Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


I invite the reader's attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome's power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.

History of Rome LIVY

As Rome ascended towards the summit of its awesome power and imperial glory, some thinkers of the Augustan age sensed a terrible moral and spiritual failure that would consume the empire. Even the Romans knew that the melancholy story, the plot of which Cicero had foretold, was not unique to their culture and country: it had been enacted before in Egypt, in Mesopotamia and in a dozen lands whose names were by Livy's day fictive reconstructions. Livy, who wrote in the time of Augustus Caesar, worried that "self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death, both individual and collective". Those who feel the early tremors of decay in the civilization of which they are a part are compelled to look to the past to discern its strengths and what went awry. Beginning with Fabius Pictor, who composed a history of Rome in about 200 B.C., most literary historians looked to the period of the kings to discover the origins of Roman institutions. They were proud, patriotic and often willing to overlook difficulties and discrepancies, but they were not uncritical of tradition and legend. However they treated the obscure beginnings of Rome, they agreed that her most ancient and valuable institutions were the work of one great king Numa. Despite a century of archaeological research and sometimes hostile analysis, their basic endorsement remains intact even today.

Whilst the origins of the people who came to be called Romans are known broadly, the way the Latini, Etrusci and Sabini came together is hidden in a wealth of mythic tradition. According to the account most popular amongst these agricultural and trading peoples, the ancestor of the Romans was Aeneas. When the Greeks captured Troy, Aeneas and Antenor, both of whom had pleaded for the return of Helen and for declaring peace, were allowed to depart unmolested from the ruined city. Antenor joined the Eneti and eventually founded the Venetians. Aeneas experienced vicissitudes and had adventures almost as colourful as those of Odysseus, travelling to Macedonia, Sicily, Carthage and eventually Laurentum in the land of the Latini. Their king, Latinus, was so moved by Aeneas' tale that he pledged his friendship to the exiled Trojans and gave his daughter, Lavinia, in marriage to Aeneas. Aeneas built a settlement which he named Lavinium after his wife, but the new friends were soon attacked by a local chieftain to whom Lavinia had previously been betrothed. Though the chieftain was defeated, King Latinus was slain, and Aeneas renamed his own people Latini in order to firmly unite the two peoples under his leadership.

When Aeneas died, he was already thought to be divine, partly owing to his exploits and partly because his mother was Venus, and men began to pray to him as Jupiter Indiges. Lavinia proved competent to rule until Ascanius, their son, came of age, but no sooner had he done so than he exhibited his father's traits. Leaving the now prosperous Lavinium in his mother's care, he went to found a new city. He selected a ridge along the Alban Hills and there established Alba Longa. His descendants ruled there through many generations, until King Proca gave the realm, as was the custom, to his elder son, Numitor. Amulius, the younger son, overthrew his brother, jailed him, killed his sons and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin. Thus Amulius thought to secure his position by removing all rivals. The pattern of destiny is not so easily altered, however. Rhea Silvia was raped by Mars and gave birth to twin boys, Romulus and Remus. Amulius imprisoned Rhea Silvia and had the children exposed in the northern hills near the Tiber River. A she-wolf suckled them and kept them alive until a kindly shepherd named Faustulus found them. The boys grew up, discovered their royal identity, attacked and killed Amulius and placed Numitor on the throne as rightful heir.

The twins were seized with the same inspiration that had animated Aeneas and his son. They decided to found a city on the place where they had been abandoned to die, and so despite the marshy character of the region, Romulus took the Palatine and Remus the Aventine hills. Unfortunately, an ambiguity in the auspices – divine signs led the followers of each brother to dispute the claim of priority in rule. In the scuffle that followed, Remus was killed, and thus Romulus came to be sole ruler, giving his name to the site. Just as his kingship was born in strife, so his whole glorious reign was marred by the shadow of his divine father, the god of war. No sooner had Rome grown to a rude prosperity than it was attacked by envious and fearful neighbours. Romulus always successfully defended the little city and carefully consecrated the spoils of war to Jupiter at a sacred oak on the Capitolium hill, which in time became Rome's first temple. Once, when he found too few women in his settlement, he had his men carry off the fairest of the Sabini. Although the outraged parents launched a vigorous attack to reclaim their daughters, the Sabine women interposed themselves between the warring forces – their parents and their husbands and brought about a peaceful union of the two peoples and their territory.

