Pudicitia

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”.