Monday, November 26, 2012

Numa Pompilius and the nymph Egeria

Numa Pompilius conversing with Egeria in her grotto, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagan, 1792.

Oh, sweet bloglings,
I'm guessing you gave up hoping long ago that I would ever get back to my ancient Roman story telling. When we left off I was just about to wrap up the story of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s–ahem–secondking. That was 10 months ago.

With an initial plan to add one step each week to our stroll through Roman history, I see that after roughly 135 weeks, I have written a history post a grand total of 8 times. Or, to put it another way, roughly once every four months.

Pathetic, I agree.

One can only push ahead, and try to do better in the future.

Today I will officially finish the story of Numa Pompilius, and I promise, you will never hear his name from me again. (For the first time in history, the name Tullus Hostilius will bring unbridled excitement– at least for me. I’m easily stimulated.) In previous posts I described how Numa was Rome’s most pious king, instituting the cult of theVestal Virgins, reforming religious laws and reorganizing the Roman calendar. He was wise and pacific, creating several codes and laws by which the Romans lived for many centuries to come. But where did he get all this wisdom?

Egeria gives the laws of Rome to Numa Pompilius, Anna Ottani Cavina, Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, Rome, 1806.

A nymph, obviously. I’m not sure exactly how this unlikely pair met, but legend goes that the widowed king was in the habit of taking long walks in the woods (in a part of Rome now known as the Villa Caffarella) with the beautiful nymph, during which she instructed him on how to run the country and its religious institutions. They would hole up in her nymphaeum for hours on end, as the works of so many celebrated artists have illustrated. All this religious and political talk was just too romantic for the young nymph and she fell head-over-heels for the aging monarch and, supposedly, the two married.

Egeria handing Numa Pompilius his shield, Angelica Kauffmann, 1794.

As history has proved time and time again, it is the woman (or in this case the nymph) who makes the man, and in fact, the long prosperity and peace during Numa’s 42-year reign, can be credited to Egeria. The Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum, which was opened in times of war and closed in times of peace, remained resolutely shut during the entire length of his reign. According to Livy, Numa Pompilius died of natural causes at 81, much to the regret of his subjects. He was buried, along with his books, on the Gianicolo Hill.

Numa Pompilius and the Nymph Egeria, Felice Giani, Palazzo Milzetti, Faenza, 1802-1805.

If you want to visit Numa and Egeria’s hangout, take a walk in the wild and sprawling Villa Caffarella near the Via Appia Antica. Egeria’s nymphaeum is in ruins but it’s still there, and its verdant and rustic setting might just inspire you with some religious epiphanies of your own.
The Nymphaeum of Egeria, Villa Caffarella, Rome.
What have we covered so far?

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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