Roman Patriotism

  • Daniel KapustEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter explores Roman patriotism, turning first to invocations of Roman patriotism in the history of political thought and paying particular attention to the ways in which Rome was both a model to emulate and to be avoided. Drawing on scholarship on both patriotism and nationalism, the chapter isolates two possible sources of attachment to country: patriotism rooted in principle and patriotism rooted in gratitude. The chapter then turns to Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, and Vergil, highlighting their accounts of Roman patriotism’s sources and dynamics while also noting the tensions in their accounts between the love of glory in service to country and the desire that glory be recognized. Seneca and Augustine conclude the chapter, which ends by highlighting the problem of a principled patriotism that does not collapse into imperialism.


Roman patriotism Cicero Vergil Augustine Roman philosophy 


What is Roman patriotism, and why did Romans love their country? This chapter will explore these questions while showing that the Romans were deeply aware of the tensions embedded in their patriotism, whether in its worrisome connection to imperialism and conquest or the dangerous possibilities inherent in its reliance on the desire for glory. While the focus will be on classical figures such as Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Vergil, and Seneca, the chapter concludes with Augustine, not to contrast him with his pre-Christian predecessors but rather to suggest that he picks up on tensions inherent not just in Roman patriotism but in patriotism writ large. The first section, “Roman Patriotism: Historical Perspectives and Analytical Distinctions” centers on the identification of Rome with civic virtue, patriotism, and liberty in the history of political thought while also noting reservations about Roman patriotism. “Patriotism Versus Nationalism” turns to a consideration of the sentiment of patriotism, its distinction from nationalism, and its manifestations in Roman thought, broadly conceived. The following sections turn to specific writers: “Polybius and Roman Patriotism” focuses on Polybius, “Cicero and Roman Patriotism” turns to Cicero, and “Patriotism and its Tensions in Sallust, Livy, and Vergil” centers on Sallust, Livy, and Vergil, focusing especially on the tensions inherent in the Roman love of country and its connections to the love of glory. Seneca and Augustine are the centers of “Seneca and Augustine on the Tensions in Roman Patriotism,” which serves as a sort of coda to reflect on Rome’s status as what Connolly (2015: 61) has termed a “double signifier,” along with the possibility of a less dangerous form of patriotism rooted in Cicero’s thought. One last note: with the exception of Augustine’s City of God, the Latin and Greek texts consulted are from the editions published by the Loeb Classical Library.

Roman Patriotism: Historical Perspectives and Analytical Distinctions

Roman Patriotism in the History of Political Thought

Patriotism and Rome would seem to go hand in hand in the history of political thought, with republican Rome serving as an exemplar of sacrifice and civic virtue. For Rousseau (1997: 115), Rome was “that model of all free Peoples”: so he wrote in the Epistle Dedicatory to the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men. A people who “by their virtues wrought their own happiness and the model for all other Nations,” as he puts it in The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Rousseau (1997: 10) captures what is a common view of Rome: the patriotic Romans, marked by their courage, discipline, religiosity, and honor, doggedly defended their liberty and selflessly pursued the common good.

Rousseau’s sentiments are echoed or preceded by a range of figures, Machiavelli the most famous among them. He, in the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy (Machiavelli 1989: 224), holds that the Romans are to be admired and emulated for their particular form of religiosity: “these citizens feared much more to break an oath than to break the laws,” evident in Scipio forcing Roman citizens to swear not to leave Italy after the battle of Cannae. The oath worked: religion serves to promote duty, motivating citizens, faced with extraordinarily difficult circumstances, to do what “love of their country and its laws” (l’amore della patria) could not do. Yet even if in this situation love of country required religion as a supplement, it was nonetheless quite strong at other times, so strong that, in the context of discussing Manlius Capitolinus’ effort to take power, Machiavelli says that no one defended Manlius even though he had “done a great many praiseworthy deeds.” He explains (1989: 450) it thus: “In all the people love of country was more powerful than any other consideration.” The religious and patriotic Roman people were so virtuous that, prior to their corruption, they “never served humbly nor domineered arrogantly; on the contrary with its laws and magistrates it kept its place honorably” (1989: 314). And in the Art of War (1989: 717), he has Fabrizio say of the Romans during the Second Punic War, “Nothing did the Romans so much honor in the war with Hannibal as their firmness, because in every sort of the most hostile and adverse fortune they never asked peace or made any sign of fear.”

Algernon Sidney (1990: 180), counted among the numerous Rome-inspired English republicans described by Quentin Skinner (1998), invokes numerous examples from Roman history to criticize monarchy. He states “I find no men so eminent as Brutus, Publicola, Quinctius Cincinnatus, and Capitolinus, the two Fabii surmaned Maximi, Corvinus, Torquatus, Camillus, and the like: and if these were the worst men that Rome produced in those ages, valour, wisdom, industry in the service of their country, and a most entire love to it must have been the worst of qualities.” So virtuous were the Romans that “many of them became laws to themselves” (1990: 183).

Montesquieu, in his Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, hones in on Roman religiosity (“the most religious people in the world when it came to an oath”) as a key source of “their military discipline” (1965: 27). But the Romans also had a passionate love for their laws: “There is nothing so powerful as a republic in which the laws are observed not through fear, not through reason, but through passion – which was the case with Rome and Lacadaemon” (1965: 45–46). And no small part of Rome’s decline, for Montesquieu, was the decline of the “love of country” attendant upon the expansion of Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy: “since citizens were [then] such only by a kind of fiction, since they no longer had the same magistrates, the same walls, the same gods, the same temples, and the same graves, they no longer saw Rome with the same eyes” (1965: 93). An additional factor in Rome’s decline was the weakening of Roman religion due to the spread of Epicureanism, as “it was a special trait of the Romans that they mingled some religious sentiment with their love of country” (1965: 98).

Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations (1981: 774), after commenting on the absence of Greek-style musical education in Rome, suggests that “The morals of the Romans…both in private and publick life, seem to have been, not only equal, but upon the whole, a good deal superior to those of the Greeks.” His fellow Scot, David Hume (1985: 203), notes in “Of National Characters” the power of an example like Brutus at the founding of a republic, who was “transported with such an enthusiasm for liberty and public good, as to overlook all the ties of nature, as well as private interest.” It is thus no wonder that Dietz (2002: 202) writes that Roman history is the source of the “heroic self-sacrifice for the glorious fatherland” that is central to “modern patriotism.”

