PLUTARCH: Numa Pompilius

PLUTARCH: Numa Pompilius 5/11/2013

  • Numa was the second king of Rome. He succeeded Romulus, the founder of Rome. Romulus was making a public sacrifice to the gods when the clouds darkened and a storm settled on the city. The multitude fled in fear. Romulus’ body was never seen again. The people suspected that the patricians, exasperated by Romulus’ imperious deportment, assassinated him. To deflect this suspicion, the patricians decreed divine honors to Romulus, as one who had not died but had been translated to a higher condition.
  • In the year-long interregnum which followed, members of the Senate alternatively acted as king for five days. This process would preclude all rivalry amongst the senators and envy from the people when they beheld a senator elevated to a king and then leveled within the space of a day to the condition of a private citizen.
  • The citizens inveighed that the senators were changing the form of government into an oligarchy and intended to keep the supreme power among themselves. Therefore, the Sabines and Romans agreed to choose a king. Either the Romans would choose a king from the Sabines, or the Sabines would choose a king from the Romans. Because the Sabine king Tatius, who ruled as joint king with Romulus over Rome, died, and the Sabines lived under Romulus for a long period of time, it was agreed that Rome should now be ruled by a Sabine. Accordingly, the Romans elected Numa Pompilius as the next king of Rome.
  • Both parties expressed enthusiastic approval of the choice. Numa was a virtuous man, who lived an ascetic life engrossed in the study of philosophy. He believed bravery consisted of subjugating the passions by reason. He banished all luxury and softness from his house. He did not devote himself to lucre, but to the worship of the immortal gods, and the rational contemplation of their divine nature and power. He was the son-in-law of the Sabine king Tatius. When his wife died, Numa moved to the country where he was often visited by the nymph Egera, who counseled Numa about the proper laws and institutions to establish in Rome. Egera is now synonymous with a female counselor.
  • However, when messengers arrived to notify Numa that the patricians elected him to be the next king of Rome, Numa declined the offer. He said that a man would be mad to change his life if he was satisfied with everything in his life. He conceived that the Romans, who were bellicose,   would ridicule him if he tried to inculcate the worship of the gods, and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence and war.
  • The messengers persuade him that his wisdom and virtue can better serve the immortal gods if he were king. Numa yielded to these persuasions, and proceeded to Rome. However, he refused to be invested as king until the Oracle was consulted about whether he should reign as king. The Oracle confirmed that the gods ordained that he should be king.
  • First, Numa dismissed the band of 300 men employed by Romulus as a personal guard.
  • Next, he added a Flamine, or priest, in honor of Romulus.
  • He sought to bring the hard and iron Roman temper to gentleness and equity.
  • He subdued and humbled their minds with tales of religious terror; i.e. that strange apparitions had been seen, and dreadful voices heard.
  • He sacrificed often and used processions and religious dances to mollify the warlike Roman spirits
  • Numa forbade the Romans to represent the gods in painting, sculpture, or image. He maintained that access to god was impossible except through the pure act of intellect. The gods transcend sense and passion, are invisible an incorrupt, and are only apprehended by abstract intelligence.
  • Numa established the Pontifices, which were the high priests of Rome. The word is derived from a word meaning bridge-makers, suggesting that the high priests made bridges from the physical world to the spiritual world.
  • Numa consecrated and ordained the first two vestal virgins of Rome. The virgins took a vow of celibacy for thirty years. The first ten years were spent in learning duties, the next ten in performing those duties, and the final ten in teaching the duties. Virgins who break their vow, are buried alive.
  • Numa was also the founder of the Feciales. The Feciales were guardians of the peace who resolved disputes through conference and speech. No citizen, soldier, or king could take up arms without the consent of the Feciales.
  • Numa established the Salii too. A terrible pestilence ravaged Rome, rendering the citizens distressed and despondent. Numa claims that a divine shield fell from heaven that would cure the pestilence and protect Rome from further plagues. To prevent the shield from being stolen, Numa ordered that 11 copies of the shield be constructed, and commanded the Salii to guard these shields.
  • Numa manipulated Zeus to disclose how to charm thunder and lightning by using onions, hair, and pilchards (herring).
  • Numa distributed land amongst the indigent citizens and encouraged a life of husbandry. He was aware of the dishonesty and crime which stems from extreme want. He also believed that husbandry, above all other employments, promoted a desire for peace and destroyed the liberty that breaks out in injustice and rapacity.
  • He also established many guilds, foreseeing that by breaking the two factions (Sabines and Romans) into many different groups according to a particular trade or employment would mollify the tremendous animosity between Romans and Sabines.
  • He added January and February to the calendar. March was originally the first month because it honored the god of war and Romulus gave it preference over all other gods. Numa placed Jan and Feb before March to lessen the war god’s importance.
  • January is derived from Janus, who was a great lover of civil and social unity. Janus refined men from brutal and savage living, and thus he is represented with two faces, symbolizing the two conditions from and into which he brought men. The temples of Janus have two gates, which are named the gates of war because they stan open in the times of war, and shut in times of peace. During the reign of Numa the gates were never open. The contrary was true after the reign of Numa, the gates were rarely ever seen shut.
  • February is derived from februa, which means purification, usually from washing with water.
  • March is dedicated in the name of the war god Mars.
  • April is named after the goddess of love Aphrodite.
  • May is named after Maia, the mother of the god Mercury.
  • June is named after Juno.
  • July is named after Julius Caesar
  • August is named after Augustus Caesar
  • September was originally the seventh month.
  • October was originally the eight month
  • November was originally the ninth month
  • December was originally the tenth month.
  • Numa died of old age by a gradual and gentle decline.
  • He was buried with his books, desiring that the Roman should learn his laws by heart. If the laws were reduced to writing, then they would be subject to neglect.

