What is humanitas?

The general public’s humanitas performed some sort of funeral rites for the corpse of one unknown to them. (From a practice legal speech, ps.-Quintilian, Major Declamations 6.3)

Humanitas forbids arrogance towards associates, and it forbids greed. In words, deeds and feelings, it shows itself gentle and courteous to all men. (Seneca the Younger, Letters 88.30)

In these premises of Aurelia Faustiniana is the bath, where you can bathe in the manner of the city, and here every civilized refinement (humanitas) is available. (Inscription from Ficulea, ILS 5720)

Those who fashioned the Latin vocabulary and have used it properly intended humanitas to mean not what most people think, which is expressed by the Greeks as philanthropia and signifies . . . a certain benevolence toward people in general; rather, they referred to as humanitas more or less what the Greeks call paideia, and which we call learning, and education in the good arts. (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.17)

No doubt the famous Scipio, a most learned and humane man, did not appreciate (Greek vases); but you, without any education, without humanitas, without talent, without knowledge of literature, no doubt you appreciate and judge them! (Cicero, Against Verres 2.4.98)

So exquisite was the humanitas of Crassus, that when they had bathed and sat down to dinner, all the bitterness of that earlier discussion had vanished. (Cicero, On the Orator 1.27) 

As an ethical virtue, humanitas is a disposition toward compassion and sympathy for others. It was particularly admired in the powerful: generals, judges, provincial governors and emperors. “(Pompey) is a man of such humanitas that it is difficult to say whether the enemy fears his courage when fighting against him as much as they love his mercy after they have been conquered.” “Caesar, those who dare to speak before you are ignorant of your greatness; those who do not dare are ignorant of your humanitas.” The emperor Constantius was addressed not as, say, “your highness,” but “your humanitas.” If you were a conquered enemy, a provincial, or an imperial subject, you hoped for humanitas, but took what you got. In ordinary people, humanitas is the quality that makes one bury a dead stranger, take in a guest or traveler, give money to a beggar, cry in grief, reject a suitor without arrogance, or treat an animal well. We do small favors not for a man but for humanity, says Seneca (non homini sed humanitati), that is, on principle, not expecting any return. Kindness, above all, is what it means to be “human” in Latin.

As an aspect of luxury, humanitas was urban refinement and comfort, such as that advertised for the country baths of Aurelia Faustiniana, and which allowed one to rise above the beasts and enjoy life a bit. It was what Nero had in mind when, after the completion of his vast new palace complex which demolished whole neighborhoods in the center of Rome, he said that at last he could begin to live like a human being (quasi hominem).

The notions of human sympathy and cultured refinement are joined in a peculiar development of the language in the first century BC associated with Cicero and his contemporaries. Here humanitas connotes not, or not only, the Greek term philanthropia—a benevolent attitude toward people in general—but also the Greek paideia, liberal education. Education in the arts, Cicero believed, leads to both aesthetic refinement and to personal charm and ethical sensitivity. As a cultural attainment, humanitas involves a broad knowledge of history, law, philosophy, literature and the arts. It is the virtue that allows one to diffuse even the most awkward situations with interesting conversation, to adorn a persuasive speech with effective illustrations, to act courteously in the face of insult, to win over a difficult audience with personal ease and charm, to settle a question with an amusing and apposite remark, to write a beguiling letter, to quarrel in a manner considerate of others’ feelings.

The idea that broad education in literature, philosophy and the arts is the keystone to humanitas, to “living like a human being,” is closely associated with Cicero (especially his treatise on the ideal orator). For some reason this educational definition of humanitas is not picked up by later generations of Roman authors, and in subsequent centuries the word usually means simply “kindness.” Perhaps the notion that  literary culture makes one humane seemed naïve given the sins of the highly literate Roman aristocracy. The emperor Tiberius, for example, had extremely refined literary tastes, but was also known for having people thrown off the cliffs near his seaside villa on Capri. As Seneca points out just after the passage quoted on humanitas, virtue has no necessary relationship to educational level.

