As with most societies, the Romans had a number of well-defined virtues that were considered vital for respectable members of society. A Roman's public persona - and thus his or her very place in society - depended on how well and to what degree he or she displayed these virtues. Roman life was extremely social, and individualism was of questionable value; a person's worth was measured largely by how much he or she contributed to the well-being of the state as a whole. It is not surprising, then, that the cardinal virtues were social and political in nature, and also tended to be very stern and austere. However, the influences of Greek humanism saw to it that some more private and self-focused traits could be seen as virtues, as did the growing popularity of mystery religions - notably, the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Jesus - which placed greater weight on the inner self.
These are the "big three" of the virtues, those the Romans held in greatest regard:
- Virtus, roughly "strength" or "courage," was the Latin equivalent of the Greek andreia, and is a very Stoic concept. Virtus has very stern and manly overtones; it is exemplified both by physical courage or excellence in battle and by intellectual courage in the public arena, as well as the strength to control oneself in the face of fear or desire.
- Gravitas is seriousness of purpose, and a sort of inherent dignity and importance. When you have gravitas, you aren't distracted by trivialities.
- Pietas is probably the most difficult virtue to translate or explain; its linguistic descendant is "piety," which is altogether inadequate for explaining the concept. Pietas is a sense of duty towards others, manifested in one's actions - service to the state, reverence of the gods, and appropriate loyalty to one's family - as well as a certain subordination to those things for the greater good. If you "take one for the team," you're showing your pietas.
There are a number of other stern virtues that befitted upstanding Romans. Some notable examples:
- Industria is a predilection for continuous, hard work. This doesn't refer exclusively to physical labor, but to unremitting effort in general; a citizen managing every aspect of his estate's workings day in and day out is a good example. Industria was a defining characteristic of Roman culture (at least, to the Roman mindset) - Trajan's column invariably shows Roman soldiers building bridges and fortifications in their spare time, while their barbarian opponents are lazy and disorganized.
- Frugalitas is "thriftiness" or "economy." The Romans (publically) deplored ostentation, and passed numerous laws forbidding the flagrant display of wealth. A really virtuous citizen lived simply and without pretense; frugalitas is scorn of waste, almost to the point of austerity.
- Dignitas is - as the word implies - dignity, but with overtones of worth and rank. Dignitas was the "self esteem" of Roman life.
- Severitas is "strictness" or "severity," somewhat akin to gravitas but more inwardly focused; the term has much in common with our use of "spartan." Self control is the mark of severitas.
- Fides is "faith" or "loyalty." The term also refers to honesty; a man with fides is worthy of the public trust.
Not all virtues were harsh and stern - some "softer" qualities were admired parts of human character. These were, however, usually considered admirable adjuncts to the other virtues, not substitutes for them. A couple of good examples:
- Clementia is mercy, usually in reference to a vanquished enemy on a national scale. Julius Caesar was admired for his clementia; Trajan's column shows the emperor dispensing mercy to his conquered opponents (while, in contrast, his Dacian enemies are shown torturing and killing prisoners.)
- Misericordia is a combination of pathos, pity, and compassion, a certain goodness and benevolence towards one's fellow human beings.