by: M. Horatius Piscinus
Discussion of the religio romana often times gives rise to some confusion on what exactly is a numen (pl. numina). A numen may be regarded as the presence or power of a god or goddess, whether in an object, a location, or in some activity. When a person touches an object they leave behind certain impressions of themselves. Their fingerprints, body heat, and spiritual impressions will all remain in an object temporarily. An object that is fashioned by some person, such as a ceramic pot, will have an even greater degree of the artist’s spirit imbued into that object. How much more so then is an object imbued with divine spirit when it is so touched or fashioned by a god or goddess? And certain places, such as a sacred grove, when visited by a deity will retain a certain presence. Such a presence dwelling in a given location or object is called a numen. There are also certain natural activities that occur which result from a divine presence. The germination of a seed and the flowering of a plant are attributed to the generative power of a goddess. Such divine powers, by which a god or goddess act their will, are known as numina. A numen is not a god or goddess in its own right, but more of a divine footprint by which we may come to know that a divine presence had once visited.
The confusion about the numina arose early in the twentieth century when modern scholars tried to set different aspects of the religio romana against their pet theories or even erroneous assumptions. A theory was promoted of an evolution of religious belief, from the primitive to higher forms, in which the basic assumption amounted to nothing less than ethnocentrism. The theory assumed a primitive predeistic belief in a vague divine power diffused throughout all material objects. It was posed that such an animistic belief preceded a stage of belief in personal gods and spirits, and that belief in the latter must have evolved from a belief in some ambiguous notions of divinity. The primary example offered for this type of predeistic belief was that of Melanesian belief in mana, “a supernatural power or influence…(that) attaches itself to persons and things 1.” In 1926 the English Latinist H. J. Rose posed that the Latin term numen equated to mana. He suggested that the numina represented a more primitive form of the religio romana and that the Roman belief in the gods must have evolved from this earlier belief in some obscure impersonal divine power. The theory was elaborated upon by such men as S. Weinstock who posed that the Romans only developed the concept of anthropomorphic deities through their contact with the higher civilization of Greeks 2. In support of this theory was offered the many examples of the Roman use of the sive deus sive dea, posing that the Romans did not know their gods or even whether they were male or female. Also given in support was a quote by Augustine, “Varro also tells us that the Romans worshipped the gods without any images for a hundred and seventy years 3.” Although this theory was challenged in the 1960’s and roundly refuted, most notably by Georges Dumezil, versions of it were to be found in the works of W. W. Fowler and H. H. Scullard on the festivals of the Roman Republic. From those sources the false theory on the numina as an earlier and primitive notion of the gods has persisted to influence general histories on the religio romana. “In other words, the gods and goddesses that we may think of as defining Roman religion were not a native Roman phenomenon, but merely the process of importation (mostly from Greece) still going on well into the Republic; while the original native Roman tradition must be sought in surviving traces of an animistic conception of divine power 4.”
The evidence does not show that earliest Roman religion evolved from ambiguous numina into functional indigitimata, and then into anthropomorphic gods and goddesses around which foreign myths were then wound. Indeed quite the opposite is to be found. The counter argument is that “in spite of the fact that the evolutionary theories on which it was based were abandoned by anthropologists decades ago; and despite the fact also that the Latin words for ‘god’ and ‘goddess’, as well as the Latin names of at least some of the gods and goddesses, belong to the very earliest stages of the history of the Latin language, and must in fact go back to the Indo-European ancestors of the Romans 5.” The name of Jupiter derives from Indo-European ‘djeiwo pater’ meaning ‘divine father.’ From the same original tongue came the Oscan name for Jupiter as Djovei patir, and among the Greeks Zeus pitir. The concept of a personal god, a heavenly father, therefore was among the peoples who gave rise to the Greeks, Italic tribes, and Latins, and later the Romans, prior to their ever arriving in the Italian peninsula 6. In the earliest examples of Latin inscriptions, that of Duenos inscription (seventh century BCE) and the Tabella Lavunia, the term for god and the names of gods are found. The term numen is used later by poets of the early Imperial period, Catullus, Horace, and Ovid. The term is always used to denote the power or will of some specific god or goddess, as a numen dei, and never is a numen regarded as a separate and ambiguous force 7. Prior to the imperial period the term numen is rarely found at all. Not only is numen as a term later than deus, the very manner in which it is used, as a power or presence extending from a deus, does not support the evolutionary theory.
