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)


Istanbul Archaeological Museum - Portrait of C...

Cornelia Antonia as Pudicitia. Istanbul Archaeological Museum

“The loveliest form of beauty. . .the greatest adornment. . .pudicitia”, said Seneca to his mother Helvia. Seneca was especially close to his mother and aunt, and considered his mother to be one of the most chaste and modest women that he knew. Chastity and modesty were extremely important virtues for a Roman woman, to the point that Pudicitia was made into a goddess with her own cult following. Married women above all wished to radiate pudicitia, or chaste and modest sexual virtue. In an era when a woman could be divorced simply for being the target of evil gossip even if she had done nothing wrong, pudicita was a fragile and elusive virtue that could mean the difference between life and death.  To belong to the cult of pudicitia, a woman had have only slept with one man, her husband, and only one husband. If her husband died, she would have to choose between Pudicitia and remarriage.

Boys still wearing their bullas also were considered to be protected by Pudicitia, making them off limits to older men who might like to have homosexual relations with them. Pueri Romani, Roman boy citizens, were absolutely off-limits, unlike slave boys or non-citizens. And so pudicitia was not simply a female virtue,  but definitely mostly a virtue of the weak.  Though some writers refer to men when they speak of pudicitia, they’re mainly speaking of how men ought to make sure that their women and children are protected by and practice Pudicitia, and how they should reward them for this by being chaste themselves. Rome was very much the patriarchy.

Wealthy Roman women of high status could afford to no mind to pudicitia, as far as it actually governing their sex lives. But even the elite could get into trouble if public opinion turned against them, and lack of pudicitia could suddenly become desperately important. Historically, pudicitia was mainly a weapon to govern women’s behavior and punish those who didn’t play by the rules or who simply fell out of favor or were inconvenient in some way. I view any supposed virtue that is very hard to prove or disprove, and that is used to control women, as being a very poor virtue.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for not using sex as a purely recreational activity or bodily intoxicant. Even so, I return to the knowledge that pudicitia was mainly about controlling women and their bodies. I’ll have to pass on this ancient Roman “virtue”.


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.