The Numa Tradition for Today

The Numa Tradition for Today April 27, 2013

Flamines Maiores
Flamines Maiores

Romulus reigned for thirty-seven years after founding the City of Rome. Then, on 5 July 715 B. C. E. while performing a public sacrifice, a thunder storm engulfed Romulus and, with wind and hail, he ascended into the heavens to sit beside his father Mars, and his grandfather Jupiter as a new God in the Roman pantheon, Quirinus. In that same moment, Juno took Romulus’ Sabine wife Hersilia up into the heavens, where she, too, became a goddess.


The second Rex of Rome was Numa Pompilius. What he established and how his memory has intertwined in the Roman tradition as it continually evolved, may be given in a brief historical sketch. Numa was not a Roman, but rather a Sabine from Cures, born into an illustrious family, the youngest of four sons of Pomponius.  Numa was famous for his justice and his piety, according to the Roman historian Livy. The Roman statesman Cicero said that Numa was “pre-eminent in these qualities (virtue and wisdom).” “He was,” said Plutarch, “endowed 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; . . . he banished from his house all luxury and extravagance, (he was) a faultless judge and counselor, he devoted his hours . . . to the service of the Gods and the rational contemplation of Their nature and power.”  For his many virtues, the Romans chose him, a foreigner, over the best of their own citizens. Even then Numa did not at first agree to be Rex. Only after auspices were taken privately and publicly, which showed that the Gods willed Numa to reign, did he agree. He made clear, though, that he was not warlike as Romulus and his colleague Titus Tatius had been, but inclined towards peaceful pursuits, frugality, economy, and mostly to pious service to the Gods. His first act was to divide the land won by Romulus in conquest, giving each citizen a share. He next “showed them that by the cultivation of their farms they could have an abundance of all manner of possessions without resorting to pillage or plunder.  Thus he implanted in them a love for peace and tranquility, which enabled justice and good faith to flourish most secure.”


Vestales Virgines
Vestal Virgins

Numa then set out to found a state religion for Rome.   First, he rearranged the religious calendar, dividing the year into twelve months of similar length, where Romulus’ calendar had only ten months.  He established the greater auspices as well as the public augurs. He established the worship of certain deities at Rome. Most notable was the worship of Vesta, Carmena, Jupiter Elicitor, Mars, and Fides (Good Faith). He established temples, festivals, and rituals for the Gods. Then he established priesthoods, the flamines of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, the Vestal Virgins, and the Salii of Mars, to serve the Gods. When Numa passed (674 BCE) he left Rome with a body of religious laws and much lore. Thus is Numa Pompilius remembered as the Founder of the Religio Romana. In later years, in times of crisis, when the Romans wished to renew their City by returning to the example of their ancestors, it was to the Numa Tradition that they would turn for inspiration.


The first time that the Numa Tradition was re-introduced to Rome was at the beginning of the Roman Republic. In 509 BCE the Romans expelled Tarquinius Superbus after the rape and suicide of the noble lady Lucretia. It seems that during the period of the Tarquinii kings (616-509 BCE) two significant changes were made to the Religio Romana. The political and religious duties of the Rex were divided between the religious Rex Sacrorum and the political Magister populi, or dictator, by Servius Tullius, who stylized his rule after Oriental kings of the Syrian and Phoenician city-states. Tarquinius Superbus made himself king in turn, in an intolerable manner that resulted in not only the expulsion of all Tarquinii from the City, but also prohibited monarchy from ever governing Rome. A new Republic of Rome was established, with executive political power shared by two praetors (later consuls) and the Rex Sacrorum was retained to perform his religious duties. The Rex Sacrorum holds the highest dignity among the sacerdotes of the Religio Romana.  He is a patriarchal figure among other sacerdotes, with the Vestal Virgins more or less representing his daughters, and the Salii representing his sons. There is also a familial relationship in the relative dignity among the major Flamens. Foremost, after the Rex Sacorum, is the flamen Dialis of Jupiter.  Next is the flamen Martialis followed by the flamen Quirinalis. The Flamens do not represent social castes, as was once proposed, but rather represent their respective deites: Jupiter, Father of the Gods and mankind, His son Mars, the Father of Romulus, and then the grandson Quirinus, who is the deified Romulus. In this earliest layer of the Religio Romana as a state religion, there is a reflection of the Roman religious traditions of the family. With the priesthoods that Numa established, we also see in the style of their clothing and in the implements they use a reflection of an archaic period, which again attributes these priesthoods to Numa in a religious sense, in legendary and symbolic sense more so than historically.


