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The Search for a New King of Rome
After the death of the first king of ancient Rome, Romulus, supposedly in 716 BC, the population of Rome was uneasy about the disappearance of their king. Some said that Romulus had been taken up into heaven and became a god. The more skeptical citizens suspected that his political opponents in the senate had done away with him. Whatever the fate of Romulus, the city was without a leader.
The Sabines pointed out that since Romulus’s co-ruler King Tatius had died, it was time for a king to be chosen from the Sabine members of Rome. The neighboring population of Sabines had become part of Rome a generation earlier during the reign of Romulus. The Romans accepted the Sabines’ request with one condition, that they pick the Sabine to become the next king of Rome. To the Romans the choice was clear—Numa Pompilius, the son-in-law of the old King Tatius.
Numa Pompilius Becomes King
Once the decision was made by the senate, a delegation was sent out from Rome to the village where Numa lived to give him the big news. The first century AD Roman historian Livy gives an account of Numa’s good nature: “In those days, Numa Pompilius was famed for his justice and his sense of obligation to the gods. He lived in the Sabine town of Cures and was most learned—inasmuch as anyone of the time could be—in all law, both divine and human…Therefore, I think that Numa’s mind and moral principle derived from his own native disposition. He was trained not by foreign learning, but by the strict and severe teaching of the Sabines, the most incorrupt of ancient peoples” (Livy, 1.18). Numa was not thrilled with the news; as a man more inclined to the quiet life in his village he initially refused the offer to be king. After much discussion, Numa agreed to accept the role of the second king of Rome.
In his new role, Numa saw his mission was to bring civilization to Rome and unite the peoples from different tribes and origins. While in power, Romulus had made Rome a sanctuary city for runaway slaves and fugitives. As Livy put it, “Romulus resorted to a plan for adding to the population that had long been used by founders of cities, who gather a host of shady, low-born people…Romulus opened a place of asylum in the area that is now enclosed between the two groves as you come down the Capitoline. The entire rabble from the neighboring peoples fled there for refuge” (Livy, 1.8). At the time Numa took over the city, it lacked a cohesive identity; rather, it was a gathering place for the misplaced, with each group retaining their own traditions and cultures.
Numa Receives Divine Help From the Nymph Egeria
According to legend, after the death of his wife, Tatia, Numa took as his lover the nymph Egeria. He had met her at a spring on the south side of the Palatine Hill. Egeria passed on advice given to her by the gods on how to govern the city. On her advice, Numa said he was establishing rites that had the approval of the gods and he appointed priests for each of the gods. One order of priests he created was the Flamen Dialis, special priests (flamens) of the god Jupiter. The Flamen Dialis was a chief priest who was bound by a strict set of rules and rituals. He was not permitted to look on anything dead or bound, which meant that even his clothes could not have knots—a major complication in the time before buttons or zippers. He was required to wear a special hat and was not allowed to leave Rome for a night, nor see an army arrayed for battle. When the last Flamen Dialis died in 87 BC, no one could be found to take up the burdensome office until it was filled during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
The first century BC Roman orator, statesman, and historian Cicero relates that Numa established many religious rites but also had an eye on the financial requirements for the numerous rituals established: “It was Numa’s wish that while religious observances themselves should be minute and complicated, the equipment should be very simple. He devised many rituals which had to be learned by heart and adhered to, but they did not involve any expense. In this way he directed more attention to religious duties but removed the cost” (Cicero, 2.27).
Nymphs were a category of female divinities that usually appeared in the form of young women. In ancient mythology they were said to inhabit rivers, woods, springs, caves, and the sea. They are mentioned in literature as far back as Homer (c. 12th to 8th century BC).
Numa Establishes the Roman State Religion
Being a religious man, Numa established the routines of religious rituals and a variety of religious orders, including a priesthood called the Fetiales, whose function was to curb the needless wars with neighboring cities. The priesthood of the Fetiales consisted of 20 members who advised the senate on issues of war and peace. If they could not resolve issues with other cities through negotiations, these priests had the power to declare war.
Before war was declared, a priest entered the territory of the state against whom the Romans claimed a grievance and made a public declaration of the complaint, calling on the god Jupiter to witness the injustice, at least as perceived by the Romans. If a peaceful outcome could not be arrived at within 33 days, the Roman senate and the people declared war. To make the offending party aware that a state of war existed, the Fetiales would travel to the boundary of the two states, make a declaration, and throw a symbolic spear into enemy territory. By following this ritual, the Romans were convinced that the conflict would be a “just war” with approval of the gods.
The office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, was established by Numa. In addition to overseeing the other priests, the head priest declared and interpreted divine law, presided over important rituals and sacrifices, and was the guardian of the Vestal Virgins. Numa appointed Numa Marcius, son of Marcus, as the first priest to hold this office. The position of Pontifex Maximus remained of great prominence and was often held by the emperor into late antiquity. During the fourth century AD, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, transforming the office of Pontifex Maximus into the Bishop of Rome for the Catholic Church, whom today we call the pope.
