Association of Polytheist Traditions
Copyright © by Nick Ford
The following is the earliest surviving tract, from the late 3rd or early 2nd century BCE, on behavioural values, manners or customs, which informed Roman religion. They are the values a respected ancient Roman, Cato the Censor, lived by, and as such can be assumed to be fairly typical of the society in which he lived.
Polytheist traditions have tended to evolve in cultures where religion and spirituality (as we would understand them today) were an integral, inseparable part of everything the society did and believed in. There was therefore no idea of "religious morals". Traditional Roman religion has no ethics separate from the general values prevalent in Roman society as a whole.
As with their cult or magical practices, things were done simply because they were perceived to have been successful in the past. In Latin, although the word 'mos' is often translated as 'morals', it really means 'customs' or 'manners', and the usual Roman term for their religious practices and beliefs was 'mos maiorum', which we can translate as 'the way of the ancestors'.
A comparison with the Scandinavian Havamal, or with Works and Days by the 7thC. BCE Greek poet Hesiod, reveals many similarities of attitude in different societies of preChristian Europe: the emphasis is on taking very practical measures to ensure the quality of one's life in this world, and of those to whom one has obligations.
It could be assumed that, if we take care of the basics, all the rest will follow. Perhaps the world would be a better place if as a culture we set our sights closer to earth and achievability, and ceased to pay lip-service to the counsels of perfection of more recent cults wich obsess with the idea of individual salvation.
Monosticha Catonis (Cato's Monostichs)
Incipiunt dicta Marci Catonis ad filium suum.
Here begin the sayings of Marcus Cato to his son.
Cum animadverterem quam plurimos graviter in via morum errare, succurrendum opinioni eorum et consulendum famae existimavi, maxime ut gloriose viverent et honorem contingerent. Nunc te, fili carissime, docebo, quo pacto morem animi tui componas. Igitur praecepta mea ita legito, ut intellegas; legere enim et non intelligere neglegere est.
Since I am aware of how many stray severely from the path of good practice, I thought I should come to the aid of their understanding and assist their reputations, so that they might live with greatest glory and obtain honours. Now I shall teach you, dearest son, how to put together principles for your own soul. Thus read my precepts, that you may understand; to read and not to understand is to be negligent.
- Itaque deo supplica. So, pray to the gods.
- Parentes ama. Love your parents.
- Cognatos cole. Honour your kindred.
- Magistrum metue. Respect your teacher (or fear those in authority).
- Datum serva. Keep what is given to you.
- Fora para. Be careful of the market-place.
- Cum bonis ambula. Keep company with good people.
- Antequam voceris, ne accesseris. Do not arrive uninvited.
- Mundus esto. Keep clean.
- Saluta libenter. Greet people cheerfully.
- Maiori concede. Give way to your elders and betters.
- Minori parce. Demand not overmuch of your juniors.
- Rem tuam custodi. Look after your own affairs.
- Verecundiam serva. Preserve modesty (or keep a sense of shame).
- Diligentiam adhibe. Be diligent.
- Libros lege. Read books.
- Quae legeris, memento. Remember what you read.
- Familiam cura. Take care of your family.
- Blandus esto. Be pleasant.
- Irascere ob rem noli. Be not angry for no cause.
- Neminem riseris. Mock at none.
- Mutuum da. Give in return.
- Cui des, videto. Think about to whom you are giving.
- In iudicio adesto. Stand by (a friend) in court.
- Ad praetorium stato. Watch over government (or be close to those in authority).
- Convivare raro. Feast rarely.
- Quod satis est, dormi. Sleep sufficiently.
- Iusiurandum serva. Keep your oath.
- Vino tempera. Be temperate in drinking.
- Pugna pro patria. Fight for your country.
- Nihil temere credideris. Do not believe without good reason.
- Tute consule. Give safe advice.
- Meretricem fuge. Avoid the prostitute.
- Litteras disce. Study literature.
- Nihil mentire. Say nothing untruthful.
- Bono benefacito. Do good to the good.
- Maledicus ne esto. Do not curse.
- Existimationem retine. Preserve your reputation.
- Aequum iudica. Be an unbiased judge.
- Parentem patienter vince. Prevail upon your parents with patience.
- Beneficii accepti esto memor. Be mindful of favours.
- Miserum noli ridere. Do not mock the unfortunate.
- Consultus esto. Know and consider well the law.
- Virtute utere. Practice virtue.
- Iracundiam temporale rege. Control your anger.
- Trocho lude. Play with the hoop (sic!).
- Aleam fuge. Avoid dicing.
- Nihil arbitrii virium feceris. Never intimidate a judge, jury or witness.
- Minorem non contempseris. Do not despise the young.
- Alienum noli concupisci. Do not envy what others have.
- Coniugem ama. Love your wife.
- Liberos erudi. Educate your household.
- Pati legem, quam ipse tuleris. Keep the law you make yourself.
- Pauca in convivio loquere. Speak little at a feast.
- Illud stude agere, quod iustum est. Seek to do that which is right.
- Libenter amorem ferto. Be ready to show affection.
- Minime iudica. Judge sparingly.