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Mos Maiorum, literally translated as the “custom of the fathers/ancestors,” is the core concept of Roman traditionalism. The mos maiorum (pl. mores maiorum), was an unwritten code from which the Romans derived their societal norms. These customs were distinct from the laws that would be recorded in writing. Because positive law regulated few aspects in Roman daily life, traditional customs, by virtue of the auctoritas maiorum (“prestige or respect of the ancestors”), shaped most of Roman behavior.

Sources of the Mos Maiorum

The mos maiorum was the result of centuries of development before the Romans developed written records. Customs were created early in Rome’s history as they were needed to serve specific functions in the society. However, the significance of traditional practices and archaic rituals fell from the collective consciousness. The Lupercalia, for example, a festival celebrated in Romemarker every February 15th, was misunderstood by the time of Augustus in the late 1st century BCE. In some instances the relevancy of certain practices simply ebbed from society, such as the practice of confarreatio marriages. These archaic marriages were all but abandoned because of the rigidity of the union. Despite the fading understanding or relevancy of some of these customs the importance of the mores maiorum in Roman was never in danger of suffering the same fate.

The Romans used the auctoritas maiorum to validate the developments occurred as their society progressed. Suetonius recounts an edict of the censors from 92 BCE, which states, “all new that is done contrary to the usage and the customs of our ancestors, seems not to be right.” This statement reflects the fierce conservatism which was a hallmark of Roman Society. The mos maiorum as a collection of complex norms provided not only justification for tradition, but while retaining their fierce conservatism, it also provided a means to adjust when difficulties demanded such action. Whereas ius gave individuals their rights, they reflected the interests of the state and society. In a patriarchical society, dominated by an aristocracy, the mores were interpreted and adapted to serve the needs of the aristocracy. The patria postestas reflects this use of the mores. The potestas of the father allowed him complete control over his household, including slaves, his wife and his children. Mores justified the place of the eldest male of the family and his power over life and death. Conversely, the mores also adjusted to kept the potestas of the father in check by limiting the father’s power to unjustly punish or even kill his family members, until he had properly consulted a consilium.


Participation in public life in ancient Rome was a dominant part of most male citizens’ lives. Public life included politics, military, law and also priesthoods. In politics, the cursus honorum became the standard track of offices. The observance of this track was considered conventional; however, there were deviations from cursus. Lucius Appuleius Saturninus and Gaius Servilius Glaucia, in association with Gaius Marius and his legislations and elections, broke tradition by seeking consecutive tribuneships. Gaius Marius himself broke the accepted traditions of the Roman elite. Not only was Marius a highly successful novus homo, but he was also elected to an unprecedented seven consulships. These figures contrast sharply to the career of Cicero, who followed the cursus honorum strictly and maintained a great deal of support for the interests of the aristocracy and the ancestral values they guarded. Cicero achieved most of his fame from his oratory skills, acting as defender and prosecutor in the courts.

Law was closely tied to the cursus honorum and the magistracies that a citizen might hope to achieve. The upper class, having more knowledge of the law and of oration (as both were customary parts of their education), would fulfill the roles of prosecution, defender, and even judges. These roles were traditional duties for the upper class, who could shoulder the responsibility. Although a great deal of responsibilities lay in civilian life, as was common around the ancient world, Romans were also expected to serve in the military.


The mos of the military had been that citizen soldiers were fielded for the sake of specific threats the interests of the entire state, but after Marius they are professional soldiers, allied to their general. The Roman army was originally drawn from the upper class, as they were the only members of society that could bear cost of armor and absence from work. The custom for Roman males was to join the army and obtain glory in service to the state, and when not need for a war or other conflict, to lay down arms and return to civic life. However, Gaius Marius reformed the military to include the capite censi and made the troops under his command loyal to him before the state.

Religious Tradition

Unlike modern western religion, the Romans did not segregate religious practices and service to the state. Instead, the Romans maintained the practice of their Indo-European ancestors of leaving priesthoods tied to the state. The Collegium Pontificum consisted of different cults that had an appointed priest, who could simultaneously hold a political and/or military position. In the private home Romans would also have regular worship to the Penates, which were the gods of the inner home. The Lares are also common fixtures in Roman private religion, in addition to the Roman anthropomorphic figures. They are guardian spirits, who vary in the specificities of their roles, depending on their manifestations. As the lares Augusti, they were they guardian spirits of the emperor. Common epithets include lares compitales, who were the guardians of the crossroads and lares familiaris, who were the guardians of the household.

Patrons and Clients

Another major facet of Roman tradition is the patronus and cliens (patron and client) relationship. This is the relationship that commonly occurred between plebeians and patricians, where in return for the protection of the patronus, the cliens offered services until the debt was returned or longer. Later in Roman history, after Augustus’ rise to princeps, more of the population falls into the clienthood of the imperator until eventually all do.