The Temple of Janus
Numa established the temple of the god Janus as an indicator of peace or war. When the doors to the temple were open it signified that Rome was in a state of war; when closed, it meant peace. Numa closed the temple after he had won over the hearts and minds of the neighboring peoples with alliances and treaties. During Numa’s 43 years of peaceful reign, the doors of the temple remained closed.
Livy gives a history of the doors of the temple up until the time of his writing of Book 1 of his The History of Rome around 27 to 25 BC. According to Livy, “Twice since the reign of Numa, it has been closed; once during the consulship of Titus Manlius after the First Punic War, and the second time, which the gods granted our generation to see, after the war at Actium, when the commanding general Caesar Augustus achieved peace on land and sea” (Livy, 1.19).
One very important thing that Numa Pompilius is credited with is reorganizing the Roman calendar. He structured the calendar with 12 months so that the religious festivals and the seasons would occur each year at the same time. Previously the calendar had only ten months, with additional months added by the priests as needed. The modern Western calendar is a direct descendant of Numa’s calendar, and every month traces its name back to ancient Rome.
The ancient biographer Plutarch explains the problem with the old calendar: “During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon…” Plutarch goes on to explain how Numa made the calendar more accurate: “Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month” (Plutarch, pages 88-89).
One of the important cults brought to Rome by Numa was the goddess Vestal of the hearth and therefore protector of the family. In her circular shire in the Roman Forum was the official flame of Rome, which was attended by six unmarried priestesses called Vestal Virgins. Their primary role was to keep the flame ever burning in the temple of Vesta. The Vestal Virgins were chosen from the leading families of Rome when they were six to ten years old. It was a great honor for the families and the girls.
The Vestals were one of the few groups of female priests of Roman public religion; nearly all of the other priesthoods were held by men. Also, Vestals were one of the very few cults with full-time groups of religious officials. The women lived next to the temple of Vestal in the Roman Forum.
These young women swore not to have sex for thirty years, which was their term as a priestess. After their time as a Vestal Virgin, they could marry but, according to the ancient historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “And some, though very few, have done this; but they came to ends that were not at all happy or enviable. In consequence, the rest, looking upon their misfortunes as ominous, remain virgins in the temple of the goddess till their death, and then once more another is chosen by the pontiffs to supply the vacancy” (Dionysius, 2.67.2).
The duties of the Vestal Virgins included tending the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta; remaining virgins; fetching water from the sacred spring (city water was not acceptable); preparing ritual food; caring for the temple; and officiating at the festival for the public worship of Vesta. For priestesses who lost their virginity during their term of service, the punishment was a terrible death, according to Dionysius: “…But those who have suffered defilement they deliver up to the most shameful and the most miserable death. For while they are yet alive they are carried upon a bier [frame to carry a corpse] with all the formality of a funeral, their friends and relations attending them with lamentations, and after being brought as far as the Colline Gate, they are placed in an underground cell prepared with the walls, clad in their funeral attire” (Dionysius, 2.67.4). The Vestals who remained pure and served the temple well enjoyed many honors and privileges within the city.
The Death of King Pompilius
According to Roman chronology, Numa died in 673 BC of old age at over 80 years old. Numa ruled for 43 years and is remembered as a peaceful king of Rome who promoted the growth of the city and establishment of religious and civic orders. According to Plutarch, Numa had an elaborate funeral with representatives in attendance from the neighboring states. Plutarch elaborates on the funeral: “The senators carried the bier on which his corpse was laid, and the priests followed and accompanied the solemn procession; while a general crowd, in which women and children took part, followed with such cries and weeping as if they had bewailed the death and loss of some most dear relation taken away in the flower of age, and not an old and worn-out king” (Plutarch, pages 91-92). The king was buried in two stone coffins under the hill Janiculom. Along with his body was enclosed 12 volumes of holy writ and 12 other volumes of Greek philosophy.
Numa is remembered as a king of peace; however, his successor Tullus Hostilius was anything but a seeker of peace and is remembered as a king of war. Cicero relates the succession of kings in ancient Rome: “On the death of King Pompilius the people made Tullus Hostilius king at a meeting of the Assembly of Voting Districts chaired by the interrex. And Tullus, following Pompilius’ example, had his position officially ratified by each district in turn. He was a man with a brilliant military reputation, earned by his great feats of the battlefield” (Cicero, 2.31).
- Cicero and Niall Rudd (translator). Cicero: The Republic and the Laws. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Dionysius and Earnest Cary (translator). The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. London: Aeterna Press, 2015.
- Hornblower, Simon and Anthony Spawforth (editors). The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Livy and Valerie M. Warrior (translator and notes). Livy: The History of Rome Books 1-5. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
- Martin, Thomas. Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
- Matyszak, Philip. Chronicles of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003.
- Plutarch, John Dryden and Arthur H. Clough. Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. New York: The Modern Library, 1937.
- West, Doug. The Seven Kings of Ancient Rome: A Short Introduction. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2022.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Doug West