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It is time for some Latin. Let’s take a look at a statement from Horace (Quintius Horatius Flaccus), poet extraordinaire.

Bonī propter amōrem virtūtis peccāre ōdērunt.
Because of their love of virtue, good men hate to do wrong.
Los hombres de bien odian pecar debido a su amor por la virtud.

Notice Horace’s minimization of language here. There is almost a sense of paucity to Roman poetry which can be used to identify it and separate it from any other genre in the language. First and foremost, Horace separates ‘good men’ from ‘bad ones’ in a single word: “Bonī.” This plural Nominative used as a Substantive noun tells us ‘good men’ stands for not just a group, or even just Romans, but for every good man (and I would argue, also woman) who is good by deed. Bad men, thus, are winnowed from our statement at the offset. No chance for those who choose to do bad deeds. These “good men” then hate to sin, written here as the infinitive form of the verb. Although, sin is just not a good translation for the noun in this context, let us think of how the Romans saw “peccāre.”

Before religion took hold in the Roman Empire (whether you think of the period as immediately after Christ’s death in 33 CE or post-legitimization of the religion by Constantine in 311 CE doesn’t really matter) peccāre was used as ‘to do something wrong.’ This idea of the deed rather than the value of the action was quite common in the Roman world. What do I mean? To a Roman ‘doing’ was the thing that mattered most; only after the deed had been done could one really weight its merits or demerits. Thus, if I killed an animal, for example, only after the fact could anyone determine if my action had been justified, or not. In essence, I was assumed innocent until proven guilty because guilt (culpa) or innoncence (iniuria – more like injustice) could only be established after the case had been weighted by a jury of peers. Thus ‘sin’ implies ‘culpa,’ something the Romans would have vehemently opposed before religion came along. Therefore, in this time-context of pre-christian Rome, peccāre is only ‘to do wrong.’

I can almost hear you saying that ‘to do wrong’ also implies guilt. Let us consider roman morality (mōs – the concept of mōs maiōrum, also known as ‘the wisdom of the elders’ was sacred in Rome before religion came along). To the Romans, what was good was a heap of decisions made in the past and which had proven to be good. Rome was the seat of law in the Ancient World, thus, their ‘good things’ were deeds that had been proven to be good for the state. If you have ever heard a lawyer speak of precedence and how they allow a course of action in the present, you understand Roman Law and its concept of good a bit better. In a way, if killing a Gaul (something the Romans thoroughly enjoyed) had been proven beneficial in the past, it was also beneficial to do it in the present, and it would always be beneficial to do it; of course, only until Rome had to consider whether killing a Gaul was a good thing (during Caesar’s time when Gauls of southern Europe had become loyal friends of the would-be Empire) did they have to think of the act as a possible bad deed. Never mind you are killing someone – anyone. Thank you Rome.

Thus Horace’s statement, loaded, as it is, with meaning, speaks to us of Roman culture before religion and before sin. Only good men wish by nature to avoid wrong doing; a doing they do because of their love of virtue which, as we have discussed, was subject to precedence more than actual guilt. However, therein resides the beauty of the statement. We, if we do something considered wrong to some, may be considered as doing the right thing in some future time. This is the redeeming virtue of Roman thinking; the possibility of change through time and space. ‘Sin’ will always be bad, but ‘to do wrong’ was subject to time and culture. So don’t give up on doing what you believe is right; we may find you the subject of some great biography in the future.