Numa Pompilius
(753 BC - 673 BC, r. 715 BC - 673 BC)

Most of us are aware of the fact that the city of Rome was supposedly founded by the semi-legendary figure Romulus. People who have this level of familiarity with the subject are probably also aware of Romulus' twin brother Remus, with whom he was suckled as a baby by a she-wolf and that he eventually killed his brother before becoming the first King of Rome. Romulus is supposed to have created the Roman Senate as well as the first units of the Roman legion in addition to engineering the abduction of foreign women to serve as wives to the overwhelmingly male population of the new city. The ancient writer Plutarch relates that Romulus was eventually murdered by leading Senators due to his arbitrary and tyrannical behavior. After a year-long search, the ascetic country gentleman Numa Pompilius was finally elected to take his place and become the second king of Rome.

Of course, it's debatable as to how much of this is real and how much is mythical, but I'm going to suppose there's at least some nugget of truth in it all, especially since most other writers attempted to euphemize the circumstances of Romulus' death by saying that he spontaneously ascended into heaven and became the minor god Quirinus. Regardless of the exact details, Numa's appearance on the scene is seemingly out of nowhere. The most that we know of his early life is that he was the son of a certain Pomponius and that he was allegedly born in 753 BC -- not coincidentally the same year that Rome was founded. It can be inferred that Numa was most likely not a Roman by birth since his surname Pompilius is obviously patronymic, which is contrary to the Roman naming convention of praenomen-nomen-cognomen with the nomen being the family name; his first name "Numa" is otherwise unattested outside of his immediate family and close relations. Livy places him in the Sabine town of Cures before his elevation to the kingship, so a non-Roman origin makes sense for him.

How and why Numa became king is itself a mysterious subject. After the death of Romulus, the men of the Senate took turns ruling Rome for five-day periods for the period of a year before it was decided that Numa was the most fit successor. Numa humbly refused the honor at first, but was persuaded when it was presented to him as a religious duty to bring peace to the region. It's kind of strange that neither Livy nor Plutarch offers any kind of discussion or background as to what exactly qualified Numa to be a king. Livy indicates that Numa was married to Tatia, the daughter of the Sabine king Titus Tatius. The connection to Rome is that the women Romulus and his cohorts abducted were of course Sabines, which provoked a short war between the two peoples before a treaty joined them together in an alliance. Tatius disappears from the historical record five years after this event, supposedly killed in a battle at Lavinium, conveniently ending the concept of the Sabine kingship as an office distinct from the Roman monarchy. Since Romulus designated no heirs, it seems possible to me that Numa -- as Tatius' retroactive heir by virtue of his marriage to his daughter -- might have used either intense politicking or simple force to press his claim. The notion that he was just surreptitiously chosen as king out of the blue does not hold much water, although this is the narrative that we are asked to accept by the ancient sources.

Either way, Numa set about organizing Rome into a proper society. He was regarded as an intellectual with a keen eye for planning. A pious man, Numa did much to shape early Roman religion. He is believed to have either instituted or standardized the worship of Janus (the god of transitions), Terminus (the god of boundaries), and Faunus (cf. Pan). The gates of Numa's temple of Janus were used to indicate whether Rome was at peace or war, with closed gates meaning the former and open the latter. Numa's reign is said to be the longest uninterrupted instance of the gates of Janus being closed. Terminus was designed to be a guarantor of contracts and the law, whereas previously agreements were made, broken, and enforced solely through violence; with this, Numa is supposed to have introduced the concept of reciprocal obligation rather than punishment in economic interactions. As part of his reforms, Numa created most of the various orders of what would become the Roman state religion, including the Vestal Virgins as well as the office of Pontifex Maximus, which survives to this very day, although in a slightly different conception.

In addition to his spiritual innovations, Numa also took to ordering Roman society on more earthly levels. He determined that one year was comprised of 365 days and he changed the Roman calendar of 360 days to reflect this; he also started the tradition of January being the first month of the year. He created the first occupational guilds in Rome, which would eventually evolve into the powerful and well-organized collegia of the Republican and Imperial periods. Believing that an agricultural way of life promoted peace, he distributed unoccupied or otherwise unused land to paupers. Considering the Janus' gates supposedly never opened during his reign, this could be interpreted as a pretty decent success. Numa died peacefully when he was 80 years old, an exceptionally advanced age for that era. He was interred in a humble tomb with only a handful of religious books. He may have had as many as five sons, but none of them would succeed him to the kingship; this honor was given to Tullus Hostilius, a descendant of one of Romulus' friends. His grandson through his daughter Pompilia, however, would grow up to be the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius.

Reading about all of Numa's supposed accomplishments is enough to make one's head spin; it's kind of amazing that one guy could do so much to solidify a single society. Of course, Numa is regarded by most modern historians as at least semi-mythological, although I don't think it's completely implausible that he could have very well done many of the things ascribed to him during his 40+ years in power. The fact of the matter is that the ancient Romans needed a Numa figure to explain the development of their civilization since Romulus frankly didn't do a great job with it. Indeed, everything about Numa positions him as the anti-Romulus. Whereas Romulus became king as a young and hot-headed 18 year old, Numa was already approaching middle age when he accepted the crown; his maturity would conform nicely with the Roman concept of gravitas. Unlike Romulus, Numa was a man of peace who believed that religious devotion and social harmony did more to advance a culture than constant warfare and conquest. The wild Romulus who was the inevitable result of being raised by a wolf could only be countered by a civilized and studied man like Numa. Numa's traditional birthday is the same day as the foundation of Rome, a sly indication that the ancients believed the country was born with him.

Whether or not Numa Pompilius was real -- or to what extent he was real, I should say -- was irrelevant to the ancient Romans. They believed in him and in his neat structuring of their society; giving Numa credit for the establishment of a particular institution was an easy way to mark it as sacred and ineffable. While Romulus was a creator, he was not a sustainer, and what the Romans needed more than anything was sustenance. The likely continuity of a political institution is dependent largely on its origins, so Numa became the prototypical philosopher king before the concept was even created to lend credence to his accomplishments. The ancient Romans did not look upon the monarchical era positively -- even during the monarchy of the Imperial period -- but Numa Pompilius always earned their awe and respect.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.