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The Religion of Numa

Jesse Benedict Carter

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Five essays that tell the story of the religious life of the Romans from the time when their history began until the close of the reign of Augustus.

This book has 108 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1906.

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Excerpt from 'The Religion of Numa'

ROME forms no exception to the general rule that nations, like individuals, grow by contact with the outside world. In the middle of the five centuries of her republic came the Punic wars and the intimate association with Greece which made the last half of her history as a republic so different from the first half; and in the kingdom, which preceded the republic, there was a similar coming of foreign influence, which made the later kingdom with its semi-historical names of the Tarquins and Servius Tullius so different from the earlier kingdom with its altogether legendary Romulus, Numa, Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Martins. We have thus four distinct phases in the history of Roman society, and a corresponding phase of religion in each period; and if we add to this that new social structure which came into being by the reforms of Augustus at the beginning of the empire, together with the religious changes which accompanied it, we shall have the five periods which these five essays try to describe: the period before the Tarquins, that is the "Religion of Numa"; the later kingdom, that is the "Reorganisation of Servius"; the first three centuries of the republic, that is the "Coming of the Sibyl"; the closing centuries of the republic, that is the "Decline of Faith"; and finally the early empire and the "Augustan Renaissance." Like all attempts to cut history into sections these divisions are more or less arbitrary, but their convenience sufficiently justifies their creation. They must be thought of however not as representing independent blocks, arbitrarily arranged in a certain consecutive order, not as five successive religious consciousnesses, but merely as marking the entrance of certain new ideas into the continuous religious consciousness of the Roman people. The history of each of these periods is simply the record of the change which new social conditions produced in that great barometer of society, the religious consciousness of the community. It is in the period of the old kingdom that our story begins.

At first sight it may seem a foolish thing to try to draw a picture of the religious condition of a time about the political history of which we know so little, and it is only right therefore that we should inquire what sources of knowledge we possess.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when under the banner of the new-born science of "Comparative Philology" there gathered together a group of men who thought they held the key to prehistoric history, and that words themselves would tell the story where ancient monuments and literature were silent. It was a great and beautiful thought, and the science which encouraged it has taken its place as a useful and reputable member of the community of sciences, but its pretensions to the throne of the revealer of mysteries have been withdrawn by those who are its most ardent followers, and the "Indo-Germanic religion" which is brought into being is a pleasant thought for an idle hour rather than a foundation and starting-point for the study of ancient religion in general. Altogether aside from the fact that although primitive religion and nationality are in the main identical, language and nationality are by no means so--we have the great practical difficulty in the case of Greece and Rome that in the earliest period of which we have knowledge these two religions bear so little resemblance that we must either assert for the time of Indo-Germanic unity a religious development much more primitive than that which comparative philology has sketched, or we must suppose the presence of a strong decadent influence in Rome's case after the separation, which is equally difficult. If we realise that in a primitive religion the name of the god is usually the same as the name of the thing which he represents, the existence of a Greek god and a Roman god with names which correspond to the same Indo-Germanic word proves linguistically that the thing existed and had a name before the separation, but not at all that the thing was deified or that the name was the name of a god at that time. We must therefore be content to begin our study of religion much more humbly and at a much later period.

In fact we cannot go back appreciably before the dawn of political history, but there are certain considerations which enable us at least to understand the phenomena of the dawn itself, those survivals in culture which loom up in the twilight and the understanding of which gives us a fair start in our historical development. For this knowledge we are indebted to the so-called "anthropological" method, which is based on the assumption that mankind is essentially uniform, and that this essential uniformity justifies us in drawing inferences about very ancient thought from the very primitive thought of the barbarous and savage peoples of our own day. At first sight the weakness of this contention is more apparent than its strength, and it is easy to show that the prehistoric primitive culture of a people destined to civilisation is one thing, and the retarded primitive culture of modern tribes stunted in their growth is quite another thing, so that, as has so often been said, the two bear a relation to each other not unlike that of a healthy young child to a full-grown idiot. And yet there is a decided resemblance between the child and the idiot, and whether prehistoric or retarded, primitive culture shows everywhere strong likeness, and the method is productive of good if we confine our reasoning backwards to those things in savage life which the two kinds of primitive culture, the prehistoric and the retarded, have in common. To do this however we must have some knowledge of the prehistoric, and our modern retarded savage must be used merely to illumine certain things which we see only in half-light; he must never be employed as a lay-figure in sketching in those features of prehistoric life of which we are totally in ignorance. It is peculiarly useful to the student of Roman religion because he stands on the borderland and looking backwards sees just enough dark shapes looming up behind him to crave more light. For in many phases of early Roman religion there are present characteristics which go back to old manners of thought, and these manners of thought are not peculiar to the Romans but are found in many primitive peoples of our own day. The greatest contribution which anthropology has made to the study of early Roman religion is "animism."

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