Following the precedent of Aeneas before him, Romulus renamed his Latini after the famous Sabine town of Cures, and so the ancestors of the Romans became Quirites. Romulus and the Sabine king, Tatius, jointly ruled the amalgamated Quirites for several years, until a breach of diplomacy resulted in a fatal attack on Tatius. Romulus made peace with the attackers but tarnished his reputation in the process. Nonetheless, the army adored him, the common people loved him, and the senators tolerated him with good grace. One day when Romulus was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius, a thunder-cloud enveloped him in utter blackness and he disappeared from the sight of men forever. Whilst some murmured that the senators had torn him to pieces, Julius Proculus, known for his wisdom, declared that Romulus had appeared to him in a vision and verified his own divinity. Thereafter, he was honoured as the god Quirinus, the protecting spirit of the Quirites.

The senators quarrelled over the succession to the throne, with the Sabini demanding a Sabine king and the Latini a Latin one. But fearing external attack while they bickered leaderless amongst themselves, they established an interregnum in which the rule rotated between ten senators, each of whom was interrex for five days. Despite assurances, the populace objected to this arrangement, believing that the senate meant to seize power for itself. After a year, a general agreement was reached: the people would choose a king, subject to approval of the senators, and the Latini would choose a king from amongst the Sabini. After considerable consultation, the Romans settled on Numa Pompilius, a Sabine known for his virtue and justice who lived in Cures. He had been born on April21, the day on which Rome was founded. Tatius had given Numa his daughter in marriage, but Numa and Tatia had shunned the growing, if rustic, splendour of Rome in favour of a quiet life in Cures. When Tatia died thirteen years after their marriage, Numa withdrew into the country and lived in retirement.

Proculus and Velesus, the chief Latin and Sabine contenders for the throne outside of Numa himself, were sent to invite him to accept the Roman throne. Their speech was short, for they assumed that anyone would be delighted to rule the Romans. Numa refused, however, on the grounds that Rome had been founded and nurtured in violence and war, and that the people needed a captain rather than a king. Proculus summoned his wits to counter Numa's argument, claiming in turn that his carefully gleaned wisdom was divinely granted for use and not for hoarding, and that the spirit of the warrior should now be tempered by the spirit of peace and harmony. Eventually, Numa agreed, and set out for Rome. He was met on the way by the senate and people in a great celebration in which he was offered the insignia of royal office. He refused to ascend the throne until the omens had been taken at the citadel. There Numa took his place on a stone seat facing the south and an augur divided the sky into two portions and specified the signs. Soon they appeared and Numa was proclaimed king.

Numa fully intended to establish Rome on a new basis. Romulus had provided the territory and the people, along with commerce and simple Justice. Numa set about founding a city in law, order, social structure and ritual. He dismissed the Celeres – the swift – who had constituted the personal guard of Romulus, saying that he would not rule a people who lost confidence in him. He built the temple of Janus, god of the doorway and of beginnings, at the foot of the Argiletum and decreed that its doors should be closed in peacetime to signify the safety of the populace, but they were to remain open in time of war. He closed the doors himself and they remained shut for the four decades of his reign. They were closed only twice in the subsequent history of the empire.

