I.2. Numa Pompilius, “honoured with a celestial marriage” (Num. 4.6)

Plutarch does not engage in such historical polemics with the second king
of Rome as he does with Lycurgus14, even if the only historical fact about this
figure is his own name: it is even possible to study the stages by which his
legendary biography was constructed15. Recently, some archeological evidence
has come to support his existence, namely, the discovery made by Clementina
Panella in 200716. The excavation team led by this archeologist from Rome’s
Sapienza University uncovered a temple or sanctuary (probably dedicated
to the Goddess of Fortune), which, accordingly to Panella, dated from the
period of Numa Pompilius (8th-7th BC). In addition, no statues or figures were
found, a fact that Panella explains by the suggestion that it has to do with the
prohibition of images of the gods in his temples.

In fact, Plutarch in the Life of Numa (8.7)17 does ascribe this practice to Numa, regarding it as a Pythagoric influence. Still, even if this important discovery seems to confirm this ancient religious Roman practice in a period which legend attributes to Numa’s reign, it
is not yet truly definitive concerning the historical existence of Numa himself.
After Romulus’ disappearance, the city had been plunged into stasis
and the oligarchical element had become predominant, although “it was the
pleasure of all to have a king”. Then, both factions, those who had built the city
with Romulus and the Sabines, agreed to appoint the Sabine Numa Pompilius
as king, well-known for his abilities as a “judge”, or “counsellor” and for his
“rational contemplation of gods’ (θεῶν) nature and power” (3.8)18. At first
Numa declined the kingdom, but eventually did not resist the people’s appeals,
which were even ratified by auspicious omens. In fact, Numa would subdue the
people’s minds by means of fear of the gods (δεισιδαιμονία) and by the practice
of religious events (sacrifices, processions, religious dances), accompanying
them with strange signs, such as vague terrors, apparitions, threatening voices
(8.3). In the last stage of Numa’s rule, the religious reform had accomplished
its purpose: “the city became so tractable (…) that they accepted his stories,
though fabulously strange, and thought nothing incredible or impossible
which he wished them to believe or do” (ὥστε μύθοις ἐοικότας τὴν ἀτοπίαν
λόγους παραδέχεσθαι, καὶ νομίζειν μηδὲν ἄπιστον εἶναι μηδὲ ἀμήχανον
ἐκείνου βουληθέντος: 15.1). In the study Science and Politics in the Ancient
world, B. Farrington 1939 aims to identify the obstacles to the spread of a
scientific outlook in the ancient world and claims that one of these obstacles
consisted in popular superstition. He argues that this popular superstition had
two different sources: popular ignorance and deliberate political deceit. In this
narrative, the political lie through religion and Numa’s exploitation of religious
effects on people can be seen as an example of superstition imposed upon the
In contrast to his Greek counterpart, Numa wrote down his laws, “as the Greek lawgivers their tablets”, taught them to the priests and asked for them to be buried with his body19. Nevertheless, since he did not create a highly controlled educational system similar to the Lycurgean agoge, the peace generated by Numa would die with him and a new stasis began. His religious institutions, however, would represent an identifying feature for the entire Roman people20. In fact, the paired contrast of the warrior-king (Romulus) and the priest-king (Numa) lies in the very heart of the Indo-European
thought – similar to the antithesis of Varuna and Mitra in Vedic Literature –,
as Dumézil (1958: 80) illustrated: “Numa complétant l’oeuvre de Romulus,
donnant à l’idéologie royale de Rome son second pole, aussi nécessaire que le

