Sunday, June 28, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Numa Pompilius (Part 1)

"Capital of Justice"- caption reads, "Numa Pompilius, emperor, builder of temples and churches"
photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, 2008

The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans: Numa Pompilius

Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CEPlace: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

The complete text of Plutarch's biography of Numa Pompilius can be found online at
It utilizes the same Dryden translation used for this essay. Page numbers cited refer to the 2nd edition of the GB set.

Part One:

Plutarch’s biography of the early Roman king Numa Pompilius is marked by a very different tone than his elegiac account of Spartan law-giver Lycurgus though the two men are presumed by his writings to be contemporaries. There are a number of reasons for this differentiation still visible even from this distance. Lycurgus, remote as he was from Plutarch in time, made his impression upon Spartan culture in a place where the eventual organs of history were just beginning to develop. Though much of Plutarch’s writing on Lycurgus is informed by the same non-written culture to which every other historian of his time had access, he sews that narrative together with access to the written records from the Oracle at Delphi in a way that none other could.

Numa Pompilius, in contrast, was king in Rome at a time just after its inception as a city. Its culture was still a fractious one, split between its Roman and Sabine populations and each still ill at ease with the other. The most notable thing that can be said of Rome at this time is that they weren’t a colony of some more developed civilization to the East. In contrasting Lycurgus with Numa, Plutarch is subtly making the argument that their accomplishments were of equal importance and scope. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth as, even if we are able accept the historicity of his reforms listed here, Numa’s contributions to the greater human culture would take much longer to reach fruition and be diluted through many other ideas before arrival.

To appreciate why Plutarch presents Numa as such, one must recall who Plutarch is, a Hellenized Greek, and to whom he is writing, an audience of predominantly Roman readers in the time of first Caesars. The larger history he is writing, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, is creating a story that persists unto this day: a two-part story that depicts the birth of civilization with the Greeks and then passes by means both natural and supernatural into the hands of the eager and industrious Romans; an Old and New Testament of knowledge and reason that trumpets the inevitability of those virtues winding up invested into the highest echelon of Roman authority.

Plutarch eludes to some of this historical slight-of-hand in his short section on methodology in the introduction.

Though the pedigrees of noble families in Rome go back in exact form as far as Numa Pompilius, yet there is great diversity among historians concerning the time in which he reigned; a certain writer named Clodius…avers that the ancient registers of Rome were lost when the city was sacked by the Gauls, and that those which are now extant were counterfeited, to flatter and serve the humour of some men who wished to have themselves derived from some ancient and noble lineage, though in reality with no claim to it. [49]

While making no claim to this position himself, it is with this patina of incredulity that he begins on his journey to reconcile the various histories about Numa with what little may be verified. He opens the story of Numa’s reluctant rise to power with a confusing account of how Romulus, the city’s founder, left the throne. During the performance of a ritual of the state, the sky darkened with a terrible storm and, in it, Romulus disappeared. Some presumed he had been murdered. Others suggested that he had be transfigured and brought to live among the gods, giving him a posthumous name, Quirinus to reflect this change. Whatever the truth of the circumstances, Rome now had a very big problem for it seems that Romulus left no mechanism for a smooth transition of power. For a period of time, known as the interregnum, the oligarchs of the Senate passed executive responsibilities around like a hot potato but the underlying tension between the Romans and the Sabines would not allow the throne to remain unfilled indefinitely.

They devise a scheme by which the Romans will select an Sabine and the Sabines, a Roman to select between for a ruler but, as we are able to infer later, no means can be found to choose between them that enjoys the legitimacy of Romulus’ reign. Then, the Romans nominate another Sabine, Numa Pompilius that gains the wide-spread acceptance of the Sabines. The first irony in his nomination is that Numa did not even live in Rome but had long since retired to the countryside to live in austerity after the death of his first wife. The second is that he appeared to have little to no interest in being king. Upon being solicited by the original candidates to rule over Rome, Numa is quoted by Plutarch as saying,

Every alteration of a man’s life is dangerous to him; but madness, only could induce one who needs nothing, and is satisfied with everything, to quit a life he is accustomed to; which, whatever else it is deficient in, at any rate has the advantage of certainty over one wholly doubtful and unknown…The very points of my characters that are most commended mark me as unfit to reign,--love of retirement and of studies inconsistent with business, a passion that has become inveterate in me for peace, for unwarlike occupations…I should, but be, methinks, a laughing-stock, which I should go inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and the abhorrence of violence and war, to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king. [51]

Plutach also suggests that there may have been another reason for Numa’s unwillingness to leave his idyllic countryside. After the death of his wife, it was widely believed that Numa entered into some kind of physical relationship with the minor goddess, Egeria. It was from her that he was supposed to have gained divine wisdom regarding the rule of man. Plutarch goes to considerable lengths to show “historical” precedent for men enjoying the charms of the feminine divine just as so many Greek women had received visitation from a masculine one for aid in the conception of a hero or king, not knowing that that the first civilizations in Mesopotamia were founded on the idea of a male consort to a goddess dispensing wisdom among the people in how best to order their culture.

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