Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat Meaning: Does Fortune Actually Favor the Bold?

Photo Credit: Canva
Photo Credit: Canva

The Latin phrase fortis Fortuna adiuvat – which translates to “fortune favors the bold” or “fortune favors the brave” – has a long and storied relationship with militaries throughout history. Dating back to ancient Roman times and currently used as the motto for a number of US Navy vessels, it’s a saying that begs the question: does fortune actually favor the bold?

The origins of fortis Fortuna adiuvat

The saying fortis Fortuna adiuvat was first used in 151 BC by ancient Roman playwright Terence in his play, Phormio. Variations and spoofs of the original were also popular among other literary figures, with the phrase also appearing in Virgil’s famous poem, the Aeneid.

Today, the saying is a famous motto for military units, naval ships and organizations.

Artist's portrait of Terence
Portrait of ancient Roman playwright Terence. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

To the ancient Romans, Fortuna was a goddess who embodied the personification of fortune. The phrase also inspired Pliny the Younger, whose uncle, Pliny the Elder, quoted the phrase to his men when taking his fleet to investigate the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in European history.

Pliny the Elder was desperate to find his friend, Senator Pomponianus, who was trapped in Pompeii following the eruption. “Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat: Pomponianum pete,” he said to his men, which translates to “fortune favors the brave: head of Pomponainus.” The author subsequently perished during the expedition.

Who uses the motto?

Fortis Fortuna adiuvat is the motto of several US Navy ships, including the USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE-7), La Jolla (SSN-701), Florida (SSGN-728), Montpelier (SSN-765) and John S. McCain (DDG-56). A slightly altered version was also the motto of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which was deactivated in January 2022.

USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) at sea
USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), a US Navy guided-missile destroyer. (Photo Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Todd Frantom / U.S. Navy / Getty Images)

Variations of the phrase also appear on the wing patch of the 366th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force, and were even displayed on the flag of the Confederate Army’s 7th Alabama Cavalry during the American Civil War. It’s also used throughout the world by universities and military units in Poland, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Denmark, among others.

Outside of the military, fortis Fortuna adiuvat is also a popular saying among civilians. For example, the Turing family has featured it on their family crest since 1316 AD. Their most famous family member was mathematician Alan Turing, who helped build the code-breaking Enigma machine during World War II.

John Wick, a popular fictional character portrayed by actor Keanu Reeves in the John Wick film franchise, also sports a fortes Fortuna juvat tattoo, which has a similar translation to the original Latin phrase.

Does fortune actually favor the bold?

While fortis Fortuna adiuvat has a cool meaning that looks even more impressive on a coat of arms or a tattoo, it sounds more like a conundrum than helpful advice. Is it actually true, and what do fortune and luck have to do with taking direct action?

Making a bold move without hesitation or consideration would likely lead to disaster on the battlefield in most military scenarios. As well, fortune or luck are a probability that can’t be guaranteed, no matter how bold someone is.

Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting outside with his dog and a little girl
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1941. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

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The proverb also directly opposes other popular sayings, such as “good things come to those who wait,” making it hard to pin down exactly when to be bold and when to wait something out. Would Julius Caesar have avoided his fate if he chose to be a little less bold? What would have happened to America during the Second World War if President Franklin D. Roosevelt let his disability stop him?

Regardless of whether its meaning is true or not, this Latin phrase can be understood as a powerful motivator, encouraging one to be brave and daring, rather than stay put on the sidelines.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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