Mos maiorum: on the crucial importance of social norms

Figs in Winter
6 min readOct 4, 2021
[image: Senatus Populusque Romanus, the people and the senate of Rome, Wikipedia]

One of the first things I noticed after moving to the United States in the now very distant 1990 was just how litigious American society is. It seems that the answer to every problem is “I’ll sue you!” I’ll leave it to social psychologists and political scientists to figure out why this is the case, but I suspect one reason is the decreasing relevance in the United States of what the ancient Romans called the mos maiorum, the way of the ancestors.

Arguably, the collapse of the mos maiorum was partly responsible for two catastrophes affecting ancient Rome: first the end of the Republic and the bloody civil war that led to the beginning of empire, circa 31 BCE, and then the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476. Also arguably, the collapse of the American mos maiorum is accelerating, and is at the root of Donald Trump’s Presidency and the riots of January 6, 2021. Let me explain.

“Way of the ancestors” is a more or less literal translation of mos maiorum, but it doesn’t really capture the scope of the concept. Mos means “way” or “custom” and maiorum means “greater” or “elder,” but the term refers to a complex set of unwritten social norms that regulated Roman society. Some of those norms would be justly repulsive to us moderns, like the notion of a pater familias, head of the household, with literal power of life and death…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.