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Our Young Folks' Plutarch by  Rosalie Kaufman

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NUMA POMPILIUS

[41] NO sooner had the disturbance caused by the death of Romulus ceased than a new cause for trouble arose, for a new king had to be chosen, and the Patricians were so jealous of one another that it was hard to decide which of their number was worthy of the honor.

The Sabines, as we know, after being made citizens, composed half of the senate; but the original Romans, who had helped Romulus to lay out and build the city, were not willing to submit to any person who had been raised to citizenship afterwards. On the other hand, the Sabines argued that as they had peaceably suffered Romulus to rule after their king Tatius had been killed, they ought to have the privilege of naming the new sovereign, particularly as they had united with the Romans as equals and were in no way their inferiors.

This seems fair; but the older men of Rome would not listen to such a proposition, and it was a long time before the matter could be settled. While it was pending, it was agreed that each of the two hundred senators, in turn, should wear the robes of state for one day and transact all public business.

Of course no one could feel jealous of a ruler whose reign was to last only a few hours; but it was impossible that such a system of government could last. The necessity for a permanent king soon made itself felt, and the senators arranged that a member of one party should be chosen by the other party. Thus, if a Roman were named he would without doubt favor his own countrymen on the one hand, and he would feel kindly towards the Sabines for favoring him on the other.

But no Roman would have been satisfied to be elevated to the throne by the Sabines; so their senators announced their decision to name a Sabine for the honor, and this arrangement gave perfect satisfaction. It seemed that at last there was to be an end to party spirit, and that peace was to be established in Rome.

The choice fell on Numa Pompilius, a man of high standing, to [42] whom no objection could be raised by either Roman or Sabine. Representatives from both nations were appointed to wait upon him with the news of his elevation to the throne, for he was then living at Cures, a city of the Sabines, from which they and the Romans afterwards called themselves by the common name of Quirites.

Numa was born on the 21st of April, the birthday of Rome. Tatius, whose subject he was, had considered him such a wise, good man that he had chosen him for the husband of his only daughter. Numa, though grateful for such an honor, could never be induced to go to Rome to live, even when Tatius was ruling there. He preferred to stay at Cures and take care of his aged father, who was too infirm to be moved. His duty as a son would not permit him to neglect his parent for the sake of the honors that awaited him at court.

Fortunately, Tatia, his wife, shared his fancy for a retired life, and so the two lived happily together for thirteen years. Then Tatia died, and Numa was so grieved that he left the city and passed his time wandering about alone in the sacred groves and other solitary places.

The ambassadors who were sent to offer the kingdom to Numa willingly undertook a task that seemed an easy one, for they had no idea that any man would hesitate to accept the government of so famous a city as Rome. They therefore stated their errand in a few words; but, much to their surprise, Numa was not so elated at their proposition as they had anticipated. He listened quietly, and then replied, "Every change in life has its dangers, and it would be madness in a man who is satisfied with all he has, and who needs nothing, to abandon a course that has at least the advantage of certainty for one wholly strange. I know some of the difficulties of your government, for was not Romulus accused of plotting against the life of Tatius? and was not the senate suspected of having treacherously murdered Romulus? Yet Romulus was thought to be of divine origin and miraculously preserved in his infancy for a great future. I am only mortal, and men whom you all know have been my instructors. I am not fit to be a king, for I love retirement; I am fond of study, and have no knowledge of business; I prefer the society of those whose lives are spent [43] upon their farms and their pastures, and I have studiously avoided warlike occupations. Your people have made many conquests, and desire to increase them; they have more need of a general than of a king; I should become a laughing-stock, therefore, were I to go among them to promote the worship of the gods and preach lessons of religion and justice to men who love violence and war."

The Romans were greatly perplexed at Numa's thus refusing the crown, and assured him that it would certainly plunge them into a civil war, because there was no other man whom both parties would unanimously elect. They begged him, therefore, to reconsider his decision. Then his father and his friend Marcius, who were present, drew him aside and privately argued the matter with him. "Though you are content with what you have," they said, "and desire neither riches, fame, nor authority, because you prize the virtues you have above these, yet you must not forget that as a king you will be always acting in the service of the gods, who call you from your retirement to exercise your qualities of justice and wisdom. Therefore do not turn your back upon an office in which you may perform great and honorable deeds. Tatius was beloved by the Romans, though he was a foreigner, and Romulus has received divine honors; perhaps the people have now had enough of war, and are ready to rejoice at the prospect of peace, and anxious to have a just prince who will preserve order and quiet for them."

