Vir illustris

Insignia viri illustris praefecti praetorio per Illyricum, insignia from the Notitia Dignitatum.

The title vir illustris ("illustrious man") is used as a formal indication of standing in late antiquity to describe the highest ranks within the senates of Rome and Constantinople. All senators had the title vir clarissimus ("very famous man"); but from the mid fourth century onwards, vir illustris and vir spectabilis ("admirable man", a lower rank than illustris) were used to distinguish holders of high office.



Roman senators in late antiquity had the title vir clarissimus appended to their names, a custom that had developed gradually over the first two centuries.[1] During the fourth century, the senatorial order expanded hugely, so that the title became more commonplace and new titles, vir spectabilis and vir illustris were needed to give distinction to high ranking senators.[2] The first instance is in 354, used of the praetorian prefect.[3] For some decades it occurs inconsistently, then its appearances become more regular,[4] perhaps in connection with a formal codification of honours under Valentinian I in 372.[5]


The offices which had a right to the title changed with time. The Notitia dignitatum in the early fifth century attaches it to the following offices: i) praefectus praetorio ("praetorian prefect"); ii) praefectus urbi ("urban prefect"); iii) magister militum ("master of the soldiers"); iv) praepositus sacri cubiculi ("officer of the sacred chamber"); v) magister officiorum ("master of offices"); vi) quaestor; vii) comes sacrarum largitionum ("count of the sacred expenditure"); viii) comes rerum privatarum ("count of the emperor's private property"); ix) comes domesticorum equitum sive peditum ("count of the household cavalry or infantry").[6] Beyond these, the title is also frequently given to consuls,[7] occasionally to lower offices. In these cases the title may show a broadening of the criteria or may be simply an honorary grant to an individual.[8]

Later developments

The illustres soon came to be regarded as the active part of the senate; and by the mid fifth century, spectabiles and clarissimi were no longer expected to take part in the senate.[9] By the time of Justinian, senators are defined as illustres.[10] At the same time the title illustris had undergone a similar devaluation to that of clarissimus in the fourth century; and high office holders were now indicated with the titles vir gloriosus or gloriosissimus and vir magnificus.[11]


In inscriptions and ancient manuscripts, the spelling inlustris is more common.[12] Since the illustres were a subset of the clarissimi, the title is often given as vir clarissimus et illustris, particularly in official documents.[13] The shorter form is commonly abbreviated v. i. (plural vv. ii.), v. inl. or vir inl., the longer form as v. c. et inl.[14]



  1. Hirschfeld (1901), 580-2 (=Hirschfeld [1913], 647-9).
  2. Jones (1964), 525-8
  3. Cod. Theod. 11, 1, 6 "Rufini viri clarissimi et inlustris praefecti praetorio".
  4. Hirschfeld (1901), 595 (=Hirschfeld [1913], 664-5); Berger (1915), 1072-3.
  5. Jones (1964), 142-3; Näf (1995), 20; P. Heather 'Senatorial Careers', in The Cambridge Ancient History XIII (1998), 188-91.
  6. Not. dign. or. 2-15; Not. dign. occ. 2-13; Berger (1915), 1074-7 gives a survey of the evidence from inscriptions and legal codes for these offices.
  7. Berger (1915), 1078, 29-44
  8. Berger (1915), 1078-9.
  9. Jones (1964), 529.
  10. A gloss in the Digest on a passage of Ulpian says (1, 9, 12, 1) senatores … accipiendum est eos, qui a patriciis et consulibus usque ad omnes illustres viros descendunt, quia et hi soli in senatu sententiam dicere possunt ("by senators we should understand those from the patricians and consuls down through to all viri illustres, since these too are the only ones who can give their opinion in the senate").
  11. Näf (1995), 21-2.
  12. T. Mommsen, Theodosiani Libri XVI cum Constitutionibus Sirmondianis, Prolegomena, (Zurich: Weidmann, 1905), cxlvii.
  13. Hirschfeld (1901), 596-8 (=Hirschfeld [1915], 665-7).
  14. Berger (1916), 1070, 29-38; TLL VII 1, 397, 1-5.
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