Numina in the Literature
Some examples of how and when the numina are referred, show that a numen is something ‘of the gods’ and not separate or prior to the gods. Some examples come from the late Republic. Here we find Caesar mention the deorum immortalium numen, or the power of the immortal gods 8. With Cicero we find that it is through His numen that Jupiter presides over hospitality, extending His power (numen) to visit ruin on those who would disregard it 9. He states that “law is nothing but a correct principle drawn from the numen of the gods commanding what is honest and forbidding the contrary 10.” Cicero also states that the gods may only be appeased through their own numina; that is, acting in accordance with the will of the gods as expressed through their numina 11. “Indeed, can anyone think otherwise except if it would be a man who thinks that there are no such things at all as any divinity or numen 12. A numen then is the authority and providence of the gods, resulting from the will of the gods, and the power extending from the gods by which they enforce their will.
Cicero also uses numen in another sense, when he says, “mighty is the force (vis) [of its authority], great is the name of the Senate, when all its members are inspired by one and the same resolve (numen) 13.” Another way to translate his magnum numen unum may be to say that the Senate spoke with greater authority when it spoke in a single voice by making a unanimous decision. In that sense the numen might be seen as something resulting from the collective will of the Senate. The authority of the Senate is itself ordained by the authority of the gods, in the same sense that all the laws of nature and all the laws of the state act within the providence of the gods and according to their will. So what Cicero is really saying here is not that the Senate itself generates a numen, but that whether they are inspired by a god or not to reach a decision, only by acting in accordance with the divine numen does their authority rest.
The same idea of the numina is carried into the Augustan period. Catullus refers to the numine divum where the numina are again only something that comes from the gods 14. Horace has “by the brightly numen of Jupiter is glazing the driven snow 15.” “By Jupiter’s benign numina are the shrewd guided in His care and defended 16.” Again the gods act with a power that is termed a numen. At another point, in a similar manner as Caesar and Cicero, Horace says that one should lend praise to the numen of Venus 17. The numen in this case is not separate and intermediate between men and the goddess; it is not something to be praised in its own right. Rather the authority of Venus, acting on nature and caring over the affairs of lovers, is to what he has referred. With this is carried the idea that a numen is a divine power that maintains the natural order of things. A notable distinction is made at a later date by Servius when he says, “it was not to their credit that they did not follow the numina, but instead acted on Juno’s impulse 18.” Aeneas and the Trojans are fated to arrive at Lavinium, and in spite of how Juno or any of the other gods and goddesses may try to interfere, the numen of divine providence will eventually bring them to their destiny. So although Juno is Herself a goddess, having authority, will, and power in Her own right, it is not by Her numen but by Her impulse that She acts, when She acts contrary to the natural order predetermined by divine providence. But even in that, Servius does not recognize the numina to be an authority separate from the gods, for he states that “not in all the songs is some numen alone invoked 19.” We may translate the term numen as a power of a god, as their will or authority, but the exercise of that divine power is not to be taken as merely a divine whim. It is not a supernatural power in the sense of divine will overcoming the principles of the cosmos, but a power imbued in nature by the gods to maintain the natural order of the cosmos. The providence of Ceres is to bear fruit (geres) from the earth and to create a regeneration of life (creare). It is through Her numina that She effects plants to germinate and grow. In a period of mourning for the loss of Her daughter Proserpina, Ceres may temporarily withhold Her numina and cause a barren winter to set in. But She cannot alter the natural order of the earth, nor of a seed to germinate, nor can She alter Her own numina into something different than what it is. She does not make the winter to come by exercising a numen of barrenness that is alien to Her own nature. In that same myth, none of the other gods and goddesses can bring about a return of spring. Their powers cannot effect that which the numina of Ceres alone may do. The numina of each god and goddess are therefore a special power unique to them alone and not a general divine power that is diffused among the various deities. And there are limits to the numen that each god or goddess may possess. Collectively however the gods and goddesses combine into a celestial numen of providential guidance over human affairs 20.
