Gerechtigkeit, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1537

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In Roman philosophy, Iustitia, or Justice, was very much tied to Pietas. Beyond holding up the notions of fairness and impartiality as good character traits, Justice was seen as the earthly manifestation of Pietas.  As Cicero explains it, Pietas is all about giving the Gods their due, while Iustitia is the same concept, but with human laws and fellow men instead of divine laws and the gods. Livy, on the other hand, firmly denounced replacing Fides with Iustitia, as his understanding of Justice is that of a somewhat one-sided virtue.

Unlike Fides, which has to do with mutual right relationships, Justice is about being fair to the people who one has power over.  The Roman state wished to appear just to its conquered territories, much as a father wishes to appear just in his dealing with his various children.  Iustitia depends very much on hierarchical relations and Fides does not.  Livy found Fides to be a more Roman virtue and thought of Iustitia as a Greek interpolation of weaker value. Even so, I think Livy would have to admit that Roman society was indeed patriarchal and hierarchical, and in those circumstances it is very important for the powers that be to be perceived as just.

As a personal virtue, Iustitia is a little hard for me to navigate. I of course wish to be just with my children and fair to my friends, but my children are only under my sphere of influence for a limited time and my friends are peers, not people I lord over in some way.  Other situations where I personally might think of applying Iustitia are more matters of Wisdom or Integrity.

On a societal level, however, Justice is absolutely vital to a healthy state and culture. Injustice harms those it favors as much as it harms those it pushes down.  We should always pay attention to how our authority is treating the least among us, and not simply because one day something might happen to make us the least. Our civic virtuous life is reflected in how our society treats the people on the bottom. Without a solid foundation of Justice, our state cannot stand and present itself as a right, moral, legitimate power.

And this is the last of my Roman virtues series. It took me a bit longer to finish than the ADF virtues, but it was time well spent. I’ve learned quite a bit about what I consider virtuous and have a lot of new material to help me live a self-examined life. I’ll be thinking very heavily on the virtues that I’ve rejected; why I rejected them, what it says about me, and how embracing might or might not improve my life.

  • Amicitia (titarufiaprisca.wordpress.com)
  • Severitas (titarufiaprisca.wordpress.com)
  • Courage (dragonflyhouse.wordpress.com)
  • Virtue (olmwsimpletruths.wordpress.com)


Herman Saftleven landscape

Herman Saftleven: Landscape with Roman Ruin

Severitas: a justifiable and necessary strictness

For Roman society, severitas was an absolutely necessary social control. To display too much indulgentia would make one seem weak, especially if you were the (male) head of household, a leader or politician, you had to be strict and yet fair and moderate. Even mothers well-stereotyped for their indulgent natures had to practice severitas if they wanted to raise up worthy sons and modest daughters for their houses.

But Seneca says that the opposite of severitas is not clementia, because virtues cannot be in opposition to each other. For Seneca, the opposite of severitas is  saevitia, cruelty, because for severitas to be true it must be justifiable and necessary.  Cicero, on the other hand, thought that sometimes both severitas and saevitia were required for control, though I don’t think he would have elevated cruelty to a virtue.

All the philosophical discussions of severitas reveal a very important thing about severitas– it is a very delicate virtue indeed. If it isn’t applied with the utmost control and delicacy, it becomes cruelty, crudity and oppression. So should it be a virtue for modern Roman pagans at all?

The thing is, if we have no ability at all to be strict with ourselves, it’s likely we won’t get much done. Setting a schedule and sticking to it, eating one cupcake and not the whole tray, saving money for a future purpose instead of spending it all on a whim– these are all perfectly necessary applications of severitas. Likewise exercising when required, practicing, and doing chores that are repetitive but necessary.

One area where the issue of severitas versus cruelty versus indulgentia comes up a lot is parenting. We want to be kind to our kids, give them great things and experiences, but we also want them to grow up to be responsible, healthy adults. And so we don’t let them eat a gallon of ice cream and stay up until 2 am on a school night. It seems very cruel to the kid at the time, but later they’ll thank us for our severitas.

Numa Tradition: Juno

Let no pélex touch the altar of Juno or enter the temple precinct of Juno; if she touches it, let her, with her hair unbound, make sacrifice to Juno.”

A pelex was a mistress established as an unofficial rival wife. This seems to come from Festus, but again I haven’t been able to track down the exact quote.  Danet’s “Complete Dictionary” seems to think this was a clause forbidding polygamy, as women would touch Juno’s altar as part of their wedding vows.

The important thing here is that a pelex threatened home life, unlike a prostitute or more casual love affair.  We’re talking about the mores of Ancient Romans here and not modern convention, where a single indiscretion can be cause for divorce. Though Romans could and did get divorced on as little provocation as unseemly public behavior, usually divorces were motivated by extended family dynamics and political factors. The greater family good was more important than any single couple’s marriage, and anything that threatened the carefully arranged alliances between Roman families was deeply frowned upon.

Juno, as the guardian of family harmony, would have little sympathy for a second, unofficial wife or mistress set up in her own household.  But even a pelex could make sacrifice in expiation if she did wrong, so all is not hopeless for her.

As a modern pagan, I married for love and not political connections. I’m going to take this as a general admonition to not let relationships with others, including friendships, disrupt home life.

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