At the center of the word is the hopeful idea that ethics and education and leadership might not be separate. When the emperor Valentinian fell ill in AD 367, the Gauls in attendance on him held a clandestine meeting and nominated as his successor the master of records Rusticus Julianus, a man, according to the contemporary historian Ammianus, whose bestial thirst for human blood verged on madness.  Luckily the emperor revived, and the plan to install Rusticus (whose name aptly enough means “boor”) was thwarted. Ammianus then writes a speech which gives the virtue of humanitas a civic turn. Valentinian is commending his chosen successor, his young son Gratian, to the troops. “Because he has been educated from the beginning of his youth in humanitas and the studies of ingenious disciplines, he will weigh with impartial judgment the merits of deeds done rightly, or the opposite. He will act in such a way that good men will know that they are appreciated. . . . He will risk his life for the companions of his labors and, what is the first and highest form of loyalty, he will know how to love the Republic as he loves the house of his father and grandfather.”  This Ciceronian dream of humanitas, in which literary and philosophical education makes us both better people and better citizens, was a powerful inspiration to Petrarch, Erasmus, and the other scholars whose devotion to classical learning shaped the European Renaissance.  They have been given the name “humanists” in homage to it.


TLL 6.3.3075-3083 collects the evidence. See RE Suppl. vol. 5.282-310. Greg Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 54-60. Pompey’s humanitas: Cicero, On the Manlian Law 42. Those who dare to speak: remark by Q. Varius Geminus, the orator and friend of Augustus, quoted by Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 6.8. Constantius: TLL 6.3081, lines 66-67. Small favors: Seneca the Younger, On Benefits 4.29.3. Live like a human being: Suetonius, Nero 31.2. Valentinian and Gratian: Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire 27.6.]

Adapted from the book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (New York: Hippocrene, 2007) by Christopher Francese.

Paedagogus: tutor, child minder


Greek terracotta figurine of a paedagogus with a child. Photo © flickr user Ostertag28

A paedagogus is assigned to the young so that the rowdiness of youth might be restrained and their hearts prone to sin be held in check . . . by the fear of punishment. (Jerome, Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 2.3.24)

For he removed that area of philosophy which has to do with admonitions, and said that it was the business of the paedagogus, not the philosopher. As if the wise man is something other than a paedagogus for the human race. (Seneca, speaking of the philosopher Ariston of Chios, Letters 89.13.)

I will say this much further about paedagogi: that they should either be educated, which would be my preference, or else they should know that they are not educated. (Quintilian, On the Orator’s Education 1.1.8)

How she used to cling to her father’s embrace! How lovingly and modestly she used to hug us, her father’s friends! How she loved her nurses, her pedagogues, her teachers, each appropriately according to their roles! (Pliny the Younger, from a letter describing the death of a young girl, Letters 5.16.3.)

Well-to-do Roman children spent most of their time under the direct care not of their parents but of tutors, usually older and trusted male slaves, called often by the Greek term paedagogus (“child leader”). Other Latin terms exist: comes (“companion”) and custos (“guardian”). But the foreign word presumably sounded more elegant, much as in English an au pair sounds more sophisticated than a nanny or babysitter. The custom was so general by Augustus’s day that when that emperor was making regulations for theater seating, he assigned a section to boys (praetextati) right next to a section for their paedagogi, no doubt so the boys would be less unruly. Paedagogi were charged with constantly monitoring a youth’s public behavior, in the streets, at meals, at shows, or in the atria of important men. The emperor Galba had three corrupt cronies who never left his side in public, and they were jokingly referred to as his paedagogi.

The use of corporal punishment was widely endured but criticized by enlightened educationalists such as Quintilian. Like primary teachers, they used a rod made of giant fennel, the ferula, because it left few scars. The poet Martial calls it “the sinister rod, sceptre of the paedagogus.” When the young man was of the imperial house, however, more subtle methods might have to be used. The twelve-year-old future emperor Commodus once demanded, when his bathing room was too cool, that the bath slave in charge be thrown into the furnace. His paedagogus discretely had a sheep skin thrown into the furnace, the acrid smell of which convinced Commodus that his order had been carried out. Traditionally humorless, the paedagogus had as his job not so much education as behavioral control. Some might earn the affection of their charges, but as a type, they were not loved. Nero had the respected senator and devotee of Stoic philosophy Thrasea Paetus executed, by one account, “because he wore the miserable expression of a paedagogus.”