An additional perspective of the numen first appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. From the very beginning Ovid poses to “tell of things that change, new being out of the old…to tell the shifting story of the world from the beginning to the present day.” The Metamorphoses is a creation story that begins with Chaos and the living elements, when “no God, no Titan shone from sky or sea.” It is then a story of the evolution of the world, told as the birth of the gods and goddesses, and of the birth of other gods and goddesses from one another. In addition to the great gods of myth, Ovid refers to lesser gods as plebs, being heavenly powers that dwell upon a celestial Palatine Hill 20. At one point Jupiter is made to say that beneath Him are then the demigods, “unworthy of heavenly abodes, we should at least permit them to dwell on the earth.” These semidivine beings are named as the rustic numina, nymphs, fauni, silvans, and satyrs of the hills. The numina then seem to be a category of lesser divinities, separate in their being from the immortal gods. Like the silvans, fauni, and satyrs, these rustic numina are tied to specific vicinities 21. They appear at times to be as powers drawn from the silvans, fauni, and satyrs, and the means by which these semidivine beings husband the earth 22. In a sense, Ovid equates numina as geni loci who are dispersed over sacred groves, hilltops, and country lanes. But in his evolutionary portrayal the numina are still derived from the gods, and not the other way around as some scholars had theorized.
Part of the theory that the Roman conception of the gods evolved from their vague notion of the numina was that an intermediate phase could be detected in the indigitimenta of the various gods and goddesses. Ceres’ providence extended over the entire range of wheat production. She therefore had a number of special powers, or numina, each governing a different activity. When Ceres employed a specific numen for a specific activity, She took on the role of a different aspect of Herself. Each of twelve aspects of Ceres had a different name, identified by the activity in which they were involved. Likewise Consus, and other deities were associated with an assortment of their different aspects 24. Such an aspect of a divinity overseeing a particular activity is called an indigitimentum. It might be said that an indigitimentum wields a specific numen of an associated deity. Those who hold to the primitivist theory propose that over time, as the ambiguous numen began to evolve around diverse functions, separate numina were identified by name to become an equally ambiguous form of god, impersonal and asexual. These functional numina, or indigitimenta, are then claimed to have coagulated into a newer concept of the gods and goddesses of myth.
As with the numina, the relationship of a god or goddess to their associated indigitimenta is that of being a source. Dumezil likened this relationship as that of a magistrate to his apparitores. The indigitimenta grew out of the authority of the gods and goddesses, as the apparitores grew out of the authority of the magistrates. In a reflection of Roman society, they acted as aides performing specific duties, just as civil servants performed their duties. The historical process was that the indigitimenta began to appear in the Late Republic, when government offices had multiplied in response to a growing empire. The indigitimenta therefore cannot represent an evolutionary stage of the gods who preceded them 25.
