Roman Pietas and Pudicitia

Piety was the defining characteristic of Roman religion. It was a complex and multivalent term that intersected with nearly every aspect of Roman life and thought. It is essential to understanding Roman religion as the Romans practiced it and it is essential for those of us approaching Roman Gods today to at least have some comprehension of why this was so important a part of the religion and how it was put into play. Otherwise we risk disrespect to the Gods and a cognitive and spiritual disconnect with actual Roman cultus. This is an issue in Heathenry as well, which I’ll touch on below. Roman writers like Tacitus commented on the intense piety of the Germanic peoples in contrast even to Rome itself).

Let’s start first with what the word ‘pietas, pietatis” means. (1) Generally according to the OLD it’s translated as piety and first and foremost duty toward the Gods (christians retranslated that as love toward God), also loyalty, patriotism, duty, conscientiousness both to the Gods and one’s civic duties. (2) In many respects ‘pietas’ was inseparable from ‘civitas’, civic consciousness.

Pietas was also a Goddess. She had two temples at Rome as did the Goddess Pudicitia — Modesty. (3) Modesty is a loaded term for us isn’t it? For the Romans it was a matter of *self* regulation. One was expected to behave modestly, i.e. with moderation as part of being an adult and it didn’t matter if one was male or female, the expectation was the same.(4)

I think this is difficult for those of us who assume separation of church and state. It is impossible to separate Roman religious values from their social ones. The two were inextricably intertwined. Now what does that mean for a modern practitioner of cultus deorum? (and what does it mean for Heathens because the same thing could be said of the Germanic peoples)?. I think for one thing, it means that when we run into contemporary mores that are incompatible with those of our religion, or vice versa, religious mores that are perhaps incompatible with the modern world we must consider them carefully, not immediately expunging one in favor of the other without deep thought. A process of translation of religious culture comes into play and one would hope that the wishes of the Gods in these matters would also come into play as well.(5)

I was going to keep this going and bring in quotes by Cicero, and Livy, Tacitus, and Pliny, and certain modern scholars on the importance of piety and modesty in Roman religion but I’ve decided not to do that. I was telling my husband what I was writing and suddenly this question hit me and this is where I want to end this piece because for me, this is all that matters.

The Romans venerated the Goddesses Pietas and Pudicitia. They gave Them temples and cultus, in Rome, in the heart of the city. As we struggle to restore polytheisms today, (in this case Roman polytheism, but one can extrapolate for other polytheisms too), and as we are faced with discomfort as our modern values conflict with ancient religious ones here’s the question with Pudicitia:

Are all our gods worthy of veneration except Her?


1. We cannot assume that simply because we speak Latin derived languages that we have the same religious understanding and mindset as the ancient Romans. To do so ignores two thousand years of Christian cultural and religious influences.
2. OLD = Oxford Latin Dictionary. See also the entry here.
3. In similar fashion, Eidos, shame was Deified among the Greeks and Pudicitia, modesty was deified amongst the Romans. Obviously modesty — self moderation—was rather important to their religion when they went through the trouble of ascribing it to a Deity. Given how often the idea of modesty is used to devalue women, it’s important to note here that modesty was not expected solely of women in ancient Rome. It was a virtue equally expected of women and men.
4. “Modestia” actually means ‘moderation.’ ‘Pudicitia’ is specifically sexual modesty and restraint. I suspect the role of pudicitia for both men and women had to do with a separation of public vs. private. Romans lived much more of their lives in what we would consider the public eye. The division between what was public and what was private was much more permeable than for us today, at least in American culture (my swiss mother used to lament this lol). I suspect pudicitia was connected in some way with delineating private spaces, including the space of the body.
5. There is a saying familiar to anyone working in translation studies: “traduttore, traditore” which in English means “translator, traitor” the idea being that once you translate a text, no matter how diligent you try to be, you run the risk of betraying the original text and intent of the author. We need to be certain as we translate our practices into the modern day that we don’t do this with our gods and ancestors. There is a way to do translation well but it requires care.


Posted on January 3, 2016, in Polytheism, Roman Things, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. That is something I have been giving some thought to myself. On one hand I support seperation of church and state and a protective device that allows us to live peacefully without having the values of the majority forced upon us. Yet at the same time there is recognition that the gods themselves have an important social-civic role. I think this was something I started to touch on when we were discussing social justice and worship, with the latter not equaling the former. There is a necessary acknowledgement that many gods have strong civic nature and that polytheistic religion itself contains a strong civic presence in Roman religion as well as in Hellenic religion. One of the most important discussed in Hellenic religion is the social benefits of the religious obligations of xenia, that one observers the duties of host-guest relationship. In the current world this seems harder to implement in the way that the ancestors did, that one did not refuse and turn away a guest from the door and responsibilities towards charitable treatment of a guest. This is a much talked about social-religious value but one that I am not certain gets more than lip service. Likewise the number of gods who play a role in law, and the state are quite numerable….but that makes me question how many give credence to the gods in these roles that they operate within…..rather than fully embracing a modernity in which the gods play no active part in society and government and the behaviors therein. This means giving full obligations to the gods as one that benefits us not only on a personal level but also on a social and civic level….and making decisions on a social and civic level that reflect the values expressed by the traditions. One thing I find quite striking is how many obscenely wealthy and highly affluent people we have in our society, people whom in Hellas would have been cast down from their pedestals for overreaching what is modestly acceptable. A wholesale abandoning of all the social and civic values of the traditional polytheistic religions in favor of modernity is not the answer, and I think you are quite right that we need to make a lot of careful decisions.

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