Things change over a thousand years, the Romans certainly changed and so did ancient Roman moral principles. With the advent of riches and military dominance, the austere morality of the early days of the Roman kingdom and republic steadily shifted towards the orgiastic litentiousness of the Empire. It took a radical change in fortunes and beliefs to reign Roman morality back in.
A useful key in which to observe and contemplate the evolution of ancient Roman morality is to consider that “morality”, a philosophy in its own right, is something that a society develops and which is subsequently encoded through laws. Morality cannot be easily manufactured and imposed upon the people who are to live by it, not without a good dose of divine intervention. Indeed divine intervention is often at the root of the moral codes of many modern societies (eg Moses and the ten commandments).
It will be noted that these elements and considerations pervade Roman morality throughout the entire history of ancient Rome.
Ethics and the study of morality can be broken down into defined areas. We can use the modern framework to help analyse ancient Roman morality in a more methodical way. This can be mapped out as a visible3D object for simplicity. Metaethics, Normative ethics and Applied ethics.
Metaethics: Where do ethical values come from? Are they a separate reality or a human construct?
In ancient Rome the provenance and repository of moral expectations was with divine entities. These were both domestic/private as well as public entities.
The same way that the deities had a hierarchical structure, so there was a corresponding equivalence with the structure of roman society. This correspondence was reflected throughout all aspects of Roman life, even in the seating arrangement at the public games such as at the Colosseum.
Normative ethics: What frameworks do individuals and society use to guide actions and decide between right and wrong?
Three broad frameworks are outlined below. All three exist in parallel and prove useful in different circumstances. However they can give contradictory answers – hence judging Roman morality from any given ethical framework can provide very different judgements on the level of ancient Roman morality and ethical choices that may have been made according to a different framework.
Rules and duty:
the moral code expected specific behaviours from individuals according to their specific place within the structure of society.
Specific mores and virtues expected of individuals. Typical terms used were ‘gravitas‘, ‘pietas‘, ‘dignitas‘ for men and ‘pudicitia‘ for women. Gravitas was particularly of importance during the early part of the Roman Republic. The historian Polibius remarked on how the honesty and virtues and honesty of early Republican Roman officials was a marked advantage for the rise of Rome versus other cultures such as Greece.
Consequentialist & utilitarian:
Frameworks based on outcomes, and the egoistical benefits of individuals or of sections of society. “Salus populi suprema lex”.
Moral compass: It is interesting to hypothesise that a give framework could be particularly favoured according to the circumstances and needs of broader roman society at any given time.
Applied ethics: Dealing with real-life cases where a difficult ethical choice has to be made.
The outcomes of particular choices became encoded through common lore, myths and written laws to facilitate decisions for future generations.
Encoded Roman laws coupled with a suitable social structure and governance were fundamental to enabling social stability as Roman society grew in size and complexity of the empire.
Over time the corpus of choices built up like geological layers.
The table below provides an easy reference of how this works out for Roman society. The sections further below provide a broader outline of roman attitudes to morality and ethical behaviour.
The shifting moral compass of ancient Rome
Very simplistically, the frameworks of Normative ethics can been drawn out as a moral compass. Different Normative frameworks can be considered as equivalent alternatives to help make the right choice in any given situation.
In studying the morals of ancient Rome it is interesting to make a simplistic hypothesis that as society evolves and has changing needs it may have a preference for a give framework or another (this is hypothesis).
For example, an illiterate archaic population might be more prone to readily accepting and operating according to divine rules. A republic with growing urbanisation, increasingly wealthy tradesmen and literate individuals might grow a more utilitarian tendency – trade and growing job specialisation imply the development of needs-based commerce and consumerism. A collapsing empire might look for new answers and values embodied in virtues, such as brought by Christianity with values of faith and equality for all.
Observing various aspects of Roman morality
As Cicero succinctly put it: Salus populi suprema lex. The supreme law is the wellbeing of the people (of Rome). This is a perfect example of the sense of practicality and pragmatism which pervaded Roman culture even with respect to moral issues.
