“The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Numa Pompilius” by Plutarch (Notes)
1 – Not much about Numa’s family is well known. However, starting at Numa and going forward, the genealogy is fairly well known. It appears that the records on him were destroyed by attacks from Gaul and much of what cropped up afterwards seems to be forged. Numa probably couldn’t have been a friend of Pythagoras because their timelines don’t seem to link up. Numa was of Sabine descent, which were likely colonists from Lacedaemon.
2 – Rome had been built and Romulus had been ruling it for 37 – on July 5th (Capratine Nones) – Romulus was making a sacrifice at the Goat’s Marsh outside the city in front of the senate and public. Suddenly it began to rain and the wind was high. Romulus disappeared and was never seen again. The patricians were suspected of killing him because they were tired of living under a king. He had long treated them like shit before this. A man saw him ascending to heaven in armor and heard him order to be called “Quirinus”. His replacement was needed but the patricians couldn’t agree who would follow and from which tribe. The Sabines wanted one of their own to be king since they so readily submitted to Romulus. The 151 senators ordered each faction to wear the royal insignia and make a sacrifice, each for a half a day. This was called the interregnum.
3 – While the senators could rule constitutionally and peacefully this way, there was a suspicion that the rule was now an oligarchy. Both factions agreed that there should be a king. The Sabines proposed that the Romans nominate a Sabine and the Sabines would vote on him. The Romans chose Numa because he was an outsider but still exhibited virtues that everyone appreciated. Numa belonged to the Sabine city, Cures. He was born on April 21, the same day that Rome was founded. He was disciplined, had endured hardships and was wise. He was not one prone to violence and focused on wisdom and reason. He shunned luxury and extravagance. He was a very good judge and advisor, as well as one to appreciate leisure and avoid money-making and in service to the gods. Tatius, the royal colleague of Romulus, gave him his only daughter in marriage.
4 – He was determined to stay in the countryside and contemplate nature and the gods. People said that the goddess Egeria loved him and gave much to him, more peace and wisdom than a normal human. This story was in the same vein of the Phrygians, Buthynians and Arcadians. There was some confusion as to whether he was a god posing as a human or a human blessed by the gods. Debate about whether a human and a god could be one and the same or if something else was going on.
5 – Numa was already 40, when he was called to be king. People thought he would readily accept such a great honor but he was resistant. He was afraid of changes and feared that becoming king would attract a lot of jealousy and hatred. He felt his love of solitude and country life and hatred for war would make him a bad king. Numa said that the king has to have the strength of a warrior and the people wanted to expand the territory through war and this was not for him.
6 – The Romans and the Sabines begged him because they were afraid that they would fall into a civil war if he definitely refused. His father asked him to accept the gift of the gods. The office was made for a man who so obviously was blessed by and in tune to the gods – to refuse would be a disservice to the gods. Who else would lead them down the right path?
7 – Numa finally agreed and went to Rome. The people met him on his way and were delighted that he was going to be ruler. Apparently it was a big to do because the interrex, the augurs and any old person who had the time was involved with this coronation. A lot of praying to the gods and nature was involved hoping for a good reign. This was pleasing to all involved because this man was representing an opportunity for peace between warring factions. He got rid of the big entourage that Romulus kept around him. He then added a priest devoted to Romulus (Flamen Quirinalis).
8 – Numa’s first task as a ruler was to make Rome a calmer place. The place was full of hotheads and always had been. The whole city was founded as a result fight between Romulus and Remus. A lot of religious and spiritual ceremony was involved in not only beseeching the gods to help but it also helped the people mingle and feel a sense of unity. Vague threats of the gods stepping in if the people continued to fight helped end all the strife. This is in keeping of his adherence to the Pythagorean philosophy of putting a lot of religious ceremony in civil politics. One muse got pretty high praise – Tacita, muse of silence, in keeping with the Pythagorean style. Idols and images of gods being people or animals were forbidden – you could only access the gods through your mind. Sacrifices were not enormous but enough to be something.
9 – He created a position of a high priest called the Pontifex (Pontifices in plural). The name’s origin is in dispute – either meaning “potens” as “powerful” or “possible”, or “pons” as in “bridge” leading to “bridge builder”. Bridges might have been considered holy or at least revered at the time.
