Rome wasn’t built in a Day

April 22, 2013 / Local Interest

The great masters of the Renaissance — da Vinci, Michelangelo, et al. — if asked by the House of Medici, the Holy Father or any other influential patron of the visual arts to put a “rush job” on their masterpieces, would’ve probably dropped their palettes, chisels and other tools of the trade and wryly replied, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Ever wonder who cleverly arranged those six words into the powerhouse catchphrase that it is today?

As it turns out, nary a Roman, sandal clad or otherwise, first coined the locution. Shockingly, it was a 12th century cleric in the court of Phillippe of Alsace — the Count of Flanders — who gets the credit for dreaming up the phrase in French: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour.

Li Proverbe Au Vilain book cover | © University of Toronto libraries
Li Proverbe Au Vilain book cover | © University of Toronto libraries
In 1895, Adolf Tobler, a Swiss linguist, published Li Proverbe au Vilain, a collection of Medieval French poems. Each verse is accompanied by a proverb or popular expression followed by the phrase, “Or so the peasant says.” It is in this 12th century body of work that this expression about the Eternal City not being quickly constructed over a 24-hour period first appears.

It wasn’t until 1538 that the saying ebbed into the English language when playwright-author John Heywood included it in his work A Dialogue Containing the Number in Effect of all the Proverbs in the English Tongue.

Next time you hear someone say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” be quick to respond, “Or so the peasant says.”

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

9 Responses to “Rome wasn’t built in a Day”

  1. Love hearing about the history of expressions, Tom. Thanks for this one. It would be fun to understand in what context this phrase was first used and by what traveler to Rome before being quoted by the medieval French poet.

    • Louise — Thanks for your comment. Doubtful that information is available, at least none that I came across.

  2. Joy Huffines

    Loved this one, Tom. But I have a feeling that after I say that, most people will look at me with raised eyebrows!

  3. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    And as for the French,
    La storia è raccontata, quando il giorno è finito, “Or so the peasant says.” Basta

  4. bob paglee

    I scanned Tobler’s tales and found the archaic French language as hard to understand as the ancient Wallon spoken near Liege, Belgium, where I was working many years ago. I could understand some parts of Tobler’s “French” poems, but couldn’t find his famous quotation about Rome’s construction time. Could the problem be that Tobler, being a German-speaking Swiss, he further corrupted that ancient French language?

  5. Richard Harris

    Perhaps the phrase was originally inspired by Isaiah 66:8
    “Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once?”

  6. Samantha

    Hi could you explain Isaiah 66.8 a bit further? I like it, just getting my head around it! Lol. I am doing some song writing research. And the verse may add more depth?


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