Comparing Stories

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! As we begin to wrap up our sequence of stories about Ferōx, Medūsa, Rīdiculus, Impigra, Sabīna, and the mouse-obstētrīx, you may have noticed some parallels between yesterday’s story and one from earlier this year. At the end of his adventures with the wolves, faithful Trux, canis Caeliī, also receives a vision about (general) approval and pietās. You’ll find the story at this link at the Tres Columnae Version Alpha Wiki site if you’re interested.

The story of Trux and Diana was the first that featured a dream or vision, though a number of readers (including our faithful reader Laura G) had suggested that these would be a natural way to expand the Tres Columnae storyline beyond its geographic and temporal limitations of Roman Italy in the late first century C.E. I struggled with visions, as you may recall from this blog post and from yesterday’s post, because I felt a need to respect several possibly conflicting things:

  • the Romans’ own worldview;
  • the worldview of today’s worshipers of the Greco-Roman divinities (I don’t want to offend them by using their sacred figures in “inappropriate” or “irreverent” ways);
  • potential readers and subscribers from various religious traditions who might be offended by the presence of “false” or “pagan” divinities as characters; and
  • my own feelings about the matter.

In the end, as you know, I did decide to write the two stories, for several reasons. First, I want to be faithful, as far as possible, to the time and place in which our stories are set – a time and place where Romans didn’t necessarily expect regular visitations from their divinities, but certainly considered such visitations and visions possible. Second, I wanted to be faithful to the epic tradition (you’ll see some epic journeys of our characters in Cursus Secundus), in which such apparitions are fairly common. Third, I wanted to give our participants a chance to grapple with these issues for themselves – and to use our stories as a jumping-off point to explore myths and other forms of literature in which Greco-Roman divinities play important roles. And fourth, I wanted to grapple with some of the more complicated issues regarding that central Roman concept of pietās.

(Or at least I think pietās is a central Roman concept; as our loyal reader Laura G pointed out to me in an email the other day, there’s very little about pietās in the proverb and fable tradition. She wondered if that means that pietās was more a concern of wealthy Romans … of course our sources are so incomplete and fragmentary that it’s probably impossible to know for sure. In any case, pietās is important in the Vergilian world and in other Golden Age literature, and many Tres Columnae subscribers will go on to read those authors, either formally or informally.)

So today I want to consider a few differences between these two stories, and I also want us to think about a bigger question about the idea of right relationships. The similarities between the stories are obvious.

  • Both feature animal characters who have, in some way, overstepped their proper bounds (Trux by running off with Lupa, Sabīna by trespassing in domō Valeriī).
  • In both, the vision occurs after the wayward animal has returned home.
  • In both, the vision is a dream … and could well be explained psychologically – at least if anthropomorphic animal characters’ subconscious minds work the same way, and are subject to the same types of analysis, as human minds.
  • In both, the divine figure is oddly comforting and does praise the pietās of the no-longer-wayward animal.
  • And in both, the divine figure offers some advice about how to be – I started to write “a better person,” but I realize neither Sabīna nor Trux is a person! Let’s say that in both, the divine figure offers advice about how to be more pius, or how to do better in the future, or something.

But I think the differences are significant, too. In the story of Trux and Diana, Trux has been restored to community – and pietās seems to have a lot to do with community. In the story of Sabīna and Juno, though, Sabīna doesn’t seem to have a community. It’s natural for Trux to have a vision of Diana, since she is a patron goddess of animals and has a special fondness for dogs … but it’s rather unusual for spinster Sabīna to have a vision of Juno Lūcīna, goddess of childbirth. Diana doesn’t have very much specific advice for Trux, but Juno does have specific advice for Sabīna: stop being so angry (or bloodthirsty, or something like that) and realize that other animals, not just you, have officia to perform and display pietās by doing these things. Of course, we really have no idea whether a Roman would feel that a dog or weasel could display pietās or have officia – but I want our readers to have opportunities to grapple with the concepts, and these seemingly simple stories (like lots of good “stories for children”) can provide such opportunities.

I also think that both stories raise an important, and probably unanswerable, question: If pietās is defined as right relationship or treating others in the proper way, what is the right or proper way for a Roman to behave toward an enemy? I have a ready answer from my own faith tradition, and from the 2000 years of Judeo-Christian influence on Western culture: follow the Golden Rule and treat them as you would like to be treated. But I’m not at all sure that a Roman would give that response! I actually ask my students that question early each semester, when we have a seminar about pietās in my face-to-face Latin II, III, IV, and AP classes … and I keep asking the question each semester because I’m not satisfied with my own answer to it. As I think about the pattern of Roman treatment of conquered people (from Caesar’s genocidal conduct in Gaul to the “gentle” Romanization of conquered territory in the early Empire to Vespasian and Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem, and on and on), it seems to me that if pietās means right or proper treatment, then pietās toward a resisting or rebellious enemy must involve destroying or killing them. So, in our examples, Caesar killed the Gauls who resisted or rebelled; later generations of Roman governors (Agricola in Britain, for example, or Pontius Pilate before him in Judea) were “merciful” to those who did not resist, but took drastic action against those who did. And one could argue that Vespasian and Titus destroyed Jerusalem because the “stubborn, rebellious” natives refused a “simple” request to put up a statue in their temple – a statue that, of course, would be an exemplum pietātis (as well as a patriotic symbol) from a Roman perspective.

Whenever I think about pietās, the phrase pius Aeneas comes naturally to mind. So I wanted to take a fresh look at the end of Aeneid XII, when Aeneas has defeated Turnus and is trying to decide whether to spare or to kill him. I found an interesting article at in which the author, in comparing pietās and other virtūtēs in Vergil and Livy, argues that pietās and clementia / misericordia are almost synonymous. In her argument, when Aeneas sees Pallas’ balteus, tells Turnus that it’s Pallas who’s now taking revenge him, and kills Turnus, Aeneas’ rage is the very opposite of pietās. It’s certainly a reasonable argument, especially from a twenty-first-century perspective, but I’m not what the Roman perspective would be.

What, I wonder, are the obligations of pietās on a Roman in Aeneas’ situation? What obligations does he have not only to Turnus, his defeated foe, but to Pallas, to Evander, and to his own people? A few years ago, one of my Latin IV students said that, in essence, pietās is the opposite of the Golden Rule: you treat others not as you would want them to treat you, but as they have deserved to be treated (or maybe as they have treated you or are planning to treat you). So, in dealing with an enemy who killed the son of your hospes – the son whom you swore to protect as much as possible – what would pietās dictate? I really don’t think a Roman would say it would dictate clementia or misericordia! I thought about this issue a lot as my AP® students were reading the end of the Aeneid earlier this spring, but I still don’t feel a “perfect” resolution … and I hope I never have such a “perfect” resolution that I stop being open to new learning!

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • First, what do you think of our two stories, and of the comparisons I’ve made between them?
  • Second, what do you think about pietās? Is it as important to the Romans as I’ve claimed, and do you agree with our tentative definition?
  • Even if you disagree with the importance or the definition, do you think it’s reasonable for pietās to be a recurring theme for the Tres Columnae Project?
  • What other virtūtēs would you want us to address formally – or do you think we should wait and see what virtūtēs, if any, our participants want to talk about?
  • And what do you think of my interpretation of the end of Aeneid XII?

Tune in next time, when we’ll consider a related question about pietās and the Roman divinities. Then, on Friday, we’ll celebrate the end of my face-to-face school year (apologies to those of you who are still “in the trenches!”) by beginning a new series of posts. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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