History of Europe

The Roman Concept of “Humanitas”

External contribution by Riccardo Costantini

During classical antiquity in Europe, long before morals were deducted from religious beliefs (as it was in the Middle Ages), the ancient Romans struggled for centuries to find a way to define an ethical framework which could have been recognized as fair and right by every citizen. 
The set of all these morals, mainly derived from Greek philosophy and the examples of the myths of the origins of Rome, was called humanitas  literally what is human.

Humanitas did not possess a firmly defined structure: even its contents were the subject of debate by the most influential Roman scholars and poets, from Cicero to Seneca, from Cato to Horatius. Nevertheless, this ethical framework not only strongly influenced European history and thought for the subsequent 2000 years, but remains a fascinating subject for the 21th century reader.

An Evolutionary Perspective

Because of its changing nature, humanitas as an ensemble of ethical precepts can’t be viewed like other, more cohesive ethical systems: it is best understood as an evolutionary process of Roman philosophical discourse. The root of the debate can be traced
 to the Republican Age in what is called the Scipionic Circle: a group of various Hellenophile intellectuals, such as the Greek Stoic philosopher Polibius and Panetius. The circle could pride itself of the membership of the renowned comedian Terence (190 – 159 b.C.), who in his comedy “Heautontimorumenos” wrote:

Homo sum, humani nihil me alienum puto

“I am human, and I think that nothing of that which is human is alien to me”

In this case we can see humanitas first presented as akin to the Greek concept of philanthropy: love for humanity, an idea of Stoic philosophy which means love for the others in the form of empathy, compassion and friendship.


Opposition and Conservatism

Cato the Censor

In opposition to the hellenization of Roman costumes stood Cato the Censor (234 – 149 b.C.), and with him many other influent Romans, who saw the inevitable interaction and adoption of Greek thought as a corruption of their culture.  Cato advocated continued loyalty to the concept of mos maiorum (“the morals of the ancestors”). Mos maiorum professed that the first glorious generations of Romans had made the city great through their virtues, which should continue to inspire their descendants. These virtues were: pietas (loyalty and obedience to the Gods, dignitas (something similar to the modern meaning of dignity and pudor), gravitas (solemnity) integritas (moral integrity) and frugalitas (not wanting anything unnecessary).

Cicero and Classical Syncretism 

Bust of Cicero

Roman intellectuals eventually came to accept the value of Greek teachings. However, giving up the mos maiorum remained a daunting proposition, and new Republican scholars decided to embark on a quest to merge the two philosophies.
 The protagonist of this eclectic project was Cicero (106 – 43 b.C.), who added to the list of Roman virtues the Greek activity of paideia, that is the study and acquisition of culture. This acquisition was motivated as an effort to improve the individual in the literary (otium) and political (negotium) realms.
Later, Aulus Gellius (125 – 180 a.C.) will define paideia as the “erudition and education in good disciplines” (eruditio et institutio in bonas artes) and state that:

quas qui percupiunt adpetuntque, hi sunt vei maxime humanissimi

“Those who are attracted [by the literary disciplines], are maximally very human”.

From the Italian Renaissance with Petrarch and the humanisti, to Voltaire and Kant during the Enlightenment, followed by contemporary Germany with Herder and Schiller, European philosophy has continually drawn inspiration from humanitas. Whatever their outlook, they found in humanitas the ability to reconcile individuals, emphasising what they have in common, as humans.


Tullio Pontecorvo

Student of political science and international relations, co-founder of My Country? Europe. Aspiring sci-fi author. Believes shooting aliens in the face to be the ultimate form of gaming.

Related Articles

One Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: