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To Numa the traditional second king of Rome (assumed dates 715 to 673 B.C.) later ages attributed many of the religious usages 10 of the city. We may dismiss Numa as legendary; but the institutions and customs ascribed to him were not legendary, and survived nearly intact down to the triumph of Christianity, thus illustrating the essentially conservative character of the Roman genius. Note that the old Roman religion was almost formalism incarnate. The relations of god and worshiper are those of creditor and debtor; the latter must discharge his duty literally, and in exchange require a due amount of favor. Almost no religion was so deficient in spirituality as that of Rome. It did, however, put a premium on the scrupulous performance of duty.
The original constitution of the priests, called Pontifices is ascribed unto Numa, and he himself was, it is said, the first of them; and that they have the name of Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power and command over all. The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons and assigns the priests the title of bridge-makers.1 The sacrifices performed on the bridge were amongst the most sacred and ancient, and the keeping and repairing of the bridge attached, like any other public sacred office, to the priesthood. It was accounted not simply unlawful, but a positive sacrilege, to pull down the wooden bridge; which moreover is said, in obedience to an oracle, to have been built entirely of timber and fastened with wooden pins, without nails or cramps of iron. The stone bridge was built a very long time after, when Æmilius was quæstor, and they do, indeed, say also that the wooden bridge was not so old as Numa’s time. . . .
The office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, was to declare and interpret the divine law, . . . he not only prescribed rules for public ceremony, but regulated the sacrifices of private persons, not suffering them to vary from established 11 custom, and giving information to every one of what was requisite for purposes of worship or supplication. He was also guardian of the vestal virgins, the institution of whom, and of their perpetual fire, was attributed to Numa, who, perhaps, fancied the charge of pure and uncorrupted flames would be fitly intrusted to chaste and unpolluted persons, or that fire, which consumes, but produces nothing, bears an analogy to the virgin estate.
Some are of opinion that these vestals had no other business than the preservation of this fire; but others conceive that they were keepers of other divine secrets, concealed from all but themselves. Gegania and Verenia, it is recorded, were the names of the first two virgins consecrated and ordained by Numa; Canuleia and Tarpeia succeeded; Servius Tullius afterwards added two, and the number of four has been continued to the present time.
The Term of Service for the Vestals
The statutes prescribed by Numa for the vestals were these: that they should take a vow of virginity for the space of thirty years, the first ten of which they were to spend in learning their duties, the second ten in performing them, and the remaining ten in teaching and instructing others. Thus the whole term being completed, it was lawful for them to marry, and leaving the sacred order, to choose any condition of life that pleased them; but of this permission few, as they say, made use; and in cases where they did so, it was observed that their change was not a happy one, but accompanied ever after with regret and melancholy; so that the greater number, from religious fears and scruples, forbore, and continued to old age and death in the strict observance of a single life.
For this condition he compensated by great privileges and prerogatives; as that they had power to make a will in the lifetime of their father; that they had a free administration 12 of their own affairs without guardians or tutor, which was the privilege of women who were the mothers of three children; when they go abroad, they have the fasces carried before them; and if in their walks they chance to meet a criminal on his way to execution, it saves his life, upon oath being made that the meeting was accidental, and not concerted or of set purpose. Any one who presses upon the chair on which they are carried is put to death.
Punishment of Unfaithful Vestals
If these vestals commit any minor fault, they are punishable by the high-priest only, who scourges the offender, sometimes with her clothes off, in a dark place, with a curtain drawn between; but she that has broken her vow is buried alive near the gate called Collina, where a little mound of earth stands inside the city, reaching some little distance, called in Latin agger; under it a narrow room is constructed, to which a descent is made by stairs; here they prepare a bed, and light a lamp, and leave a small quantity of victuals, such as bread, water, a pail of milk, and some oil; that so that body which had been consecrated and devoted to the most sacred service of religion might not be said to perish by such a death as famine. The culprit herself is put in a litter, which they cover over, and tie her down with cords on it, so that nothing she utters may be heard. They then take her to the forum; all people silently go out of the way as she passes, and such as follow accompany the bier with solemn and speechless sorrow; and, indeed, there is not any spectacle more appalling, nor any day observed by the city with greater appearance of gloom and sadness. When they come to the place of execution, the officers loose the cords, and then the high-priest, lifting his hands to heaven, pronounces certain prayers to himself before the act; then he brings out the 13 prisoner, being still covered, and placing her upon the steps that lead down to the cell, turns away his face with the rest of the priests; the stairs are drawn up after she has gone down, and a quantity of earth is heaped up over the entrance to the cell, so as to prevent it from being distinguished from the rest of the mound. This is the punishment of those who break their vow of virginity.
The Priests known as “Salii”
[From Numa’s day also were dated twelve sacred targets of bronze, said to have the virtue of guarding the city from pestilence.]
The keeping of these targets was committed to the charge of certain priests, called Salii, who received their name from that jumping dance which the Salii themselves use, when in the month of March they carry the sacred targets through the city; at which procession they are habited in short frocks of purple, girt with a broad belt studded with brass; on their heads they wear a brass helmet, and carry in their hands short daggers, which they clash every now and then against the targets. But the chief thing is the dance itself. They move with much grace, performing, in quick time and close order, various intricate figures, with a great display of strength and agility. The targets are not made round, nor like proper targets, of a complete circumference, but are cut out into a wavy line, the ends of which are rounded off and turned in at the thickest part towards each other.
After Numa had in this manner instituted these several orders of priests, he erected, near the temple of Vesta, what is called to this day Regia, or king’s house, where he spent the most part of his time, performing the divine service, instructing the priests, or conversing with them on sacred subjects. He had another house upon the Mount Quirinalis, the site of which they show to this day. In all public processions and 14 solemn prayers, criers were sent before to give notice to the people that they shuold forbear their work, and rest.2
The Worship of Janus
[Numa is alleged to have reformed the calendar and named the months.]
January was so called from Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war. For this Janus, whether in remote antiquity he were a demi-god or a king, was certainly a great lover of civil and social unity, and one who reclaimed men from brutal and savage living; for which reason they figure him with two faces, to represent the two states and conditions out of the one of which he brought mankind, to lead them into the other. His temple at Rome has two gates, which they call the gates of war, and shut in the times of peace; of which latter there was very seldom an example, for, as the Roman empire was enlarged and extended, it was so encompassed with barbarous nations and enemies to be resisted, that it was seldom or never at peace. Only in the time of Augustus Cæsar, after he had overcome Antony, this temple was shut; as likewise once before, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius3 were consuls; but then it was not long before, wars breaking out, the gates were again opened. But, during the reign of Numa, those gates were 15 never seen open a single day, but continued constantly shut for a space of forty-three years together; such an entire and universal cessation of war existed.1
1 Nevertheless this seems the probably origin of the word. The Pontifices are said to have had the making or maintenance of the Sublician bridge built over the Tiber by Ancus Marcius.
2 Note the extreme formalism of the Roman religion. The people were not bound to stop working on religious holidays; but the priest must not see them work. Therefore the crier was sent ahead when the priest passed to warn the people to cease labor just for the moment. The man beheld working by the priest was subject to a fine.
3 In 235 A.D. shortly after the close of the First Punic War.
4 The reign of Numa was regularly looked back upon as a kind of a Golden Age. It is needless to say that Early Rome never enjoyed this immunity from war.
* Plutarch. See Biographical Note in Vol. I, 358.