Yet Rome was no model, for Alexander Hamilton, not just because of the dissimilarity of the circumstances of Rome to the American states, which he notes acerbically in a July 4, 1782, Continentalist. “The virtuous dreamer” may wish to make someone “content with a double mess of pottage, instead of a reasonable stipend for his services,” but such arguments will fail because the Americans are “a commercial people.” Hamilton, as is well known, had fully embraced commerce and America’s status as a trading nation, remarking that “There is a total dissimilarity in the circumstances as well as the manners of society among us, and it is ridiculous to seek for models in the small ages of Greece and Rome, as it would be to go in quest of them among the Hottentots and Laplanders” (2008: 197). In his 1774 Full Vindication, he states “ROME was the nurse of freedom. She was celebrated for her justice and lenity; but in what manner did she govern her dependent provinces. They were made the continual scene of rapine and cruelty. From thence let us learn how little confidence is due to the wisdom and equity of the most exemplary nations” (2008: 13).

But Hume is even more pointed, targeting the sort of arguments one encounters in Rousseau’s First Discourse. In “Of Refinement in the Arts,” he hones in on the double-edged quality of Roman imperialism. After noting that “severe moralists” have criticized “refinement in the arts” because of what they seem to have wrought on Rome’s “poverty and rusticity, virtue and public spirit,” he suggests that the diseases are misdiagnosed (1985: 275). Instead, “these writers mistook the cause of the disorders in the ROMAN state, and ascribed to luxury and the arts, what really proceeded from an ill modeled government, and the unlimited extent of conquests” (Hume 1985: 276).

Hamilton and Hume provide a mirror image of the valorization of Rome encountered in figures such as Rousseau or Machiavelli, but they do not do so out of the blue. Indeed, the tensions they pick up on are evident in the Roman sources themselves, and not just Augustine. It is in part for this reason that Joy Connolly (2015: 31) has termed Rome a “double signifier,” noting the essential ambiguity of Rome and the Roman republic: “Just as Rome has always symbolized both heroic self-sacrifice and thrift…as well as self-indulgence, so its ideal condition has been understood on the one hand as unity, consensus, and homogeneity, and on the other, as intense and relentless internal conflict.”

Patriotism Versus Nationalism

Courage, piety, and virtue, these qualities would seem to go hand in hand with Rome. The sacrifices they brought about, along with the political liberty they produced, would seem to be the greatest expression of Roman citizens’ love for their country – their patriotism. What, though, is patriotism? Maurizio Viroli, a political theorist, offers the following prominent definition: patriotism is “love of country,” a love oriented toward “the republic and the free way of life that the republic permits,” adding that this is “a charitable and generous love” (1995: 7, 2). Igor Primoratz, a philosopher, offers a more concise but similar definition: “patriotism can be defined as love of one’s country, identification with it, and special concern for its well-being and that of compatriots” (2015). In a different piece, Primoratz (2002: 11) argues that patriotism combines two sources of affection – the value-based and the egocentric. The patriot’s “special concern for” his country is the product of the prior (“the merits and achievements of a country”) and the latter (“the allegiance to this country”). Viroli, of course, is focusing on specifically republican patriotism, while Primoratz’s definition would apply to any regime.

Scholars differ on what sort of a phenomenon patriotism happens to be. Some, like both Viroli and Primoratz, seem to view it as a sentiment or affection, with Primoratz (2002: 9) describing patriotism as an instance of “the moral…significance of local loyalties and identities; the value of particular, personal relationships; the binding force of special duties.” Moral worth, in these instances, need not mean virtue. MacIntyre (2002: 50), perhaps more prominently than any other philosopher, argues that patriotism “and those loyalties cognate to it are not just virtues but central virtues.” It is especially important, qua virtue, in that it can provide a motivation “for allegiance to the standards of impartiality and impersonality” beyond mere self-interest or reciprocity (2002: 52). Patriotism, insofar as it is necessary to the maintenance of moral communities without which one cannot “flourish as a moral agent,” is thus integral to living well (2002: 50).

Not all agree, though, that patriotism is a good thing, let alone a virtue. Kateb (2006: 7) shares with Viroli the view that patriotism is, indeed, “love of one’s country,” describing it as a “form of group identity and affiliation.” This love manifests most typically as a “readiness…to die and kill for one’s country,” and a country is “an act of insistent or of dream-like imagination made visible and personal” (2006: 8). Patriotism is thus the love of, and willingness to die and kill for, an abstraction and is a profoundly anti-moral sentiment, on Kateb’s view. Rather than teach us to restrain ourselves, as we generally expect from moral theories, patriotism is a sort of “self-idealization” through the identification of the self with an abstraction (2006: 9). With respect to MacIntyre in particular, Kateb argues that MacIntyre may be right that patriotism may be a virtue but that his argument would require “practices that are only accidentally moral and are more naturally unjust” – war, for instance – if the desired quality is to be displayed. One might well “achieve a great outcome like peace or justice,” suggests Kateb, without the use of patriotism. If that is true, the case for patriotism is substantially weakened.

As will be clear in the conclusion of this essay, Kateb’s critique of MacIntyre’s treatment of patriotism as a virtue is important, though this chapter focuses on the connection between love of country and the desire for glory in the eyes of one’s countrymen. And, in any event, whether patriotism is virtuous would seem to depend in the first place on the qualities of the patria; as Aristotle (1998: 1276b30–1276b35) remarked in Book III of the Politics, “if indeed there are several kinds of constitution, it is clear that there cannot be a single virtue that is the virtue – the complete virtue – of a good citizen…Evidently, then, it is possible for someone to be a good citizen without having acquired the virtue expressed by a good man.”