Si Deus, si Dea
For the year 224 CE the Actum Fratrum Arvalem notes expiatory sacrifices made in the grove of Dea Dia. The gods, for whom the sacrifices are made, are listed in descending order. Beginning with the greater gods Janus Pater, Jupiter, and Mars Ultor, they extend down to the two indigitimenta, Adolena and Coinquenda 26. Set beneath Mars, yet before the sacrifice to Dea Dia, is a sacrifice to an unspecified deity, “whether male or female.” The Romans and other Italic tribes made the same formula in other inscriptions. Related is the “If you are a god or a goddess” formula found in Cato 27. Modern scholars have sometimes posed these formulas to indicate that the Romans were in general unaware of the personalities and even the gender of their gods and goddesses. This notion is then projected back to some theorized primitive, predeistic stage in Roman religious development, when belief still centered on ambiguous animistic spirits. But the meaning of these phrases is quite different when placed in the context that they are made. A note by Edward Courtney has si deus, si dea est as: “A typical formulation in Roman cult intended to cover all bases as an acknowledgement of the limitations of human knowledge about divine powers 28." That does not say that the Romans were ignorant of their gods in all situations, but that in certain situations their knowledge of the particular deity of some location might be limited. In the case of Cato, a parcel of land is being cleared where the god or goddess who might reside in the grove is unknown. A similar situation arises in Plautus’ comedy Rudens when two women are washed ashore after a shipwreck. They find themselves near a temple and Palaestra calls out, “To the god, whoever he may be, I pray for help.” Then appears Ptolemocrates, who is the priestess of Venus from that nearby temple 29. The situation is not that the goddess of the temple is unknown or ambiguous. Only that the foreign women were unaware of whose temple lay before them. When the Roman general stood before the gates of Carthage and called to the protective deities of that city to come forth and abandon his enemies, there is that same sense of an unfamiliarity of the local gods in a foreign place 30. More so, there was the practice of not revealing the names of those deities who protected cities, precisely to prevent an evocation by a foreign army. Thus an emissary to Rome from a foreign city brought an offering of a shield inscribed to the “genius of the city of Rome whether male or female 31.” These formulas do not then reveal anything to us about the manner in which the Roman conceived their gods and goddesses in general, whether in historic or prehistoric periods. They only exemplify an uncertainty that arises from the situation in which they appear.
In the Actum Fratrum Arvalem the formula of the unknown deity is intermingled with the names of well attested deities and a pair of indigitimenta. Likewise in the Tavolo Agnone, Samnite deities of the stature of Ceres and Jupiter are intermingled with indigitimenta, nymphs, and semidivine heroes. The Roman conception of their gods and goddesses arose from the same stock of ideas as was held by other Italic peoples. The evidence does not show that among any of the Italic peoples including the Romans that an ambiguous or an animistic conception translated into numina that became functional indigitimenta and then anthropomorphic deities. Discussing Samnite religion, Salmon says, “It is compounded of animism, with its accessories of fetishism and magic, of anthropomorphism and personifications of abstractions…It might seem reasonable to argue that there was a regular progression of ideas in the course of which an animistic conception of vague and shadowy spirits ultimately gave way to an anthropomorphic notion of firm and definite deities…But, while neat and to outward seeming logical, such a tidy development is mostly imaginary. From the earliest days the Samnite had clearly defined gods as well as half gods and numina, but these latter did not invariably antedate the former…Belief in specific individual gods is not incompatible with an animistic attitude. 32.”
Non-images of the Gods
The final prop of the theory of animistic numina is taken from a single quote of dubious value. Augustine of Hippo, writing a Christian polemic against paganism in the fifth century, mentions that Varro had claimed “that the Romans had worshipped the gods without images for a hundred and seventy years 33.” Varro calculated the founding of Rome from 753 BCE, meaning that the images he referred to would have been made around 580 BCE. It happens that in the area of Rome between the Forum and the Forum Boarium, at excavations around St Omobono, a deposit of ancient terracotta statues was discovered. The statues of Hercules and Minerva, from the temple of Fortuna, are similar in style to Greek sculptures of the later sixth century BCE. The temple of Fortuna, traditionally built by Servius Tullius, can be dated to 550 BCE and is the earliest known example of temple construction from central Italy 34. What this shows is that a new form of imagery was introduced in this period, and that Greek influence was present. It does not show that the Romans had no previous forms of imagery, nor that they held no conception of their gods prior to the arrival Greek influences. Earlier images from Rome do exist. Bronze figurines from the open sanctuary of Jupiter, as one example, predate the founding of Rome.
