A Roman Virtue: Pietas

November 3, 2020 Updated: November 3, 2020

From the Latin “pietas” we derive the word piety, which we associate with a religious faith.

For the Romans, however, pietas held an even deeper meaning. It included not only respect and reverence for the gods, but also for country, customs, tradition, and family, particularly parents. Pietas involved doing one’s duty in all things, particularly in caring for mother and father. Love and gratitude were also a part of this blend of virtues, and the person who practiced pietas added to his own dignity and worth. So important was pietas to the Romans that they made it a goddess, a divine personification of duty, loyalty, and honor.

Livia, mother of the emperor Tiberius, pictured as Pietas on a Roman coin, 22-23 AD. (Classical Numismatic Group/CC BY-SA 2.5)

In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the hero of that epic poem is often described as Pius Aeneas, or Pious Aeneas, for his respect for various deities and for the care he shows for his family. Fleeing Troy after its capture by the Greeks, for example, Aeneas carries his elderly father on his back while holding his small son’s hand, an act demonstrating both his respect for the past and his hopes for the future.

For centuries, especially during the years of the Republic, Roman parents taught their children the value of pietas, which is one reason a town on the Tiber River became one of the most splendid cities in the ancient world.

Many of our ancestors practiced an American version of pietas, caring for loved ones, honoring the flag, celebrating their liberties on Independence Day, and treating those around them with the dignity they deserve.

And if we pause and look carefully, even today in this year of pandemic, riots, and a presidential election, we see others following the path of pietas.

They are the pillars of our culture.