Once the temple of Janus was constructed, Numa engaged in a great calendar reform. The Romans used a calendar of ten months of varying lengths which required the random insertion of extra months to keep the seasons in place. It began in the month dedicated to Mars, and ended with December, the tenth month. Numa calculated that the difference between the lunar and solar year was eleven days. He inserted a twenty- two-day intercalary month every other year and divided the regular lunisolar calendar into twelve even months. Declaring that Rome should honour but not exalt Mars, god of war, Numa placed the two new months before March – Januarius, to honour the lord of beginnings, and Februarius, the month of religious purification. No people, Numa taught, dared to go to war even to defend themselves without first looking to past and future and without deep spiritual introspection. The calendar remained intact even in the names of its months (save for the month dedicated to Venus being given the Etruscan name Aprilis, and July and August being renamed in honour of Julius and Augustus Caesar) down to the present day.

Numa functioned as chief priest in the rituals associated with Jupiter, though he appointed a Flamen Dialis who inherited the kingly duties with the formation of the Roman republic. He created the twelve Salii, or dancing priests, who celebrated the rites of Mars Gradivus, and established a priesthood for Quirinus, the deified Romulus. He made the worship of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, central to Roman religion. Two Vestal Virgins were appointed for thirty years – ten to learn the rituals, ten to practise them, and ten to pass them on to a novice. Though the number eventually became four, their rule remained unchanged throughout Roman history. They were charged with tending the sacred fire that burnt in the heart of Rome. Many Roman writers believed, however, that their long training was required because they kept many of the secrets of the Roman people. Plutarch agreed with those who held that Numa knew, as Pythagoras after him, that the earth was not the centre of the universe. For them, the Vestal fire was the centre of a field which represented the sun in the centre of the solar system, and Numa organized the life of the city in a plan that mirrored the structure of the cosmos. In tending the sacred fire of the city, they embodied the virtues that should be found around each hearth in every home. The distinctive garments worn by the Vestal Virgins were the model for nuns throughout the history of Christianity.

Numa established the Pontifices for each group of priests, and the chief of them, the Pontifex Maximus, had charge of the Vestals. These individuals were expected to know all the details of every ritual and to see to their proper performance. They took their name, some say, from pons (bridge) because they were bridge-makers, or from potens (powerful) because they attended the gods. In order to elicit information on the true interpretation of divine signs, Numa constructed an altar on the Aventine hill to Jupiter Elicius. Later Romans attributed to Numa the popular view of humanity's compact with the gods, in which men keep their part by appropriate sacrifices and festivals, and the gods continue to favour the people. Numa's intentions were far more profound, however. First of all, he consciously sought to alter Roman temperament by turning its raw energy into channels of civic harmony and creative nation-building. In using rather than denying Rome's martial heritage, he instilled what Livy called the "austere discipline of the ancient Sabini, most incorruptible of men". Secondly, by establishing a calendar rich with joyous and solemn festivals, Numa encouraged the Romans to see in the cycles of community life a sacred and magical re-enactment of a divine, intelligent pattern. Thirdly, by selectively conflating civil and religious functions – he himself was both king and Pontifex Maximus – he inculcated a profound respect for law while leaving every man free to commune with the gods without an intermediary.

Just as the king or senator carried on the collective business of the people, so the priest carried out the state's religious obligations. Numa encouraged and gave strength to the ancient idea that the paterfamilias, the father of a family, had duties as king and priest in the family. If the state religion seemed formal and distant, the family worship was intimate. The deus was a god with specifiable traits, but the numen was a luminous intelligent force of Nature which could not be shunned. Whilst all citizens participated in honouring the state dei, every man, woman and child had to be aware of the relevant numines, for the Romans lived in a universe alive with gods. In each household the women cared for earth and pantry, invoking the protection of Vesta and the Penates, gods of the cupboard. The father as priest, with his sons as attendants, prayed to the great gods and to the Lar Familiaris, the spirit of the fields and of the dead which nurture them. Every aspect of life had its presiding deity. Lentulus protected the doorway into the outer world, Terminus the boundaries between holdings, Robigus the crops, Pomona the orchards, Fons the springs, and Faunus and Inuus the flocks. Central to family worship is honouring the Genius of the paterfamilias, the spirit of the family and its guardian angel. In addition, each male had his Genius and each female her Juno.

