Numa Pompilius - the King who Seduced a Goddess and Introduced Virgin Priestesses
In the Roman myths, Numa Pompilius was the city’s second king. He is credited by laying grounds of pretty much every religious institution in the city and keeping Rome without a war for 43 years. Oh, by the way… he also may have dated a goddess.
Cassius Dio and Plutarch claim Numa was born on the exact day when Rome was founded (that would mean he celebrated his birthday on 21st of April). He was born in a cave but lived in the Sabine city of Cures, the same place as Rome’s initial enemy and later king Titus Tatius. Even though he didn’t live in Rome, he had strong family ties to that city. He married Tatia, a daughter of Titus Tatius.
He was 40, living in the countryside around Cures, minding his own business when he was approached by a delegation from Rome. The ambassadors shortly explained a difficult political situation in Rome and broke the big news to him – he was just elected as the new king of Rome!
Was it a dream that came true? An opportunity to gain fortune and fame? A challenge just waiting to be accepted? Well… not so much. Numa politely refused. He was quite happy as he was, didn’t aspire to gain glory as the greatest king ever and honestly didn’t even think that he, with his rather peaceful personality, was up to it. Only after much persuasion from his family he eventually agreed.
The people of Rome were impressed by his wise and humble behaviour and were quite happy with the new king. Especially after being fed up by the temporary rulers rotating every 5 days. After the augur also confirmed that the gods approve, Numa officially became the new king. He was forty at the time.
Numa soon realized a potential conflict among several groups of citizens. There was still a huge group of largely Sabine new citizens who had moved to the city with Titus Tatius after the peace treaty that ended the Roman-Sabine war. After Tatius’s death, they felt they were deprived of the equal rights promised by the treaty. Moreover, a group of plebeian newcomers also joined the ranks of Roman citizens but did not receive any land from Romulus and continued to live in poverty. This group was also growing in numbers and causing unrest and potential larger troubles for the government.
Numa faced the situation in a very wise and diplomatic fashion. For the poor, he found a small portion of land held previously publicly or by Romulus personally and distributed it. The solution to the Sabine situation required a slightly more complex approach. The king had to keep in mind not only how to make the Sabines happy, but also how to not offend the “original Romans” in any way that could be dangerous. Numa decided to keep the honours and rights of the original citizens untouched but created new honours for the Sabines to elevate their status. With this, he managed to settle the conflict.
In order to prevent further unnecessary friction between citizens, he also announced a new law that compelled people to mark the boundaries of their land. This small step would help to avid many disputes between neighbours. Each citizen was asked to place stones on the boundaries and the stones became dedicated to Jupiter Terminalis. To emphasize the importance of this practice, Numa created a new festival for the celebration of this deity.
Moreover, he introduced a new grouping of citizens. To overcome the rivalry between old and new Romans, he divided Romans to many smaller groups base on their occupation (arts or trades). He even forbade any speaking of Roman and Sabine citizens or subjects of Romulus or subjects of Tacitus and encouraged only speaking about the Roman nation as a whole. As a result, everyone was reasonably happy and any danger of revolution or civil war ceased to exist.
Numa and religious institutions
Numa Pompilius is known as the king who allegedly established most of the religious structure of Roman society. He built temples, appointed priests and even claimed to have a divine mistress. If you mention any religious institution of the Roman Republic, there is a good chance its origins were attributed to Numa.
It was Numa who built the Temple of Janus on the Forum Romanum. The doors of this double-doored structure were to be left open in the time of war but closed when Rome was at peace. Numa subsequently managed to keep the door closed until his death – the longest period of peace in the ancient Roman history by far.
He defied his predecessor Romulus, from then on known under the name Quirinus, and built him a temple. This must have been very helpful for confirming the official story about Romulus' death and silencing the advocates of conspiracy theories blaming the Roman Senate for regicide. Among other erected temples were those of Vesta, Jupiter Terminus, or Fides (Faith). Numa is also credited with the beginning of the Saturnalia tradition when during these festivities for Saturn the slaves were allowed to act as equals with their masters. He established a new calendar with 12 months of 30 days (with leap months added to align the calendar with astronomical year every 20 years).
He is credited with establishing most of the priesthoods that survived centuries:
- Flamines - the high priests of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus
- Vestal virgins – taking care of the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta.
- The Salii – dancing/jumping priests of Mars
- Fetiales – the “Arbiters of peace”. The priests responsible for preventing violations of treaties or unjustly waged wars. They acted as envoys to the cities that offended the Romans in some way and demanded satisfaction.
- Pontiffs (led by Pontifex Maximus) - the highest priests responsible for most important religious decisions. First to hold the title “Pontifex Maximus” was allegedly either the king himself or his relative or friend Numa Marcius. It was famously held by Julius Caesar and now it is claimed by the Pope.
In order to grant a smoother acceptance of his new decisions, Numa pretended to have meetings with Egeria. This Egeria was either a Nymph or a Muse, in any case, a divine being. It was from her he allegedly received instructions for establishing new rites. Plutarch even mentions a theory that their relationship exceeded the expected god-mortal level and the two actually loved each other and lived together (after the passing of his wife Tatia of course). His claim of divine inspiration naturally created a certain level of doubt among the citizens, so Numa planned a stunt to convince them. One day he invited many respected Romans to his house and showed them the rather unimpressive furnishing and a general lack of food. The house was almost empty and barely had any furniture. Numa invited the same large group for dinner on the same day and by then the house was ready for a huge party – full of decorations and plenty of luxurious meals. Such a change in such a short time convinced the Romans that their king must have had some divine help. Even less believable stories were told about his contact with Jupiter, the king of gods himself.
Numa Pompilius reigned for 43 years. Some claimed he left 4 sons and a daughter, others (namely Gnaeus Gelius) only mention a daughter, but this daughter became the mom of a later king Ancus Marcius. Despite his peaceful personality and reign, he was held in high respect by otherwise very aggressive Romans.
Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
Dionysius of Halicarnassus - The Roman Antiquities
Plutarch – Parallel Lives