The Changing Roles of the Mores

Along with the change in patron-client relations, the place of the mos maiorum changes under the principate. Before Augustus, the place of the mores had been related, but separate from that of laws and regulations; however, a shift toward legalizing the romanticized ideals of the ancestral traditions occurs. Under Augustus and his moral reforms, the place of the mores maiorum becomes subject to the will of the emperor, though they survive until the reign of Justinian.

Cornerstones of the Mores Maiorum

All aspects of life, including both the public and private arenas, were immeasurably influenced by the mores that had been established over centuries. Some of the components deserve special attention because of their importance in the greater picture of the mores maiorum.


The Latin word fides has multiple meanings; however, these meanings are all based around similar principles: truth, faith, honesty, and trustworthiness. It can be seen in use with other words to create terms such as bonae fidei (“in good faith”) or fidem habere (“to be credible”, or more literally “to have trustworthiness”). In Roman law, fides was extremely important. As in all ancient cultures, verbal contracts were very common in Roman daily life, and so good faith allows business transactions to be made with greater confidence. If this good faith were betrayed, then a legal case could be made for the offended person.

As the Roman goddess, Fides represented a cult that was very old in the city of Rome. She was the goddess of good faith and presided over verbal contracts. She was depicted as an old woman and was considered older than Jupiter . Her temple is dated from around 254 BCE and was located on the Capitoline Hillmarker in Rome, near the Temple of Jupiter. According to Livy , the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, founded her cult. Livy goes into details of the worship of Fides in his history of Rome. Her rituals were performed by the flamines maiores, who were the priests of the ancestors. These priests brought the shrine of Fides in a covered carriage drawn by a pair of horses to the place of celebration. Since Fides was considered to dwell in the right hand of a man, she was represented during the Roman Empire on coins with a pair of covered hands, to symbolize the credibility of the emperor and the legions. The covering of the hands reflected the worship of Fides, where the man performing the sacrifice would cover his hands to the fingers to religiously preserve Fides.


Pietas is not the equivalent of the modern derivative “piety.” Pietas was the Roman attitude of dutiful respect towards the gods, fatherland, parents and other kinsmen. The term incorporated a sense of moral duty, not merely the observance of rituals (this is covered by the term cultus). Thus, pietas required the maintenance of relationships with those listed above in a moral and dutiful manner. According to Cicero, “pietas is justice towards the gods,” and as such demanded more of the observer than mere sacrifice and correct ritual performance, but also the inner devotion and righteousness of the individual. Pietas could be displayed in numerous ways. For example, Julius Caesar displayed pietas during his life by beginning in 52 BCE and dedicating in 48 BCE, after the battle of Pharsalusmarker, a temple to Venus Genetrix. The temple was dedicated to Venus as the mother of Aeneas and thus the ancestor of the Julii (the gens of Julius Caesar). Augustus, after the death of Marcus Antonius and with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus out of the way (these two men are Augustus’ co-triumvirs in the Second Triumvirate), built a Temple of Caesarmarker in order to honor his adoptive father. Some Romans, because of their role as pious individuals, adopted the cognomen Pius. The emperor Antoninus Pius received this addition to his name because of his role in convincing the senate to deify his adoptive father, the emperor Hadrian, and for the pietas he showed toward his elderly biological father in public.

Such was the importance of pietas that according to Livy, it received a temple dedicated in 181 BCE. Similar to other abstract concepts in Roman culture, Pietas appeared often in anthropomorphic form, and was sometimes accompanied by a stork (a symbol of filial piety) . She was adopted by Augustus as Pietas Augusta to display his own pietas, as can be seen on coins from the period.

Religio and Cultus

Religio was not “religion” in the modern sense of the word. Religio is related to Latin verb religare (“to bind”). In the Roman mind religio represented a tie between the gods and mortals. This bond is more in the respect of awe and obligation (out of superstition), and is related to the religious practices and customs of the Romans. Roman men and women were expected to be aware of these ties and to honor the gods through religious observances in an attempt to maintain a pax deorum (“peace of the gods”). In accordance with the noun, the adjective religiosus meant an exaggeration of religious practice to the point of superstition. The Romans regarded religio as a necessary part of life, so as to keep order and normalcy in the community or to a greater extent, the world. The motivation behind these observances is not morally based as modern Judeo-Christian values are, but instead are based around appeasement of the gods and expectancy of rewards. To guarantee a victory a general would promise a temple to a deity, or in hopes of alleviating hardship, community members would make sacrifices. Livy implies this necessity in his description of the capture of the goddess Juno (in statue form) from Veiimarker . Livy notes that it was against the religio of the Etruscansmarker to touch the statue unless a member of the hereditary priesthood. The Roman soldiers in turn are cleaned, robed and then ask the goddess if she would come to Rome. This was not tied to pietas and its inherent morality, but instead it was the related to the concept of cultus.