These and other arguments, added to the persuasions of his fellow-citizens, had their weight, and Numa yielded. The ambassadors were delighted, and immediately accompanied him to Rome, where he was received with loud shouts and joyful acclamations by the senate and people, who came out on the road to meet him. Sacrifices were offered in all the temples, and great rejoicings marked the arrival of the new king. He was forthwith conducted to the Forum, where Spurius Vettius, who happened to be the senator in power that day, put it to the vote whether Numa Pompilius should be king. With one voice the citizens exclaimed in his favor. The regalia and royal robes were then brought, but Numa refused to receive any distinctions of office until he had first consulted the gods; so, accompanied by the priests and augurs, he went up to the Capitol, which at that time the Romans called the Tarpeian Hill. Then the chief of the augurs covered Numa's head and [44] turned his face towards the south. Standing behind Numa, the augur placed his right hand upon his head and prayed, while he looked around for some signal from the gods. Meanwhile perfect silence was maintained by the multitude assembled in the Forum. Presently their suspense was relieved by the appearance of a flock of birds that flew towards the right. This was regarded as a favorable omen, and Numa immediately put on the royal robes, in which he descended the hill. As he approached the Forum he was greeted with shouts of welcome from the people, who proclaimed him a holy king, beloved of all the gods.

Numa's first act after assuming office was to discharge the Celeres, or body-guard of three hundred, which Romulus had always kept near him. He explained that he neither chose to distrust those who put confidence in him nor to reign over people that could distrust him. The next thing he did was to add to the two priests of Jupiter and Mars a third in honor of Romulus, whom he called Flamen Quirinalis.

Numa saw that these acts pleased his subjects, so he resolved to go a step further and try to make them less bold and warlike, and more like gentle, reasonable human beings. For this purpose he called in the aid of religion, offered frequent sacrifices, formed processions, and instituted religious dances, in which he generally took part himself. His idea was to calm the people by associating their social pleasures with their religious ceremonies, which would render their festivities of a more refined nature. Sometimes he found it necessary to excite their imaginations by telling them of the dreadful apparitions he had seen and the strange, threatening voices he had heard. Their terror was thus aroused, and superstition made them humble and lowly.

Numa pretended that a certain goddess or mountain nymph was in love with him, and that it was through her and the Muses that he received all his revelations. He desired the Romans to show special veneration to one Muse in particular, and that was Tacita, the Silent, no doubt with the belief that if his subjects talked seldom they would not give utterance to much nonsense.

He made reforms in religious observances, the most important of which were these: All images representing the Deity in any form whatever, whether of man or beast, he ordered to be removed [45] from the temples and chapels, and declared it impious to represent the Divine Being by anything capable of being created or destroyed by man; he put a stop to the shedding of blood upon the altars, and ordered the sacrifices to consist, instead, of flour, wine, and other inexpensive offerings.

Next he instituted an order of priests called Pontifices, or bridge-makers, because not only did they perform their religious ceremonies on bridges, which were considered sacred spots, but it was their duty to keep the structures in perfect order. It was accounted a sacrilege for anybody to deface a bridge, because they were supposed, in obedience to an oracle, to have been built of timber and fastened with wooden pins, not a single bit of metal having been employed in any part.

Numa himself was Pontifex Maximus, or chief of the priests, and it was his duty to explain the divine law, preside over sacred rites, and make rules for both public and private worship, so that no one might alter the prescribed form of any of the ceremonies. He increased the number of vestal virgins who kept the sacred fire alive. This fire might not be kindled in the usual way, so if by accident it became extinguished, it was only by concentrating the rays of the sun that it could be relighted. At first there were only two vestal virgins, but their number was doubled by the new Pontifex Maximus.

The rules laid down for the vestals were these: They had to promise not to marry for thirty years; the first ten were devoted to learning their duties, the second ten to performing them, and the third to instructing others. At the end of the term the vestals were permitted to marry or choose any condition of life they pleased; but very few ever cared to make a change, preferring to remain single until death. It was observed that those who did marry were never happy, but always seemed sad and dissatisfied, which is perhaps one reason why so many preferred to remain vestals even after their thirty years of service had expired.

