Another quote from Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (I’m glad I’ve already inspired at least one Hatter to start reading it!) that usefully elucidates the meaning of a Latin word and concept; at this point in chapter 2 he’s talking about how for the first half (roughly) of the fourth century, Christians, though tolerated and in some ways supported, were expected to be poor and show it, and he quotes Ammianus Marcellinus on the subject. Ammianus is reproving the excessive ambition and splendor involved in the election of the bishop Damasus as pope in 366, and says Damasus and his rival should have “followed the example of some provincial bishops, whose extreme frugality in food and drink, unpretentious attire and downcast eyes commend them to the eternal Deity and His true worshippers as pure persons who know their place … ut puros et verecundos.” Brown then elucidates the last word of that quote:
It is worthwhile to pay attention to this passage. We do not often see the Christian clergy described from the outside by a non-Christian. Ammianus chose his words carefully. For a Roman, verecundus was a charged word. It summed up the quintessentially Roman virtue of knowing one’s place. Verecundia was a virtue of the subelites. Experts such as schoolteachers, grammarians, and doctors were expected to show verecundia in the presence of their social superiors. For all the indispensable skills they communicated to their patrons, they remained “social paupers” compared with the real leaders of society. They were not to be “pushy.” In Ammianus’s opinion, Christian bishops should be no different. Verecundia, and no virtue of a more thrusting kind, was what suited the clergy best. Clergymen had their niche in Roman society; they should stay there.
Verecundia (the second e is long) is a pretty common word, the source of (among others) French vergogne, Italian vergogna, and Spanish vergüenza, and dictionaries translate it with words like bashfulness, modesty, and reverence. Which is fine — those are accurate translations for various contextual uses of the word — but I love Brown’s “virtue of knowing one’s place,” which illuminates how it functioned in Roman society. (I have to say that I cannot admire that virtue, and I would not want to be an ancient Roman.)