The Romans were aware of an earlier people whom they called the Ausones. The Founding of Rome in the eight century approximately coincides with the arrival of an Iron Age cultural known as Villanovan to the Latium region of Italy. The Ausones would then refer to an earlier people of the Bronze Age, or perhaps even earlier. In Rome itself there were sacred groves and sanctuaries dedicated to deities of these earlier peoples. One example is the sacred grove of Alernus near the Tiber River, mentioned by Ovid and otherwise unknown 35. Dating from this period are rock paintings at Val Camonica, and even much earlier, showing a record of religious imagery extending back some seven thousand years. At Foppe di Nadro, rock 27, there is a painting of a worshiper with raised arms adoring a figure of a god with horns and butterfly wings. At Seradina II, rock 6, there is a scene depicting several men battling with a giant. Another at Sellero, Pie d’Ort, rock 1, dating to the late Iron Age, there is a scene of a hero with round shield and a Bronze Age sword engaging a hairy-armed giant wielding a trident. In southern Italy are found isolated menhirs, such as Lu Termine at Rovere, Abruzzia, believed to have marked the boundary between the Marsi and Vestini, but quite possibly dating from a much earlier people. On Lu Termine is a protrusion, with holes cut on either side, clearly representing a face. In other parts of Italy there are other very early stone sculptures of human figures bearing faces, breasts, arms, tools and clothing. Also found in the Val Camonica region and elsewhere in Italy are symbols in the form of a swastika that are called the Cammunnian Rose. There are also sun symbols of inscribed Maltese crosses. The same symbols are found on Villanovan artifacts of central Italy, dating to the earliest remains of Rome. A recognition of earlier sanctuaries, even the use of the names of the divinities of an earlier people, and the continuous use of the same divine symbols, stretching from at least the Bronze Age through the Villanovans and into Rome, all speak of continuity. It is very clear that images of the gods appeared in Italy in a very early period, long before the arrival of any Italics to Italy, and that not only the deities were adopted by the newer arrivals, so were their symbols and images. From Rome and the Italian countryside there are references to rustic images formed from “well-planed wood by mystic formula” which were crudely carved and painted. The form of previously used images was cruder in form than those that began to appear in the terracotta statuary associated with sixth century temples. So we can see that Varro was referring only to the introduction of a new form of imagery, and not that there had been an absence of all imagery, as his Christian interpreter, Augustine, had claimed.
The examples of early representations of gods and heroes, and of mythic scenes, and the continuity that can be shown between images, symbols, names, and sanctuaries, between the Romans and other Italic tribes with the earlier peoples of Italy, not only refutes that no images were found previous to the arrival of “Greek influences,” it refutes the whole theory of Numinism. Images of mythic scenes could not have been present without there having been a mythology. Anthropomorphic images could not have been present without a conception of individual gods and goddesses. As such images do exist previous to Rome, and some are found at Rome itself predating its foundation, it cannot then be argued that the Romans conceived of only vague mystical forces called numina or that they held only an ambiguous conception of their gods and goddesses during the Archaic period.
To assume that a formula used in a context of uncertainty applies also to a context where certainty is established, and then assume a general notion that the Romans therefore had no conception of the identity or sex of any of their deities, is an argument that is structurally fallacious. To project such a notion back in time, making an argumenta pro hoc propter hoc, is to engage in faulty methods. To then take two incongruous terms and apply an assumed notion to a later term (numen) as indicating a conceptual evolution to an earlier term (deus) is then substantially false. There is no validity to the arguments made for Numinism, either in whole or in part.
Numinism is a fallacious modern theory intended to discredit the religio romana as a form of primitive atavistic cult. Its purpose is to promote the religious views of its authors as somehow superior to that of the religio romana. In some cases the arguments offered to support Numinism rely on Christian sources that were originally intended to challenge the validity and the authenticity of the religio romana and therefore Numinism must be viewed as a modern attempt to continue the Christian polemics against our faith. The theory cannot give any insight into the religio romana when the basis of its arguments is fallacious and its intent is to refute the religio romana. Practitioners of the religio romana and scholars alike should recognize that Numinism is an insidious polemic against ancient beliefs and practices, and not a scholarly effort to refine our understanding of the religio romana.
M. Horatius Piscinus
- Archaic Roman Religion, Georges Dumezil, trans. P. Krapp, 1970: p.18, quoting from H.J. Rose, Ancient Roman Religion, 1926, p. 13, in turn quoting from Bishop Codrington, The Melanesians, 1891, p.118.
- Harvard Theological Review: L (1957), S. Weinstock, pp. 211-47.
