune Plango Vulnera" (I Bemoan the Wounds of Fortune)," read:: "Sors immanis " : "et inanis, " : "rota tu volubilis", : "status malus," : "vana salus" : "semper dissolubilis," : "obumbrata " : "et velata" : "michi quoque niteris; " : "nunc per ludum" : "dorsum nudum" : "fero tui sceleris." : . . . . . . . . . . : "Fortune rota volvitur;" : "descendo minoratus;" : "alter in altum tollitur;" : "nimis exaltatus " : "rex sedet in vertice" : "caveat ruinam! " : "nam sub axe legimus " : "Hecubam reginam." : Fate - monstrous : and empty, : you whirling wheel,: you are malevolent, : well-being is vain : and always fades to nothing,: shadowed: and veiled: you plague me too;: now through the game: I bring my bare back: to your villainy.: . . . . . . . . . : The wheel of Fortune turns;: I go down, demeaned;: another is raised up;: far too high up: sits the king at the summit -: let him fear ruin!: for under the axis is written: Queen Hecuba.col-end"

Later usage

Fortune and her Wheel have remained an enduring image throughout history.


William Shakespeare in "Hamlet" wrote of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and, of fortune personified, to "break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel." And in "Henry V", [ Act 3 Scene VI] , are the lines:

"Pistol:":"Bardolph, a soldier who is loyal and stout-hearted and full of valour, has, by a cruel trick of fate and a turn of silly Fortune's wildly spinning wheel, that blind goddess who stands upon an ever-rolling stone— "

:"Fluellen:" :"Now, now, Ensign Pistol. Fortune is depicted as blind, with a scarf over her eyes, to signify that she is blind. And she is depicted with a wheel to signify—this is the point—that she is turning and inconstant, and all about change and variation. And her foot, see, is planted on a spherical stone that rolls and rolls and rolls."

Shakespeare also references this Wheel in "King Lear" [] . The Earl of Kent, who was once held dear by the King, has been banished, only to return in disguise. This disguised character is placed in the stocks for an overnight and laments this turn of events at the end of Act II, Scene 2:

:"Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!"

Victorian era

In Anthony Trollope's novel "The Way We Live Now", the character Lady Carbury writes a novel entitled "The Wheel of Fortune" which is adumbrated as an "uninspired" work where a heroine suffers great pecuniary vicissitudes.

Modern day

A "Wheel of Fortune" card appears in the Tarot deck, and the term has found its way into modern popular culture through the "Wheel of Fortune" game show, where contestants win or lose money determined by the random spin of a wheel.

Selections from the "Carmina Burana", including the two poems quoted above, were set to new music by twentieth-century classical composer Carl Orff, whose bombastic and well-known "O Fortuna" is based on the poem "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi.

Fortuna does occasionally turn up in modern literature, although these days she has become more or less synonymous with Lady Luck. Her Wheel is less widely used as a symbol, and has been replaced largely by a reputation for fickleness. She is often associated with gamblers, and dice could also be said to have replaced the Wheel as the primary metaphor for uncertain fortune.


*"Boethius, [
] ", trans. W.V. Cooper (London: J.M. Dent, 1902)
*Geoffrey Chaucer, [ "The Canterbury Tales: The Monk's Tale"]
*Thomas Malory, [ "Le Morte d'Arthur, Chapter XVII' ]
*William Shakespeare, [ Henry V, Act 3 Scene VI]
*William Shakespeare, [ King Lear, Act 2 Scene II]
*Fortuna was also used by a character in the novel "Confederacy of Dunces";the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, makes many references to "Fortuna's wheel" and also Boethius's works.

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