II. The noble lie as a ruling instrument

In the third book of the Republic (389c-d), Plato accepts the act of lying
only when it is done by city leaders for the people’s benefit: “The rulers then
of the city may, if anybody, fitly lie on account of enemies or citizens for the
benefit of the state”.
Before Plato, there are two important texts on the political function of
religion: the fragment from a drama by the oligarch Critias, and Isocrates’
epideictic essay Busiris (24-25) written as a eulogy of Busiris, the mythical
king of Egypt22. The fragment of the former consists of an explanation of the
origin of the laws and a rationalist theory of the origin of religion, describing
it as just a political expedient by a “shrewd and wise-thoughted man” (πυκνός
τις καὶ σοφὸς γνώμην ἀνήρ), i.e. the lawgiver: “Whence he brought in the
divinity (τὸ θεῖον), telling them that there is a diety (ὡς ἔστι δαίμων). By
this discourse he introduced the most welcome of teachings hiding the truth
with a false story (ψευδεῖ καλύψας τὴν ἀλήθειαν λόγῳ)”23 and he goes even
further, arguing: “in my opinion, someone first persuaded mortals to think
that there is a race of deities”. Regarding this passage, B. Farrington 1939:
88-106, who traces the part played by this concept in the formulation of
the Platonic doctrine of γενναῖόν ψεῦδος, eloquently observed that, at this
point, Critias was clearly confusing the political function of religion with its  genesis. Regarding the second text, the rhetorician Isocrates is mentioning
the intentions of the religious legislator of Egyptians who guaranteed people’s
obedience by introducing little pious practices, ensuring that the mob would
obey important commands given to them by their superiors24.
Based on the idea that all systems of government were, without exception,
bad (R. 497c-d), Plato always sought the construction of a system of belief and
a system of education25, which would guarantee the well being of the State.
In fact, regarding Plato’s condemnation of poets’ tales, he does not object to
them for being untrue, but for not being unedifying26.Thus, Plato’s political lie
should be so skilfully adapted that it should become a kind of “second nature”27,
because it should appear as truth to the subjects and, according to Socrates,
even to rulers (R. 414d, 459d-e). In fact, the general belief in myths is a proof
that it is possible to make people believe anything, from which the legislator
would take advantage, as Plutarch also pointed out about Numa (15.1): “they
accepted his stories, though fabulously strange, and thought nothing incredible
or impossible which he wished them to believe or do”.
Polybius, regarding the Roman use of religion and superstition,
also approves its use for disciplinary purposes (16.12.9-11), but as F. W.
Walbank 1967: 515 noted: “his interpretation of Roman religio is that of
the Greek rationalist, not of the native Roman”. In fact, Polybius’ religious
scepticism is linked with a tendency towards Euhemerism, which, based on
the mythographer Euhemerus’ view of religion, established a rationalist and
humanistic approach to the interpretation of myths during the 3th century
BC. In his tenth book, Polybius (10.2.8-10), comparing Scipio to Lycurgus,
stated that both made their political scheme more acceptable and credible by
appealing to superstition: “For neither must we suppose that Lycurgus drew
up the constitution of Sparta (…) solely prompted by the Pythia, nor that
Scipio won such an empire from his country by following the suggestion of
dreams and omens. (…) That everything he did was done with calculation and
foresight, and that all his enterprises fell out as he had reckoned (…)”28. Based
on this passage, M. Guelfucci 2010: 147 has highlighted Scipio’s features
that plans everything μετὰ λογισμοῦ καὶ προνοίας, having as a result events
that will occur κατὰ λόγον. Similarly, Plutarch also characterizes Lycurgus,firstly, for his “wisdom and foresight [σοφίαν καὶ πρόνοιαν], by contrast with the factions and misgovernment of the people and kings of Messenia and Argos, who were kinsmen and neighbours of the Spartans” (Lyc. 7.2) and then, when he planned the best way to keep the Spartan constitution unchangeable, for having desired “so far as human forethought (ἀνθρωπίνης προνοίας) could accomplish the task, to make it immortal, and let it go
down unchanged to future ages” (Lyc. 29.1). Thus, the lie of such a ruler, if in
the best interest of community, may well be seen as a political result of the
faculty of human pronoia, which is also shared by the divine being29. Later,
Cicero (Div. 18.42) refers very clearly that the use of superstition through
divinatory practices had become particularly useful for the manipulation of
the masses in his own day.
In these Lives, Plutarch is also seeking to rationalize this traditional
material and come up with an explanation, because only “duller minds
are content with history if they learn the mere general drift and upshot
of the matter” (De gen. Socr. 575C). As Plutarch himself stated in the
well known and commented beginning of the Life of Theseus (1.3), “may
I therefore succeed in purifying Fable, making her submit to reason and
take on the semblance of History” (εἴη μὲν οὖν ἡμῖν ἐκκαθαιρόμενον
λόγῳ τὸ μυθῶδες ὑπακοῦσαι καὶ λαβεῖν ἱστορίας ὄψιν ). C. Pelling
2011 has already studied the way in which Plutarch treats his historical
sources according to their periods, analysing how this rationalization
process works specially in the Lives of Theseus and Romulus, which aims
to attribute “credibility” (τὸ πιθανόν). Accordingly to C. Pelling 2011:
174-175, two different kinds of rationalization can be distinguished: the
first can be found in Herodotus and consists of “how a story could develop,
it explains away a legend” and the second, the so-called Thucydidean,
works by secularizing the historical fact, i. e., Agamemnon gathered the
Trojan expedition because of his power, not because of any oaths (1.9).
In this case of the pair of Lives, and from what has been argued, there is
a Thucydidean rationalization of this mythical material that also follows
that thread of Greek thinking about religion, which was eloquently
expressed by Critias.


