RSS Feed

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had kicked off an interesting discussion.

Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”

I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism.

“Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans entered instead civilization together with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”

At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped up:

“I never thought – he had observed – of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!”
“Let me ask you : where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?”


I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England, Germany, Poland etc.) but here in our country such remnants are more marked.

Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is a connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily proved.

A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. Although Machiavelli, to me, is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements that were already existing.

Did these ‘elements’ develop after the fall of Rome or did they stem from the previous Greco-Roman culture, or both things? Both, in my view.

What we mean by ‘cynicism’

Let’s first see what we mean by cynicism today:

A. Cynicism is “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” (Oxford and Webster dictionaries).

B. Cynical is “the person who, with acts and words, shows scorn and indifference towards the ideals, or conventions, of the society he lives in.” (Dizionario Italiano Treccani).

[I may be wrong, but there’s a difference between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ definition (A) and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are historical, not eternal]

In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear only such because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?

Let us have a look at these alien codes then.

No Conflicts of Conscience

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.


Thus said, I basically agree with what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans.)

“[Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city …

They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart…

[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.

They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”

By intention Rodocanachi meant that just the thought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself [these two articles – 1 and 2 – may help further.]

Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina

Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits (Flickr)

Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?

The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.


Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians definitely belong to the former, to the ‘Greek’ cultural area.

Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not much fear damnation (and almost never speak of hell.)

Even if Italians captained for centuries the switch from the Pagan religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may sound (see note 3.)

Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to a lot of things.

The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend somebody saying that.

The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical, indifferent!” was the comment by many North Europeans that travelled about Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and condemnation.

The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire above Villa d’Este) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops MoR’s peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)


Truth is, our mind is like a museum, which makes us appear cynical, indifferent.

We are inclined to live the joys of life and sometimes do bad deeds without those self-punishment mechanisms that stem from breaking fundamentalist moral codes. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.


In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.



Roman Renaissance fountan1) Quote from C. P. Rodocanachi , Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948.

2) My answers to Maryann and Exposrip have been further processed since their questions have kept bugging my mind (original texts here.)

3) In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony.” So it seems that also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives: Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome. Gramsci wrote this note in a period between 1929 and 1935. He was a Marxist. We are not. His stimulating ideas went though well beyond Marxism and G. is now appreciated by Marxists and non Marxists, by left-wing and right-wing thinkers all the world over.


Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini grotesquely unveils aspects of papal Rome’s pagan nature)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

About manofroma

Nato a Roma il 1-11-1948

24 responses »

  1. In this comment I provide my view of how Italians’ latent paganism showed up again during the Renaissance. It is a draft, and I made my points extreme, to make them unambiguous. I am processing all these ideas (thanks also to readers’ feedback): they should not be considered as demonstrated.

  2. Always interesting dialogue here, MOR! Happy New Year 🙂

  3. @Maryann

    Especially when you are the one to trigger it! I saw your last pic on your blog. You look super!

    Happy New Year!

  4. “The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter’s type of atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing…”

    I would include the French in this!

    That explains the irreverence Italians display that seem so alien to Northern ‘Peans and us North Americans. Great post. It makes perfect sense. Though I wonder if the Italians even have sense of civic duty like the Ancients did?

    Again, to use a soccer example, Italians don’t get all worked up over intangible “what ought to be’s.” They are, ironically, more pragmatic than their English counterparts, no?

    I observe Sir Alex Ferguson and Real Madrid for example and I’m shocked by his outright hypocrisy. It seems like whenever the English do something dubious (say, tampering with players under contract) it’s ok, but whenever those “Latins” do it it’s proof of their lack of ethics and etiquette. On the issue of gentlemanly conduct the French seem to break from the Latin cousins and join the English one. But that seems a myth more than anything to me.

    However, on the other hand I think holding these high abstract standards (for example the American Constitution and other liberal ideas) is necessary to keep us civil and progressing. To maintain the integrity of the game in soccer.

