It's not every day that I'm faced with the chance to step back in time.
I've long been fascinated with ancient Rome. A child of the ’80s, I was the little girl glued to the television every Saturday morning, eagerly awaiting the next episode of the time travel series par excellence, Voyagers! In episode six, a personal favorite, Phineas Bogg traveled to ancient Rome to meet Cleopatra on the Ides of March, only to accidentally teleport her to 1927 New York, where she falls onto the arm of Lucky Luciano. Twelve-year-old me dreamed of being able to don a long, elegant toga, an owl perched upon my shoulder a la Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom, and wander the Forum.
In the ‘90s, I lived in Rome as a study abroad student, and today I’m an Italian language instructor based in Chicago; I return every other summer to brush up on my Italian and my dolce vita skills. So when I was invited to celebrate the summer solstice at a temple dedicated to Apollo with Association Pietas, a group of modern-day Romans dedicated to reviving the ancient religion of the Eternal City, I said yes in a heartbeat.
What does one wear to a Festa di Solstizio? And what does one bring as an offering?
When I asked my Roman friends, they were perplexed that their fellow citizens were still practicing paganism. Most had never heard of Association Pietas.
"Figs!" my friend Danilo suggested, reminding me of the Ficus Ruminalis, the legendary, wild fig tree that once stood at the foot of the Palatine Hill, marking the exact spot where Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythological founders, landed on the banks of the Tiber. "The ancient Romans loved figs!"
The Sunday prior to the solstice, I headed to the Porta Portese market in search of figs. Rome's weekly flea market, which starts at an ancient city gate located at the end of Via Portuense, about a block from the banks of the Tiber, and extends a mile or so into the Trastevere neighborhood, typically has figs in the summertime, and everything else under the sun: motorcycle helmets, parakeets, brooms, ladders, porchetta sandwiches, toasted peanuts, and more. On this visit, though, no figs were to be found among the bustling stalls. I did, however, find a long white cotton sundress. Ancient Roman priestesses wore white cotton, linen or wool pleated dresses known as stola at temple ceremonies as symbols of purity.
The following Tuesday morning, the summer solstice, I woke up late, leaving myself no time to purchase figs from the grocery store before catching my ride to Ardea, a quiet, seaside town about an hour south of Rome's historic center and the location of Pietas’ modern-day temple dedicated to the ancient god, Apollo.
"Ardea? A Temple of Apollo? Sei sicura? Are you sure?" my taxi driver asked, eyebrows raised.
"No, really, I'm paying my respects to Apollo today," I smiled confidently, though even I wondered if there really was a temple dedicated to Apollo lying beyond the tall gate of the enclosed estate.
The founding of Pietas
In the days leading up to the summer solstice, ancient Romans celebrated Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, home and family. An unborn calf, removed from its mother's womb, was customarily sacrificed. Women especially poured into the sacred Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, carrying small tokens for their immortal goddess, who was so powerful she could grant fertility.
Vesta’s popular appeal remained active even after the advent of Christianity, until it was forcibly stamped out by the devout Christian emperor Theodosius I in 391 C.E. He ordered the cessation of pagan festivals like the solstice celebration and the closing of pagan temples; by the following century, most pagan temples were destroyed or converted to Christian churches.
Before my taxi ride, I had only corresponded with the Association Pietas’ founder by email. The group honors Apollo—the god of light, healing, poetry, truth and the sun, among other things—on the longest day of the year, June 21, in the Northern Hemisphere. The gate opened to reveal their place of worship, a traditional temple built by members of the group in an expansive, landscaped courtyard of a large villa. Boasting ornate, gold-capped columns on the exterior, four steps lead up to the temple’s simple interior, where a white alabaster statue of Apollo stands at the center, surrounded by candles.
Adopted from the ancient Greek religion, Apollo was responsible for driving the sun across the sky in his golden chariot of fire. With his flaxen curls that shone under the sunlight, he was celebrated for his youth, beauty and strength. What better god to pay tribute to on the day when the tilt of the Earth's semi-axis is most inclined toward the sun?
