Numa Pompilius: Agent of the gods

At its height the Roman Empire was vast. It reached from northern England to the Sahara desert; from the straits of Gibraltar to Mesopotamia. We have inherited a great deal from the Romans including language, religion, science, and the remains of their gargantuan architecture. However, modern interest in Roman history is focussed primarily on the feats and events of Imperial Rome and the Republic which proceeded it. Little attention, other than the founding legend of Romulus and Remus, is given to Rome’s pre-republican monarchy. This period was vital to the creation of the Roman psyche and ultimately many of the things that have passed down to us today.

The focus of this article is the second King of Rome Numa Pompilius (753-673BC). Numa was not actually a Roman, but a Sabine. The legend of Romulus states that, after killing his brother and founding the city that bears his name, Romulus realised that his city was populated almost exclusively by men. Acting on this realisation, Romulus abducted women from the nearby Sabine people. This act caused the Sabines to declare war on Rome. During the course of the war the Romans were nearly defeated but managed to push the Sabines back. Peace was negotiated by the Sabine women who the Romans had abducted. The peace rested on a union between the Sabines and the Romans, both kings would rule jointly and the Sabine nobles would join the Roman patricians in a common senate. In time they would both merge into a single people.

Romulus’ reign ended in strange circumstances. The story goes that, following a religious sacrifice, Romulus was caught up in a divine wind and disappeared. Many people have theorised that Romulus was, in fact, murdered by the Roman nobles for being a tyrant. The theory states that the nobles concocted this story of Romulus’ divine ascension as a way of justifying the king’s sudden disappearance. Whatever the truth, after Romulus’ death Rome was ruled by the Senate in an interregnum that lasted a year. Following much deadlock, the Senate elected a member of the Sabine patricians to succeed Romulus as king, Numa Pompilius. Plutarch states that Numa rejected the Roman crown and waited until the people of Rome begged him to become king. In this way he was able to garner unanimous support for his reign among both the Senate and the People, Roman and Sabine.

Numa was to become a king associated with peace. Plutarch writes that Numa wished to curb the warlike nature of the Romans and he did this by fostering religious tradition. Numa’s first act as king was to disband the Celeres, the 500 or so warriors that Romulus had made his personal bodyguard. Numa’s second act was to build a temple associated with Janus, god of transitions and beginnings. Symbolically the doors to Janus’ temple were to only be closed when Rome was at peace on all fronts. During Numa’s reign the doors to the temple were consistently closed, a feat not rivalled until the Emperor Augustus hundreds of years later. With this emphasis of peace in mind, Numa created a new month dedicated to Janus to be the first month of the year, January. Previously March, named after Mars the war-god, had been the first month of the year followed by April, May, June, Quintili, Sextili (renamed July and August by Caesar and Augustus) September, October, November, December. The Roman calendar was originally designed to have just 10 months and any student of Latin in modern times might find the naming of the months somewhat confusing as the name September, for example, implies that it is the 7th month of the year, not the 9th.

In addition to January, Numa also created February from the term februum meaning ‘purification’. This was also meant to be a religious month, a tradition that has, more or less, carried through the centuries in the form of the Christian festival of Lent.

According to Plutarch, Numa was a wise ruler and gained his wisdom through advice he received from the nymph Egeria, who would appear at night and give him instruction on how to institute correct religious practices. This legend would seem like the legend of the biblical King Solomon receiving his wisdom from God in a dream.  Apparently Numa was able to use Egeria’s wisdom to beat Jupiter in a game of wits which culminated in the thunder-god saving Rome from a plague by sending Numa a shield from heaven to defend the people. Numa apparently placed the shield in the Temple of Jupiter and had 11 exact copies made so that it would never be stolen.

Among other religious reforms Numa also created the institution of the Vestal Virgins and their eternal flame which was to become synonymous with Rome’s survival. This particular institution would last until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, more than 1000 years after Numa Pompilius’ death. Numa also created the office of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion and a title that lives on today in the official titles of the Pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Numa Pompilius, in wishing to turn the Romans from their warlike nature, sought to turn Rome into a sacred city. In a sense his ideas worked too well, Rome to this day remains a sacred city, and it was the religious institutions that Numa established that gave the Romans their confidence to expand their rule across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Plutarch states that Numa died of natural causes and was succeeded by Tullus Hostilius as king. Tullus, as his surname would suggest, was a warlike monarch and under his reign the doors to the Temple of Janus were consistently left open.

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