(to be continued)

Ália Rosa Rodrigues
Universidade de Coimbra


13 Modern scholarship is increasingly convinced that Sparta did change profoundly over
the four centuries (6th-3th BC), culturally as well as demographically. See A. Powell 2010: 87,129 n. 5.

14 According to Plutarch (Num. 3.4), this man of Sabine descent was born in the very day when Rome was founded by Romulus, that is, the twenty-first of April due to κατὰ δή τινα θείαν τύχην.

15 See R. M. Ogilvie 1978: 88.

16 The archaeological campaign began in 2006, with the help of 130 students and volunteers,and has been led by this archeologist, who had been also excavating in the Forum for twenty years. According to this scholar, the wall of the temple was found seven meters below the surface and lies between the Palatine and Velian hills, close to the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus and Via Sacra. Besides the temple, were also found two wells, both full of thousands of objects, such as votive offerings and cult objects, including the bones of birds and animals, ceramic bowls and cups. In 2006, Andrea Carandini, Professor of Archeology at La Sapienza, announced that he had discovered the remains of a royal palace dating to the time of Romulus, which had a monumental entrance, ornate furniture and tiles, having ten times the size of ordinary homes of  the period. Sources: Richard Owen, Times Online (October 8, 2007).

17 “And in like manner Numa forbade the Romans to revere an image of God which had the form of man or beast. Nor was there among them in this earlier time any painted or graven likeness of Deity, but while for the first hundred and seventy years they were continually building temples and establishing sacred shrines, they made no statues in bodily form for them, convinced that it was impious to liken higher things to lower, and that it was impossible to apprehend Deity except by the intellect” [emphasis added].

18 After Tatia’s death, Numa was determined to live in country places, passing his days with a goddess (δαίμων) and, according to Plutarch, “the goddess Egeria loved him and bestowed herself upon him a life of blessedness and wisdom more than human.” (4.2).

19 In this case, Plutarch justifies his option as an instance of Pythagorean influence, which established that precepts should “implant the memory and practice of them in living disciples worthy to receive them” (22.3-4).

20 As Polybius (6.56.2-13) demonstrated: “the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. (…) I mean superstition which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State”. See also F. W. Walbank’s commentary on this passage (1957: 741).

21 R. M. Ogilvie 1978: 88. For a recent revision of Dumézil’s perspective on the early history of Rome, see D. Briquel 2006.

22 See also Iambl. VP 179 and X. Mem. 1.4. The idea of the divine origin of law as a socially useful concept can be found in the Pythagorean literature: on this matter see A. Delatte 1974:44-46.

23 Fr. 19 Snell (Eleg., Trag. et Phil., Fragmenta). This is an excerpt from Whittaker’s translation (2 1925, Priests, philosophers and prophets. London, p. 77).

24 B. Farrington 1939: 89-90.

25 On the influence of Sparta on Plato’s Laws, see G. Morrow 1960. On the resemblances
between non-argumentative techniques of persuasion and modes of rule used by the Spartan authorities and the elements of Plato’s Laws, see A. Powell 1994.

26 Pl., R. 10, 602b: “Yet still he will nonetheless imitate, though in every case he does not
know in what way the thing is bad or good. But, as it seems, the thing he will imitate will be the thing that appears beautiful to the ignorant multitude”.

27 B. Farrington 1939: 93.

28 Translation by W. R. Paton 1976: 105

29 As F. Frazier 2010: VIII stated: “On trouve, situées ici au niveau divin, des qualités
d’intelligence qui interviennent pareillement chez les hommes: dans les Définitions transmises à l’intérieur du corpus platonicien, la πρόνοια apparaît comme παρασκευὴ πρὸς μέλλοντά τινα (414a)”. This scholar (1996: 209) does not recognize “une prudence expectionelle” in the case of Lycurgus, but just a “banale” pronoia.


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