Ancient Roman Virtues and Power

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Romans saw themselves as peacekeepers of the world. They were trying to unify the world and bring peace by imposing the same language, rules, and standards. At the same time, they kept invading other countries and conquering different nations. Apparently, ancient Roman virtues were paradoxical. Read on to see if they really were or not.

Beautiful brunette woman wearing a geek-like dress like  holding an iron shield and warrior husband wearing clothes like a spartan. Couple meeting after war in a grass field.
Peacekeeping, bravery, and family were among the ancient Roman virtues and were highly respected. (Image: Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock)

As Virgil wrote in his poem Aeneid, the Roman mission was parcere subjectis et debellare superbos: “to humble the proud and spare the subjected.” And they did. One of the ancient Roman virtues was their strong sense of civic duty.

The Roman Civic Duty

Romans believed in their right to have slaves as much as other ancient civilizations did. They acquired many slaves and exploited the lands that they conquered, but that was not the reason for expanding the empire. Their main motive was security.

Perhaps, those who served in the military had a different sense of civic duty. Serving in the Roman army was a requirement for all Romans up to the early first century A.D., with the Romans regarding it as honor, not duty. The Roman Empire was trying to spread civilization throughout the world as the Brits did in the 19th century.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

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The Roman Mentality

Despite their strong sense of civic duty, the Romans did not think that they were eternal. They feared a dark fate.

great Roman empire - conceptual collage in retro style
Romans were trying to conquer as much as the world as they can to bring peace and security everywhere, but they always knew the possibility of a bitter end. (Image: leoks/Shutterstock)

After defeating Rome’s foe, Carthage, in 146 B.C., the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus showed this fear in his words. As he watched the city burn down, he said: “I very much fear that someday the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.” The sentence is recorded by a Greek historian called Polybius, who was also a close friend of Scipio.

A trustworthy source to seek ancient Roman virtues and mentality in is Virgil’s poems. There is a high chance that Romans read his writings at school or with their tutors.

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Ancient Roman Virtues

In Aeneid, the first two of the ancient Roman virtues are fides and pietas. Fides means “faithfulness,” sticking to a task and seeing it through to the bitter end, not quitting. Pietas translates as “piety,” which referred to doing the right thing.

A strong image of pietas in Aeneid is when he is fleeing from the ruins of Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and clasping the hand of his little son Ascanius, who is trying to match his steps to his father’s. He is also carrying an image of the penates, the household gods. They have rescued the gods’ image in the hope of building a new life somewhere else.

The next Roman virtue is being bound to the respublica, i.e., the common wealth. Lucius Iunius Brutus liberated Rome from the rule of the kings in around 509 B.C. When he became one of the first two consuls in the newly formed republic, he made the Romans swear that they will never let a king reign in Rome again. He even executed his own sons and brothers when they decided to bring back the monarchy. Thus, respublica became a Roman virtue.

Roman Bravery

Another example of how deeply the Romans valued their virtues is when a young Roman called Gaius Mucius Scaevola mistakenly killed someone. He sneaked into the camp of the Etruscans to kill their king, Lars Porsenna, as he had helped the exiled Roman king. However, he mistakenly killed one of the king’s attendants.

When he was arrested, he put his hand in a fire and said, “I am a Roman citizen … it is the characteristic of a Roman both to act and to suffer bravely.” Porsenna was so impressed by Scaevola’s bravery that he let him go.

Ancient coin of the Roman Empire.
Romans valued bravery in all aspects of life or war, and they highly valued family and supporting everyone related to them. (Image: Bukhta Yurii/Shutterstock)

In a totally different situation, a woman who was raped showed great bravery. The king’s son raped Lucretia, the wife of a Roman nobleman. The next day she goes to her husband, dressed in black. She makes him swear that he will take revenge, and after revealing the crime, stabs herself to death.

Romans in any social rank highly valued the virtues of their ancestors, mos maiorum, which means “the customs of the greater ones.”

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Gravitas and Familia

The last two virtues are gravitas, i.e., seriousness, and familia, which referred to the immediate family, the extended family, and dependents– both slave and free. The familia also included divine members, such as the penates, gods of the household.

The opposite of gravitas was levitas, which marks an inferior mind. In the Roman view, levitas included a woman’s mind too. All Romans tried to gain wisdom from their ancestors and pass the wisdom on to their offspring. All ancient societies highly valued having children, and the Romans saw it as a vital part of the chain of existence.

Ancient Roman virtues were extremely important to the Romans, and they were willing to suffer and die for keeping them.

Common Questions about Ancient Roman Virtues

Q: What did the Romans think about slavery?

Like in all other ancient societies, Romans also supported slavery and thought of it as a very normal part of society. Having slaves and treating them like one was not against ancient Roman values.

Q: Did Romans have compulsory service in the army?

In ancient Roman values, serving in the army was an honor, not a duty. Until the early 1st century A.D., virtually all Romans of all social ranks were required to serve in the Roman army.

Q: Did the Romans believe they were eternally powerful?

No. Although in the ancient Roman values, they regarded themselves as peacekeepers in the world, they also feared that someday their cities would burn to the ground. This is evident in what the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus said after defeating Carthage: “I very much fear that someday the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.”

Q: What did Romans think of monarchy?

After Lucius Iunius Brutus liberated Rome from the rule of the kings allegedly in 509 B.C., he made the Romans take an oath not to ever again allow anyone to rule as a king and destroy the republic. Thus, the republic became one of the ancient Roman values.

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