Plutarch’s Lives: Numa Pompilius – The Lawgiver of Rome

Many people know that Romulus and Remus, those wolf-suckled brothers, founded Rome, but what happened between them and the Roman Empire of aqueducts, Caesars, and gladiators? By Plutarch’s account, it was Numa Pompilius who used religion and clever social engineering to lay the foundations of what became the eternal city of Rome.

At the time the Romulus died (or was taken up into the heavens by a whirlwind, according to some accounts), Rome was divided between the group that settled the area with Romulus and the Sabine tribe, which said it was a colony of Sparta. Neither group wanted to be subservient to the other, so after a long discussion, the two decided that each would pick a member of the other tribe to be king. The Romans chose a Sabine, and the Sabines gave their choice to the Romans, because they wanted to have a Sabine king. The man chosen was Numa Pompilius.

Now, in the choice of Numa, we see again the idea of leadership versus command. He was chosen, Plutarch tells us, because he “disposed to virtue, which he had yet more subdued by discipline, a severe life, and the study of philosophy; means which had not only succeeded in expelling the baser passions, but also the violent and rapacious temper which barbarians are apt to think highly of; true bravery, in his judgment, was regarded as consisting in the subjugation of our passions by reason.”

Because of these traits, both groups trusted him to make the right decisions for the future of the state and so picked him to lead, rather than submitting to his command out of fear of some sanction.

On being persuaded to take office, which took some doing on the part of the Romans, Numa began to create a unified state out of Rome by remaking it in accordance with his thoughts about how an individual should lead life. In his speech to the ambassadors who came to offer him the kingship, he says these traits will like not make him a good king.

“The very points of my character that are most commended mark me as unfit to reign, — love of retirement and of studies inconsistent with business, a passion that has become inveterate in me for peace, for unwarlike occupations, and for the society of men whose meetings are but those of worship and kindly intercourse, whose lives in general are spent upon their farms and their pastures. I should by be, methinks, a laughingstock, while I should go about to inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and abhorrence of violence and war to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king.”

Still, he took the job of king, and then proceeded to lay the foundations for a much greater city by giving the kinds of lessons he described. Of course, looking at it from modern eyes, it is easy to see Numa as a clever politician as well.

His first step as a king was to make a sacrifice to the gods and wait for an auspicious sign so he could ascend the throne with divine approval. Once he had that, he formally took on the job and first disbanded Romulus’s official guard, saying that he would trust the people that put their trust in him.

To Numa we owe the creation of the vestal virgins. He also created many other religious offices, including the pontifex maximus. He reorganized the Roman calendar, making December the last month, and he decreed that when the city had public processions and sacred prayers, the citizens should stop working and give their full attention to religion “free from all noises and cries that accompany manual labour, and clear for the sacred solemnity.”

“At times, also, he filled their imagination with religious terrors, professing that strange apparitions has been seen, and dreadful voices heard; thus subduing and humbling their minds by a sense of supernatural fears.”

Along with the religious efforts, Numa practiced some social engineering as well to get all the people of Rome to see themselves as Romans. As noted above, when Numa was chosen to be kind, the city residents divided themselves along tribal lines. Numa reorganized people by their trades into companies and guilds and assigned to each of them courts, councils, and religious observances. “In this manner, all factious distinctions began, for the first time, to pass out of use, no person any longer being either though of or spoken of under the notion of a Sabine or a Roman, a Romulian or a Tatian; and the new division became a source of general harmony and intermixture.”

The results of Numa’s work were that the gates of the temple of Janus, which were only open during a time of war, remained closed for 43 years, and the people of Rome and all of Italy enjoyed peace and prosperity, according to Plutarch. “Festival days and sports, and the secure and peaceful interchange of friendly visits and hospitalities prevailed all through the whole of Italy.”

Plutarch writes, “perhaps, too, 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….”

By Plutarch’s account, Numa lived a life of piety and temperance. He also may have been a friend or student of Pythagoras, the philosopher and scientist who gave us the theorem about the right triangle. (As an aside, we normally think of the ancients as ignorant folk who thought the sun revolved around the earth. Plutarch tells us that the fire in the temple of Delphi was lit with a device made from mirrors that concentrated the rays of the sun, and that the Pythagoreans through that the earth moved and kept a circular motion around “the seat of fire.” In other words, the Earth revolved around the sun.)