- The City of God, IV.31, Augustine of Hippo.
- Religions of Rome: Vol. II A Sourcebook, Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, 1998, p. 2.
- Ibid. Samnium and the Samnites, E. T. Salmon, 1967, p.165.
- Archaic Roman Religion, Vol. I, Georges Dumezil, 1970, p. 30.
- Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico VI: 16.3, non posse deorum immortalium numen placari arbitrantur.
- Cicero, Pro Rege Deiotaro: 18, Iovis illius hospitalis numen numquam celare potuisset, nomines fortasse celasset.
- Cicero, Philippicae 11.28, est enim lex nihil aliud nisi recta et a numine deorum tracta ratio, impereus honesta, prohibens contraria.
- Cicero, In Catillina 3.19, di immortales omni ratione placati, suo numine prope facta ipsa flexissent.
- Cicero, Pro Milone 183, nisi qui nullam vim esse ducit numenque divinum.
- Cicero, Philippicae 3.32, magna vis est, magna numen unum et idem sentientis senatus.
- Catullus 64: 134-135, sicine discedens neglecto numine divum immernor ah devota domum perivira portas.
- Horace, Carmina III, 10.8, ventis et positas ut glaciet nives puro numine Iuppiter.
- Horace, Carmina IV, 4.76, et benigno numine Iuppiter defendit et curae sagaces.
- Horace, Carmina IV, 1.28, Illic bis pueri die numen cum teneris virginibustam laudantes pede candido.
- Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary of Virgil’s Aeneid, Book1.4, quod non suo merito eos insequebantur numina, sed Iononis inpulsu.
- Mauris Servius Honoratus, Commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 1.8, ut non in omnibus carminibus numen aliquod invocetur.
- Livy, I.21.1, cum interesse rebus humanis caeleste numen videretur.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1, 192-95, Plebs habitat diversa locis; haec parte potentes caelicolae…hic locus est…Palatia caeli.
- Ibid. Book 11, 263-264, sine numine vincis.
- Ibid. Book 6, 392-395, illum ruricolae, silvarum numina, fauni et satyri fratres.
- Servius, Commentary on Virgil’s Georgic I.21, quoting from Varro on a passage from the Libri iuris pontifici given by Fabius Pictor, twelve indigitimenta are invoked by the flamen Cerealis while sacrificing to Ceres and Tellus: quos invocat flamen sacrum ceriale faciens Telluri et Cereri: Vervactor, Reparator (Redarator), Imporcitor, Insitor, Obarator, Occator, Sarritor, Subruncinator, Messor, Convector, Conditor, Promitor. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 18.8, has Consus in His temple surrounded by images of His indigitimenta: Seia, Segetia, and Tutilina.
- Dumezil, George, Archaic Roman Religion, trans. P. Krapp, 1970, pp. 34-38.
- CIL vi.207, lines 2-13; ILS 5048.
- Cato, De Agricultura 139, Si deus, si dea es, quoium illud sacrum est. ILS 4015; CIL I 801, VI, 110 sive mas, sive femina es. CIL 6.2099; ILS 5047: sive deo sive deae in cuius tutela hic lucus locusue est.
- Courtney, Edward, Archaic Latin Prose, 1999, p.109.
- Plautus, Rudens, Act I scene IV, lines 257-8, est deus, venator ut nos ex hac aerumna eximat, miseras inopis aerumnosas ut aliquo auxile adiuvet.
- Macrobius, Saturnalia 3.9.7, Si deus, si dea est cui populus ciuitasque Carthaginiensis est in tutela…
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History III.65 on “the secret name of Rome which it is held sinful to disclose except during the rites of the mysteries.” [cuius alterum nomen discere nisi arcanis caerimoniarum nefas habentur. Servius, Aeneid 2.351, genio urbis romae sive mas sive femina.
- Samnium and the Samnites, E. T. Salmon, 1967, pp. 148-9.
- Augustine, The City of God IV.31.
- Cornell, T. J., The Beginnings of Rome, 1995, p. 108, 147.
- Ovid Fasti VI.105-6.