Women were accorded honour and respect in ancient Rome, in part because of the critical roles played by Lavinia, Rhea Silvia and the Vestal Virgins in the foundation and survival of the city, and even more because of the noble union effected between Latini and Sabini by the captured Sabine women. Numa saw no need to introduce additional laws to guarantee their safety, but rather he concentrated on the feminine character. Rejecting the paradigms offered by the warrior women of the Lacedaemonians and the sensual love objects some women became in wealthy kingdoms, Numa sought to restrain the feminine character without suppressing it, just as he had tempered the masculine qualities. He taught women modesty without prudery and silence without weakness. Plutarch wrote that family life, with the paterfamilias as the priest-king and the mater as the Vestal, was so firmly grounded in mutual respect and fidelity that its disintegration was almost unknown.

As the Greek historians record in their annals the names of those who first unsheathed the sword of civil war, or murdered their brothers, or were parricides, or killed their mothers, so the Roman writers report it as the first example, that Spurius Carvilius divorced his wife, being a case that never before happened in the space of two hundred and thirty years from the foundation of the city; and that one Thalaea, the wife of Pinarius, had a quarrel (the first instance of the kind) with her mother-in-law, Gegania, in the reign of Tarquinius Superbus – so successful was the legislator (Numa) in securing order and good conduct in the marriage relation.

While the mother about to deliver a child would pray to Juno Lucina, a host of numines assist. Vaticanus helps the child to open his mouth and utter the life-giving cry, Cunina protects the cradle, Edulia teaches him to eat and Potina to drink. Statilinus will help him to stand, and Abeoma will watch him take his first step. Other gods were also involved. Upon a successful birth, a sacred meal would be offered to Picumnus and Pilumnus, gods of the field. The wild Silvanus would be kept away by noises made at night to signify to him civilized activity, and three gods watched over this ceremony. On the ninth day, the baby (if a boy) would be named and given a necklace consisting of a half moon and golden balls. He was protected by these deities until he reached puberty, when he laid the necklace aside, thanked the gods, donned the toga virilis and went to the Capitol to make an offering to Jupiter Capitolinus. In Numa's time every action was a joint venture of man and gods, of the visible and invisible worlds, of manifestation and transcendence.

Numa brought a sense of the divine into human affairs but refused to anthropomorphize the gods. He forbade images of any kind, and so his temples generally consisted of a raised altar open to the sky. "For one hundred and seventy years", Varro could write, 'the Romans worshipped their gods without images." And he added, "Those who introduced representations among the nations took away fear and brought in falsehood." Despite the deeply ingrained tendency amongst the Italic peoples to sacrifice animals to the gods, Numa made offerings of flour, salt and wine, for he wished to use those items which any citizen would have at hand. Pietas, not exhibition, was his aim. Numa was more than a wise religious organizer, he was also a magician. Even before he came to Rome, he was rumoured to be on intimate terms with the goddess Egeria. He frequently retired to the little woods forbidden to others and there learnt many things from her. In the eighth year of his reign, when a pestilence was ravaging the land, a brazen shield fell from heaven into his hands. Egeria and the nine Muses assured him that it was sent by Mars to be a protection to the city, and indeed the pestilence immediately abated. Numa made the copse and surrounding fields sacred to the Muses. Its spring was reserved for the exclusive use of the Vestals. So that the celestial shield might not be stolen, Numa commissioned eleven others like it in every detail. These were given to the Salii, who brandished them in their annual dance through the city. Numa urged the Romans to give special veneration to one of the sylvan goddesses, Tacita, the silent one, for she should be invoked before any great deliberation or action was undertaken.