Setting aside, for now, the issue of whether patriotism is a sentiment or a virtue, it is worth noting that defining patriotism as love of country while a perfectly workable definition of patriotism, does not take us all that far. After all, it could well overlap with nationalism in practice. It is thus worth distinguishing patriotism from nationalism, something most scholars of patriotism do, insofar as they generally take patriotism to be a good thing and nationalism to be a bad thing. From the perspective of etymology, nationalism comes from the Latin natio, via French, and patriotism comes from the Greek patriotes, rooted in patrios and ultimately pater (with the cognate Latin patritus/patrius and pater). Patriotism ultimately connotes a shared paternal relationship (patria is, in Latin, the fatherland), while nationalism (from natio and ultimately the verb nascor) connotes, via natio, “a people, race, nation,” according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary (Glare 1996: 1158). Indeed, Quintilian (1963: V.10.23–26), no small figure in Roman literature, himself distinguishes between natio and patria in the context of describing “accidents of persons” from which one can draw arguments. Natio provides a set of similar traits one may refer to in argument, as “races [gentibus] have their own character, and the same action is not probable in the case of a barbarian, a Roman and a Greek”; patria, by contrast, is connected to laws, as one sees “a like diversity in the laws, institutions and opinions of different states.”

The paternal roots of patriotism come to the fore in Viroli’s claim (1995: 19) that “Citizens owe to their patria…a benevolent love similar to the affection that they feel for their parents and relatives,” or, as Primoratz (2015) suggests, “an appropriate expression of attachment to the country in which we were born and raised and gratitude for the benefits” it has given us. In this regard, we might describe Socrates’ argument in the Crito as patriotic, as he has Athens’ laws ask him on Crito suggesting that he escape, “Did we not…bring you to birth, and was it not through us that your father married your mother and begat you?...and after you were born and nurtured and educated, could you, in the first place, deny that you are our offspring and servant?” (Plato 1997: 50d–50e). The story is one of civic benefits conferred on Socrates by the laws and mediated by his father, with the city itself serving as a sort of parent. Patriotism is thus a sort of gratitude, and those without it would be ingrates of a sort.

Nationalism, by contrast, differs in kind from patriotism – Shelef (2010: 1) describes the “core nationalist story” as one in which “a group of people is a nation and, as such, deserves control of their political destiny.” Yack, in a similar vein, argues that nationalists “are people who seek sovereignty…for the members of their own community” (2012: 114). Geographic boundaries ought to be coextensive with those of the people, however it may be defined. One can be a nationalist without having a country qua independent state; one would have some difficulty being a patriot without a patria, though. And nationalism, as a discourse, is closely bound up with the emergence of a distinctively modern understanding of popular sovereignty centering on “the people as a prepolitical community” (2001: 59). As Yack argues, “The citizens of ancient Greek and medieval or renaissance Italian city-states knew what it meant to think of themselves as Greeks and Italians. They simply did not connect that sense of national community to political life” (2001: 518). In this regard, Primoratz, who writes that “patriotism and nationalism are understood as the same type of set of beliefs and attitudes, and distinguished in terms of their objects, rather than the strength of those beliefs and attitudes, or as sentiment vs. theory” (2015), is unpersuasive. Nationalism entails a commitment to sovereignty for a particular people and not necessarily other peoples. And one can love one’s country without being committed to popular sovereignty – surely there were patriots in ancient Persia, even if Herodotus said that Xerxes’ forces were driven on by whips, just as one imagines that royalists fighting for Charles I in the English Civil War took themselves to love both king and country.

Were, though, the Romans a people in the sense that nationalism presupposes? Or rather, did they take themselves as such, since what matters is how they understood themselves (on this, see Anderson 1983)? Given nationalism’s connection to a modern notion of popular sovereignty, the answer would seem to be no. To be sure, it is the case with respect to Rome, as Woolf (2001) argues, that the Romans certainly came to conceive of themselves as a distinctive people in (or by) the first-century B.C.E, and Fletcher (2014: 2, 4) links this development explicitly to the expansion of Roman citizenship to the whole of Italy following the Social Wars. And whatever the Romans were, they were always not Greek (and quite definitely not Carthaginian). But it does not seem quite right to say that the (eventual) Roman belief in themselves as a distinct people entailed a commitment to the Roman people being sovereign qua Romans or that the Romans would not be a people in a meaningful sense if they were not sovereign. Indeed, as Straumann (2016) has persuasively shown, first-century-B.C.E. Roman thought is replete with constitutional theory emphasizing not Roman popular sovereignty but instead natural law (which holds everywhere) as supplying normative content to its institutional configurations. Moreover, in one of the strongest examples of a popular sovereignty argument in Roman literature – namely, Tiberius Gracchus’ speech in favor of deposing another tribune – he describes the people in a “factionalist” sense (Allen 2006: 70). That is, Gracchus argues that a tribune who “should proceed to destroy the capitol or set fire to the arsenal…would be a bad tribune. He who assails the power of the people [ton demon] is no longer a tribune [demarchos] at all” (Plutarch 1992: 366). Gracchus uses the term to refer to a part of the populus and not to the Roman people – patres and plebs – as a pre-political whole. In any event, questions over the nature of Roman peoplehood would seem to have followed on the Social Wars and would thus have come quite late in Rome’s political history – well after Rome had become an independent state, thrown off the monarchy, and well after Rome had become a state ruling over others.

The phrase “love of country” seems sufficient to express the content of patriotism when it comes to Rome. Nuances of the terminology notwithstanding (see Bonjour 1975: 61, 65), the sentiment is captured by Latin terms such as amor patriae (e.g., Vergil Aeneid 11.892, Tacitus Annals 15.49) or amor rei publicae (e.g., Cicero Catilinarian 4.15) or pietas (e.g., Cicero On Invention 22.66, On the Commonwealth. 6.16) and caritas (e.g., Livy From the Founding of the City 2.2) used in reference to patria or res publica. If one is interested simply in uses of the terms amor patriae, or caritas patriae, one will not get all that far, from a political theory perspective; we may find the sentiment doing its motivational work even in the absence of the specific terminology. More important is to hone in on the sentiment’s use and function, even in the absence of its expression in direct phrases and its import in different authors. Thus, this chapter will be focusing on arguments and images which describe or invoke the sentiment of patriotism, that is, the love of country, always with an eye toward what the sentiment does in particular arguments.