    Where it gets tricky, as you point out, is the superimposing of Christian values over the secular ones. In soccer, it’s mixing amateur ideals with professional attitudes.

    I hope I made some sense. I have Bugs Bunny blaring in the background and had two glasses of wine (from British Columbia) in me!

  5. @Exposrip

    “The Lewinsky scandal … this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere … literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing…” I would include the French in this!

    Yes, you are right, and I’d also add other Latin folks and the Mediterranean people on the whole.

    I wonder if the Italians even have sense of civic duty like the Ancients did?

    No, many of us haven’t, and it is a big obstacle to progress. I admire the British, German and North American attitude in this, just to name a few.

    Very individualistic are many people in Latium and in most of Southern Italy (individualism not in the North American sense, in a worse sense: state doesn’t count much, only family, friends, relations and their favoritisms etc.). Tuscany and Northern Italy are different. The best Greeks and the Romans of the Republic have been exemplary for their civic duty, collective behaviours (“So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city ..,” argues Rodocanachi). The Roman self-effacement was proverbial. Something must have happened later, and it got worse and worse. Very complicated. I wanted to reflect on this and provide some explanation, but these Italian festas have dismantled me with food and wine.

    Yes, you are right. Football and sports are revealing. Sometimes we lack this gentlemanly conduct. The French? They are very similar to Northern Italians, but they have more recent past glories that fill their chest with pride and make them behave more responsibly. And with more style, no doubt. They are the Latin people I admire most at present, even though they are closing up too much, their pride being sometimes encumbering and making them behave in silly ways.

    High abstract ideals beyond the individual are fundamental and move those collective behaviours which we often lack. We are fragmented, and as we said more cynical: for our pagan past, and for some historical disintegration that progressively occurred. I’m too stupid to talk about it now.

    You made perfect sense. Only the next-to-last paragraph I got confused about. Italian festas … terrible.

    • Even the British found the Clinton furore incomprehensible; I was in London while it was all going on and the women especially thought it was bonkers. Working-class British appear quite another case from the landed elite or upper middle classes with their concerns about marriageability and inheritance and public virtue. And then, of course, the British have a political sex scandal about every fine minutes (their phrase used to me) so what is new?

      • I agree Sled, the British are different from many Americans (but Americas, aren’t they so various?). And the class factor counts in the UK (and elsewhere).

        On the whole upper classes in all continents & cultures it is banal to say they are more or less free and a bit depraved sometimes: more spoiled, more money, more temptations: a potent mix.

        It’s the ‘public showing’ that can differ. In Italy for ex we don’t care much about our pubic virtue, no matter the social milieu, and hypocrisy is scarce (our PM even boasts in public his sexual prowess, exactly like the Romans did, and our upper classes are among the worst and often perv. Sardinia (Cortina too?) is THE place where they gather, internationally a bit SodomaGomora-like 🙂

  6. I would have preferred these two images (1 and 2)


    I heard pagans had sex rituals as worship. Makes them pretty good in my book. 😛 [FYI, if somebody asks me what interests me more, it would be the pagan gods of the greeks and norse. Their gods had… umm what would you say.. yeah “flaws” [more fleshed out like a good character if you might say] than the ones who are worshipped today which are more “flawless” if you get my meaning. Nothing beats Thor and his hammer! 😛

    Happy New Year to you and Woman of Roma! 🙂

    • @Ashish

      Ancient sex rituals … listen dude, I cannot change the name of this blog and call it ROMAN SEX. 🙂

      But in my next life I will create a porn blog, I promise! 🙂

      I’m wondering if my influence on you has been good or bad. As soon as I mention Aphrodite you jump here like Flash, the comics hero 🙂

      (of course I’m being unfair: I was the one to call you here : “Aphrodite is back! Aphrodite is back!”)

      Yes, you are right. I don’t know much about Norse mythology, but surely the Greek gods were full of flaws, they were amoral, whimsical. This having a good effect on the Greeks though: they had to count on themselves only, they had to believe in their worth and were somewhat encouraged to create their own destiny.

