City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

Numa, the Peaceful King

After Romulus had been taken from them, the Romans at first could not agree as to who should be king in his place. The citizens who had first settled there wished to choose a king from their own number again; but the Sabines objected to this. They said that they had faithfully obeyed Romulus while he lived, and that now it was their turn to have a king chosen from among themselves.

For a long time, the two parties could not come to an agreement. In the meantime, the Senate took the place of a king, and carried on the government itself. This, however, did not please the people. They said that now they had many kings, instead of one; and they demanded that a real king should be chosen. At last, it was arranged that the old citizens should choose a king from among the Sabines; and Numa was then chosen to rule in the place of Romulus.

The new king was different from Romulus in many ways. Romulus had been a great soldier, and he had trained the people of the city for war; but, during his time, the men of Rome had little time or thought to give to anything else. It seemed to King Numa that there were other things which were of more importance than the knowledge of war, and the art of winning battles. He saw, too, that the Romans were too harsh and violent, as warlike people always are; and he wished to soften their manners and make them less rude.

So King Numa made peace with all the enemies of Rome; and, during the three and forty years that he ruled, there was no war. This left the Romans free to till their fields, and learn the arts of peace; and to encourage them in this, Numa divided among the citizens the lands which Romulus had won in war. King Numa ruled his people as a wise and peaceful king; but, better than this, he also taught the Romans how to honor their gods.

The Romans believed in many gods, indeed, almost everything, and every act, was looked upon by them as having a god to watch over it. In later times, when they came to know the Greeks, they confused their own gods with the gods of the Greeks; and still later, they sometimes borrowed gods from other peoples with whom they came in contact. So, if we tried to write down all the gods that the Romans believed in, it would make a very long list indeed, and not a very interesting one. But there were some of the gods that were very important in the life of the Romans, and you ought to know about these.

The chief of the gods was Jupiter, the "Sky-father," whom they called the "Best and Greatest." He sent forth the clouds and ruled the storm, and the thunder-bolt was his weapon. It was he, too, who sent the birds whose flight showed the will of the gods to men; and Victory and Good Faith were his constant companions.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Next to Jupiter (or Jove, as he was sometimes called), the Romans worshiped Mars, the god of war. He was also the god who kept off sickness from the cattle, and blight and disease from the growing grain. They also worshiped the goddess Juno, as the companion of Jupiter, and the queen of the sky. It was she, they thought, who cared for the Roman women, and made their children strong and vigorous. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and inventions. She taught men the use of numbers; and each year the priest solemnly drove a nail into her temple, so that they might in this way keep count of the years as they passed; on her festival, too, the school children had holiday, for she was the goddess of schools and learning. Vesta, the goddess of the hearth-fire and of the home, was also worshiped by the Romans, and that too in a special way, as you shall see in a little while.

Last of all, there was a curious god of Beginnings; called Janus, to whom the Romans sacrificed whenever they began anything new. The first month of the year was called in his honor "January," or the month of Janus. He was especially the god of gateways; and when the Romans wished to represent him, they made a figure with two faces on one head, to show that, as the guardian of the gate, Janus looked in both directions. When the Romans were at war with any people, the gates of his temple stood open, but when they were at peace, they were closed; and during all the reign of Numa, the gates of Janus were fast shut.

The Romans already believed in these gods when Numa became king; but he showed them more clearly the way in which each god was to be worshiped. He seemed so wise in these matters that the Romans believed that one of the gods themselves must teach him. At last it was whispered that he was often seen to wander forth to a sacred grove where dwelt a nymph, or mountain spirit, named Egeria; and the Romans believed that this nymph loved him and advised him as to what would be pleasing to each of the gods.

One of the things that Numa did was to divide the priests up into different companies, or colleges, and give each company its own part in the worship of the gods. In this way, he set apart separate priests for the worship of Jove and Mars and Romulus; and the chiefs of these priests, together with the king, were the high priests of Rome, and had charge of all things connected with the gods. A college of sacred heralds was also formed, whose business it should be to make a solemn declaration of war when the Romans took up arms against an enemy, and to proclaim the treaty of peace when the war was at an end.

For the worship of the goddess Vesta, Numa formed a company of virgins, or maidens, whose number was set at six. It was their duty to offer prayers each day, in the circular temple of the goddess; and, above all, they must take care that the holy fire which burned upon Vesta's altar was never allowed to die out.

Only the daughters of the noblest families of Rome could be appointed for this service; and they could not be chosen before they were six years old, nor after they were ten. When a Vestal Virgin was appointed, she was taken to the house of the Vestals, where she must live for the next thirty years. The first ten years she spent in learning the duties of her office; the next ten years she practiced what she had learned, and the last ten she taught their duties to the newly-made Vestals. When the thirty years were past, she might leave the Vestals, and marry and have a home of her own, if she wished; but she rarely did so. Great honor was shown them by the Romans, and if a criminal, who was being led away to imprisonment, met a Vestal Virgin by chance, he was at once set free.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


There was one other company of priests, which arose in a peculiar way, and had very curious duties. These were the "dancing priests" of Mars, and the Roman writers say that they arose in the following manner:

In the eighth year of Numa's reign, a great sickness came upon the Romans; and while the people were much discouraged on this account, suddenly a shield of brass fell from the heavens at the feet of King Numa. When he consulted the nymph Egeria about it, she told him that it was the shield of Mars; and that the god had sent it down for the preservation of the city and that it should be kept with great care.

Then King Numa ordered that eleven other shields just like this one should be made; so that, if an enemy of the Roman people should attempt to steal the shield of Mars, he might not be able to tell the true from the false. This was done, and then King Numa appointed twelve young men of the noblest families to take the shields in charge; and he appointed a yearly festival which they should keep in honor of the god.

Each year, when March the month of Mars came around, these priests were to take the sacred shields, and go leaping and dancing through the streets of the city, singing old songs in his honor. This festival lasted for twenty-four days, and each day the procession came to an end at some appointed place. Then the shields were taken into one of the houses nearby, and there the dancing priests were entertained with a fine supper.

Numa also ordered that whenever a war should break out, and it should be necessary for a Roman army to march out to battle, the general should first go to the altar of the war-god, and strike the sacred shields and cry out:

"Awake, Mars, and watch over us!"

Then so the Romans believed the god would answer their appeal by going unseen before the army as it marched to battle; and in later days stories were told of times when the god appeared in the form of a young man to encourage the soldiers, and lead them on when they were in danger of being defeated.

In this way, King Numa arranged the worship of the different gods. By the sacrifices, religious dances, and processions which he appointed, he made the worship pleasant and agreeable to the people. So they followed the rules which he laid down for them, and, in the course of time, the Romans began to lose some of the fierceness which had marked the first rude settlers.

At last, after many years of quiet rule, King Numa died peacefully of old age, and all the nations about Rome so honored the memory of this king that they sent crowns and offerings to his funeral.