Now, there are a variety of other reasons that this peace and goodwill may have reigned over Italy, if in fact it did, and Plutarch is not reporting a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. Crops may have been abundant, the leaders of the various tribes may have felt secure and found more profit in trade than raiding, and Plutarch does point out that as the Roman Empire grew, the gates of war were nearly constantly open. Numa does not seem to have been very interested in the growth of the Empire.

Still, I think it is important to consider the power of context. In the modern book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the context in which people live can determine their behavior. As examples, he talks about Bernard Goetz, the man who shot three teens on a New York subway and the changes in the crime rate in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. He also talks about how phenomena like suicide rates can be powerfully affect by context.

Other recent research shows that social networks can affect powerfully obesity rates and whether or not smokers quit smoking.

What this seems to point to, is that Numa may have been using these social tools to affect not only Rome, but also the city’s neighbors. The example that he set, by truly possessing the qualities he sought to inculcate in the populace, and the religious rites and ceremonies he created may have formed a very powerful context in a world devoid of mass communications.

Next Time: Comparing the Spartans – Plutarch Has Lycurgus and Numa Go Head to Head


2 thoughts on “Plutarch’s Lives: Numa Pompilius – The Lawgiver of Rome

  1. Thank you so very much for posting these. I’m now, reading through the Great Books and find it quite helpful to read this afterwards. Twice now, you’ve cleared something up that was confusing, and this time, you even showed me something I missed! Guess, I wasn’t paying very much attention. 🙂 Any who, I just wanted to thank you very much for these and say this:

    Numa definitely was creating a better example and, in fact, if someone finds something positive/good and begins to use it, others will eventually follow. It’s human nature. Someone out there is also looking for a solution to problem X and if you’ve discovered it, they’ll find it. And, the more people you gather, the bigger it gets, and the more it spreads, and the more people know about it.

    Also, I loved the note on the mirrors, and the earth revolving around the sun. I used to believe that we, in present day, were so much smarter but, as I read of the philosophers, I think, you know what? we’re probably just as smart today as back then! We may know more physical things, but when it comes to the soul/spirit/being that we are, no one’s figured out much more then they have. Hence, the stagnation in that area.

    Philosophy is always an interesting thing to check out because, to me, there is no definite. It’s not something which can be proven with science, one way or the other. Who we are…and I mean REALLY are…is not something you can dissect to understand. So, yeah, you can get the meat body, but that’s it. You can’t dissect the mind of an individual…(unless of course you believe that we’re all just meat sticks walking around for a bit until we die…and that our mind is actually our brain…) Point is, the reason I believe that their ideas are valuable and usable today as they were those thousands of years ago, is because Philosophy is something which can be argued 100 different ways, and each could possibly be valuable to one day, finding the truth in it all.

    Again, I really enjoyed your posts. I’ve saved it on my computer and will continue to read them. Thank you! 🙂

    As a side note, not sure if you consider yourself a philosopher or not (though I would think you seem to be one…), but I have a website I’m putting up for discussions on topics of history, philosophy, people, events, and everything which goes with those things and am looking for more people to start the discussion. If you’d like to register (totally FREE btw) it’s:

    I’d LOVE for you to join, and if you know anyone bring them along! This isn’t a daily or weekly discussion, it’s a “anytime you get the urge to tell people something, spit it out on the web…on Proboards”. I’d love to get some more people so, if you know anyone, again, I’d love to have them come too. 🙂


    • Serena,

      Thanks for your comments. I would not call myself a philosopher, but more of a reader. I am struggling with the next reading. But I am trying to work through these readings in the hope that I might be a little better at life. I am rather sporadic at posting on this blog, but I am working on getting better. The main reason for starting it, though, was to talk with people like you and the others who have posted comment. I wsh we could all get together for a beer and talk about all these things. Though I confess it is because I am greedy and would love to learn from you all.


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