Formed by ancient Roman culture enthusiasts and experts, Pietas is a diverse group: among those I chatted with were an art critic, an electrician, an economist and a translator. Young, old, city dwellers and country mice from towns across the peninsula, the members were united by their welcoming, inclusive warmth and desire to recover the “sane” values of the ancient Romans.
An archaeologist by trade, Giuseppe Barbera, the group’s founder and spiritual leader, summarized the group's focus on individual freedom and the belief that everyone has the power and gods and goddesses-given right to seek internal peace through ancient spiritual practices, with a quote from 3rd century B.C.E. statesman Appius Claudius Caecus: "Faber est suae quisque fortunae. Each man is the maker of his own fortune."
Inspired by his father, Gianfranco Barbera, a professor of art restoration and conservation at the University of Crotone, who both researched and embraced the ancient traditions of alchemy, astrology and theosophy and spearheaded a community of like-minded scholars in the 1960s, Giuseppe Barbera founded the Associazione Tradizionale Pietas in 2005. It’s his intent to continue his father's work, celebrating the best of ancient Roman ideals, with particular focus on Pietas, and sharing the joy of ancient traditions.
Pietas, which means “duty,” “religious behavior” or “devotion” in Latin, was named after the chief virtue of the hero Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid. "Fairness, loyalty, to stand by our word, to observe the sacred as the love for the family… we seek to focus on enlightenment, on self-discovery," explained Barbera. "Pietas stands for our commitment and devotion towards our parents, children, spouse and friends. It's our common duty, to work towards justice and peace for all.”
The religious practice of Pietas
Pietas has no official membership requirements. Simply fill out a form available on the group’s official website. Upon joining, new members are sent a manual for Roman religious practice today, which includes prayers and practices that you can carry out in the intimacy of your home.
"I always felt a connection, a pull, to the gods and goddesses of ancient times," said member Federica Savia, a young mother who traveled from her Sicilian hometown of Catania to celebrate the solstice at the Temple of Apollo in Ardea with her fellow Pietas friends. "Pietas finds you."
Indeed, of the members that I chatted with, every single one had come across Pietas via chance, most by word of mouth. The group welcomes anyone who wants to learn more about the ancient traditions but does not evangelize or seek out members. I, too, came to learn about this group by chance, after coming across a news article about a similar movement in Greece.
Based in Rome, Association Pietas has over 300 affiliates with 1,600 total members, a number growing by the day, in cities throughout Italy, including Bologna, Genoa, Milan, Palermo and Venice, and beyond. Italy, a country where over 90 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, declared Pietas a valid national religious community in 2020.
"What connects us all is the force of nature. The ancient gods and goddesses work for the benessere—the well-being—of humanity," said Barbera. "Unlike Christianity, wherein we are all born sinners, we instead embrace the idea that we are all born free, perfect images of the gods. The gods live inside of us, connecting us to the cosmos. We believe in total liberty, in the freedom every person deserves, to cultivate their own spirituality. Our job on Earth is to align ourselves to the harmony of the universe."
With a shrug of her shoulders, Savia said, "I never accepted Catholicism.” She added, “The ancient gods give me the power to overcome the struggles of life while also magnifying the joys of life."
Pietas affiliate groups have built temples across Italy, too, including one dedicated to the goddess Minerva in Pordenone, a city in the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, and another temple of Apollo, located in Palermo. A temple dedicated to Ceres is currently being built in Enna, Sicily.
Pietas encourages its members to develop a personal spiritual practice at their own pace and in their own homes. “Our center of worship is independent practice,” said Barbera. “Our community gathers as a family on occasion, for support and solidarity. But just as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, solo, in its own cocoon, we need to first figure out, independently, how to sync ourselves with the cosmos, in order to transform our spiritual core.”
