Thursday, July 2, 2009

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

The first two portions of this essay can be read here and here.

There are two final aspects of Numa’s reign that bear some consideration before moving on to Plutarch’s comparison of Numa and Lycurgus. The most convincing piece of evidence that Plutarch presents in proving some connection between Numa and Pythagoras comes in a discussion of Numa’s preferred mode of worship. In addition to reorganizing the clergy of the city to reflect this shift away from wanton war-making, Numa issued two edicts that run counter to everything happening in Greece or Italia at the time. The first was a ban on idolatry and, the second, the reliance on the oral tradition rather than the written one to impart the most important aspects of culture.

Plutarch writes that, “Numa forbade the Romans to represent God in the form of a man or beast, nor was there any painted or graven images of a deity admitted amongst them” on the basis of his belief that saw “the first principle of being as transcending sense and passion, invisible and incorrupt, and only to be apprehended by abstract intelligence” [53]. This is interesting because it mirrors a transition that took place among a people deeply committed to the written language as their primary means of transmission. Numa may have found the oral tradition more effective for dampening factional disputes that arise over the interpretation of fixed writing. Whatever the reason, we may infer that in the next few centuries, Rome turned away from the anthropomorphic pantheistic religions that surrounded them and, in a very real sense, gave them a cultural distinction that could not easily be absorbed by influence from the Greeks or Gauls.

One must also assume that the emphasis on the spoken word caused rapid developments in the Roman language due to the new complexity of topics it was being asked to handle. Plutarch makes many remarks about the similarity of words from the Roman lexicon that borrowed on Greek vocabulary extensively. Perhaps it was the oral codification that led to the development of a stable and separate language, Latin, to emerge in its full potential some seven to eight hundred years later (depending on who you believe) to replace Greek as the language of culture.

Plutarch’s comparison of Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius

The complete text of Plutarch’s Lycurgus and Numa Compared can be found online at and uses the same translation as this essay. Page numbers correspond to the 2nd ed of the Great Books series from Encyclopedia Britannica.

For all of their similarities, Plutarch finds Numa and Lycurgus to be studies in puzzling contradiction. Noting first those elements of their reforms held in common (the disdain for luxury, the use of religion to enforce the mandates of the state), Plutarch moves on to systematically contrasting their differences. Numa’s primary goal was to temper the war-like character of the Roman and Sabine peoples while Lycurgus instituted rigorous martial obligations (not unlike the samurai of Japan) upon those who would claim to be Spartan, though for the purpose of self-defense more than expansion. Of the two, Plutarch finds Numa’s goals more virtuous as seeking the good as its own end whereas the good that Lycurgus seeks is one that offers something, namely, security and, for his city, immortality. Plutarch also notes that while Numa’s reforms improved the lot of slaves, those of Lycurgus seemed more sympathetic to the rights of women as daughters, wives, mothers, if not as people.

Another drastic divergence between the two was their attitude towards wealth. For Lycurgus, the inequitable distribution of land (and therefore wealth) was the fundamental evil that had corrupted what we can only assume he believed was once a stable and virtuous system of governance. Plutarch gives no record of Numa taking great concern about the vice of greed beyond offering lands outside the city to farm for the less fortunate living within it. Otherwise, he suggests, Numa allowed, “free scope [beyond war-making] to every other means of obtaining wealth; nor did he endeavor to do away with inequality in this respect, but permitted riches to be amassed to any extent, and paid no attention to the gradual and continual augmentation and influx of poverty” [63].

The final irony is that, though Lycurgus’ system of governance was more autocratic and his goals, less lofty than his Roman counterpart, it was his reforms which lasted the test of time. Most were still in practice during the Peloponnesian War, some four hundred years later, and, by Plutarch’s account, “so soon as the Lacedaemonians fell from the institutions of Lycurgus, they sank from the highest to the lowest state” [64]. Most of Numa’s reforms, in contrast, were undone immediately upon his death and Rome reignited its engines of war, consuming first the kingdoms of the Italian peninsula before moving on to the world stage with yet grander schemes of world domination.

Are we to infer from this that aspiration to the higher virtue does not always equal success using the standards by which history measures the evolution of human culture? Plutarch himself seems perplexed as to the lesson history teaches here, noting in his closing that, “A question like that will need a long answer, if it is to be one to satisfy men who take the better to consist in riches, luxury, and dominion, rather than in security, gentleness, and that independence which is accompanied by justice” [64].

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