Morality is directly linked to social customs and the behaviour of individuals within society. It follows that it is directly influenced by the waves of wealth and poverty, peace, and war to which they are subjected, not to mention the influx of immigrant populations, exposure to foreign customs and religions. Various examples of this are to be found throughout Roman history.
Religion and Morality : the founding pillars of Ancient Rome under a single roof
By taking a step back from Roman history to Roman mythology we soon notice how the major popular myths involved a number of similar elements in the establishment of “Romanity”. Two of these are at the heart of the very founding of Rome and founding of the Republic, both involve rape of women of great virtue.
The first is the myth of the founding of Rome: at its heart lies the rape of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia by the God Mars (notice how religion immediately makes an entry). The result was the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus (similarity with the very ancient deity twins the Dioscuri, symbols of sunrise and sunset). The second is the myth of the founding of the Republic: the last king of RomeTarquin the Proud and his family were expelled from the city on account of his son Sextus having raped his cousin’s wife Lucretia. The woman told all and then committed suicide rather than face the disgrace she had been subjected to. This was a foundational event in Roman collective memory. The Roman historian Titus Livius aka “Livy” (59BC-17AD – notice, he lived just at the time of Emperor Augustus‘ morality push) had a clear idea of the significance of these two stories:
Rhea Silvia was linked to the concept of religion and divinity
Lucretia was linked to public decency and morality.
These two pillars were the foundation of Roman society and politics, at least until the early years of the empire.
If we consider moral conduct as that set of social behaviours which the Romans felt were demanded of them by “the Gods”, then we can say that the Romans had a relatively strict and formal code of conduct which was codified in Roman law. Laws weren’t always abided of course. For example, gambling in ancient Rome was considered illegal and yet it was regularly practiced! However, the Republican phase of Roman society provided a period of relative democracy during which current moral standards could find their way into law.
In the “olden days” of the Roman kingdom both religion and law were under the same (religious) roof. During the Roman empire, we find that law and religion have again fallen under the same roof as the Emperor, sole ruler, was also regarded a divinity: Hence the problem with the Christians who refused to pay tribute to any other except their one God.
The historian Tacitus gives us a good example of this (moral) dilema which threatened the very foundation of Romanity: After describing the great fire of Rome he went on to describe how Emperor Nero took it out on the Christians in order to divert rumors from himself. Tacitus goes on to refer to the Christians as “the notoriously depraved Christians” and that in spite of their leader Christ having been executed in Tiberius‘ reign “the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea but even in Rome.
“All degraded and shameful practices flourish in the capital.”
This phrase probably refers to the generalised idea amongst fellow Romans that the Christians regularly practiced incest, as they were all “brothers and sisters”, and that their religious meetings involved cannibalism, the host being the “body of Christ”. Right or wrong, they clearly had a good idea of what they intended by degraded and shameful practices. ie even the non Christianised Romans had clear notions of morals: cannibalism and incest were no-nos!
The Ebbs and Tides of Morality in Ancient Rome
The Romans of the early Roman Kingdom, the ones who started as sheep and cattle farmers and turned fighters during the war season, were a restrained, austere lot. Religion and morality were the essences of survival of the community in a hostile environment.
Religion and morality were the foundation of Roman society and religion had, at least in the early days, a fundamental influence in the government of ancient Rome: the earliest kings based their right to rule on their own personal hotline with various Roman deities. Romulus, the founder of Rome actually ascended to the heavens as the god Quirinus. Others after him spoke directly with gods and demigods for advice.
Roman rulers eventually divorced themselves from “divine” influences and opted for a mechanism of state and written laws voted by the Senate (council of elders). The system of laws generated by the Roman civilisation belies a great deal of time and effort spent on debates and decisions over what might be considered right or wrong, politics and persuasion played their part of course.
