Donate to RNS

From Numa Pompilius to Donald Trump

Pious frauds and politics.

Roman coin from 97 BCE showing Numa about to sacrifice a goat

Last Friday, as President Trump was addressing the Values Voter Summit, I was in Ann Arbor attending a two-day conference on the life and afterlife of Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome. Ranging over more than two-and-a-half millennia, it was a splendid interdisciplinary affair, held under the auspices of the University of Michigan’s Department of Classical Studies.

What was I doing there? In fact, anyone interested in thinking about the role of religion in society needs to know about Numa.

The way the ancient historians tell it, after the death of Romulus (possibly by assassination), the leaders of the infant city-state handed the kingship to someone utterly unlike their fratricidal, thuggish founder. A Sabine who liked nothing more than hanging out in sacred groves, Numa took it upon himself to civilize the Romans, above all by establishing religious institutions — the Temple of Janus, the Vestal Virgins, various priesthoods, sacred holidays.

To get his subjects to go along, Numa told them he was receiving instructions from a divine nymph named Egeria, whom he would meet for advice (and marital commerce) in one or another rustic place. The line worked.

Not only did the unruly Romans become utterly law-abiding but, writes Livy, “the neighboring peoples also, who had hitherto considered that it was no city but a camp that had been set up in their midst, as a menace to the general peace, came to feel such reverence for them, that they thought it sacrilege to injure a nation so wholly bent upon the worship of the gods.”

And so Numa ruled for 43 years of peace and prosperity, becoming the exemplar of the wise Roman ruler. From Augustus on, being “another Numa” was the highest praise an emperor got — except from Christian intellectuals, especially St. Augustine, who considered the king’s success in controlling the masses via his pious Egerian fraud to be the ultimate abuse of religion.

It took until the Renaissance before Western society again embraced Numa’s religious project. Here, Machiavelli led the way, writing in his Discourses on Livy, that “if one had to dispute over which prince Rome was more obligated to, Romulus or Numa, I believe rather that Numa would obtain the first rank; for where there is religion, arms can easily be introduced, and where there are arms and not religion, the latter can be introduced only with difficulty.”

Through the French Revolution, Numa was now the touchstone for discussion of the political uses of religion. Not surprisingly, there were latter-day would-be Numas less high-minded about those uses than their ancient Roman predecessor.

Which takes us back to what Donald Trump was doing at the Values Voter Summit on Friday.

“When I came to speak with you last year, I made you a promise,” Trump declared. “Well, one of the promises I made you was that I’d come back. See? And I don’t even need your vote this year, right? That’s even nicer.”

The president then delivered a little litany of his spiritual agenda, from promoting religious liberty and “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values” to permitting clergy to take political stands and “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

Did I mention that embedded in “Donald Trump” are all the letters needed to spell out the name engraved on the old Roman coin pictured above — “NUMA POM”? Wherever his grave is, I suspect the old Roman is rolling over in it.