An educated Greek, who could teach the boy how to speak proper Greek, was the best sort of paedagogus to have, but this of course was not always possible. Nero, who grew up in relative poverty, was said to have had two paedagogi as a young boy, a barber and a dancer. Augustus punished the corrupt paedagogus of his son Gaius for a serious offence by having him thrown into a river with weights around his neck. Claudius complained in his memoirs about being assigned a cruel barbarian for a tutor, who was given specific instructions to beat him with the slightest provocation.

The word dies out in the Middle Ages, because the custom itself faded with the prosperity of the high empire. But in the meantime it made an interesting detour in Christian Greek. St. Paul compared the law of the Jews to a paedagogus who disciplines us and shows us how to act, until the higher instruction of Christian faith gives us independent moral agency. Picking up on this idea, St. Clement of Alexandria in the late second century wrote an entire treatise called Paedagogus, which gives instructions on a Christian lifestyle for those who, though they have committed to a Christian life, have not advanced all the way to perfect Christian wisdom. It contains advice on what to wear, how to walk, how to kiss, and many other aspects of proper behavior for women and men.

In English, pedagogue resurfaced in the late 1300s, as a synonym for schoolmaster. It thus took a Roman rather than a Greek connotation, since while Roman paedagogi did do some language teaching, their Greek counterparts did not. The pedagogue has continued his rise up the educational ladder, until today pedagogy suggests not mere instruction but sophisticated teaching techniques based on some kind of scientific system—a vice of which the Roman paedagogus could not be accused.

ReferencesTLL 10.31–34. RE 18.2375–2385. Theater seating: Suetonius, Augustus 44.2. Galba: Suetonius, Galba 14.2. Quintilian: On the Orator’s Education 1.3.15. Martial, Epigrams 10.62.10. Commodus: SHA, Commodus 1.9. Thrasea Paetus: Suetonius, Nero 37.1. Nero’s paedagogi: Suetonius, Nero 6.3. Thrown into a river: Suetonius, Augustus 67.2. Cruel barbarians: Suetonius, Claudius 2.2. Paul: Letter to the Galatians 3.24.

ARSMW_coverAdapted from the book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (New York: Hippocrene, 2007) by Christopher Francese.

Ancient Rome in So Many Words: Liberi

Mummy Portrait of a girl, AD 50-70, Roman Egypt. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Mummy Portrait of a girl, AD 50-70, Roman Egypt. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

LIBERI: freeborn, legitimate children (of either sex)

I want you to take a wife to your house so you can produce liberi. (Plautus, Aulularia 148)

You had liberi not just for yourself but for the fatherland, children who could be not just a source of pleasure for you but also who would one day be useful to the state. (Cicero, Against Verres 2.3.161)

Quite a few men are stingy in the raising of their liberi—which were the original objectives of their marriages and prayers—nor do they tend to their education or to the development of their physical faculties. (Columella, On Farming 4.3.2)

You made a contract regarding the manner of your marriage. The writing of that contract rings clear, “for the sake of bearing children” [liberorum procreandorum causa]. Therefore do not approach her, if possible, unless for the purpose of bearing liberi. If you pass this limit, you act against that agreement and that contract. (Augustine, Sermons 278, PL 38.1272.)

Terms of affection for children are not as numerous in Latin as in English, but they include pullus (“chickadee”), parvulus and putillus (“little shaver”), and pupus (“puppet,” “doll”). The most idiomatic and Roman of endearments is pignus. A pignus is whatever one gives as bond or security for a debt, or to assure appearance in court, good conduct, etc. By extension, a person who is a pignus can serve as a “collateral” or “hostage”—for example, in diplomacy between two states. When applied to children, as it sometimes is in epitaphs, in poetry and other emotive contexts, pignora casts them as “sureties” or “pledges” of the love of the parents, assuring the reality of their marriage. But in such contexts it has no legalistic flavor. Often the best translation is simply “dear ones” rather than something more literal, like “little guarantees.”