Numa's fame grew to such a degree that legends rose in his own time. He was said to have received a charm for protection against thunder and lightning from Jupiter himself. He knew that the demigods Picus and Faunus frequented the streams of the Aventine hill and determined to capture them. When snared in a spring into which he had introduced wine and honey, they at first changed themselves into hideous shapes. When Numa remained unmoved, they grudgingly granted his wish for the talisman by summoning Jupiter from the heavens. The Lord of the Sky was annoyed at being called, and he told Numa that if he wished to charm thunder and lightning, he would have to use heads. Jupiter thought to avoid giving a talisman to Numa by requiring a sacrifice Numa would be unwilling to make on principle. But Egeria had taught Numa what to say.

"How?" asked Numa, "With the heads of onions?"
"No," thundered Jupiter, laughing, "with the heads of men!"
Numa was unshaken. "You mean", he said, "with the hairs of men's heads."
"No," smiled Jupiter, "with living . . ."
". . . pilchards", interrupted Numa.

Amused and pacified, Jupiter granted the talisman and returned. Even in the time of Plutarch, Romans made amulets for protection from thunder and lightning out of onions, hair and pilchards.

Once, when Rome seemed threatened, a messenger rushed to Numa and said, "Enemies are approaching." Without altering his voice or gestures, Numa replied, "And I am sacrificing." Ancient authors agree that the changes he wrought in Roman character affected surrounding lands. From fear, neighbouring cities came to view Rome as a city of industry and piety. Knowing that idle energy tends towards mischief, Numa divided the land around Rome into distinct agricultural regions, over each of which he appointed superintendents. He believed that whilst agriculture provided a sound economic base for a community, the activity of farming nurtured moral character. He visited these regions in person to commend the industrious and quicken the indolent. He similarly reorganized the urban population by dividing them according to trade and by establishing guilds. In both actions, he provided the means which more than anything else dissolved ancestral loyalties – Sabine, Latin, Romulian, Tatian – into communal allegiances. He taught the Romans to take their most solemn oaths to the goddess Faith.

Unlike most of the rulers of Rome, who died in battle, of disease or at the hands of rivals, Numa lived over eighty years, gradually declining until death received him peacefully. As he had ordered, two stone coffins were made – one for his body and the other for his books – and both were buried under the Janiculum hill. Legend says that both caskets were washed out of their resting places during torrential rains about four hundred years later. One was found to be mysteriously empty, but the other held its books. The praetor Petilius studied them and swore an oath to the senate that they were not suitable to be shown to the people, and so they were burnt. Another story has it that the books were burnt because they were discovered to be forgeries. Through a reign of some forty years, Numa gave Rome its second and real founding. He was her first law-giver and last great king. His warlike successor was struck down by a thunderbolt – by divine justice, thought many – and the next three were assassinated, and the seventh in the line founded by Romulus was deposed, exiled and replaced by the republic.

If Numa's religion was slowly lost in the shadows of empty ritual and crude conceptions of contracts with the gods, even the shadow bore fruit, for the respect for law and legal process it engendered has affected Europe and her New World progeny up to the present. If the world has forgotten Numa's gods, it is still bound by Roman law and by Numa's calendar. Perhaps Plutarch best summed up Numa's enduring contribution to humanity when he wrote:

There is no need of compulsion or menaces to affect the multitude, for the mere sight itself of a shining and conspicuous example of virtue in the life of their prince will bring them spontaneously to virtue, and to a conformity with that blameless and blessed life of good will and mutual concord, supported by temperance and justice, which is the highest benefit that human means can confer. He is the truest ruler who can best introduce it into the hearts and practice of his subjects. It is the praise of Numa that no one seems ever to have discerned this so clearly as he.


This deathless Yoga, this deep union,
I taught Vivaswata, the Lord of Light;
Vivaswata to Manu gave it; he
To Ikshwaku; so passed it down the line
Of all My royal Rishis. Then, with years,
The truth grew dim and perished, noble Prince!
Now once again to thee it is declared –
This ancient lore, this mystery supreme –
Seeing I find thee votary and friend.