utrum di Romani pii sunt annon?

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! In yesterday’s post, as we started to wrap up our series of posts about the stories in Lectiō XVI of the Tres Columnae Project, we returned once again to the theme of pietās as it relates to the conduct of our characters. But whenever I talk about pietās with my face-to-face students, especially in a seminar context, we inevitably raise questions about the conduct of the Greco-Roman gods – whether in “simple” myths we read in Latin I or in the complicated machinations of Vergil’s divine characters in the Aeneid. In a nutshell, our question is this: do the Greco-Roman gods display pietās or not? And if they don’t, what does that say about the whole Roman worldview? Is pietās a convenient fiction, a tool for the dominant classes of society to keep their “inferiors” in line? And if so, what are some possible implications for us, here and now?

Of course, we need to be very careful in making generalizations about untranslatable Roman concepts (or “perspectives,” to use some technical language from the National Standards for Classical Language Learning) like pietās! We also need to be careful about applying Roman concepts, like pietās, to myths that were originally Greek. Still, in so far as Romans did appropriate the Greek names and stories and apply them to their own gods, they evidently saw some connection – and in so far as Vergil, for example, includes episodes in which the gods behave very inappropriately (at least to our twenty-first-century viewpoint), I think it’s a fair line of questioning to pursue. And of course Aeneas criticizes his own mother for appearing to him in disguise … and Neptune threatens the winds even though they displayed some sort of pietās by obeying Aeolus, their master, and ultimately Juno … and Venus and Juno engage in all sorts of machinations around the relationship between Aeneas and Dido … and Juno doesn’t care about fate and prophecy … and we could create a much longer list of episodes like this, couldn’t we?

As our faithful reader and collaborator Ann M said in an email to me this week, “ My highly selective fictional glimpses of Romans talking about their gods doesn’t make me think the gods are very just or very kind. They’re interesting and they have to be taken into account.” So, if gods (and, for that matter, Emperors and other powerful people) rarely display justice or kindness, and if pietās is justice or kindness, where does that leave this “central” Roman value? Or, when we assume that pietās is synonymous with justice and kindness, are we applying twenty centuries of Judeo-Christian perspective to a culture in which that perspective would be utterly alien?

Perhaps we need to look again at that definition of pietās as right relationship or proper treatment and ask, once again, how a Roman would define that as it relates to figures of very unequal power or status. Maybe, if you’re a Roman, the right behavior of a powerful figure toward someone less powerful is … to display your power. I think of the law that requires death for all household slaves if they “should have known” that one of their fellow slaves was plotting against his master in this context, and while it makes me shiver, it also seems to fit. But what do you think? And how does all of this apply to our stories from Lectiō XVI?

When I wrote these stories of relatively kind, gentle interactions between divinities and human-like characters, I had these issues in mind; in fact, writing the stories was one way for me to grapple with the issues. I deliberately saved the apparitions for a point in the story when the characters were in (mostly) right relationship with others: Trux has returned home and been welcomed back by his fellow residents of the vīlla, and Sabīna has been appropriately punished – but not killed – for trespassing in domō Valeriī in her pursuit of the mūrēs. In both cases, the characters have gone to places traditionally associated with the divinities (Trux is asleep in the woods, under a tree, and Sabina is actually asleep at the foot of the image of Juno Lucina in cellā templī). Their hearts may not be pure, but their current conduct is appropriate – and pietās has a lot more to do with conduct than it does with feeling or belief. In this context, then, Diana offers comfort to Trux and Juno offers comfort – and a challenge – to Sabīna. Juno’s challenge (or mild criticism) has to do not with Sabīna’s actions, but with the excessive zeal with which she pursues the mice – she seems to be advocating, if not a Stoic detachment from strong emotion, at least some degree of control of one’s mouse-hunting passions. I think it’s a Roman-sounding voice … but of course I’m not one, and neither are most of you lectōrēs cārissimī! 🙂

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • What do you think of the interchanges between the goddesses and the animals?
  • What do you think of my attempt to link these to the larger issues of pietās?
  • And what do you think of my point about pietās and the gods … or pietās and the powerful in general?

As you read these words, it’s the last day of school in my face-to-face teaching world, a time when we often think about both the past and the future, the strong and the weak, the old and the young. We’ll continue with that theme tomorrow as we begin a series of posts about the stories, later in Cursus Prīmus, in which our young characters (Valeria, Lucius, Caeliola, Caius, Lollia, Prima, Secunda, and Cnaeus in particular) begin to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. We’ll begin with Valeria and her impending marriage to Quartus Vipsānius tomorrow, and then we’ll spend some time on other rites of passage – a fitting way, meā quidem sententiā, to start the transitional time of summer. So tune in next time, and prepare for a few tears if you’re a sentimental person – and especially if you’re the father of a daughter. (I cried writing this story … and not just because my own daughter would be making this transition quite soon if she were a Roman!) intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.


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