Virtutes Romanae: Richard Armitage and LIBERALITAS

When most people think of the ancient Romans, I suspect that one of the last things to come to mind is generosity – although the Romans were surely generous in “sharing” their culture with the entire Mediterranean basin!  In this context, we might be surprised to find that LIBERALITAS (generous giving) was included among the public virtues modeled by Roman society as a whole over the course of it’s nearly 1500 year cultural span (not including the Byzantines…quite a different variety of Roman).  

This time span is a concept that my students always struggle with…namely, the fact that it is difficult to make wide generalizations about the Romans because their culture, like all cultures, changes over time.  I wrapped up the ROME film class last week and will read final research papers this week.  Despite cautioning that they should be careful to include only info relating to the Late Republic, I’ve no doubt that I will read a good bit about Imperial Military tactics or the sexual mores of early Christian Rome.  It’s all Rome right?  Well, not exactly.  What LIBERALITAS meant to Julius Caesar is not precisely the same as what it meant to Constantine 350 years later…there are subtleties that vary over time as the culture evolved.  What does remain the same though is the primary definition of the term:

“Generosity, nobility, kindliness, magnanimity”

“Munificence, open-handedness, liberality”

which developed further to mean also,

“An instance of generosity, a gift, donation, contribution”

Interestingly (to me anyway 🙂  )  the majority of visual representations of LIBERALITAS come from the well into the Imperial Period of Rome.

The coin above dates to the Severan Dynasty (195-235 CE), specifically to the reign of the emperor Elagabalus (if you are looking for wild and woolly Imperial Roman hijinks, look no futher than Elagabalus)  The coin sports a portrait of the emperor on the obverse and a depiction of the personification of Liberalitas on the reverse.  The goddess is loaded up with all sorts of goodies to be distributed.  In her right hand she holds a coin shaker, in her left, an overflowing cornucopia.  I don’t see it in the descriptions of the coin, but it looks to me as if she has some variety of water fowl (looks goose-y to me) draped over her left arm as well.  The inscription describes her as “Liberalitas of Augustus,”  that is, the generosity of the emperor.

This seems to be a quite common coin reverse during the rule of a number emperors both before and after the Severan clan.  The emperor Constantine takes his display of imperial LIBERALITAS up a notch on the triumphal arch that bears his name…

This panel, on the NW corner of the arch, shows Constantine bestowing his generosity on his subjects…well actually, it shows Marcus Aurelius doing this – the Arch of Constantine is a really quirky example of imperial thrift as Constantine pillaged and retooled the monuments of his predecessors to quickly and cheaply construct his own massive celebration of self.  The panels depict scenes of the seated emperor passing out coins to his assembled subjects…Liberalitas Augustorum…

In this very cursory glance at imperial LIBERALITAS, it becomes pretty evident that such generosity might well be expected to have provided political returns for the munificent emperor.  In general, it does seem that the Roman ideal of LIBERALITAS usually did come with some strings attached…quid pro quo you know…

I think that it’s safe to say that as it relates to Richard Armitage, LIBERALITAS is more like quid pro no quo…shall we say, LibeRAlitas?  You know where I’m going now right?  Doodledom of course!

Brief recap:

Richard Armitage is asked and agrees to provide a doodle for the NF Network Celebrity Doodle auction, and then pledges to match the winning bid…


Bids on said doodle are vigorous from the start…

doodle snip

and finish at an impressive amount that elicits a generous response from the artist

finish doodle

LibeRAlitas indeed…and not just from the man himself but also from so many people in this fandom whose generosity is inspiring.  It’s one of my very favorite things about Richard Armitage…that he seems to possess a great spirit of generosity, and that it attracts a collection of people who are incredibly generous themselves.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  If you look back through the annals of the fandom, you’ll find a wide variety of fundraising efforts spearheaded and supported by Armitage fans from all over the world.  As I type there is fantastic auction (Here, Here and Here) and a special distribution of Amazon sales (Here) to raise funds for relief efforts in Nepal.  Generous giving at work.  I am proud to be among you!

LibeRAlitas for all!!   

9 comments on “Virtutes Romanae: Richard Armitage and LIBERALITAS

  1. Servetus says:

    “Liberal” is one of those words in English, too — it means something completely different now than it meant in the 1840s when people started using it to mean something political / philosophical / ethical. (Something my students had problems with, too.)

    I very much admire liberal Armitage. Giving without counting the cost has always impressed the heck out of me (maybe because I pretty much always have to count, and there are so many things I would like to give).

    • obscura says:

      I would love to be able to just write a huge check to the charity of choice. It’s definitely great to know that there are people who can and do give joyfully.

  2. Lovely post! I just love the historical insights that you share with us! And Bravo again to Mr. A for his doodle donanza!

  3. Guylty says:

    Now, finally getting round to commenting here. First of all – despite having learnt Latin in school, I did not realize that the concept of “generosity” is called liberalitas. (Aside: wondering about the etymology of the English word. Looks romance to me, i.e. Latin in origin…) Nice to know the Romans had this concept. (I tend to have my doubts about them – usurpers and copycats that they were.)
    But yeah, where there is liberalitas, there is also expectation of “retalialitas”. Yeah, I totally made that word up. What I mean is a sense of expectation of acknowledgment. Nothing in life is free, not even generosity 😉 Although I am not implying that Mr A has been so generous in order to make us love him more. But it is done for effect, not least for the charity in question, though. (Speaking from experience here…)
    Thanks for linking to the auctions!

    • obscura says:

      I’m pretty sure that the modern “liberal” is a direct cognate…I’ll check though. They would both connect back to the Latin “liber” which has to do with the quality of freedmen. I
      read the etymology just yesterday and the details have already escaped me.. Swiss cheese brain!

      I think there can definitely be a boomerang effect to charity which is heightened for celebrities…the lending of their name to a cause raises giving which in turn reflects positively back onto them for sure.

      Nothing so esoteric for the practical Romans…more like “I give you this gift now with the firm expectation that you will do something for me in the future.” It’s connected to their system of patronage. I always invoke the scene from The Godfather of Don Corleone behind his desk handing out favors on the day of his daughter’s wedding as a analogy…I may have to show the clip since students who’ve seen it are becoming more rare every day!

  4. Hariclea says:

    love the etymology, always fascinated by origins of words and how their meaning has evolved in time. Didn’t know liberalitas meant generosity in its time.. and interesting to think that it was an attribute cherished by the Romans, would not have necessarily associated them with the concept 😉 But i can see how political generosity worked for them ;-))))
    As to the current activities of fandom, most inspiring! and has always been this way with liberalitas These are great side effects 🙂

    That Elagabalus behaved like a total teenager , which he was, scary to have an empire in such young hands…

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