The other major change that seems to have begun under the Tarquins was the introduction of blood sacrifices. Legend held that the first blood sacrifice at Rome was that of a sow offered to Ceres, after the Greek manner for Demeter and Persephone. The Tarquins were a family of Greek exiles who had arrived from the Etruscan city of Tarquinia.  Among the early Latins, we know from places like Gabii, where the earliest remains date to around 900 BCE, that they shared funerary meals with their dead.  That is, some of the cremation graves of the Northern Group of tombs at Gabii contain the remains of goat ribs, while one grave of the Southern Group held the femur of a deer, presumably representing the last meal at these funerals. But the sacrifice of an animal’s life to the Gods was not intrinsic to Latin practice, and it was specifically forbidden in the rituals established by Numa. Roman augurs are not to perform immolationes, or blood-sacrifices, as they are called in Latin, lest they should be polluted by the splatter of blood. Blood-sacrifices are prohibited in the worship of Carmena, Vesta, and Fides. They are forbidden on PARILIA, which is the birthday of Numa Pompilius, and from being performed when celebrating any person’s birthday. There is also the story of how Numa convinced Jupiter Elicitor, who at first demanded the sacrifice of a human life, into accepting instead the “head” of a common leek, the body of a fish, and a tuff of hair from the worshipper, in order to ward off the danger of lightning bolts. By the end of the Republic, Roman and Greek authors had identified the tradition of Numa with a total ban on animal sacrifices, although that wasn’t quite true.  When we are told, therefore, that a Postumnian Law was passed shortly after the Republic was established, for the purpose of returning to the Numa Tradition, we may presume that this was a reaction to rites established by the Tarquins. Postumnius was himself the Pontifex Maximus at the time and may have handed down a ruling on a point of religious law that was based on the oral tradition left by Numa.


Vicones Viri
Vicones Viri

The next crisis came a little more than a hundred years later, in 390 BCE, when a Gallic army held most of Rome for several months. Many of those Romans who were lost in that conflict had been sacerdotes and family elders, and with them went the greater part of Rome’s oral tradition. So it was decided by the survivors to record the oral tradition in writing, kept in the pontifical books, and all of the lore and traditions, the rites and formulas then in use were attributed to Numa. Of course there was the great crisis when Hannibal ravaged through the Italian peninsula from 218-201 BCE, when, desperate for help from foreign Gods as well as their own Gods, the Romans resorted to strange rites. This again led to a reaffirmation of the Numa Tradition as a means to restore the Pax Deorum with the Gods of Rome. In the aftermath of the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompeius Magnus, too, Marcus Terrentius Varro wrote his very enlightening study of archaic Roman religious practices, dedicating the work to the Pontifex Maximus, C. Julius Caesar, in which he laid out the Numa Tradition as the most reverent and pious example for the City to follow. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, his successor Caesar Augustus restored the Religio Romana in part after what Varro had recorded, in part by introducing to Rome what originated in other Latin cities, and in part by the inventions of his antiquarians. The excesses of this Augustan Restoration with its sacrifices of masses of animals, consumption of enormous amounts of exotic spices, and displays of wealth, led some of the Roman elite to pose the Numa Tradition as a much needed reform. Returning to the origin of the Religio Romana as a way to renew Rome and to reform the religion for a more modern time arose again in the fourth century CE when Emperor Julian the Blessed attempted to restore public support for the Religio Romana, re-opening temples closed by the Christians, and restoring the rites and festivals of Rome. His efforts were soon cut short, yet his example, alongside that of Numa, have been inspirational in later centuries.


Today, too, the Numa Tradition holds special significance for the cultores deorum Romanorum. It distinguishes them and their sacerdotes from other modern practitioners of the Roman religion. Ours is a religious and an ethical tradition rooted in reverent practice rather than doctrine, focused on family and the earth, in service to the Gods and to our communities. There is the formal side of the tradition in its rituals that are conducted in strict adherence to the laws set by Numa Pompilius 2728 years ago, and there is the ecstatic side, communing with the Gods after the example of Numa Pompilius. Legends about the life of Numa, and of other Roman examples, instruct us on how to live our lives both in public and in private. It teaches us how to live beside the Gods, with the Gods living among us, being advised and moderated by Their presence after the same manner that Numa Pompilius lived his life.  Examining deeper into the Numa Tradition, therefore, as I shall attempt to do, offers the modern cultor Deorum a deeper understanding of the Religio Romana in its purest and simplest form.

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