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”.


The Young Cicero Reading, 1464 fresco, now at ...

Image via Wikipedia

Amicitia translates literally as friendship. In Roman times it meant something a bit more subtle and political than what we consider friendship– the casual, social relations that we have with people who we enjoy associating with. We see some very good examples of amicitia in HBO Rome, between Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii. These women don’t at all like each other in any sense that we understand and are in fact constantly plotting against each other, but officially they are “friends”. The benefits of the association outweigh their personal distaste.

In modern society we decry this sort of behavior, and indeed I’ve no desire to be nice to people in public while carving up defixiones for them at night. But being cordial to people and being friendly with people because we share common goals and worldviews is not a bad thing, even if I don’t especially want to invite them over for dinner. Not so much the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, more “the friend of my worldview is my friend”.

Of course Romans did have different, deeper thoughts on friendship. Cicero wrote a whole dialogue on the subject “Laelius de Amicitia“, much of which would sound quite familiar by modern standards of what makes a good and “true” friend. Most interesting to me is his exploration of what friends should not ask of each other, such as to commit or cover for immoral acts.  Also interesting are his notions of the “false limits of friendship”, which goes along with a very Pagan statement that Cicero makes, that generosity is a natural condition of human nature. If we act as though we believe this is true, or if we really do believe this is true, then it makes the entire notion of friendship and close friendship possible. Without this philosophy, where would we ever find Cicero’s “good person” to be friends with?





Pietas as a matron casting incense on an altar

Pietas as a matron casting incense on an altar



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!