Liberi is not a term of affection, but, like pignora, it has legalistic roots and lacks any real equivalent in English. It designates children born free (liber) from the legitimate union of a free man and woman. Liberi were the goal of marriage, and raising them properly was seen as a serious responsibility to the state, as Cicero reminds a courtroom adversary. For St. Augustine, they are the only possible reason for having sex. Not spurii (of unknown father), or “conceived promiscuously” (vulgo concepti) from a slave girl, concubine, or courtesan, they were instead certain (certi) and legitimate (legitimi) and provided an indisputable heir. Roman educational advice concerned itself exclusively with liberi, probably on the assumption that other children would be prevented by prejudice from pursuing a public career that was the point of education in the first place. As the Greek writer Plutarch says in this context, “I should advise those desirous of becoming fathers of notable offspring to abstain from random cohabitation with women; I mean with such women as courtesans and concubines. For those who are not well-born, whether on the father’s side or mother’s side, have an indelible disgrace in their low birth, which accompanies them throughout their lives, and offers to anyone desiring to use it a ready subject of reproach and insult.”

The word liberi has a solemn tone that derives from its use in legal and ceremonial contexts, especially in the standard marriage contract. The words liberi and filii are often interchangeable; but in moments of high drama, such as when children were being threatened or dishonored, the solemnity of liberi might be used for emotional effect. “I myself have seen,” says St. Ambrose, “the wretched spectacle of liberi being led off to the auction block to pay a father’s debt, and being kept as heirs to his calamity, though they had no part in his success, and the creditor not even blushing to commit such an outrage.” Another church father says, “You must work hard and take risks in order to keep your children [pignora], your home and your fortunes safe, and to enjoy all the good things of peace and victory. But if you prefer peace now to the hard work . . . your fields will be laid waste, your house plundered, your wife and children [liberi] will become the spoils of war, and you yourself will be captured or killed.” In these passages liberi, with its connotations of legal legitimacy, honorable marriage, and secure inheritance, emphasizes the dastardliness of the moneylender and the threat posed by the enemy. On the other hand, when referring casually to one’s children, it would not be necessary to use a word of such precision, and nati or filii would do.

Filii, as we can see from the French and Italian descendants (figlio and fils), won out in the long run. Liberi seems to have gone out of currency in later Latin, and it left no trace in the Romance languages. Writing in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville seems not quite to understand it fully when he says, “In the laws, filii are called liberi to distinguish them from slaves.” But of course one could be freeborn without necessarily being a liber in this sense, provided that one’s mother was free. To be a true liber was to be free and also not a bastard.

Given the care with which classical Latin defines the legal status of children, a curious gap in the lexicon is an insult meaning “bastard.” Of the recorded terms, spurius was a rare legalism referring to any child conceived out of lawful wedlock, or one whose father was not known; nothus was the insulting ancient Greek word for bastard, and it is occasionally borrowed by Roman writers. But neither spurius nor nothus ever became a common insult. Illegitimi, while a theoretically possible formation in Latin, is not recorded. Quintilian notes the lack of a good word for bastard in Latin and says that when necessary Romans used the Greek term, nothus. One would think, prone to invective and obsessed with birth and lineage as the Romans were, that spurius would have been a handy stone to throw. But no.

At some point now impossible to determine, bastardus emerged. This mysterious but fertile Romance root yielded Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish bastardo, French bâtard, and passed into all the continental Germanic languages, including English, by the late thirteenth century. But it has no recorded existence in Latin. One theory of the etymology of this non-classical insult says that it comes from the French word bast, as in fils de bast, meaning “son of the packsaddle.” This compares with the British English usage of someone being “born the wrong side of the blanket” or being “the son of a gun” (as in a “shotgun wedding”).

Bibliography: Thesaurus Linguae Latina 7.1301–1304. Plutarch: On the Education of Children 2. Ambrose: On Tobias 8.29. Another church father: Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.4.15. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 9.5.17. Quintilian: On the Orator’s Education 3.6.97.

ARSMW_coverAdapted from the book Ancient Rome in So Many Words (New York: Hippocrene, 2007) by Christopher Francese.