Cultus was the obligated observance and correct performance of rituals to the gods. Romans religious practices were oriented towards the correct performance of rituals not the ethics and morals of person. The gods were pleased by the attention to their rites and thus Romans hoped to gain favor by performing sacrifices and other ritual formulae in the correct manner.


In Latin, the word disciplina is related to education, training, discipline and self-control. This military nature of the Roman society explains a great deal the importance of this characteristic, and perhaps because of their military inclination, also shows itself in daily life of the Romans. In his Philippicae against Marcus Antonius, Cicero maligns the character of Marcus Antonius, portraying the triumvir as man without self-control, showing the importance of the characteristic by emphasizing Marcus Antonius’ lack of discipline.

Disciplina as a goddess was used as propaganda tool, especially under the empire. In inscriptions she is referred to as the discipline of the emperor in relation to his role over the legions. This is why inscriptions and dedications are known from locations such as Englandmarker and North Africa. Under the emperor Hadrian, these dedications are made and coins are minted to help secure the minds of border legions.

Gravitas and Constantia

Gravitas, not to be confused with the modern word gravity, represented the value of dignified, self-control. In the face of adversity, a “good” Roman was to display an unperturbed façade. Roman myth and history reinforced this value by recounting tales of figures such as Gaius Mucius Scaevola . At the founding of the Republic, the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna was laying siege to the city of Rome, and with city in dire straits, Scaevola attempted to assassinate Porsenna. However, Scaevola failed and was caught. When the king threatened torture if Scaevola did not answer his questions about Rome, Scaevola placed his right hand in a fire and held it there with great gravitas, telling the king that there were more in Rome just like himself. The gravitas that Scaevola displayed not only earned him the name Scaevola (“left-handed”), but also helped convince Porsenna of the Romans’ resiliency.

While gravitas was dignified self-control, constantia was steadiness or perseverance. This value coupled with gravitas played no small role in the history and success of the Roman people. Constantia allowed the Romans to hold fast in times of great turmoil and devastating defeat, such as the campaign of Hannibal Barca .


Virtus is derived from the Latin word vir (“man”) and encompasses what constituted the ideal of the true Roman male. Multiple aspects are covered by this term. The poet Gaius Lucilius discusses virtus in some of his work, saying that it is virtus for a man to know what is good, evil, useless, shameful, or dishonorable.

Dignitas and Auctoritas

Dignitas and auctoritas were the end result of displaying the values of the ideal Roman and the service of the state in the forms of priesthoods, military positions, and magistracies. Dignitas was reputation for worth, honor and esteem. Thus, a Roman who displayed their gravitas, constantia, fides, pietas and other values becoming a Roman would possess dignitas among their peers. Similarly, through this path, a Roman could earn auctoritas (“prestige and respect”) .

See a more complete list of Roman virtues.


  1. "Mos Maiorum," Brill Online. [1]
  2. ""Lupercalia,"O.C.D. pg 892
  3. "Manus," Berger. pg 577
  4. Suetonius, De Claris Rhetoribus, i.
  5. "Mores," Brill Online [2]
  6. Seneca, De Clemetia, i.15.6-6, i.16.1
  7. "Penates," O.C.D. pg 1135
  8. “Bona fides,” Berger. pg 374
  9. Adkins. pg 78
  10. Adkins. pg 78
  11. Ziolkowski, “Temples”
  12. Ab Urbe Condita. i. 21
  13. “Fides,” O.C.D. pg 595
  14. Ab Urbe Condita. i. 21
  15. Adkins. p. 180
  16. De Natura Deorum. 1.116
  17. Stambaugh. pg 50
  18. Ab Urbe Condita. xxxx. 34
  19. “Pietas,” O.C.D. p. 1182
  20. Adkins. p.180
  21. Adkins. pg 190
  22. Ab Urbe Condita. v. 23
  23. Adkins. pg 55
  24. Phillipicae. II
  25. see Plutarch’s Antony, for further characterization of Antonius.
  26. Adkins. p. 63
  27. Ward. p. 58
  28. Ab Urbe Condita. ii. 12
  29. Ab Urbe Condita. xxii. 58. See also Ogilvie’s Commentary on Livy 1-5.
  30. Ward. p. 57
  31. Ward. p. 57
  32. Ward. p. 58


Adkins, L. and Adkins, R. Dictionary of Roman Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Berger, Adolph. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1991.

Brill’s New Pauly. Antiquity volumes edited by: Huber Cancik and Helmuth Schneider. Brill, 2008 Brill Online.

Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd Revised Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Stambaugh, John E. The Ancient Roman City. Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Ward, A., Heichelheim, F., Yeo, C. A History of the Roman People. 4th Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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