Roman Virtues: Musings on Environmental Integrity Today

Ancient Roman writers, particularly those influenced by Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, regularly extolled the virtues of a rustic lifestyle. They believed that farming and gardening were honorable occupations that benefitted both the individual and the Roman public because they supported the virtues of living a simple, productive, healthy, honest, and peaceful life. Although the writers listed many virtuous qualities, certain ones are particularly relevant for encouraging us to think about developing modern ideals associated with being a person of “environmental integrity” —someone who takes action to improve environmental sustainability.

The issues addressed here are intended to elicit discussions about whether we can use ancient virtues in a modern context to create environmentally responsible attitudes and actions today. There are innumerable ideas that can develop from considering this question, and they present us with another means of encouraging and rewarding people to help improve the environment for themselves and others.

Roman Virtues

To begin with, we tend to think about the natural environment in terms of healthfulness. This is shared with Roman virtues related to the health and well-being of each individual (salubritas) and to the community (salus). The Romans believed that salubrious environmental conditions were key to maintaining good mental and physical wellbeing, which was one reason why many had gardens and green spaces in their homes. Healthy environments are beneficial for us, too. They alleviate mental stress and the spread of diseases associated with polluted and overpopulated areas. Building and maintaining salubrious surroundings will ultimately make us happier if we suffer from fewer ailments and mental tensions.

Establishing healthy environments is not an overnight process; it requires patience and dedication. Yet, this is in opposition to the way many of us live today. We have become accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle with increasing demands to have and do more in less time, the result of which is over-work, stress, and physical illness. It also causes environmental strain from long car commutes, large factories, and an over-use of resources, for example. Nonetheless, is it possible for us to change the meaning of hard work, a virtue many of us aspire to today, from fast-paced over production to something that is better for our health and the environment?

To counter the modern definition, I propose that the Roman virtue patientia (patience/calm endurance) can help us live less destructively. Working at a slower pace and creating goods and services that are appreciated for their quality craftsmanship can teach us patience associated with hard work. This reinterpretation can also help us appreciate the idea of “quality over quantity,” where we could use fewer resources, possibly work in smaller, more localized production areas, and commute less.

“Quality over quantity” also shares some similarities with the virtue frugalitas, which means to live a simple life. Simplicity in ancient terms meant that people used only what they needed, but were not miserly. One area of the many areas frugalitas can assist us with is tackling environmental problems connected to a highly populated planet. For example, the population density puts stress on our food and water supplies, especially where the population is higher than the local land can support. There are also demands for foods that are out of season, which is often a luxury rather than a necessity. To fulfill these demands, global transportation is needed to deliver food to different regions, which in turn creates a large carbon footprint. For those of us who can, is it possible to eat more locally and seasonally? It may mean that diets are less varied throughout the year, but it would challenge us to be creative with seasonal ingredients and would help eliminate some environmental damage. Moreover, the foods we eat would be fresher than those imported from a far distance.

The strains on the environment can also bring about the monopolization of resources, the results of which could be starvation, disease, underground markets, and warfare. Two Roman virtues that can encourage us to think about counteracting these threats are Concordia, or harmony, and Pax, or peace. The Romans personified Concordia as a female holding a cornucopia and an olive branch. Pax was personified as a voluptuous woman with infants on her lap, surrounded by grasses, fruits, and land and sea creatures. Both imply that earthly prosperity was brought about by a peaceful existence and vice versa. Thinking about environmental action as a way to attain a peaceful and prosperous existence can also assist in making the world a better place to live.

The Romans, like us, were certainly not perfect; nor did many of them live up to the set of ideals they created. However, their virtues offer us a unique way to consider reasons for living a greener lifestyle. Although this only scratches the surface, I would like to leave with some final questions for consideration. Aside from further thoughts about what we can learn from the ideals mentioned above, are there other virtues we can develop? Is it beneficial to develop the concept of environmental integrity as a modern means of promoting and living a virtuous lifestyle?

Dr. Patty Baker, Founder of Pax in Natura, and Honorary Academic, University of Kent, UK


Subscribe to Ancient Roman Solutions to Environmental Wellbeing