Numa Pompilius

The second king of Rome. The legend of this king is so well told by Niebuhr,1 from Livy and the ancient authorities, that we cannot do better than borrow his words.

"On the death of Romulus the senate at first would not allow the election of a new king: every senator was to enjoy the royal power in rotation as interrex. In this way a year passed. The people, being treated more oppressively than before, were vehement in demanding the election of a sovereign to protect them. When the senate permitted it to be held, the Romans and Sabines disputed out of which nation the king should be taken. It was agreed that the former should choose him out of the latter: and all voices concurred in naming the wise and pious Numa Pompilius of Cures, who had married the daughter of Tatius.

"It was a very prevalent belief in antiquity that Numa had derived his knowledge from the Greek Pythagoras; Polybius and other writers attempted to show that this was impossible, for chronological reasons, inasmuch as Pythagoras did not come into Italy till the reign of Servius Tullius; but an impartial critic, who does not believe that the son of Mnesarchus was the only Pythagoras, or that there is any kind of necessity for placing Numa in the twentieth Olympiad, or, in fine, that the historical personality of Pythagoras is more certain than that of Numa, will be pleased with the old popular opinion, and will not sacrifice it to chronology.

"When Numa was assured by the auguries that the gods approved of his election, the first care of the pious king was turned, not to the rites of the temples, but to human institutions. He divided the lands which Romulus had conquered and had left open to occupancy. He founded the worship of Terminus. It was not till after he had done this that Numa set himself to legislate for religion. He was revered as the author of the Roman ceremonial law. Instructed by the Camena Egeria, who was espoused to him in a visible form, and who led him into the assemblies of her sisters in the sacred grove, he regulated the whole hierarchy; the pontiffs, who took care, by precept and by chastisement, that the laws relating to religion should be observed both by individuals and by the state; the augurs, whose calling it was to afford security for the councils of men by piercing into those of the gods; the flamens, who ministered in the temples of the supreme deities; the chaste virgins of Vesta; the Salii, who solemnized the worship of the gods with armed dances and songs. He prescribed the rites according to which the people might offer worship and prayer acceptable to the gods. To him were revealed the conjurations for compelling Jupiter himself to make known his will, by lightnings and the flight of birds: whereas others were forced to wait for these prodigies from the favor of the god, who was often silent to such as were doomed to destruction. This charm he learned from Faunus and Picus, whom, by the advice of Egeria, he enticed and bound in chains, as Midas bound Silenus in the rose garden. From this pious prince the god brooked such boldness. At Numa's entreaty he exempted the people from the terrible duty of offering up human sacrifices. But when the audacious Tullus presumed to imitate his predecessor, he was killed by a flash of lightning during his conjurations in the temple of Jupiter Elicius.

The thirty-nine years of Numa's reign, which glided away in quiet happiness, without any war or any calamity, afforded no legends but of such marvels. That nothing might break the peace of his days, the ancile fell from heaven, when the land was threatened with a pestilence, which disappeared as soon as Numa ordained the ceremonies of the Salii. Numa was not a theme of song, like Romulus; indeed he enjoined that, among all the Camenae, the highest honors should be paid to Tacita. Yet a story was handed down, that, when he was entertaining his guests, the plain food in the earthenware dishes were turned on the appearance of Egeria into a banquet fit for gods, in vessels of gold, in order that her divinity might be made manifest to the incredulous. The temple of Janus, his work, continued always shut: peace was spread over Italy; until Numa, like the darlings of the gods in the golden age, fell asleep, full of days. Egeria melted away in tears into a fountain."

The sacred books of Numa, in which he prescribed all the religious rites and ceremonies, were said to have been buried near him in a separate tomb, and to have been discovered by accident, five hundred years afterwards, by one Terentius, in the consulship of Cornelius and Baebius, 181 BCE. By Terentius they were carried to the city-praetor Petilius, and were found to consist of twelve or seven books, in Latin, on ecclesiastical law (de jure pontificum), and the same number of books in Greek on philosophy: the latter were burnt at the command of the senate, but the former were carefully preserved. The story of the discovery of these books is evidently a forgery; and the books, which were ascribed to Numa, and which were extant at a later time, were evidently nothing more than ancient works containing an account of the ceremonial of the Roman religion.

It would be idle to inquire into the historical reality of Numa. Whether such a person ever existed or not, we cannot look upon the second king of Rome as a real historical personage. His name represents the rule of law and order, and to him are ascribed all those ecclesiastical institutions which formed the basis of the ceremonial religion of the Romans. It would be impossible to enter into a history of the various institutions of this king, without discussing the whole ecclesiastical system of the Romans, a subject which would be foreign to this work. We would only remark, that the universal tradition of the Sabine origin of Numa intimates that the Romans must have derived a great portion of their religious system from the Sabines, rather than from the Etruscans.



  1. Niebuhr, B.G. (1845). History of Rome. Vol. 1, p. 237 ff.


  • Augustine. City of God vii, 34.
  • Cicero. De re publica ii, 13-15.
  • Dionysius, ii, 58-66.
  • Livy. The History of Rome i, 18-21.
  • Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xiii, 14, s. 27.
  • Plutarch. Numa.
  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
  • Valerius Maximus, i, 1.12.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.