The Fan-Tas-Tic Virtues of Rome

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’.

A Roman family gravestone from York, England. Likely from around the Severan era. York was an important town on the Norther Frontier of the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus died there in 211CE. The fact that a Roman would have their family image engraved on their gravestone is testament to the importance of familias (Credit: Kaly99)

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.

A Roman coin (a nummus, to be exact) demonstrating the Emperor Constantius Chlorus on the head side and the personification of the Goddess Fides on the other. That side reads “FIDES MILITVM” which demonstrates a trust of the army. (Credit: https://finds.org.uk)

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.

A marble bust of Emperor Antoninus Pius from the British Museum – He was given his cognomen (surname) Pius because either he petitioned the senate to deify (make a god of) prior Emperor Hadrian, because he assisted his elderly father by holding his hand at meetings, or because he granted pardon to those senators Hadrian had condemned to death. Either way he was considered to have demonstrated such pietas that he became Pius by name. (Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg))

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.

A composite image of busts of the First Triumvirate of Rome – Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (or Pompey the Great), Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar (or Julius Caesar). Three men of such great auctoritas they essentially had the power to influence, indeed even overrule, the senate. (Credit: Mary Harrsch)

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.

A bronze bust of Marcus Porcius Cato Minor – Cato the Younger. He was renowned for his stoic stubbornness, his severity, his integrity, his dislike of corruption and bribes and for being a leader in the campaign against Julius Caesar during the civil wars. In so doing he demonstrated Gravitas. (Credit: Prioryman)

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.

A bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the most famous of the Romans of the late Republic due to the number of letters and writings he left behind. In my opinion a sniveling little weasel of a man in his life but his death displays great dignitas. He was killed as part of the proscriptions (organised political assassinations) of the Second Triumvirate, mainly because of his dislike of Marcus Antonius. He is said to have leaned his head out of his litter (those boxes rich Romans would be carried in) and his last words are alleged to have been “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try and kill me properly.” This is accepting his fate with great dignitas. (Credit: Wikimedia)

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.

Bronze statue of Gaius Julius Caesar – a man who demonstrated great clementia after the civil war by pardoning those who had fought against him. It was an act of virtus that would cost him his life when many of those men would conspire to murder him. (Credit: Leomudde)

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.

The reverse of a Claudian denarius (?) likely from around his ascension in 41CE with the personification of Constantia and the inscription “CONSTANTIAE AVGVSTI” or “Constancy of the Emperors” – The inscription itself is unusual and may be related to the difficult transition to power between Caligula and Claudius, as a means of communicating to the public that it was business as usual. (Credit: York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum))

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.

A sketch of decimation in the Roman army by British artist William Hogarth, 1725. Roman army disciplina was very important, and deaths by decimation often occurred through clubbing, beating or stoning the victim to death. Other punishments would include flogging, beheading or simply banishment and disgrace. (Credit: The Wellcome Collection)

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.

A statue of the Emperor Hadrian as Pontifex Maximus. The Pontifex Maximus was the head priest of the Roman State religion and would thus have been in charge of ensuring adherence to cultus, such as making sure necessary rites and sacrifices took place, and maintaining the pax deorum via religio. (Credit: Carole Raddato)

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.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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