Friday, April 17, 2020

Pudicitia: Modesty a central concept in ancient Roman ethics

Marble Portrait of a Modest Severan Period Woman, 193-211 CE, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
Pudicitia, modesty or sexual virtue, was a central concept in ancient Roman sexual ethics. The word is derived from the more general pudor, the sense of shame that regulated an individual's behavior as socially acceptable. Pudicitia was most often a defining characteristic of women, but men who failed to conform to masculine sexual norms were said to exhibit feminizing impudicitia, sexual shamelessness.
The virtue was personified by the Roman goddess Pudicitia, whose Greek equivalent was Aidos. Romans, both men and women, were expected to uphold the virtue of pudicitia, a complex ideal that was explored by many ancient writers, including Livy, Valerius Maximus, Cicero, Tacitus and Tertullian. Livy describes the legendary figure of Lucretia as the epitome of pudicitia. She is loyal to her husband and is modest, despite her incredible beauty. The way a man or woman presented him or herself in public, and the persons they interacted with caused others to pass judgment on their pudicitia. For example, if a woman was seen associating with men other than her husband people would make a negative judgment on her pudicitia.
Romans idealized the woman who was univira, a "one-man" woman, married once, even though by the time of Cicero and Julius Caesar, divorce was common. Romans associated the loss of pudicitia with chaos and loss of control. In Cicero's oration against Verres, he discusses many of the governor's transgressions including sexual misconduct with both men and women. In the Imperial age, Augustus enacted a program of moral legislation to encourage pudicitia.
The goddess Pudicitia was worshiped in two temples in Rome, the Temple of Pudicitia Patricia and the Temple of Pudicitia Plebeia, built on the Quirinal Hill in 296 BCE. The original one was for women of the patrician class only, but when Verginia, a patrician lady, was excluded because she married a plebeian consul, she and a group of plebeian matrons founded an altar of Pudicitia for women of the plebeian class as well. Livy claims the cult declined and was forgotten due to the women's extreme openness and opposition to the concept of chastity, though Festus in the 2nd century CE stated that its cult was still active at that time.

The young woman portrayed in this sculpture, her head modestly swathed in her palla, has been dated by her hair arrangement made popular by Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus (r. A.D. 193–211) and mother of the emperor Caracalla (r. A.D. 211–217). Parted at the center, long locks framed the face, covering the ears and falling almost to the shoulders before looping back to form an enormous bun at the back of the head. Image courtesy of the museum.

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