The head Pontifex, Pontifex Maximus, divined and explained divine will and directed sacrifices so that they wouldn’t be changed and therefore piss off the gods. He created an order of Vestal virgins who watched over a perpetual fire so that it would not go out or be made of impure materials. Only chaste and pure people were seen as fit for such a job. A widow would watch over the virgins so that they did not stray from their chastity. They used a series of metallic mirrors to harness the sunlight to light the fire that “came from the gods”.
10 – The vestal virgins were to be devoted to their position for 30 years. The first 10 years were devoted to learning the duties. The second 10 years for performing their duties. And the last 10 years were for teaching duties to the new girls. After 30 years, they were free to marry and do as they liked. Few of them actually did and those who did weren’t happy in their lives. They had a large number of privileges. They had many of the privileges that a woman whose father was dead did not have. They were followed by fasces (a symbol of power) in public. If a condemned criminal were to run into them on his way to execution, he would be pardoned – as long as the virgin vowed that the meeting was accidental. Anyone who passed under their litter was put to death. They were also put to death by burning near the Colline Gate for breaking their vow of chastity.
11 – He also had the Temple of Vesta built where the fire was kept. It was the Pythagorean symbol of fire as one of the four elements. The first represents the universe and the earth around the circle of fire revolves around the eternal flame.
12 – The Pontifices organize and direct burial rites which are seen as an honor to the gods below. Mourning periods were regulated by Numa. A child aged less than 3 year, no mourning. A child over that was to be mourned as many months as it was old in years up to 10. 10 years was the maximum. Widows remained in widowhood for 10 months. If they wanted to marry after this, they had to sacrifice a pregnant cow.
Two other priesthoods came about under Numa. Fetiales were priests devoted to Jupiter, in charge of keeping the peace through oral conference. Romans had a different attitude toward peace from the Greeks. Greeks called it peace once the argument had been settled through conference, not violence. For Romans, however, if one person felt like he had not been treated justly, they appealed to the “offending” party peacefully. If the bad treatment continued, the offended party would call out to the gods to make things right, even asking that the asshole’s family and country be “taken care of” until things resulted in war. If the gods said no, then nobody could continue the spat because the gods had given their answer on the matter. If war was just, then the war could be carried out. If not, it was extremely bad news for the one starting the war. Priest made sure nobody was doing anything wrong because it could affect the whole city. Many bad things befell those who had either started a war unjustly or had broken a truce, so people naturally attributed this fate to the gods.
13 – The priesthood of Salii was established to follow reason. In Numa’s 8th year, a disease was running rampant in the city. Suddenly a bronze shield fell from the sky. In order to save the city, he had to make 11 others just like it, so it would be hard for a thief to steal the real one. The spot where it fell was supposed to have been in a meadow that would be gathered by the Vestal virgins who would take it and sprinkle the temple with it. It was said to have stopped the pestilence immediately. All the weapons makers refused to do it, except Veturius Mamurius (some name, huh?). The copies were so good that Numa couldn’t tell which one was the real one. The name Salii comes from the word “leaping” which was a part of their dance where they danced through the streets wearing armor and their shields. The shields were called “ancilia”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancile) based on their shape of an elbow (not really, but that’s P’s explanation). This dance was a war-dance.
14 – He then built a royal house called the “Regia”. There he spent time doing priestly things or meditating. When a public or holy holiday, heralds would be sent out to announce the procession and everyone had to stop working. According to the Pythagoreans, worship and prayer were not to be done half-assed and so work had to stop completely for it. His rules’ meanings were often kept cryptic, so their meaning today seems unclear. All prayers and rituals had to be separated by periods of rest and calm.
15 – These religious orders allowed Numa to control what the people did in the city. The stories and religious foundations were accepted readily. He made people believe that a goddess was entering the room when he invited them to dinner. Before the Aventine Hill was inhabited, it was covered in springs and dells. Two demigods would roam around in this area high as a kite on god knows what they were using to trip on. Numa apparently caught these two guys (not hard to do if they are severely drugged up) by mixing wine and honey into their drinking water. Once caught, they started shape-shifting into something dreadful. Once they realized that they weren’t going to be able to escape, they told Numa a bit about the future as well as some charms to perform. Some say that it wasn’t the two guys who taught him the charms but that they called Jupiter down from heaven. They asked him to tell Numa how to charm by playing word games with Jupiter. Either way, many people believe these stories at the time and caused the public to obey him and his enemies to fear him.