Instead of religious tomes, Pietas members use the legendary myths outlined in ancient texts to guide their spiritual self-study, including Homer’s Illiad and the Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as works by Seneca, Cicero, Plato, Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius. “For us, the myths are sacred, so long as you know how to read them as they are meant to be read, that is, at a deeper level,” Barbera said. “These ancient texts reveal how to set off on a spiritual quest. Plato reminds us that the myths, in and of themselves, are only fables. Still, if we read them esoterically, digging deeper into their true meaning, we can discover all of the secrets of the cosmos—divine, human and cosmic—inside of our own selves.”
In addition to the annual summer solstice celebration, members gather to celebrate Dies Natalis Urbis (April 21), the anniversary of the founding of Rome; Saturnalia, a week-long festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn that coincides with the winter solstice; and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti festival honoring Sol Invictus, the official sun god of the later Roman Empire.
Pietas’ celebrations are typically led by the eldest of the gathered members. The group congregates around a ritual fire, with every member offering a small tribute—flowers, perfume, bread, wine—to the god being honored. “Each tribute is chosen according to its qualities and relevance,” explained Barbera. “For example, the Goddess Flora is offered flowers; Venus, flowers and sandalwood and myrtle incense; Jupiter, wine; Apollo, incense and laurel. The offerings are accompanied by prayers and ancient hymns.” A banquet typically follows the temple rites. “Spending time together and cultivating relationships is considered, in our tradition, the best way to honor the gods, who enjoy human communities living in peace and harmony.”
Celebrating the summer solstice
The summer solstice festivities began with a ritual washing: some members who came prepared with bathing suits jumped into the bright blue, saltwater swimming pool adjacent to the Temple of Apollo; others, like me, simply rinsed their hands. After the dip, everyone donned white togas. Some wore laced leather sandals. The women wore white shawls. It was easy to believe that I truly had opened a portal into ancient Rome.
As Pontifex Maximus of the Association Pietas, Barbera ritually blessed every member with a few taps on our arms with olive branches tied with fragrant herb bouquets of sage, wild basil and rosemary. "Summer solstice brings the peak of the power of light. May the sunlight recharge you and fire up your inner strength and joy," he said.
The group of 15 or so Pietas members and three others who, like me, were drawn to the traditions of the ancient Romans, gathered before the temple, some carrying tributes that they placed at the feet of the statue of Apollo, as Barbera sang praises to the sunshine in Latin. Savia placed a statue of Jupiter that she brought before Apollo.
Ancient Greek and Roman mythologies honored Apollo and his son Asclepius as gods in charge of healing. But whereas Asclepius healed diseases of the body, Apollo was in charge of curing the world from disease. To pray to Apollo is to pray that one's own spirit, but also that of the world, be cleansed of troubles and hardships disrupting the perfect order of the cosmos.
A small fire was lit on a pedestal. At Barbera's side, his wife, Noemi, balanced their rambunctious toddler son so adeptly she could easily have been mistaken for Cybele, the mother goddess of Rome. Their 11-year-old daughter joyfully participated in the short yet empowering ceremony.
Afterward, we all sat down for a lovely potluck in the courtyard and indulged in pasta salads and fresh, cool watermelon under the shade of a pergola.
I asked Pietas member Matteo Casagrande, a 20-something electrician and massage therapist from Polcenigo, how I might be able to bring the wisdom of the gods and goddesses into my life back home in Chicago.
"Start by cultivating a relationship with the Lares, the household gods that inevitably live in your home," he advised. "Every home has domestic spirits. They're the sneaky spirits behind losing your reading glasses." He suggested I set up my own household mini-shrine, a lararia, where I could pray and make tiny offerings of food and drink to the playful yet protective Lares.
I hitched a ride from sleepy Ardea back to the splendid chaos of Rome with Savia and another member. Along the way, we chatted about Minerva, my favorite goddess, and the ancient Romans' belief in the immortality of the soul. "Maybe, once upon a time, I was running around in ancient Rome," I quipped. "Maybe I can chalk my love of Italy up to the fact that I lived here several past lives ago."
Savia smiled. "I believe we're drawn to the people and places we've known in the past and the people we need to know in the now," she said.