Roman Charity

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Roman Charity, by Bernardino Mei

Roman Charity (Latin: Caritas romana; Italian: Carità Romana) is the exemplary story of a woman, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation.[1]


The story is recorded in Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium (Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans)[2] by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of pietas (i.e., filial piety) and Roman honour. A painting in the Temple of Pietas depicted the scene.[3] Among Romans, the theme had mythological echoes in Juno's breastfeeding of the adult Hercules, an Etruscan myth.[4]

Mammelokker, Belfry of Ghent

The story of Cimon is predated, however, by an almost identical story recorded by Roman historian Valerius Maximus, later retold by Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), of a jailed plebeian woman who was nursed by her daughter.[5] Historians note that Renaissance and Baroque depictions have more incestuous overtones.[5]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European artists depicted the scene.[6] Peter Paul Rubens is known to have painted several versions. Baroque artist Caravaggio also featured the scene in his work from 1606, The Seven Works of Mercy. Neoclassical depictions tended to be more subdued.[7] The original legend does not mention Pero's child. This element was introduced in the 17th century in order to prevent an interpretation that there was something incestuous about the deed – although the existence of a child is implicit in any case, since the woman is lactating. At the same time, the inclusion of the infant added a new level of meaning to the story as the three figures would represent the three generations and could therefore also be interpreted as an allegory of the three ages of man.[8] A small annex to the Belfry of Ghent dating from 1741, including a sculpture of Roman Charity poised high above the front doorway. It is referred to as 'mammelokker', which translates from Dutch as 'breast sucker'.[9]

In the 20th century, a fictional account of Roman Charity was presented in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).[10] At the end of the novel, Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon) nurses a sick and starving man in the corner of a barn. The 1969 painting Partisan Ballad by Mai Dantsig also echoes Roman Charity.[11]

The 1973 surrealist film O Lucky Man! also contains a scene of Roman Charity when the protagonist is starving and a vicar's wife nurses him rather than let him plunder the food gathered for an offering.

Artists' depictions[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures,", last visited 29 March 2006
  2. ^ Book V, 5.4.7
  3. ^ Mary Beagon, The Elder Pliny on the Human Animal: Natural History Book 7 (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 314 online.
  4. ^ Nancy Thomson de Grummond, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006), pp. 83–84.
  5. ^ a b Yalom, Marilyn (April 10, 2013). "Roman Charity". New York Times Book Review. Archived from the original on March 18, 2018. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  6. ^ J. Paul Getty Museum. Cimon and Pero: "Roman Charity." Jean-Baptiste Greuze., last visited 23 September 2008
  7. ^ Shearer West, "Guide To Art." Bloomsbury, 1996, accessed 29 March 2006
  8. ^ Jerôme Duquesnoy (attributed to Artus Quellinus the Elder), Caritas Romana at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp
  9. ^ The Belfort of Gent
  10. ^ Steinbeck, John. The Grapes Of Wrath. New York: Viking Press, 1939.
  11. ^ "Partisan ballade 1969". Art Russe. Retrieved 10 Dec 2015.

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