16 – There were also temples built to Faith and Terminus. Faith is what Romans swore an oath to. Terminus is the god of boundaries, who was a guardian of peace and just dealing. There used to be only bloodless sacrifices in the early days but not anymore. Numa felt boundaries importance because if they are ignored, bad things will happen. He wanted to alleviate poverty because poverty leads men to do bad things instead of being productive citizens. He wanted the people to become farmers because he felt that farming leads to a peaceful life, instead of a warrior’s life which leads to a constant warlike lifestyle, bellicose, rapacious and unjust. The city was divided up into “pagi” or areas that were local divisions which had their own police and overseers. He took a personal interest in seeing that these were well run.
17 – He divided people into groups according to their trades. Before he was king, the city was divided into two tribes, now they were re-distributed and placed into groups according to their work. This allowed them to forget their old tribal feuds and could now focus on their crafts. Social gatherings were usually work-play related within the groups. Any mention of groups of Sabines and Romans were all forbidden. His laws also freed a man from his father’s control once he had been married.
18 – Numa changed the Roman calendar from a being fairly erratic in their size and following the orbit of the earth and the phases of the moon. He made a year 360 days long, even though it had been 364 days. He instituted the idea of a leap year to tack on the extra days periodically to balance out the annual calendar. March was moved from the 1st month to the third. January was now first instead of eleventh. February moved from second from twelfth. Some say that there originally weren’t January and February, only 10 months and that he added January and February. In the end, it is sure that Numa made the calendar more regular and predictable.
19 – The idea that there were only 10 months is backed up by the word “December” – “10th month. It was thought that they were named “1st month”, “2nd month”, etc. They moved January and February to the front, upsetting the order of the months – making 10th into 12th. March was named after Mars. April was named after Aphrodite. May was named after Maia. June after Juno. It wasn’t until later that Quintilis (5th month being moved to the 7th month but still keeping the name) was named after Julius Caesar as July, as well as “Sextilis” being changed to August after Augustus Caesar. February had something to do with purification due to the Lupercalia, a festival of purification, as well as a festival to make offerings to the dead. January was named after Janus, the two-faced god of doors who symbolized the opening and closing of the year.
20 – There is a temple to Janus in Rome with double doors, known as the gates of war. The doors are open when there is a war and they are closed where there is peace. They were almost always open because the state was almost always at war due to all the fights with the neighboring barbarians. In Numa’s time, it was never seen to be open because they were always at peace. The Roman citizens, as well as the neighboring cities’ people, were mellowed out by Numa’s approach, quickly forgetting that they were almost always at war with someone or other. The city grew and prospered due to the lack of fighting and people began to have a sense of unity. There was no record of fighting, or political unrest during his reign. Nobody made any attempt on his throne. He was genuinely popular in his time both at home and abroad.
21 – Accounts of his marriages and children are variable. Some say that he only had one wife, Tatia and one daughter, Pompilia. Some say he had four sons, Pompon, Pinus, Calpus and Mamercus. These names became famous families in Roman society. The stories vary so much that it’s almost impossible to tell what is true and what is false.
22 – His funeral was a big affair. Rome and its allies assembled in the city to mourn his death. All the people who attended the funeral wept as if they had lost someone very close to him. According to his wishes, they did not burn his body but put him in 2 stone coffins and buried them under the Janiculum Hill. One coffin held his body and the other coffin held his writings from his own hand. The priests of the city had written and re-written these laws many times so that the laws would not be lost. According to Pythagorean tradition the laws were not openly available because they were meant to be integrated into a person’s character, not just nominally followed. It’s said that there were 12 pontifical books and 12 Greek Philosophy books placed in the coffin. Later, when there were floods and the tomb was opened, the body’s coffin was said to be empty but the writings’ coffin was still full. The writings were taken to be burned because their publication abroad was forbidden. The bad reputation that the kings who followed him got only served to make him look great. The next 6 kings were either murdered or sent into exile.
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