They had privileges, however, that were not accorded to other women. For example, they could make a will while their fathers lived, and were permitted to manage their own affairs without a guardian or tutor. When they went abroad, the fasces was carried before them. The fasces consisted of an axe tied up with a bundle [46] of rods, and they were used by the Roman magistrates as a badge of authority. If a vestal chanced to meet a criminal on his way to execution, his life was spared, but she had to swear that the meeting was purely accidental. If a person pushed against the chair in which one of these holy women was carried, he was put to death. Great honors were paid to the vestal virgins, but their punishments were very severe. For trifling faults the high-priest had power to scourge them, which he did in a dark place, with a curtain drawn between him and the offender. If one of them broke her vow and married she was buried alive, in this way: being securely fastened to a litter by ropes, she was first carried to the Forum, the priests following in solemn procession, and everybody either making way for them or accompanying them with downcast and sorrowful mien. When the procession arrived at the place of execution, not far from the Forum, the officers cut the ropes which bound the prisoner, and the high-priest raised his hands to heaven, pronouncing certain prayers. Then the prisoner, covered from head to foot with a loose white robe, was made to descend a flight of steps that led under ground to a cell in which were a bed, a lighted lamp, and a small supply of food; the stairs were then drawn up and the entrance to the cell was securely closed with earth, care being taken that no mark should distinguish the spot.

Numa founded several orders of priests besides the Pontifices, but we shall mention only the Faciales and the Salii. The Faciales were the peace-makers, whose duty it was to settle all quarrels, and not allow two parties to go to war until it became impossible to reason with them. If any nation offered the Romans an insult, the Faciales were sent to demand satisfaction. In case it was refused, they called on the gods to curse them and their country if they were acting unjustly, and then declared war. Neither king nor soldiers dared take up arms until the Faciales gave their consent.

The origin of the Salii was as follows. In the eighth year of Numa's reign a terrible pestilence overspread the whole of Italy. Rome was greatly afflicted by it, and the citizens became dreadfully despondent. To rouse their drooping spirits, Numa called them together and showed them a brazen target, which he declared had fallen from heaven into his hands, while his mountain nymph [47] and the Muses had assured him that it was sent to stop the pestilence and save the city. In gratitude he commanded that the spot where he had received the target, as well as the surrounding fields and the spring which watered them, should be hallowed to the use of the vestal virgins, who were to wash their temple and holy vestments with the waters of the spring. In a short time the pestilence disappeared.

Fearing that the wonderful target might be stolen, Numa ordered eleven others to be manufactured exactly like the one he had received from heaven, and so perfect were they that it was impossible to distinguish the original. It was to guard the twelve targets that the order of the Salii was founded. In the month of March each year, these priests, clad in short purple frocks, with broad brass belts at their waists, and helmets on their heads, danced through the city, carrying the sacred targets, and beating time on them with short daggers.

Near the temple of Vesta, Numa built a house, where he spent much of his time performing divine services, instructing the various orders of priests, and conversing with them on sacred topics. Whenever there was to be a public procession, criers went along the streets through which it was to pass, to give notice to the people, who were expected to lay aside whatever occupations they were engaged in, and turn their attention wholly to religion. On such occasions the streets were cleared to make way for the priests, all signs of labor disappeared, and profound silence was observed. Such discipline had the effect of making the people look up to Numa with a feeling of awe and reverence. They honored him for his great virtue, and had such confidence in him that whatever he said, no matter how fabulous it might appear, was received with perfect faith. Nothing seemed impossible to them where Numa was concerned.

There is a story told of how he invited a great number of citizens to an entertainment. When they assembled, they were surprised to find a meal spread out for them consisting of the poorest and plainest food, and the table appointments of the roughest and ugliest sort. No sooner were they seated than Numa entered, and announced that the goddess with whom he always consulted had just made him a visit. While he spoke, presto, change! the hum- [48] ble table disappeared, and was replaced by one loaded with the choicest viands, served on gold and silver dishes, costly wines, and all sorts of magnificent drinking vessels.

There are many other such wonderful tales related about Numa, but none are more absurd than his conversation with Jupiter. Before Mount Aventine was enclosed within the city walls, it was inhabited by two demi-gods named Picus and Faunus, who are said to have wandered among its shady groves unmolested. These demi-gods were skilled in drugs and magic, and went about in different parts of Italy astonishing the people with their remarkable tricks. By mixing wine and honey in the fountain from which they drank, Numa caught them. Then they changed themselves into various forms, some of them most strange and terrible; still they could not escape. At last, in despair at being held imprisoned, they took Numa into their confidence, and taught him a charm for thunder and lightning, composed of onions, hair, and a kind of fish called pilchard. But some historians say that Picus and Faunus did not teach this charm to Numa themselves, but that they used their magic to bring Jupiter down from heaven, and the god was so angry when he found himself on earth that he ordered the charm to consist of heads. Numa, who had been instructed by his mountain nymph what to say, asked, "Heads of onions?"