One last point before turning to Roman sources: if it is the case that the Romans loved their country, we may ask why. One answer, following the example of the Crito, is to think of the source of this love as analogous to the love we owe to our fathers (or rather parents) for the benefits they have given us. Patriotism, in this regard, is a sort of obligation rooted in gratitude to one’s patria. This, as will be seen, is how Cicero talks about the patria naturae in On the Laws and how he talks about the res publica in On Duties 1.57–58. But one can also see in Roman thought love of country not rooted in a sense of grateful obligation for benefits received but instead in recognition of the value of underlying principles, as in, for example, Cicero On the Commonwealth 3.33 and Vergil Aeneid 6.851–853, passages discussed below. This is a love that approximates the sort one feels toward the patria civitatis of Cicero On the Laws 2.5–6, a love rooted in principle.

Polybius and Roman Patriotism

Polybius, the second-century Greek historian of Rome, set out to explain “by what means and under what system of polity [politeias] the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government” (1929: 1.1.5). Thought of as a famously dispassionate figure throughout much of the twentieth century (Walbank 1972; for a moralistic reading, see Eckstein 1995), a search for the term philopatria (love of country) in Polybius’ Histories would seem to bear this out: he uses the term only once and does so to disavow the propriety of patriotic motivations in writing history. It may be true that “a good man should love his friends and his country [philopatrin], he should share the hatreds and attachments of his friends.” In the most famous portion of his histories, Book VI, which contains Polybius’ discussion of Rome’s constitution (politeia), the term is absent.

Yet Polybius’ (1929: 6.10.14) analysis of Rome’s “best of all existing constitutions,” which centers initially on what appears to be a sort of balance of power between Rome’s consuls, Senate, and people, gives way to a deeply moralistic account of the way that Roman institutions cultivate virtues that give rise to its imperial success. In a passage that would inspire Machiavelli’s own interpretation of Livy more than a thousand years later, Polybius states the following:

for the purpose of remaining in secure possession of their own territory and maintaining their freedom, the legislation of Lycurgus is amply sufficient…But if anyone is ambitious of greater things, and esteems it finer and more glorious than that to be the leader of man men and to rule and lord it over many [epikratein kai despozein] and have the eyes of all the world turned to him…that of Rome is superior and better framed for the attainment of power. (Polybius 1929: 6.50.2–5)

His explanation of Rome’s success takes account, of course, of Rome’s military discipline, not a moralistic claim, per se, and is evident in his famous (and somewhat tedious) account of the Roman encampment and its recruiting practices. But he also emphasizes the degree to which Romans were willing to sacrifice themselves for their country, first in a comparison to the Carthaginians, who use mercenaries, whereas Rome depends on its “own valor and on the aid of their allies.” Because the Romans deployed a citizen militia, “fighting as they are for their country [patris] and their children,” they “never can abate their fury but continue to throw their whole hearts into the struggle until they get the better of their enemies.” This is precisely the connection between one’s country and the sense of familial obligation encountered above with the Crito.

It is Roman “gallantry” that lets them succeed in naval battles and not their skill (Polybius 1929: 6.52.7–9). And after describing the spectacular Roman aristocratic funeral (to which I turn shortly), he notes “that young men are…inspired to endure every suffering for the public welfare in the hope of winning that glory that attends on brave men” (Polybius 1929: 6.54.3). Horatius Cocles (who survives his swim in Livy’s version of the story) serves as an example of this Roman spirit of sacrifice, for he “deliberately sacrificed his life, regarding the safety of his country and the glory which in future would attach to his name as of more importance than his present existence and the years of life which remained to him” (Polybius 1929: 6.55.3). So powerful is this passion that there are Romans who “put their own sons to death contrary to every law or custom (pan ethos e nomon), setting a higher value on the interest of their country (to tes patridos sumpheron) than on the ties of nature that bound them to their nearest and dearest (tes kata phusin oikeiotetos) (Polybius 1929: 6.54.5). Polybius credits this behavior, which he identifies as contrary to law and the ties of nature, we may note, to “the eager emulation” (Polybius 1929: 6.55.5) inspired by the Roman funeral. Polybius’ Romans desire glory, and glory, or fame, is often paired with their practice and display of virtue; so powerful is this desire for glory, gained by the display of virtue, that it could work the power of the familial.

Such emulation was aroused in part through the ritual of the Roman aristocratic funeral and in part through military rewards for conspicuous valor. Of the prior, Polybius remarks after describing them: “There could not easily be a more ennobling spectacle for a young man who aspires to fame and virtue” (Polybius 1929: 6.53.9; see Flower 1996). The funeral of “any illustrious man” (tis…ton epiphanon andron) entailed not simply a eulogy of the dead but the placing of the wax imago in the house, an imago that would be worn in subsequent family funerals. These funerals included a parade featuring “the fasces, axes, and other insignia by which the different magistrates are wont to be accompanied according to the respective dignity of the offices of state held by each during his life” (Polybius 1929: 6.53.7–8). Eulogies praise not only the dead but their ancestors as well, so that “the fame of those who did good service to their country [ten patrida] becomes known to the people and a heritage for future generations” (Polybius 1929: 6.54.3). Within the camp, meanwhile, Polybius notes that the Romans had “an admirable method of encouraging the young soldiers to face danger,” with those soldiers being recognized in public by their leaders and rewarded with gifts. These gifts, in turn, are matters of pride, with them displayed in religious processions and in homes. Polybius remarks, after this description, that it is “no wonder that the wars in which the Romans engage end so successfully and brilliantly” (Polybius 1929: 6.39.11). And this willingness to fight – and die – for the country, in turn, is intimately related to Rome’s imperial success, with the love of glory and standing in the eyes of fellow citizens giving rise to Rome’s ability to bring “the whole world under their sway” (Polybius 1929: 6.50.6).

