Visconti-Sforza’s Justice and Roman Exempla

Over the last few decades the history of tarot has helped to remove the shackles of the occult and mystical origins of the tarot. The common position today is that the cards have the humble origins as a game. While I will not contest this position, I will contribute to it.

Along with the utility as a game, it could have other purposes, including divination, but divination is not the focus here. Instead, I want to explore the idea that the trumps could serve as a tool of exempla. Exempla is a Roman tradition which connects the present to the past through the noble deeds of others. This reminded the Romans of their ancestors and history. Exempla provided firm foundations rooted in the past, and built bridges to the future.[1]

It is possible that the tarot’s trumps provided exempla to the aristocratic users of the cards as a reminder to them the way of excellence. The way of excellence would help their family and city achieve greatness. I will use the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, one of the oldest tarot decks from mid 15th century Milan to demonstrate the connection.

Justice, Visconti-Sforza Tarot

The Visconti-Sforza’s Justice stood out to be as a possible candidate to demonstrate how we could see this card as a exempla. The knight above Justice stood out to be after reading a passage from Livy’s The History of Rome, I think this knight is actually the maiden Cloeli, a Roman who became hostage to the Etruscans that would become a hero.

Here is her story from book 2 of Livy’s The History of Rome

[6] Now when courage had been thus distinguished, even the women were inspired to deeds of patriotism. Thus the maiden Cloelia, one of the hostages, eluded [p. 263]the sentinels, when it chanced that the Etruscans had encamped not far from the bank of the Tiber, and heading a band of girls swam the river and, under a rain of hostile darts, brought them all back in safety to their kinsmen in Rome. [7] When this had been reported to the king, he was at first enraged and sent emissaries to Rome to demand that the hostage Cloelia be given up, for he made no great account of the others. [8] Then, admiration getting the better of anger, he asserted that her feat was a greater one than those of Cocles and Mucius, and declared that although in case the hostage was not returned he should regard the treaty as broken, yet if she were restored to him he would send her back safe and inviolate to her friends. Both parties kept their word. [9] The Romans returned the pledge of peace, as the treaty required; and the Etruscan king not only protected the brave girl but even honoured her, for after praising her heroism he said that he would present her with half the hostages, and that she herself should choose the ones she wished. [10] When they had all been brought out it is said that she selected the young boys, because it was not only more seemly in a maiden, but was unanimously approved by the hostages themselves, that in delivering them from the enemy she should give the preference to those who were of an age which particularly exposed them to injury. [11] When peace had been established the Romans rewarded this new valour in a woman with a new kind of honour, an equestrian statue, which was set up on the summit of the Sacred Way, and represented the maiden seated on a horse.

Cloelia becomes an exemplum of true Roman behavior for others through her own inspiration by her predecessors. Matthew Roller has identified 4 elements in the “exemplary discourse”[2] of Rome which we can see here. These are: 1) an action which affects the Roman community which can be evaluated in ethical terms; 2) an audience for the action; there are eyewitnesses who evaluate the action as well as later generations of readers who can form their own opinions about the exemplum; 3) commemoration of the deed in statues, public monuments, ritual, cognomina, or simply in narrative itself; 4) imitation; the audience is enjoined to replicate the positive exemplum or to avoid the negative.

For someone looking at the Visconti-Sforza’s Justice, it could have reminded them of Cloelia and her valor and patriotism. It can also serve as a reminder of the exemplary discourse explained by Roller. Placing Cloelia along with Justice speaks to the depth of this. Recall in Livy the both parties “kept their word” — there is a clear ethical dimension to Cloelia’s story which corresponds to Justice, the governing principle in the situation. Justice here is equated with the sacred way, and at the summit (top) they placed the statue of Cloelia, thus in Justice the Knight is on top.

Cloelia’s story provides a proper example of how to exercise Justice. This card could simply imply that family’s attitude that they and or their city did behave in such noble manners. They were following the example of Cloelia and other noble people before them.

The question to answer now is, why allude to Cloelia from so many centuries ago? That would be answered by the general pride of the family/city and wanting to reinforce a sense of preeminence through great people in the past. Milan was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 286–402 CE. The desire to connect oneself to the greatness of the past in normal behavior of this time period. For example, Sigismondo Malatesta (1417–1468) a member of the ruling house of Rimini was ambitus to identify himself with the glory of the Roman emperors. He had the thirteenth-century Church of San Francesco rebuilt in the emulation the Arch of Augustus.[3] So a little alluding to a hero from the past in a deck of cards is not too far-fetched.


[1] Jane D Chaplin, Livy’s Exemplary History (Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007)

[2] Matthew Roller, “Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Examples of Horatio Cocles and Cloelia.” CP 99 (2004): 4–6)

[3] Venice and Northern Italy, 1400–1600 A.D. | Chronology | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Met?s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, accessed February 5, 2018,



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Angelo Nasios

Angelo Nasios

Author, Ancient Historian, Theolatric Thoughts