Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Numa Pompilius (Part 2)

Part One of this essay can be read here.

In the end, Numa is convinced by his father and kinsmen to accept the responsibility and ascend the throne of Rome as its king. After making the appropriate sacrifices, he proceeded there, only to be met by crowds of politicians and well-wishers as he neared the city, creating a sense, according to Plutarch, “that they seemed to be receiving, not a new king, but a new kingdom” [52]. Numa refused to take the robe and scepter of rule until his ascension had been formally sanctioned by the gods of the city who, conveniently, provided the oracle necessary to move things forward.

In his initial moves as he takes power, we see that Numa plans to act according to his virtue and try and pacify the warlike Roman peoples. In his first act, he disbands the Celeres, a group of one hundred bodyguards loyal to the King and not the city (much like the Praetorian guard of later imperial Rome). One can imagine that the oligarchs and citizens alike saw this as a marked shift from Romulus’ often bloody style of rule. In his second act, he established a divine cult to Quirinus (the transfigured version of Romulus), no doubt to soothe tensions among those once loyal to the former king about who had murdered him.

These two edicts seem, on the surface, innocuous enough but, actually provide us a blueprint for how Numa would go on to reshape the Roman culture. As he surveyed that which he had found himself in charge of, Plutarch writes that he found a city that was:

In its origin, formed by daring and warlike spirits, whom bold and desperate adventure brought thither from every quarter, it had found in perpetual war and incursions on its neighbors its after sustenance and means of growth, and in conflict with danger the source of new strength; like piles, which the blows of the hammer serve to fix into the ground [53].

In order to pacify the Roman lust for war, Numa used the tools of religion available to him to transform the people from soldiers to farmers. By mixing traditional religion in with a few supernatural innovations of his own, Numa was able to create an environment where adhering to the old ways of doing things would be considered impious. He also transformed the clergy into an arm of government in its own right, mediating disputes between citizens as well as making the conditions that make war possible as difficult as possible to achieve. So, it is said, only during the reign of Numa Pompilius were the gates to the Temple of Mars left closed, indicating the city was at peace with the known world.

More profoundly, Numa delivered a mechanism to dissolve the kin ties that separated Roman from Sabine and kept tensions between the two groups as a constant sub-text to any political progress in the city. To combat this, Numa established trade guilds that segregated people into groups dictated by their skills and vocation, rather than by their ancestral heritage. This also allowed some amount of collective political power to accrue in the hands of those that might otherwise have no voice in governance.

There are two more elements of Numa’s reforms that are particular interesting in their relation to one another. First, he eschewed the practice of using live animals for sacrifice to the gods, preferring, instead, “flour, wine, and the least costly offerings” [53]. Secondly, he placed great emphasis on the piety and patriotism of farming as a vocation but taking the lands won by Romulus and dividing it up among the “indigent commonality” [59] so that the ills of poverty might be mitigated and the lands adjacent to Rome, better kept. This attention paid to agriculture and animal husbandry suggest that Rome was transforming from a nomadic tribal culture to a more stable, agrarian one. Little did Numa know that those values would be the same to eventually push Rome further and further afield in order to supply their unending need for food as their population exploded.

Plutarch spends considerable time in this biography exploring the idea that Numa’s reforms were related to the Pythagoreans and, indeed, draw a parallel between Rome and the famed philosopher’s own attempt to get involved in politics. He is able to produce no historical evidence that the two men ever met, or were even alive at the same time, yet, in the midst of contrasting cryptic homilies associated with both legendary figures, Plutarch does reveal a meaningful truth about the Roman audience for which he is writing. As a philosopher himself, Numa would have been deeply interested to hear of innovative ideas and, as it so happens, Pythagoras conducted the majority of his social science experiments closer to Rome than his home island of Samos. So, in that sense, it is feasible that some kernel of Pythagorean thought may have well spread to Rome early in its conception. Whatever the truth behind it, this idea that Numa brought Pythagoras’ wisdom to the Roman people feeds into the same desire to create a connection between Rome and the legendary past that makes the idea that Rome was founded by Lacedaemonians and its leaders, directly descended from the heroes of the Iliad culturally plausible if historically unlikely.

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