During the period known as the Roman Republic, we have the first social revolutions in favour of the rights of plebeians. These could be considered the first socialist revolutions ever, as the poor demanded their rights to agricultural land and a cut of the spoils of the wars they were involved in fighting. The political fight was long and vicious before their (moral) rights to social security (in the form of grain) were finally accepted and enforced by law.
Interestingly, the third figure of female virtue and morality enters popular Roman myth at this point: Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi brothers who fought for the rights of the poor/plebeians, was herself related to the Roman nobility (see the Scipio family tree). Having lost her husband she refused to remarry, even when asked by Ptolemy king of Egypt. When confronted by a friend’s display of wealth she responded that her jewels were her sons.
A further example relating to much the same period of boom and bust in Rome’s fortunes was associated with the Punic wars and the civil wars. The destruction brought by Hannibal carried a general collapse of the fabric of small provincial land tenancy which lived by the traditional notions of austerity. It also brought poverty as huge resources were poured into the war effort. This went as far as legislated limitations on the amount of gold and jewelry Roman women were allowed to own (lex sumptuaria) or limitations on how much you might be allowed to spend on a feast or even a wedding.
It is hardly surprising that once the emergency was over and wealth from the newly acquired Asiatic provinces was flowing into the Roman Forum and surrounding districts there should be a step change in attitudes of all individuals. Individuals naturally wished to forget their fears and hardships and to display their newfound riches and wealth. In order to do this, they had to demand rights to display them, which they promptly won. These newfound liberties and desire to display wealth and enjoy life went hand in hand with the sexual freedom of Roman women.
By the time the threat was over to individuals’ wellbeing and Julius Caesar had done his part to put an end to the Republic and open the way to a dictatorial Empire, “things”, from a moral point of view, took a liberal turn for the next three or four centuries.
The sort of morality delivered from a pulpit often, if not always, made reference to the “good old” days when Romans, true Romans, led their austere life. Sticking to moralist tradition at the service of the greatness of Rome was vigorously upheld by the likes of Cato the Elder (234-149BC) and Emperor Augustus.
Roman literature increasingly abounded with a denouncing of increasingly lax ways. This passage from Juvenal’s 1st Satire renders a good idea:
“Then up comes a lordly dame who, when her husband wants a drink, mixes toad’s blood with his mellow Calenian and improving upon Lucusta herself, teaches her artless neighbours to brave the talk of the town and carry forth to burial the blackened corpses of their husbands. If you want to be anybody nowadays, you must dare some crime that merits narrow Gyara or jail; honesty is praised and left to shiver. It is to their crimes that men owe their pleasure-grounds and palaces, their fine tables and old silver goblets with goats standing out in relief. Who can get sleep for thinking of a money-loving daughter-in-law seduced, of brides that have lost their virtue, or of adulterers not out of their ‘teens? Though nature say me nay, indignation will prompt my verse….”
The reality was quite different. In various occasions, the possibility of restricting luxury, display of luxury, the amount spent on banquets and feasts was the subject of serious scrutiny by the authorities, but even in the few cases where laws were established it was soon clear that their enforcement was nigh on impossible, let alone respected by the authorities themselves.
General Conduct and Morality in Ancient Rome
The Roman concept of indecency was different from our own but not overly, in some contexts we might regard it as rather “exotic” whilst in others quite similar to ours. We have to remember a thousand years of changing costumes: try comparing 21st-century man to his (or her) 18th-century ancestors who still profited from slave trading…
Within their own times, the Romans believed the Greeks to be rather indecent for their nakedness at the games, their orgies and orgiastic religious rites and their use of wine.
From the point of view of the freedom of women in society, we find that the Etruscans were an almost matriarchal society (remember they had heavily influenced Rome’s early days). Etruscan women were noted for their extreme sexual freedom and funerary remains show us they even had their own possessions. Roman matrons had considerable freedom. Greek women, on the other hand, had relatively little freedom and men would often attend parties with lady friends whilst their wives would stay at home.
Simplistically we could say that ancient Roman morality, like that of many contemporary civilisations was based on the rights of the victor. As in nature winner takes all and to the defeated slavery would often be preferable to death, especially if the condition of slavery might give a hope of a healthy future, such as befell many Greeks who took the positions of teachers, shopkeepers, medics and so on.