Perhaps more remarkable than any practice characteristic of the Romans, though, is their religiosity, with Polybius stating that “the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is…the nature of their religious convictions” (Polybius 1929: 6.56.6). To be sure, his take on Roman religion is cynical – “they have adapted this course for the sake of the common people” – but his example of Rome’s superiority to Greece is striking:

…among the Greeks…members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. (Polybius 1929: 6.13–15)

It is no wonder that he discusses the place of oaths in Roman military service three times in his account of the Roman military – at VI.21.1–3, VI.33.1–2, and VI.26 – where he notes of the troops, having been organized by the tribunes and administered an oath, “none of those on the roll ever fail to appear” on the appointed day, with “no excuse at all being admitted except adverse omens or absolute impossibility.” Polybius’ portrait of Rome, then, centers on their courage, their piety, their spirit of emulation, and their eagerness to sacrifice themselves for their country – qualities which play no small part in the emergence of Roman hegemony over the Mediterranean world.

Cicero and Roman Patriotism

With Polybius, then, virtue and the love of glory were intricately related and connected to Rome’s imperial success. Cicero links virtue and glory, but this link deeply worries him. Moreover, Cicero, especially in On Duties, seeks to elevate the civil over the military as a source of glory and expression of virtue. If Polybius was especially concerned with the sources of Roman virtue and their effects in warfare, Cicero evinces a much greater concern with the sources of attachments to the patria. This is especially the case in On the Laws, where Cicero sketches out an argument allowing him, on the one hand, to love his native Arpinum and yet to prioritize the Roman republic. This argument is important, in turn, because it mirrors what will be a central tension in Cicero’s own account of love of country: the tension between the individual and the particular, on the one hand, and the common good, on the other.

Cicero’s love of Arpinum has a familial and religious quality – “here are sacred rights; here is family [genus]; here are many traces of ancestors” (Cicero 2014: 2.3). Such attachments – “hidden in my mind and sentiments (in animo ac sensu)” – prompt Cicero to love this fatherland (patria), the “one of nature” (unam naturae) (Cicero 2014: 2.5). Yet he prioritizes his fatherland of citizenship – patria civitatis. This form of citizenship is not “by place” (loci) but “by law” (iuris); the prior is the patria by birth (ubi nati), and the latter is where “we have been received” (excepti). The patria civitatis is “necessarily preeminent in our affection [caritate],” and it is this fatherland “for which we ought to die, to which we ought to surrender ourselves entirely, and in which we ought to place and, so to speak, consecrate all our belonging” (pro qua mori et cui nost totos dedere et in qua nostra omnia ponere et quasi consecrare debemus) (Cicero 2014: 2.5). For Cicero love of country can be rooted in ius and the qualities of the civitas, just as it can be rooted in birth and ancestry, though the prior exceeds the latter in its normative weight.

Cicero’s account of Rome’s moral status in On the Laws is echoed in one of the more remarkable passages to be found in Book 3 of Cicero’s On the Commonwealth. The passage, from Laelius’ speech, comes in the context of Cicero providing us with a retelling of Carneades’ famous speeches for and against justice in 155 B.C.E. Whereas Carneades gave a speech for justice on the first day and against it on the second, though, Cicero has Philus take up the case for injustice and Laelius for justice. Carneades’ influence on subsequent Roman thought is unsurprising: prior to Carneades’ speeches, Zetzel suggests, Naevius and Ennius “seem perfectly cheerful about Rome’s conquests and the expansion of Roman power,” and Zetzel sees evidence of “no early argument about the purpose of imperial rule or its benefits and drawbacks to the subjects.” It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Cicero, in Book 3, equates “Roman justice with the order of the universe,” though the story is more complex, as we will see (Zetzel 1996: 297–298).

Among the points that Laelius makes are a number that cohere on the justice of Roman warfare and empire. For example, at 3.26, he states, “our people has already gained possession of the entire earth by defending its allies [sociis defendendis].” More striking, though, is the conclusion of the speech, which begins with a criticism of Tiberius Gracchus, who “persisted resolutely on the side of the citizens, but…neglected the rights and treaties [iura…ac foedera] of the allies and the Latins” (Cicero 2014: 3.34). Tiberius’ unjust practice threatens Roman power and the very life of the polity:

If that habit and licentiousness should begin to spread more widely and convert our command from right to force [imperiumque nostrum ad vim a iure], so that those who up to now willingly obey us [voluntate nobis oboediunt] are controlled by terror…I am still distressed for our descendants and for the immortality of the republic [rei publicae], which could be perpetual if it were kept alive by our paternal institutions and customs [institutis et moribus]. (Cicero 2014: 3.34)

Laelius’ language here recalls his earlier account of just rule, within which “peoples rule over citizens and allies as the mind rules over bodies.” Rome’s subjects stand in relation to it, then, as does the mind command the body. So long as Rome maintains its justice, not only will it be eternal, but it will also rule over its subjects justly, embodying rule that mirrors the gods’ command over men and reason’s command over “lust, anger, and the other faulty parts of the same mind” (Cicero 2014: 3.21). Such a vision of rule is grounded in the law of nature: “True law is correct reason congruent with nature, spread among all persons, constant, everlasting.” The law of nature, moreover, “calls to duty by ordering” (vocet ad officium iubendo” (Cicero 2014: 3.27). Such qualities surely count as sources of attachment and obligation to the patria civitatis.

In On Duties, too, Cicero prioritizes obligations to the res publica – “of all fellowships none is more serious [gravior], and none dearer [carior], that that of each of us with the republic.” This is so, partly, because it has “embraced the affections of all of us” – omnium caritates patria una complexa est., including parents, offspring, family, and friends. In effect, it embraces the familial ties analogous to the love of one’s patria naturae. To be a good man (bonus), then, is to be willing to die for the country (mortem oppetere). Such a fact is, in turn, a sign of how “detestable…is the monstrousness of those who have savaged their country with all manner of crime and who have been, and are still, engaged in destroying her utterly” (Cicero 1991: 1.57). Here, though, Cicero’s emphasis is less on the matter of ius than it is on obligation to country (and parents) “for the greatest kindnesses” (beneficiis maximis obligati sumus) (Cicero 1991: 1.58). Antony and his ilk, then, are not just monsters; they are ungrateful to boot (Cicero 1991: 1.57).

