Roman Charity (Latin Caritas Romana, Italian Carità Romana) is the exemplary story of a woman, Pero, who secretly breastfed her father, Cimon, after he was imprisoned and sentenced to death by starvation. Pero was caught by a jailor while she was feeding Cimon. However, her sincere love towards her father and her selfless action to save him despite the possibility of being arrested, impressed the officials and won her father’s release.
The story of Cimon is predated. However, an almost identical story was recorded by Roman Historian Valerius Maximus in his book, ‘Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans’, as a great act of love and respect for parents and also a Roman honour. Later it was retold by Pliny the Elder (23-79). The scene of the story was also painted in the Temple of Pietas and it has many similarities to the Roman mythological story of Juno’s breastfeeding of the adult Hercules, as per an Etruscan myth. Etruscan mythology, on the other hand, comprises a set of stories, beliefs and religious practices of the Etruscan civilization, originating in the 7th century BC.Later, it was assimilated into the Roman Republic in the 4th century BC and the Etruscan religion and mythology was partially absorbed into the classical Roman culture.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many European artists, like Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Jan Janssens, Jean Baptiste Greuze, Charles Mellin and others depicted the scene in their works.
A fictional account of Roman Charity was also described by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The surrealist film “O Lucky Man” (1973) included 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.