In the tale of Verginia, an assault upon a woman’s chastity exemplifies the threat of a corrupt government to Rome’s traditional sense of honor and hard-won freedom. The central Roman virtue of pietas, and by extension the regard for law and order, respect for a father’s rights, the insistence on honor and liberty even at the cost of death, and the suppression of personal desires in order to promote the public good, are all in evidence of the actions of the story’s noble characters. Conversely, Livy displays Appius Claudius as the epitome of immorality: he is lust-driven, power-mad, and lacks pietas.
Jennifer Hutchinson, "Livy, Virgil, and the Traditional Values of Rome"
From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition... Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.
Martin Heidegger, Der Spiegel Interview, 1966Today "pious" is most frequently used as an insult: to be pious is to be a repressed bluestocking who equates fun with sin. "Pieties" are sanctimonious finger-wagging condemnations of someone else's lifestyle, or meaningless pablum offered in response to difficult questions. At best piety is a matter of personal belief, of spending the appropriate amount of time in prayer, meditation and Godly contemplation. It's a virtue connected entirely to the spiritual world, one which has little relevance in our daily lives on this material plane.
Yet to the Romans pietas, the root of our "piety" and "pity," was foremost among the social virtues. Among the multiple definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, "faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to one's relatives, superiors, etc.; affectionate loyalty and respect, esp. to parents; faithfulness, dutifulness" comes closest to pietas. Over the centuries this usage has drifted out of fashion. By the 19th century, English translators of Confucius could only convey this meaning by the term "filial piety"-- a phrase which would have been as redundant to the Romans as "brotherly brotherhood."
Pietas called for a right relationship with one's family and with one's community. In fulfilling those responsibilities, one would be in right relationship with the Gods. Because the Gods were the keepers of the traditions which made your community a community. Honoring the ancestors and your fellows, "taking pity" on those in need and offering them the help due to a brother, fulfilling your responsibilities -- all those things were ways in which you ensured those traditions would continue.
Pietas was a religious virtue, yes. But it was a religious virtue which called adherents to action, not contemplation. In the ancient world praxis was more important than belief. It didn't matter whether or not you believed in the Gods. Indeed, the idea the Gods needed our individual attention was somewhere between blasphemous and simply laughable. What mattered was that you behaved respectfully toward Them. Those who defiled Their temples and profaned Their rites attacked the axle around which your identity revolved.
Wars, migrations and trade brought Gods to new lands. Sometimes They became part of the local pantheon; sometimes They subsumed it entirely; sometimes They drew the boundaries within which a minority community could form. But throughout that world it was implicitly understood that the desecration of sacred space was a serious violation. Guests were expected to treat your Gods respectfully in your land and you in theirs.
Above all, those entrusted with the service of your Gods were expected to observe the holy laws and rituals. Priests who betrayed this trust put the community at tremendous risk. The ancients believed their blasphemies might be punished with war, famine, or other spectacular sorts of divine retribution. But they also realized the greatest danger of impietas -- the community's decay and ultimate destruction.
We are animals who learn by mimicry: we take on the mannerisms and attitudes of those around us. Not only are we what we eat, we are who we break bread with. And if we entrust our Gods and our traditions to those who take them lightly, in time we will come to take them lightly as well. They will become a trivial thing, nothing that will sustain us in times of trial or provide us models by which we can give our lives meaning. We will forget Them and They will forget us. And in that process we will forget ourselves.