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Introducing Virgil’s Aeneid
Introducing Virgil’s Aeneid

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3.1 What is pietas?

In order to understand Virgil’s depiction of Roman values we need to look at some of the original Latin terms which the Romans used to express moral ideas. The particular quality associated with Aeneas is the abstract Latin noun pietas (whose adjective is pius). In the earliest lines of the poem, Aeneas is described as ‘famous for his pietas’ and throughout he is called ‘pius Aeneas’. I deliberately haven’t translated pietas and pius, because they are difficult concepts to find a single English word for. You might assume that pietas means ‘piety’, and it’s true that this English word derives from the Latin. But while pietas certainly does involve respect for the gods and religious observation, it’s a much broader concept than English ‘piety’.

Activity 1

Here is the definition of pietas given in the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary:

  • piety; dutifulness; affection, love; loyalty; gratitude

Consider the relationship between these different aspects of pietas. How similar do you think these concepts are? Can you think of other English words that cover some of the concepts associated with the Latin? Can you find a single English word that you think reflects the range of the Latin, or do you think it is a word that will need translating differently in different contexts?

Discussion

You’ll notice that as well as religious duty – conveyed by our English word ‘piety’ - , pietas also incorporates a range of more secular qualities, such as a sense of duty and affection. These might be felt towards one’s family or country, for example. In the Aeneid, pietas is also associated with self-control, compassion and tolerance, as well as with good leadership. It’s hard to find an English word that has exactly the same range of meanings, and ‘piety’ is certainly not right, since its associations are primarily religious. Perhaps the closest might be something like ‘duty’ or ‘dutiful’, but this doesn’t cover all of the meanings of pietas. This means that translators have to choose an English word which they feel best brings out the particular force that pietas or pius has in context. Translation can be particularly difficult when dealing with words that reflect a culture’s moral values, since these do not necessarily map neatly across different societies.