Cicero, then, would seem to speak of one’s obligation to the res publica as rooted in both familial love and principled affection. Cicero’s argument about obligations to the republic, along with the moral dimensions of republican legitimacy, would seem to leave open the possibility for a certain naivety about Roman power and its place in the world. Yet this is unsympathetic to Cicero who, at least by the composition of On Duties, saw the republic in a very pessimistic light, evident in his account of the decline of Rome’s legitimacy abroad. He remarks, at 2.26 (1991), that:

as long as the empire of the Roman people [imperium populi Romani] was maintained through acts of kind service and not through injustice [beneficiis…non iniuriis], wars were waged either on behalf of allies or about imperial rule; wars were ended with mercy or through necessity; the senate was a haven and refuge for kings, for peoples, and for nations; moreover, our magistrates and generals yearned to acquire the greatest praise [maximam laudem] from one thing alone, the fair and faithful [aequitate et fide] defence of our provinces and of our allies. In this way we could more truly have been titled a protectorate [patrocinium] than an empire [imperium] of the world.

This moral status, which had begun to decline prior to Sulla, was “rejected…entirely” after Sulla precisely because Rome’s citizens “had suffered such great cruelty” at the hands of Sulla, suffering which made nothing appear “unjust towards allies” (Cicero 1991: 2.27). After noting the many “iniquities inflicted upon our allies” (nefaria in socios), he states that “Our present suffering are, therefore, just [Iure igitur plectimur]” (Cicero 1991: 2.28; cf. 1.34). Caesar’s cruelties are, in effect, the outcome of Romans allowing “the crimes of many men going unpunished” (Cicero 1991: 2.28). Without justice abroad, Rome had paved the way to impunity at home and, thinking back on the argument of On the Commonwealth, had ceased to be a republic at all. Nor is it surprising that the love of praise (laus) could backfire: “if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety, but for its own advantages, it is a vice.” A fixation on praise, and to “surpass all others,” is precisely what made Caesar, after all, so very dangerous (Cicero 1991: 1.63–1.64).

If, then, the desire for individual glory and status, absent justice and a devotion to country, became a dangerously vicious drive, it is no wonder that Cicero’s condemnation of those who would turn on their country couples with his defense of service. “Those who are equipped by nature to administer affairs must abandon any hesitation over winning office and engage in public life.” That said, those who engage in public affairs must, on Cicero’s view, have “the magnificent disdain for human affairs,” lest they be unable to “live without anxiety, with seriousness and with constancy” (Cicero 1991: 1.72). Cicero’s defense of public service couples with his effort to “deflate” the view that “military affairs are of greater significance than civic” (Cicero 1991: 1.74). And Cicero cites his own poetry as proof – even if it is “often attacked by shameless and envious men”: “Let arms yield to the toga, and laurels to laudation” (Cicero 1991: 1.77). Even, though, if public service is rooted in a love of country, which in this instance is a sort of parent to whom we are obligated for benefits received, Cicero is quite clear to emphasize that there is glory to accrue to those who engage in public service, citing Pompey’s praise of himself and noting that “the courageous deeds of civilians [domesticae fortitudines] are not inferior to those of soldiers [militaribus]. Indeed the former should be given even more effort and devotion than the latter” (Cicero 1991: 1.78).

Such sentiments echo those found in the earlier On the Commonwealth, especially in Scipio’s Dream. Scipio Africanus tells his son that “For all those who have preserved, assisted, increased their fatherland [qui patriam conservaverint, adiuverint, auxerint], there is a certain place marked out in heaven where happy persons enjoy everlasting life” (Cicero 2014: 6.17). Cities – civitates – delight the god so long as they are “united in right” (iure sociati), and humanity as a whole has a sacred duty (“the human task assigned by the god”) to “protect that globe,” i.e., the Earth (Cicero 2014: 6.19). Carrying out this task – especially in a leadership role – requires that Scipio “cultivate justice and piety” (iustitiamet pietatem) toward his “fatherland” (in patria). Indeed, no small part of Africanus’ description of the rewards accruing to patriots in the hereafter (as opposed to the fleeting glory of opinion) is its motivating effect on the younger Scipio. Thus the younger Scipio later affirms:

Truly, Africanus, if a lane, so to speak, opens an entrance to the heaven for those who have deserved well of their fatherland [bene meritis de patria], although I have walked in your tracks and those of my father from boyhood and have not lacked your glory, nevertheless, now that such a reward has been explained, I will exert myself much more vigilantly [vigilantius]. (Cicero 2014: 6.30).

Devotion to the patria as rooted in and manifesting virtue – justice and piety, in this case – again emerges as the central theme in Cicero’s portrayal of patriotism.

Rome is a worthy object of principled love so long as Rome embodies the principles that make it worth being loved, for Cicero. And Cicero’s account of Rome – the patria civitatis – centers less on it being a concrete place than the embodiment of certain abstractions. Thus, if Rome was worth loving not only because of the benefits it conferred but also because of the principles it embodied, it would no longer be worth loving if these principles were to be destroyed. As Dietz notes, Roman identification of the patria with the urbs Romae, per se, would weaken as Rome’s imperium and Roman citizenship expanded. As a result, “allegiance to patria became an increasingly abstract matter” (Dietz 2002: 202). Just as injustice threatens the existence of Rome as a legitimate res publica on normative grounds (one may think here of Cicero’s definition of res publica in On the Commonwealth Book 2, a passage encountered below with Augustine), so, too, does injustice threaten Rome as an object worthy of love.

Patriotism and Its Tensions in Sallust, Livy, and Vergil


The themes of the desire for glory in the service of the republic, and of its dangers when severed from the common good, are echoed by Cicero’s younger contemporary, the historian Sallust. A widely recognized feature of his thought is his emphasis on Rome’s decline in the aftermath of Carthage’s fall (see Kapust 2008); worth attending to, though, is the place of the lust for glory (cupido gloriae) in his account of Rome’s rise (Sallust 1985: 7.3). Following the expulsion of the monarchs, “every man began to lift his head higher and to have his talents more in readiness”; political liberty (libertas) fostered the cultivation and display of excellent qualities (ingenium). Sallust focuses on warfare: “as soon as the young men could endure the hardships of war, they were taught a soldier’s duties [per laborem usum militia] in camp under a vigorous discipline” (Sallust 1985: 7.4). For such soldiers, possessing such virtus, “their hardest struggle for glory [gloriae maximum certamen] was with one another,” and “to be seen of all” (conspici, dum tale facinus faceret) performing great deeds. Desirous of praise (laudis avidi) above all, they wanted their virtues to be seen and to win great glory – gloriam ingentem (Sallust 1985: 7.7). Once Rome had begun to decline after the destruction of Carthage, its initial fall was slowed by their “ambition,” “a fault, it is true, but not so far removed from virtue; for the noble and the base alike long for glory, honour, and power [gloriam, honorem, imperium],” though the base will use any means to get it (Sallust 1985: 11.1–2). Once avarice takes the place of ambition, and once “glory, dominion, and power” attended wealth, “virtue began to lose its lustre” (Sallust 1985: 12.1). A love of glory, attached to the public good, brought about Roman greatness, just as a love of glory, detached from the public good, brought about its decline.


