Building Understanding, VI: Housing, Families, and Pietas

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue our series on Understanding, shifting the focus from language elements (like nouns and verbs) and a Connection or Comparison task (like native-language derivatives from Latin) to focus on Roman Culture. As you may recall if you’ve read the stories in Lectiō Prīma on the Version Alpha Wiki site, our cultural goals for Lectiō Prīma include helping our learners to

compare housing and family structure in Roman world with our own housing and family structure

begin to understand, analyze, and explore the concept of pietās

Our faithful reader Laura G pointed out in this blog post that we’ve done a lot with housing and family structure, but not so much with pietās in the materials she’d seen. Today and tomorrow we’ll attempt to make the pietās connections clearer.

First, for our readers who may not be experts on Roman beliefs and values, I suppose we should try to define and translate pietās … except that it’s a completely untranslatable Roman concept! If you doubt my claim of untranslatability, just check out this lengthy definition for the adjective pius and this even longer definition for pietās itself and see if you can find a single-word equivalent in any language other than Latin! 🙂 In a nutshell, pietās is the way a Roman acts so that he (or she) is in the right relationship to everyone: family, friends, the state, the gods, nature, enemies … everyone and everything. It has a lot more to do with conduct than with inner attitudes or beliefs – which is perfectly natural for Roman culture but often leaves twentieth- and twenty-first-century Americans and Europeans scratching their heads in confusion.

That’s one reason why our goal is to begin to explore the concept; fully exploring it will be, in some senses, the work of the entire Tres Columnae project and possibly beyond. But of course, with any huge exploration, you do have to start somewhere. That’s why we chose to begin with housing and family structures. In any culture, the layout and design of people’s homes says a lot about what they value and what their culture as a whole values, and housing is closely related to family structure. For example, I’m writing this post in a “family room” which is designed to be the heart of the house, with a fireplace on one wall and the perfect-sized space for an “entertainment center” (big cabinet for TV and stereo) on another wall. The house was built in the early 1990’s, and it absolutely reflects a cultural view of what families “should” do (sit together in the evenings after dinner and watch TV) that was dominant in this part of the U.S. at that time. A different house, built at another time in another part of the world, would have a very different layout.

So, after they read stories set in a domus and an īnsula, our participants will have the opportunity to explore lots of freely available online images of domūs and īnsulae. (Over time, we hope that lots of them will go to Roman sites, including Herculaneum, and contribute their own photos and other images of what they see, too!) We’ll also provide some links to a range of different perspectives about Roman family structure, probably with a few annotations about the perspective or “slant” of the authors if that’s important for our readers. We’ll then offer a Continuing Virtual Seminar in which participants can explore issues about housing, family, or both, depending on their particular interests and goals.

After that, though, we’ll begin to address the issue of pietās more formally with a sequence like this:

quid novī?

If you think back to our five goals for Lectiō Prīma, you may remember that the fifth goal was

begin to understand, analyze, and explore the concept of pietās

We haven’t used the word very much … mostly because it’s very difficult to represent in English. Check out this Wikipedia article, this definition of the adjective pius, and this definition of pietās itself, and you’ll see what we mean! You’ll also, notice, though, that pietās is closely connected with familia. Pietās is much broader and deeper than just “devotion to your family,” but “devotion to your family” is a big part of it.

What evidence of devotion – and concern for right relationships and proper conduct – among familia members have you seen in the stories in Lectiō Prīma? Please take a moment or two to record them in your Tres Columnae learning blog. You may even want to begin to compare pietās with your own ideas about duty, respect, and devotion to family – especially if your ideas are very similar to pietās or very different from it! Then, if you’d like, please feel free to join the Continuing Virtual Seminar about pietās and share your thoughts with others.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • If you’re familiar with pietās, like many readers of the blog, do you agree with our (very inadequate) attempt at a definition? If not, we’d really like to hear from you, because we’re quite dissatisfied with it ourselves!
  • What do you think about the sequence of tasks? They’re a bit more free-form than the ones about grammar and etymology, but we think that’s appropriate under the circumstances. On the other hand, we may well be wrong … and if so, we’d really like for you to tell us!
  • What do you think about pietās (and the other principal virtūtēs) as an organizing principle for the Tres Columnae storyline? If you’ve explored the stories beyond Lectiō I, can you see how we’ll continue to play with pietās, dignitās, gravitās, and the other big –tās words as we consider our characters’ motivations, behaviors, thoughts, and words?
  • Have you seen any characters who seem utterly un-Roman in their conduct or attitudes?
  • And what about our “naughty” characters like young Cnaeus Caelius? His parents frequently complain that he impiē sē gerit … and what conclusions should we draw from that? Is he behaving in an un-Roman way, or just a bad Roman way? And is there a difference?

Tune in next time when we’ll try to have some answers to some of these questions. Due to the Memorial Day holiday in the U.S., we’ll be taking a break from posting on Saturday and Monday – and I hope our Roman characters would agree, as we’ll take some time to honor those who have sacrificed much for our freedom and security. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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