Content Warning: This article features discussion on suicide. Should you be experiencing suicidal thoughts please contact a local mental health service or suicide prevention service as soon as possible.
Virtue – meaning a sort of essence of goodness, a moral righteousness. Generally it is considered a positive thing but one could be accused of ‘virtue signalling’ – that is to say showing off such goodness that it becomes negative, a selfish act.
Virtus is the Latin origin of our word ‘virtue’, which itself has another root vir – which means manly. So to the Romans to be virtuous was to do as a manly man does.
In a few of my articles so far I have talked about several of these ‘virtues’ of Roman life. I have also explained how their modern equivalents are not necessarily the same. I figured now was a good time for a bit of a run through, a glossary of terms, if you will, but to do so I have explain the Roman way of life.
As with any cultures the Romans had a code, it bent and swayed with the social wind but for the most part they tried to keep true to the mos maiorum – the good, old fashioned way of their ancestors. Newness, to a Roman, was a scary thing. Theirs was a culture of reverence for the past, for tradition and for legacy.
What does this mean in practice? Well most Romans weren’t senators (politicians), consuls (Prime Ministers/Presidents), aediles (Heads of Government Departments in charge of building things) or any other high office. They were just people, often with jobs, though in Rome often without. So for them following a life of virtus, following the mos maiorum, meant familia.
Familia is less about cousins, aunts, sons, wives and daughters – it is more the concept of a household. This could include friends, family, slaves, etc. A Roman man would be expected to act with virtus as the paterfamilias, the head honcho, the big cheese – literally the ‘Father of the Household’.
This is a sacred duty – as many virtus are. To be a paterfamilias is to take on a huge responsibility but also to be sacred yourself. Elderly fathers could chastise, hold back, scold or kill their middle-aged sons or daughters as part of their duty as paterfamilias. Augustus famously sent his adult daughter, Julia, into exile for her alleged misdemeanors. This could, obviously, lead to conflict, especially among younger, more ambitious men.
Speaking of ambition, it was the responsibility of Roman sons to follow the mos maiorum of their own paterfamilias, but do it better. Much like the best teacher at a dojo is the one who teaches their students so well the students better the master. Roman sons would be expected to go beyond what their father’s had achieved. Of course, by following the mos maiorum, and the virtues, they could achieve this.
So enough explaining Roman life, what are these virtus.
Fides – Roughly translates as ‘faith’ but – get used to this sentence – not as we know it in a modern context. Better put today ‘good faith’ would be a better translation. Fides is about being reliable or honourable. It is about people being able to trust you. It has none of the connotations of believing in something that is not there that Christians ruined it with.
Pietas – Roughly translates as ‘Piety’ but, again, not as we know it. Piety today is associated with religious devotion but Roman pietas was more about showing due respect. With the mos maiorum this meant being dutiful towards your elders, to your past but also towards Rome and your family. Whilst the Romans would have considered duty towards the Gods a part of pietas, it was not strictly religious.
Auctoritas – Roughly translating to authority but auctoritas is not authority in the sense of merely having power. Auctoritas, Roman authority, is a bit more…flimsy than that. It’s more about an aura of power through experience, through pietas, through things earned. It is a sense of prestige, more than just being head of the guard, or a senator or something.
Gravitas – Roughly translating to ‘gravity’ but this one is oh so wrong in a modern context. Gravitas today is an attractive force, someone who draws you to them. This couldn’t be further from the Roman form, where gravitas is more about a manner of self-control and an ability to maintain composure in situations. Think of when something is a ‘grave’ situation, for example. It is about maintaining composure, doing your duty without unnecessary emotion, that would be considered gravitas.
Dignitas – Roughly translating to ‘dignity’ and it’s more than just a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. This one translates pretty well, dignitas is the respect earned from following the mos maiorum, honours earned, things achieved, duties performed with gravitas could earn you dignitas.
Behave with fides et pietas to earn enough dignitas et gravitas and you may well be said to have auctoritas.
Clementia – Clemency – was also important. This one, too, translates quite well. It is the virtue of being merciful in ones actions. Julius Caesar showed significant clementia after winning his civil war, pardoning many of his enemies. Of course not every Roman behaved with virtus and so many of the people he showed clementia ended up stabbing him to death.
Constantia – Constancy – a firmness of conviction in your actions. Again this translates quite well. Constantia often goes hand-in-hand with gravitas. Not only should a Roman be steadfast in their duty, but they should maintain control throughout, earning themselves dignitas.
Disciplina – Discipline – almost a direct translation but this one was particularly important for the Roman soldiery. Acting without disciplina could lead to exceptionally harsh punishments including decimatio. Today to ‘decimate’ means to completely ruin, to destroy or break something. Roman decimation (decem meaning ten) translates to ‘removal of the tenth’. A group of soldiers, usually a cohort (about 480 men) would form groups of ten and draw lots. Whoever got the bad draw was executed. So, a failure of disciplina in your unit could get you killed, even if you were the one who was disciplined.
Religio – Roughly meaning a religiousness. Romans believed they were blessed by the Gods and maintained a relationship of peace with them, the pax deorum. They maintained this through religio et cultus. Religio was more the vague, wishy-washy concept we would call ‘faith’ today, whereas cultus was the active religious practice, making sure you gave your offerings, sacrificed to your deities etc.
These are all essential concepts in Romanitas – the very concept and virtue of Romanness itself.
There are, of course, many other virtues – Justitia (justice), Humanitas (humanity), Honestas (honesty), Comitas (good humour), Industria (industriousness), Veritas (truthfulness), Frugalitas (frugalness) etc. etc. but the ones we went in detail with today are the core ideas that make a good Roman.
The key thing to take away is Romans had a very different way of life, and very different expectations of what living a good, faithful, life was than we do today. We cannot look at Romanitas, Romanness, through modern eyes; we need to meet it on its terms.
A great, if grim, example is suicide. To a modern Western nation this is seen as a shame, a waste of life, something one should not do. This is exceptionally Christian in its root – where suicide is a mortal sin – a sin so bad you literally separate yourself from God’s grace.
To a Roman it may very well have been the honourable thing to do. A shamed Roman, a Roman who was found to be acting without virtus could earn their dignitas back by killing themselves, in the right situation. In fact, a Roman who feels they have achieved all they can achieve and is no longer useful could kill themselves and earn dignitas. Many did during the reigns of disgraced emperors such as Caligula or Nero, essentially dying with dignitas before they could be embarrassed, disgraced or have their good name, the good name of their familias, ruined by the emperors.
Romanitas, the mos maiorum, led to philosophies such as Epicureanism – the pursuit of modest pleasures, living virtuously; and stoicism – the pursuit of self-control, through courage in adversity, wisdom and the pursuit of justice. These themselves influenced Christianity, the morals and ethics of which still dominate in Europe and the Americas.
We may not think it, but many of these pillars, these Roman virtues of behaviour, though eroded, rebuilt and much changed, are still holding up the moral foundations of Western society today.