Livy stands out with the dubious distinction of being a “patriotic historian” of Rome, dubious because the epithet, rooted especially in Walsh’s Livy (1974: 64–66) has often been applied to explain problems or weaknesses in his historical writing. Humm, for instance, refers to “the manifestations of the most chauvinistic of Roman patriotism unique to Livy, especially concerning the Greeks and the Barbarians” (Humm 2014: 344). There is something to this, of course; Livy associates love of the city and its soil (caritasque ipsius soli) with the political maturity required to maintain liberty after the expulsion of the Tarquins, “an affection of slow growth” (longe tempore) (Livy 1922: 2.1). Livy connects pietas to military service at, for instance, 5.7.12, where the senate decrees thanks to the army’s “loyalty to their country” (pietatis…patriam) (Livy 1922: 5.7.12; cf. 27.9.11). And Lucius Lentulus, in urging the Romans to accept the terms of the Caudine Peace in Book 9, states “it is glorious to die for one’s country” (mortem pro patria praeclaram esse fateor), and just as a Roman should be willing to suffer death for his country, he should be willing to suffer shame (ignominia) for love of country (caritas patriae) if that shame – in this case, the shame of surrender – would allow the Roman army to be preserved (Livy 1922: 9.4.10–16). His history contains many examples of virtuous Romans risking life and limb for their country – Horatius Cocles, for instance, who singlehandedly held of an army at a bridge, one whose “valour…was destined to obtain more fame than credence with posterity” (Livy 1922: 2.10.11). One may also think of the combat between the Roman brothers Horatii and the Etruscan brothers Curiatii, whom Livy describes thus: “Neither side thought of its own danger [periculum suum], but of the nation’s sovereignty or servitude [publicum imperium servitiumque], and how from that day forward their country must experience the fortune they should themselves create” (Livy 1922: 1.25.3).

But even Livy is no doe-eyed idealist; his solution to Rome’s problems, according to a recent monograph, is very much an ideal, but the very elusiveness of the ideal shows that he recognizes Rome’s problems. For while he is deeply suspicious of Rome’s people (“the danger from below”), his model of ideal leadership falls squarely on the distant shoulders of “the great patrician leaders of the early years who cow the demagogues, instill discipline in the masses, treat both classes with justice, and restore concordia” (Vasaly 2015: 135). Such leaders are not to be found in great number in Livy’s own time; the most likely candidate for some is Augustus himself, though as Luce pointed out (and Vasaly echoes), Livy wrote his history either before Octavian became Augustus or at a very minimum “conceived” the early books “in a world gripped by political upheaval” (Vasaly 2015: 3). Writing in the 30s or 20s BCE, Livy would have encountered few figures, mass or elite, who measure up to the early Romans.


The themes of Roman patriotism and Rome’s principle-based legitimate hegemony are prominent in Vergil’s Aeneid, as are the dangers of glory seeking and an uncritical acceptance of principle-based conquest. In his visit to the underworld, Aeneas encounters Anchises, who speaks the following to his son in the course of giving his prophesy:

Roman, remember by your strength to rule

earth’s peoples – for your arts are to be these:

To pacify, to impose the rule of law,

To spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (Vergil 1990: 6.1151–6.1154)

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento

(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,

parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Zetzel’s summary of the sentiment is worth quoting at length: “the natural domination of Roman political and military skills over other peoples and the justification of Roman rule, which not only was achieved honorably but is also for the benefit of subject peoples” (Zetzel 1996: 309). Indeed, Zetzel has argued persuasively that the Aeneid draws on Cicero’s reconstruction of the Carneadean debate in De republica III: “Roman power is not only justified on the mortal plane as a response to aggression and the defense of fides and salus (to use Laelius’ terms), but is divinely ordained and in harmony with the plans of fate.” Jupiter himself tells Venus in Book 1 that for the Romans:

I set no limits, world or time,

But make the gift of empire without end. (Vergil 1990: 1.263)

Or again, Jupiter tells Mercury in Book 4 to speak the following to Aeneas:

He was to be the ruler of Italy,

Potential empire, armorer of war;

To father men from Teucer’s noble blood

And bring the whole world under law’s dominion. (Vergil 1990: 4.229)

sed fore qui gravidam imperiis belloque frementem

Italiam regeret, genus alto a sanguine Teucri

proderet, ac totum sub leges mitteret orbem.

Rome’s imperial project, divinely sanctioned and rooted in law (leges) and morality (mos), is itself an “imposition of order and morality” (Zetzel 1996: 297).

Yet Vergil, too, is clearly aware of the danger of the love of honor. Most crucially, Ascanius brings about the war that takes up much of Books 7–12 by hunting Silvia’s stag, “passionate for the honor of the kill” (eximia laudis succensus amore); Brutus would give his own sons “the death penalty in freedom’s name – Unhappy man, no matter how posterity may see these matters” (Vergil 1990: 6.1100–6.1107). Anchises’ language is haunting: “Love of the fatherland/Will sway him – and unmeasured lust for fame” (vincet amor patriae laudumque immensa cupido) (Vergil 1990: 6.1107–6.1109). One is reminded here of what Cicero says in On Duties: “Beware also the desire for glory…For it destroys the liberty for which men of great spirit ought to be in competition” (Cavenda etiam est. gloriae cupiditas…eripit enim libertatem, pro qua magnanimis viris omnis debet esse contention) (1991: 1.68).

