To Virtus

Hail Goddess Virtus, without which manhood is not possible.
They say that you were discovered along with your sister
by the young Alkides years before he earned the name glory-of-Hera
as he was leaving a dark, overgrown forest where he had been hunting
wild boar with his bow. The trail he’d followed out forked,
and on one path stood your sister Kakía, voluptuous and sallow
and naked as the day your mother birthed her into the world;
and there you were courageous Areté in Skythian garb, made severe
from a lifetime of overcoming hardships, bearing a spear in your
self-disciplined hand. Each of you made your case to the son of Zeus
the Hurler and slim-ankled, Moon-lovely Alkmena the daughter
of Elektryon, and Alkides shoved Kakía to the loam and rushed
to your side, cleaving to you and kissing you vigorously, you who would
accompany him the remainder of his days through all his travels
and trials and triumphs. When he was journeying through Italy
in search of Geryon’s runaway herd he stopped off at a small settlement
on the shores of the Tiber, ringed by seven sacred hills, and Herakles
created for you there a temple and sacrifices and a priesthood,
for he had proven himself worthy of a new name already in that stage
of his heroic career. Many years later that settlement would become
the foremost city in the civilized world, eternal Roma who remained intact
so long as her pious citizens continued to worship you
according to the customs established by Herakles the Archiboukolos.
The end came in the years following the Christianization of the Empire,
when Pompeianus was Prefect and Innocentius the Bishop of the city.
These were dark days for the Empire, full of plague and famine,
internal conflicts both religious and political, and wave after wave
of invasions by Barbarian tribes driven out of the East.
Roma had certainly seen better days when two strangers
from Etruria came to speak with the Prefect Pompeianus
about what had happened in the city of Neveia; the people there
had been delivered of their afflictions through devotion to the Old Gods,
though their worship was under the strictest of bans, with all the temples
throughout the Empire ordered closed. The people of Neveia didn’t care,
and came out together regardless of their personal faith to offer
communal sacrifices to their Ancestral Gods, and in return
lightning and terrible thunder drove the marauding Barbarian army
that had been on the verge of breaching their walled fortifications
out of their territory entirely. Pompeianus did not hesitate to take this news
to the good Bishop Innocentius to see if it was permissible to do the same
in their city, which was currently under siege with many deaths from disease
and starvation; and Innocentius, though a devout Christian, was
a sensible man with respect for the venerable Roman institutions,
and so he consented to lead the community in making sacrifices to the
Capitoline Trio, if it was the will of the Senate and the Roman populace.
Unfortunately the Senate refused to follow Innocentius’ wise and pious
example and instead tried to ransom the city by plundering the temples
and melting down the sacred images of the Gods for gold and silver
to give the Barbarians in the hope that they would then just go away,
including I hate to say, the idols from the temple you shared with Honos,
honorable protector of the Porta Capena. This gambit did not work,
and instead got rid of those whose duty it was to preserve the city
in perpetual felicity; worse, without you, Virtus, all that remained of the
Roman valor and intrepidity was totally extinguished, and the city was
taken by the Barbarian army, utterly sacked and despoiled, its noble citizens
who were too good to take part in the sacred ceremonies of their
fathers and mothers were carried off as slaves, never to see the urns
that contained the bones of their ancestors or the splendid temples
they erected for the sake of piety again, O Virtus who did not abandon us
until the very end, and can be born again among the people of today,
if we would just choose like Herakles and Innocentius the difficult
and rock-strewn path that leads surely to you, glorious Areté,
and not the broad and easy way that takes one to your wicked sister
Kakía, and moral and physical destruction at her hands. So hail,
Goddess of manliness, valor, excellence, courage, character, and worth
and may we always esteem you highly, preserver and savior
of the Roman people and their far-famed city.

6 thoughts on “To Virtus

    1. The story of Herakles at the Crossroads was first recorded by Prodicus of Ceos, though it quickly passed into the philosophical koine and was especially popular with the Stoics of Rome.

      The story about the two strangers from Tuscany bearing news of Neveia and the Roman Bishop who was willing to permit public sacrifices in return for the preservation of the city can be found in Zosimos’ New History.

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      1. One area where I took some poetic liberty was the complete, empire-wide ban on paganism and the closing of the temples. While there had been increasing anti-pagan legislation since Constantine granted Christianity most favored status, it tended to be partial and sporadic just as the earlier anti-Christian persecutions had been – until the reigns of Justinian and Theodosios, which took it to a whole other level. Obviously well after the time of Prefect Pompeianus and Bishop Innocentius. But it’s more dramatic this way, plus there was plenty of restrictive legislation in place before the total ban took effect, so … it’s more stretching the details than an outright fabrication.

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