Pietas is sometimes baldly defined as “respect for authority”. Although respect for authority is indeed a crucial element of pietas, the virtue deserves a richer explanation than that. Cicero says that pietas is the virtue which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or our other blood relations. On the surface, this seems wildly different than the modern view of piety as reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations. Cicero also mentions pietas adversus deos, or piety towards the gods, but this might be better defined as religio. What is similar with pietas and piety is that they both involve duty and how we ought to behave in public as well as what we do in private.
The examples of pietas cited by the Romans tend toward big, showy acts. Aeneas carrying his old father and his home gods on his shoulders to go forth and found a new city, heroes saving their fathers in battles and various tasks, stories of filial obedience, these are all public actions done in pursuit of duty. As with piety, pietas involves above all else right action.
Hendrick Wagenvoort, in his writings on pietas, claims that the shift towards making pietas not only a familial matter but also one of the State came about when Rome needed justifications for its agenda of world conquest. If men are honor bound to do duty to the State by behaving with pietas towards it as they would their relatives, then the State itself must be acting by way of pietas adversus deos— Rome is a conqueror because her gods require it. Wagenvoort seems to think that Romans, or at least the high-minded ones, were quite aware of this circular self-justification. Even though there is that element of self-justification in it, it makes sense in a society where ancestors are divine beings, State rulers are elevated to god-hood, and people are considered, directly or indirectly, children of the Gods.
And ultimately, if we are behaving as if the Immortal Gods are watching, we are performing our pietas not only for our fellow humans, but for the gaze of the Gods as well!
- Wagenvoort, Hendrik. Pietas: Selected studies in Roman religion, 1980 E.J. Brill, Leiden
- Pietas (Virtue)
- Respect for Authority!