Roman Virtues?
by: Gn. Dionysius Scorpio Invictus

That's right. This article has a question mark. The intention of this small essay logically is to examine what is meant by the "Roman virtues". Did they really exist? If not, why do we think they existed? And if they do, what virtues? And what were they based on?

The first question to clear is probably to sketch what a "Roman" is. As with many modern peoples, it's hard to tell. Strictly speaking a Roman was an inhabitant from the city of Rome itself. In a wider sense, it meant all citizens in the Roman Empire. However, their ethnic heritages were mostly mixed. The farther away from the capital itself, the fewer Italic elements will be found in a Roman's ethnic and cultural heritage. A common mistake is to think that this multiculturalism is something typical of the empire. In fact, even during the early Republic Italia itself was already very much multicultural, even when dominated by Rome (from 264 BCE and onwards). In the south lived significant and powerful Greek minorities and the north was populated by the Etruscans. And the Italic peoples were subdivided into several other tribes themselves, one of which was the Latins, which would become the later "Romans".

In short, being Roman had nothing really to do with ethnic heritage (although it should be added that it did play a role throughout the Republic and the early Empire). It wasn't about geopolitics either. Not everyone who lived within the borders of the Empire accepted or lived by the Roman culture. Perhaps then we could identify a "Roman" as someone who feels and acts according to Roman culture and traditions, although there is certainly room for other influences. So we may have found one facet: multiculturalism and open-mindedness. Like most ancient peoples, the Romans were religiously fairly tolerant towards others although they did consciously spread theirs across the conquered regions as well.

So, if we accept the definition of a Roman as a "cultural Roman", we could wonder what distinguished Roman culture from the others in the Mediterranean area. The best and most notable characteristic was probably their ability to adapt and perfect elements from other cultures. Their literature, although nationalistic and often with juicy details, showed a lot of Greek influence. Egyptian mystery cults were imported from the east. Their temples and religious organisations had undergone profound Etruscan influences. And they were the first to produce Gaul barrels on a large scale. Although one should be careful when making such comparisons, one could compare the Romans to the modern Japanese: very much geared towards innovations from other cultures, but keeping a distinct identity.


One thing that characterised their literature, for instance, is their sense of humour. Of course there are more dour and didactical authors as well, but the comical talent of writers like Martialis, Iuvenalis and Horatius is unrivaled. Often rude and boorish, but sophisticated just the same. As they were fairly successful, we can modestly conclude that this gives us a good image of what lived among the people (despite the social distance between an inhabitant of an insula and a patrician in his villa) in terms of humour, since many of these poets also read their work in public. Comitas¸ the Romans called it, ease of manner and sense of humour. Definitely a typical Roman trait.

Another trait that springs to mind is the Romans' sense of organisation. They were the first people in the area to organise an empire in such a rational fashion. Indeed there are a lot of parellels with hellenistic ideals, but it's undeniable that the Romans' legislation and way of ruling was different. It involved more paperwork and more unified organisation. Their organised army, for instance, was one of the things that allowed them to spread out across Europe so quickly. Other peoples often fought in impractical ways, adhering to absurd religious commands or customs that caused their own demise on the battlefield. Their sense of ratio is legendary. This is probably more than just a caricature, as it was a simple truth that stoicism, generally regarded as the epitome of ancient rationalism, had way more success in Rome than its traditional counterpart epicureanism.

And what about actual virtues in terms of what we think of it today? It's not unsurprising that many authors (Cicero, Tacitus, Sallustius) praised the same virtues as most western nations do these days: honesty, forgiveness, friendship… In truth however, the opposite often seemed to be the common behaviour. In a lot of periods of Roman history, corruption and cruelty abounded. The ferocious bloodsports in the Roman Empire were an exclusively Roman trait as well and most likely this grim reality was a long shot from the lofty literary ideals of the likes of Cicero. In a faint praise, one could say that at least they recognised almost universal values like kindness as being "good". Although they had cruel streaks, it would be wrong to assume that cruelty was a virtue in Rome. They may sometimes have been primitive, but they weren't that primitive!


A lot of what we think about Roman virtues is based on the thoughts of Roman stoics, such as the aforementioned Cicero, but not in the least Marcus Aurelius. Stoic virtues included not letting the indifferentia (things that don't really matter) get to you, strive for active improvement of your environment and excersise oneself in mental strength to be able to endure suffering and misery. It also implied servitude and faith in the divine providence. Many of these ideals were later passed on to christianity.

Once again, it should be noted that these were mainly aristocratic ideals. The question remains if virtues like pietas (piety), gravitas (seriousness) and clementia (forgiveness) were widely distributed among the population, and if a Roman from Lusitania shared these feelings and opinions with a Roman from the wild forests of Dacia. The logical answer is that they probably passively knew about this, if they could read and write. If they were actively pursuing these ideals is questionable. The Roman religion (and many other pagan religions from that time and area) were not in the first place morally binding. On the contrary, many myths and legends were amoral or were more about philosophical lessons rather than actual virtues, as opposed to christian teachings.

Probably a lot depended on the character of the Roman. The image we get from the Roman people is given to us by upper class authors, most of which never knew real poverty and most of which were educated well. If an author glorified the Roman people, it really was laudatory of the current leader's achievements or in a way was a form of self-praise. We shouldn't be fooled by authors making us believe that "the Romans" are noble, good and pious. Some of them probably were, like today some people are. Some were probably downright evil and cruel. But the majority was in the grey zone.


Does that mean that Roman virtues didn't exist? Well yes, they did exist. But they were only exercised by a small part of the population, and perhaps passively absorbed by a good minority. Like today, we should keep in mind that these are just ideals, ideals we can select from and try to live be. But also mistakes we can learn from. In true Roman tradition, that might be humbly offered as the best conclusion: the virtues of the past are not to be idealised and projected on a utopian future. Like the Romans themselves realised all too well, we live in today's age. And it's today that we need to face the world and exercise our virtues, not tomorrow, lest we don't learn from our experiences.
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