He was endued with a soul rarely tempered by nature, and disposed to virtue, which he had yet more subdued by discipline, a severe life, and the study of philosophy; means which had not only succeeded in expelling the baser passions, but also the violent and rapacious temper which barbarians are apt to think highly of; true bravery, in his judgment, was regarded as consisting in the subjugation of our passions by reason.

I should but be, methinks, a laughing-stock, while I should go about to inculcate the worship of the gods, and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence and war, to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king.

He filled their imaginations with religious terrors, professing that strange apparitions had been seen, and dreadful voices heard; thus subduing and humbling their minds by a sense of supernatural fears.

The portion of lands which the Romans possessed at the beginning was very narrow, until Romulus enlarged them by war; all whose acquisitions Numa now divided amongst the indigent commonalty, wishing to do away with that extreme want which is a compulsion to dishonesty, and, by turning the people to husbandry, to bring them, as well as their lands, into better order. For there is no employment that gives so keen and quick a relish for peace as husbandry and a country life, which leave in men all that kind of courage that makes them ready to fight in defense of their own, while it destroys the license that breaks out into acts of injustice and rapacity.

In Plutarch’s account of the life of Numa Pompilious, the reader observes another path which can lead to a virtuous life, and the means which leaders employ to persuade their citizens to follow that path. Numa was a peaceful man who dedicated his life to worshipping the immortal gods. He was reluctant to accept the role of King, but was finally persuaded that he could better serve the gods in a position of power than from his solitary country life of husbandry.

Numa utilized frequent public sacrifices to the gods and religious dances and ceremonies to mollify the bellicose spirit which possessed many Romans at the time of his reign, and exhort them to remember the gods. He also relied upon fear of the supernatural to persuade the citizens to behave virtuously, proclaiming that strange apparitions had been seen and dreadful voices heard. These tactics are reminiscent of the tactics employed by Lycugus to convince and guide his people to virtue. Although Numa used religious ceremonies while Lycurgus used rigorous discipline, both methods used to persuade the people to behave virtuously appeal to something other than pure reason. Numa appeals to supernatural fear, while Lycurgus removes any choice his people have of behaving contrary to convention.

Nevertheless, both leaders achieve their goal. Specifically, Rome enjoyed an unbroken period of peace during Numa’s reign. The gates of war (i.e. the temple of Janus’ gates) remained shut throughout his rule. Therefore one must consider whether the ends justify the means. I do not believe they do. If people behave virtuously because they fear punishment from the gods, then they are not acting according to their own will, but acting as a beast who merely seeks to attain pleasure and avoid pain. The rational component of Aristotle’s definition of the blessed life is critical. One can act virtuously, but if the action in which a person engages is not performed after exercising the rational element of one’s soul, then I argue that the act falls short of satisfying the requirements set by the definition.

Numa’s opinion that the gods are only accessible to pure intellect is fascinating and stimulating. Numa forbade the citizens from creating images of the gods, asserting that the true nature of the gods can only be apprehended by abstract intelligence. As I read through the great books, I anticipate reading much more about the nature of god/s, whether god/s exists, whether we can perceive god/s in the physical world through intellect, etc. At this moment, I agree with Numa that if the god/s exist, then we can only perceive and access it/them through pure reason.

The discussion of the origin of the months was interesting too. Here, I will recount the origins of each month to test my remembrance, and hopefully impress the knowledge further into my mind. January is dedicated to Janus, a demi-god or king who reclaimed people from brutal and savage living, transforming them into a condition of virtue. February is derived from februa, which means purification from washing with water. March is dedicated to the war god Mars. April is dedicated to Aphrodite. May is dedicated to Maia, the mother of Mercury. June is dedicated to Juno. July, originally Quintillus, is dedicated to Julius Caesar. August, originally Sextillus, is dedicated to Augustus Caesar. September was originally the seventh month. October was originally the eight month. November was originally the ninth month. December was originally the tenth month.

Plutarch’s Lives (Modern Library Classics)

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