"No, human—" began Jupiter, but, anxious to avoid so cruel a charm, Numa interrupted, and said, "Hairs."

"No," exclaimed Jupiter, "with living—"

"Pilchards," suggested Numa, quickly.

Finding that he could not have his own way, the god went off, and so the charm remained onions, hair, and pilchards.

Though superstition led the Romans to believe all such fabulous tales about their king, he nevertheless exerted a most wise and healthy influence over them in many respects. Numa placed his confidence in the Almighty, and wished them to do the same. Once when word was brought to him that the enemy was coming, he only smiled, and said, "And I am sacrificing." He meant by this that while he was engaged in religious exercises no harm could come to him, nor could he turn his attention to other matters. Numa built temples to faith, and taught his subjects that to swear by faith was the greatest of all oaths, because he wished them to [49] consider their word as binding as any contract in writing could be. He was the first person who marked out the boundaries of Rome by stones, so that no man could trespass on the land that belonged to his neighbor. Thus the poor, as well as the rich, felt that their rights were protected. They therefore devoted themselves to agriculture, anxious to make their land as profitable as possible. In this way too, Numa increased their desire for peace, because, of course, they had no wish to fight with neighboring tribes, who would be sure to destroy the crops they had taken pains to cultivate.

The land was divided into portions, and over each was placed an overseer or governor. Sometimes Numa would inspect them himself, and praise and reward those farmers who were thrifty and industrious, while he would severely censure those that were indolent and careless. But of all his institutions, the one which had the best effect was the division of his people into companies, according to their occupations. The musicians formed one company, the carpenters another, the shoemakers another, and so on, each having its own separate court, council, and religious observances. Before these companies were formed there had been two parties, who were always quarrelling about their rights, the Sabines and the Romans not being willing to unite in any movement. By the new institution party distinction was lost sight of, and harmony was the result.

The law which gave fathers the power to sell their children was changed; for Romulus had permitted a master to sell his slave but once, while a father could sell his son three times. It seemed unjust that a woman should marry a man whom she considered free, and then have him sold if his father so determined. Therefore Numa ordered that any man marrying with his parents' consent should thenceforth be considered free.

Another reformation that Numa attempted was the making of a calendar, in which he displayed a great deal of skill, although he was not quite correct. During the reign of Romulus some of the months had contained twenty-five days, others thirty-five, and others even more; and the year was made to contain three hundred and sixty days. Numa first observed that there was a difference of eleven days between the lunar and the solar year; of these he disposed by introducing an extra month of twenty-two days after [50] the February of every second year. He likewise changed the order of the months, making March the third,—it had been the first,—January and February, which had been eleventh and twelfth, becoming first and second.

Romulus had placed the month of March first, because it was dedicated to the god Mars. April is derived from a Latin word which means to open, it being the spring month when blossoms unfold. May and June take their names from two words meaning old and young. The succeeding months were called by their number, according to the order in which they stood, but later July was named in honor of Julius Cæsar, and August in honor of Augustus, the second emperor of Rome.

Numa preferred January for the first month of the year, because its name was derived from the god Janus, who was called the god of a "good beginning." Janus was represented with two faces, because it was thought he had altered the rude state of the world and had given life a new aspect by establishing peace and cultivating society. The Romans never took an important step without asking Janus to bless the beginning. There was a temple with two gates, called the gates of war, dedicated to this god. While peace reigned these gates were closed, and in time of war they were kept constantly open. Numa's reign being distinguished for peace, the temple of Janus remained shut for a space of forty-three years; for not only were the people of Rome influenced by their just and wise king, but their neighbors too began to improve, and all Italy was benefited. Holidays were observed, friendly visits were interchanged, the love of justice and virtue grew day by day, and all plots and conspiracies ceased. There had never been known so long a season of harmony and prosperity. But it lasted only as long as Numa lived, for peace and good-will vanished at his death, the temple of Janus was opened, and Italy was again drenched with blood.

Numa was eighty years of age when he died. The neighboring states united with the Romans in doing honor to his memory, all taking part in the funeral rites. The senators carried the bier on which lay the corpse, and the priests followed in solemn procession, while men, women, and children walked behind, weeping as though each had lost a near and dear relation. Numa had ordered [51] two stone coffins to be made, in one of which his body was enclosed, and in the other all his sacred books. He desired his writings to be buried because the priests knew them by heart, and he feared that if they were ever permitted to circulate freely they would cease to be regarded with the mysterious awe and reverence that had helped to impress them on the minds of his disciples.


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