One of the greatest moralists was Cato, mentioned above, and yet he advised landowners to rid themselves of old tools, old cattle and old or sickly slaves. Eventually, this attitude towards (sick) slaves changed but not until some 200 years later, and even then it was probably driven by cost concerns. In fact, laws were eventually issued by which a slave could publicly complain about mistreatment and by which families of slaves had to be kept united. But it took time, and slavery went on.
Women and Wine
There were aspects which to the Romans were traditionally regarded as indecent and we wouldn’t necessarily understand – for example in the early days of Rome women could be severely punished for having drunk wine without a medical justification (it was also used as medicine). The last record we have of such a punishment being inflicted is recorded by Pliny the Elder (Natural History) and relates to 194BC when a judge sentenced a divorce against a matron who had drunk behind her husband’s back more wine than might be necessary for medical reasons!
This fear of women’s loss of integrity through the consumption of wine (please note the importance of female integrity cropping up again!) led to the male right of kissing close female relations – known as “ius osculi” – in order to check they had not drunk wine (see Pliny again, quotes Cato). According to the historian Suetonius, although drinking was no longer such a crime, Agrippina cleverly used this ancient custom to “extort” kisses from her uncle Emperor Claudius, to seduce and eventually marry him.
In a great display of the general immorality which she lived, Agrippina eventually assassinated Claudius with a plate of mushrooms and hence sat her son Nero on the throne. More is said about Nero’s good example of morality below.
During the empire, customs relaxed and Roman women became rather emancipated and would even sit or recline with their husbands as feasts, possess their own wealth and avoid marriage in order to retain their own wealth and power (which would otherwise fall into the eventual husband’s hands).
In some aspects the ancient Romans were at a stage we are only just getting to, for example, acceptance of race or homosexuality. In other aspects, such as the respect for human life, for example, that of babies born with a handicap: they wouldn’t think twice about killing the newborn. Even there, some would object that the modern debate over abortion or the death penalty is an example of how little difference there actually is with our own morality.
The phallus was an extremely common symbol of “plenty” especially on a character called “Priapus” who was obviously well endowed.
Roman morality: The Phallus and Nakedness in Ancient Rome
Roman society was typically “male” oriented. The phallus was decent and quite commonly found in a vast variety of everyday situations. Or better said, the phallus was a symbol of fertility and “plenty” and as such was quite commonly used as a sort of luck charm. A triumphant general might even have a phallus as part of the decoration of his chariot on triumph parade. A ceramic phallus might be walled in above your front door, and you might even hang one in your home or shop as a sort of chandelier with lots of oil lamps hanging off it. This was clearly a very male-oriented society!
Another instance is that of public nakedness. Public nakedness was not well regarded, as in the present day, it would certainly “titillate” – so much so that Emperor Hadrian had to introduce a law to segregate men and women from bathing together at the public baths. Another example was the customary naked dancers on stage at religious festivities such as the Floralia to celebrate the coming of Spring – but being custom….. This attitude extended itself to a variety of situations such as athletics, working in the fields or military exercises: a loin cloth was worn rather than display public – pubic – nudity. Unexpected huh?
What is most unexpected is that many pornographic images, such as found at Pompeii’s brothel, often show the participants to be semi-clad.
Morality during the Roman Empire and into Christianity
A fundamental problem of course was the leaders’ or Emperors’ own conduct, including that of their own families. You can preach but you can hardly expect to enforce restraint when the highest authorities are openly leading a life of perdition.
The first Emperor – Augustus – made a strong drive for a renewal of traditional morality and decency even if he found himself hindered to a degree by his own daughter and niece’s own renowned misbehaviour. The popular poet Ovid was quite unexpectedly exiled for his writings on the techniques of romance and love.