Seneca and Augustine on the Tensions in Roman Patriotism

Seneca and the Injustice of Politics

Seneca, in On the Private Life, provides a different diagnosis of the tensions inherent in patriotism, focusing on the perils of service and the dilemma of the individual committed to living rightly and to serving the community. Written in part to justify his withdrawal from public life, a move that might seem to be at odds with Seneca’s Stoicism, he remarks that “If the public realm is too corrupt [corruptior] to be helped, if it has been taken over by the wicked [malis], the wise man will not struggle pointlessly nor squander himself to no avail” (Seneca 1995: 3.3). Rather than grant that he has abandoned his desire to “be of use to other men” in choosing to quite public life, though, he suggests that he will be of use to a different sort of public realm (Seneca 1995: 3.4). He famously argues:

that there are two public realms, two commonwealths [res publicas]. One is great and truly common to all [magnam et vere publicam], where gods as well as men are included, where we look not to this corner or that, but measure its bounds with the sun. The other is that in which we are enrolled by an accident of birth [condicio nascendi] – I mean Athens or Carthage or some other city [urbis] that belongs not to all men but only a limited number. (Seneca 1995: 4.1)

The universal commonwealth can, unlike the particular one, be served “even in retirement” through philosophical inquiry, inquiry which is “service to God” (Seneca 1995: 4.2). Seneca despairs of finding himself in the sort of particular commonwealth that would be fitting for the wise man “to attach himself to” (Seneca 1995: 8.2). He dismisses Athens – “where Socrates was condemned, where Aristotle had to flee” – and Carthage, “seat of unremitting sedition, where the best men were menaced by liberty, where fairness and goodness were held in utter contempt, where inhuman cruelty towards enemies extended to enmity even towards its own citizens” (Seneca 1995: 8.2). Indeed, says Seneca, “Were I to go through each commonwealth [singulas], I would not find one [nullam inveniam] that could endure the wise man or be endured by him” (Seneca 1995: 8.3). Seneca, like Cicero, introduces a normative meta-principle that allows him to adjudicate whether and how he ought to serve his particular commonwealth, even if his final analysis is far more skeptical than Cicero’s.

Augustine and Rethinking Roman Patriotism

Prior to turning to Augustine’s City of God, it is worth highlighting the tension between the ideal and the actual, between selfless service and selfish glory seeking, in the Roman sources already encountered. Zetzel puts it aptly, in this regard; he notes that neither Cicero nor Vergil is quite so naïve as they appear. He remarks that “De Republica tells two stories about Rome. One is about a state whose rule over the nations is justified, whose constitution and laws most nearly approach natural law, whose statesmen are, quite literally, divine in their justice…On the other hand, sub specie aeternitatis, Cicero and his characters know perfectly well that Rome is not, in any significant way, exceptional” (Zetzel 1996: 317). Cicero, and Vergil, too, knows full well of “human limitations” (Zetzel 1996: 318).

Famously, Augustine argues not that Rome ceased to be a republic in a Ciceronian sense at a particular point in its history but that Rome was never a republic at all because “where there is no justice there is no commonwealth” (Augustine 1998: 19.21; the Latin consulted is Augustine 1981). Just as famous, of course, is his Sallustian diagnosis of the pathologies of Rome’s love of glory – “This glory they loved most ardently [ardentissime dilexerunt]. They chose to live for it, and they did not hesitate to die for it…they deemed it ignoble for their fatherland [patriam suam] to serve and glorious for it to rule and command [quoniam servire videbatur inglorium, dominari vero atque imperare gloriosum]” (Augustine 1998: 5.1). Thus the Romans desired – concupiverunt – liberty and mastery – libertatem, dominam. The two, paired together in Augustine’s thought, drove its history, such that “it came to be the prayer of men of great ambition that Bellona would excite miserable nations to war and stir them up with her bloody scourge so that the Romans might have scope for the display of their valour!” (ut esset ubi virtus oerum enitesceret) (Augustine 1998: 5.12). Conquest and warfare, such “was the result of that vaunted eagerness for praise and passion for glory” – laudis aviditas et gloriae cupido. Even Cicero, Augustine states, cannot “conceal” Rome’s “desire for glory” (gloriae cupiditate), going so far at On the Commonwealth 5.7.9 to say that “the men of old did many wonderful and famous deeds” because they loved glory (Augustine 1998: 5.13). Augustine does not deny that the Romans did, in fact, behave in conventionally virtuous ways: “the Romans held their own private interests in low esteem for the sake of the common good, that is, for the commonwealth.” Indeed, “They were honoured [honorati] among almost all the nations [gentibus]; they imposed the laws of their empire [imperii sui leges inposuerunt] upon many races; and they are glorious among almost all peoples to this day, in literature and history” (Augustine 1998: 5.15). These laws were, moreover, not the natural laws, as with Vergil and Cicero, but Rome’s laws. The Romans, then, are simply mistaken about why they achieved what they did and what it means.

Conclusions and Future Directions

This chapter began with an invocation of Connolly’s description of Rome as a double signifier and concludes by noting a similar point she makes earlier in her argument, noting the problem that empire and imperialism posed to Rome: “For Cicero, as for Sallust and Livy, the consequences of empire are twofold: on the one hand, empire enjoys the grand common narrative of exemplary victory…on the other, empire trembles at the ever-present threat of the collapse of community, a collapse it brings ever close with each new conquest, each new injection of destabilizing diversity, each new act of repression, each new importation of pillaged wealth” (Connolly 2015: 39). Could Roman patriotism, even a patriotism of principle, be made peaceful? This was Cicero’s hope, a hope he gestured toward in On Duties. If one were to think of these principles, though, neither as being spread by conquest nor of being the gift of Rome to the peoples of the Mediterranean, but instead as providing a framework for not conquering other peoples, then it could be both more peaceful and less connected to the love of glory. But it’s not hard to see how a love of country, whether rooted in a sense of gratitude or a recognition of the normative value of the principles on which it is founded, could quickly turn into a desire to see other countries be made more like it, whether they want to or not. With this in mind, the challenge is to imagine a patriotic anti-imperialism founded on principle.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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