Note: Stefano Ciotti contributed to this story.
ROME – This week, The Wild Hunt had the great pleasure of meeting with Pietas – Comunità Gentile, the Italian Religio Romana organization. TWH spoke with adherents, priests, and the organization’s leader and pontifex maximus, Giuseppe Barbera Hermes Helios, in Rome at the organization’s Temple of Jupiter, the first such structure built in the area since Late Antiquity. Pietas is a reconstruction of ancient priestly and religious rites of Religio Romana, and recently received formal recognition by the Italian State.
Pietas is based in Rome and has affiliates in cities throughout Italy, including Bologna, Genoa, Milan, and Palermo. Its new status allows it to function as an umbrella religious entity and charity for its Greco-Roman religious affiliates. Temples are built in places where Pietas has a thriving community. They have been expanding their presence over the last decade, adding a temple to Minerva in Pordenone, a temple to Apollo in Ardea, and another temple to Apollo in Palermo. The Ardea temple is better described as a temple complex with significant room for expansion.
Hermes Helios greeted us and invited us to participate in one of the organization’s rituals to Jupiter. (Helios uses the name “Hermes Helios” in religious contexts, while “Giuseppe Barbera” is his secular name.) He and his colleagues gave us a tour of the temple space, noting its additional votive alcoves to Mars, Juno, Venus, and Apollo, as well as the Lares. He pointed out plants set throughout the temple and their associations with various gods, and he patiently walked us through the modest grounds. We were also privileged to participate in the elevation of one Pietas member to the priesthood.
He added that the Greco-Roman tradition was a tapestry, a mosaic of political, religious, and cultural traditions from across the Mediterranean. He noted the contributions of Egypt and what is now modern Spain to that tapestry, which brought an influx of new ideas and even different approaches to divinity and worship.
Helios is not shy about the fact that Pietas has relied on Hermeticism and other more modern occult philosophies. He describes the practice as a reconstruction rather than a complete revival of the original, as many practices of the past have been lost. But Helios does distinguish between ancient practices and modern reconstructions, noting that spiritual development is firmly the objective and the reconstitution and revitalization of ancient practices can be brought into modernity. He and others suggested reading Marcus Aurelius to begin a spiritual journey.
“Humans are immersed in nature and share a direct contact with nature,” said Helios, describing Pietas’s teachings. “That is, nature is not some matter lacking life, as other traditions might suggest, but a rather vibrant living thing.” He further said that Pietas has learned through conversations with other traditional religions, including those of West Africa, how these religious views “insist upon respect for nature, respect for other humans, and respect for fellow religious seekers.”
Helios said he sees a deep interfaith connection across many ancient traditions and an opportunity to learn from each other. “In our tradition,” he said, “we see a singular event that led to many as the origin of the universe, and though many came chaos and order.” He added that we continue to see cycles of chaos and order in our modern lives.
Duality is a core and continuous concept in the Religio Romana tradition that helps the Pietas community understand the world. “When we are sick, we recognize the value of health more deeply,” Helios noted. He looked to the Roman and Hellenistic stories of the gods and heroes as tales that help us better understand our place in the world and how to act within it.
In many ways, modern people are simply rediscovering traditional cultural knowledge that has been handed down across the millennia. Helios says that sometimes that includes ideas that we think are modern, like divorce, which we know existed in ancient times. Pietas, he says, provides an opportunity to “jump deep into the past to better understand the present.”
Helios explained that Pietas is built on the concept of mos maiorum, Latin for “ancestral customs” or “way of the ancestors.” The term mos refers to a set of practices, while maiorum is the superlative adjective. The mos maiorum was the dynamic code of Roman tradition, referring to the honored behaviors of Roman life.
That said, Helios explains that the practice of Pietas is very personal. “The individual strives to develop and strengthen their genio [sense of self and purpose] with ritual work, and living ethically, defined as seeking truth, honesty and fairness.” The organization’s motto is nosce te ipsum – “know thyself” – which is inscribed throughout the temple grounds. “Knowledge of self is what focuses our practice and leads to personal and spiritual development,” says Helios. This knowledge attunes the soul to its relationship with nature and her phases, including the relationship between ourselves, the sun, and the moon.
As for the Pietas term itself, Helios was quite passionate in saying that it was akin to a spiritual ecstasy that arises from the dutiful devotion and veneration of the gods, traditions, and ancestors. Cicero described pietas as “justice towards the gods,” and it was the cardinal virtue of heroes like Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus.
Challenges with Catholic Church
As we were discussing interfaith activity, we asked about the relationship between Pietas – Comunità Gentile and the obviously dominant Christian presence in Italy, particularly the Catholic Church. Helios noted that challenges were indeed present.
“As you can imagine, when new traditions emerge and receive praise and attention, older traditions take notice,” he said.
Helios and other community members noted various minor acts against Pietas, including an attempt to brand the Temple of Jupiter as an illegal structure bring in in code enforcement. “For its part,” said Helios, “the Italian state and the city of Rome have left us alone, recognizing these complaints for what they are, discrimination.”
Some practices have not been allowed, however. “Animal offerings are illegal in Italy,” said Helios. “Even if you explain that the offered animal will be consumed by the community, the act is illegal and rejected,” he said. “They would rather the animal be slaughtered first and then purchased after butchering. It’s a curious arrangement, as most traditional religions hold the animal as sacred, and care is taken to minimize suffering, as opposed to what we see happens in industrial farms.”
The Catholic Church is firmly behind this view that animal offerings are and should be illegal because they want a singular representation of their moral code. “We must not forget that they wanted Paganism abolished and worked toward that destruction,” Helios said. “This insistancy on what is illegal continues that objective.”
What’s next for Pietas
Pietas – Comunità Gentile is expanding. There is evidence that it is the fastest-growing religious community in Italy. As such, it is expanding its presence and creating alliances with other traditional practices, particularly those in Greece. It is continuing to build local communities and temples as needed to support local priests and adherents.
The group has released an expanded version of the book Pietas, An Introduction to Roman Traditionalism, written by the pontifex maximus, Giuseppe Barbera. The revised edition of the book is available in Italian and has been translated into English by the linguist Ilenia Contessa, the rector of the temple of Apollo in Palermo. Ilenia Contessa is also responsible for the group Pietas International.
The new book is available through publisher Mythology Corner and can be purchased through various retailers, including independent booksellers.
When asked what’s next for Pietas, Helios and the others at the Temple of Jupiter responded unanimously: “to continue the journey.”