Not long after Augustus, Emperor Nero is also remembered for having lost his head for a boy who looked very much like his late wife Poppea: He had the boy castrated and proceeded to marry him. With a little effort, the exotic examples abound but they are by no means the average man’s norm. I suppose the Emperors’ problem might be absolute boredom unless they found themselves something worthwhile to do and unfortunately there were numerous examples of the bored (and psychotic) sort. Apart from anything else, power corrupts especially if you are the law, leading authority and chief priest.
By the late Empire, things had gradually worsened, Emperor Heliogabalus was even said to hang out naked in an attempt to pick up men who might be passing by. He didn’t last long before he was murdered and thrown into the sewers by his imperial guard.
The man on the street was most likely to have some form of marriage arrangement linked with a corresponding difficulty of divorce: Various forms of marriage accepted in Roman law. It wouldn’t be unusual for men to have an extramarital affair or two but it tended to be “only sex”, given that Roman wives (in difference to the wives of the Greeks) had a fair degree of liberty and would, therefore, be freer to act as the husband’s companion of leisure. Remaining faithful was relatively unusual. A tomb inscription goes as far as remarking: “He remained faithful to one wife for forty years”.
Towards the end of the empire, the concept of remaining faithful to one’s spouse became very much associated with the Christians who were growing in number but not always well seen by their fellow Romans and were referred to as the lot who were stupid enough to share everything except their wives.
It is at this point, when talking of the end of the empire, that it is useful to recall what was said at the very beginning of this article: that morality is a product of the people who live by it. It is therefore easy to consider that the fall of Roman society was not a sudden collapse caused by orgies, dissolution, corruption and the barbaric invasions of Rome!
What we regularly observe nowadays was true then also: The society living in the provinces north and south of Rome required time to be influenced by what occurred in the capital (or Capitol!) As such the customs and solidity of society and indeed their customs and moral structure lived on in the provinces, even when the nerve centre of Rome had long given way.
The same is applicable to the reverse wave of morality brought by Christianity: Christianity eventually did away with the pagan view of society which had long been associated with a failing morality but it took some time before the effects of Christianity saw their way through to the provinces and indeed through to the rest of Europe.
Women and Public Scandals in Ancient Rome
Although it was a little more dangerous for women to play truant, they too often added a bit of zest to their lives with lovers. The erudite Seneca (who apart from anything else was disgusted by the futile shedding of blood at the Colosseum) believed that a husband might regard himself lucky if his wife were contented with no more than two lovers.
Emperor Claudius’ third wife Messalina has remained on records for her habit of sneaking off at nights in order to go to work in a brothel till morning and then returning to the palace, reeking of smoke and her cheeks coloured but still dissatisfied. Tacitus and Suetonius give particularly saucy accounts of her vicious, disgraceful and immoral habits.
The scandal of the Bona Dea goddess was particularly famous. In January of 61BC Julius Caesar’s second wife Pompea was apparently caught attending a women-only religious celebration with her lover Clodius Pulcher. It just so happened that she was chief hostess and the celebration was being held in Caesar’s own house. Given that the most important women of Rome were present it instantly became a huge scandal thorughout Rome, but Caesar didn’t press charges. He instantly repudiated and divorced Pompea, found himself another wife and made a political ally of Clodius. He married his third wife Calpurnia shortly afterwards.
Caesar too threw himself about: A little effeminate in his mode of dress (which wasn’t well accepted by morality) and obviously keen on both men and women. Caesar as opportunistic as ever made use of his supposed descent from Venus as well as Mars part of his propaganda. It was said of him that he was “… every wife’s man and every man’s wife”.
This was an insult in fact, because for the Romans what was defining was the detail of whether you were the passive or active half in the couple. Passive was shameful and as such women were at an obvious disadvantage. The passive homosexual partner was likely to be discharged from military service whilst the active partner had no problems. Passiveness was more closely related to slavery.
Similarly, little would be said about a pater familias – the family head – who, unable to satisfy his sexual appetite with his wife and women slaves, decided to have a good go with the boys also – at worse he might be regarded as being somewhat effusive.