      And, it is true, at least the Christian God (don’t know about the Indian ones) is utmost perfection in ALL. Some true and decent Christians feel they are sinful worms in comparison.

      (Of course the Greek gods had a lot of sex too, lol. In this at least they were an example ah ah ah)

      Sexual manners of the Ancients were though much more discreet than one might think. Propriety of the woman was very important. This statue of Aphrodite I find very beautiful right because of her dicreet and almost chaste sensuality. It is a Roman copy of a Greek original of the second half of 3rd century BC.

      All the best wishes, really, and a Happy New Year, dear Ashish!!

  7. Happy New Year to you, MoR.

  8. @AutumnSnow

    Happy New Year, dear woman from China!!! May 2009 be refreshing and full of good surprises!!

  9. You remain faithful to the name of your blog … Interesting post, as usually. Happy New Year!

  10. Pingback: Australia Felix · · Constitutional Happiness

  11. Pingback: Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan) « Man of Roma

  12. A very Happy New Year to you and your wife.
    A very interesting post.

  13. @Nomad
    Thank you! And a Happy New Year to you and your husband (and to Reema, whom – I was so surprised – I found out is your sister!).

    I will find time to comment on your post on A.I., one of my favourite films, which moves me emotionally in ways I still have to understand.

  14. Pingback: Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors « Man of Roma

  15. Pingback: Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline? « Man of Roma

  16. Pingback: The Mafia and the Italian Mind « Man of Roma

  17. Pingback: The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3) « Man of Roma

  18. Pingback: The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2) « Man of Roma

  19. Pingback: Even Italian Cynicism has Its Limits « Man of Roma

  20. I have noticed this mentality in many of my Italian friends much to my disappointment.
    although one thing they also possess besides what i consider a high intelligence ( well, manipulation takes intelligence) is on the good side are quite the funny people!.I’m half Greek and having lived in Greece the Greeks def. don’t possess this same sharp wit, they’re humour is very child like and not at all funny or witty to my Canadian sensibilities, and Italians it seems there is no doubt that their cynicism is what gives rise to such great wit !
    Having travelled throughout Italy and much of the world, but I know Greek culture quite well having lived there and spent a good deal of my youth there.
    If i were to generalize, Greeks are a much more morally inclined people than even Canadians as a whole, perhaps one of the reason is their love for friendship which is treasured there more than most cultures i have known.
    In friendship they immediately trust you until you take that trust away and immorality is not tolerated in friendships, such a person would find themselves ostracized from a group.. but also since ancient Greece the philosophers emphasized values and ethics…I don’t know about Roman philosophy as i never read it so i can’t comment on that but I can say Greeks are a very philosophical people today as a result and the conversations always take a philosophical tone and a deep interest in beauty and wisdom still prevails.
    but what i don’t understand is why the Greeks definitely are a very morally inclined people, more so than even Canadians …perhaps the Orthodox religion is taken more seriously there, or at least there is a reverence / respect for it in that it was not corrupted by mafia and Government as Catholicism was in it’s bid for power …Roman Catholicism, ( who at it’s core works like a hierarchy with an emperor or Ceasar at the top, mimicking the city state )

    So it might be that Orthodoxy could serve as a stronger moral force, coupled with a genuine love of friendship which morals must be taken seriously for friendship to last long, as well the echoes of ancient Greek philosophy and inclination towards the “Good” Eudaimonia and such.

    I don’t see this cunning mafiaso mentality in them except with the government there is def. this on a small scale level..but this came from Turkish occupation as Greeks had to look out for themselves and their families welfare so there is a bit of this “doing what you can for the survival of your family”

    In Rome you have Ceasars, God fathers and Roman Catholicism which were all very interlinked in bribery and wheelings and dealings in bid for power so it makes sense that Romans were not very moral…if you’re on Church was corrupt and not supporting ethical moral values, why would the people not follow suit.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: