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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 34

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 34.—Concerning the Books of Numa Pompilius, Which the Senate Ordered to Be Burned, in Order that the Causes of Sacred Rights Therein Assigned Should Not Become Known.

But, on the other hand, we find, as the same most learned man has related, that the causes of the sacred rites which were given from the books of Numa Pompilius could by no means be tolerated, and were considered unworthy, not only to become known to the religious by being read, but even to lie written in the darkness in which they had been concealed.  For now let me say what I promised in the third book of this work to say in its proper place.  For, as we read in the same Varro’s book on the worship of the gods, “A certain one Terentius had a field at the Janiculum, and once, when his ploughman was passing the plough near to the tomb of Numa Pompilius, he turned up from the ground the books of Numa, in which were written the causes of the sacred institutions; which books he carried to the prætor, who, having read the beginnings of them, referred to the senate what seemed to be a matter of so much importance.  And when the chief senators had read certain of the causes why this or that rite was instituted, the senate assented to the dead Numa, and the conscript fathers, as though concerned for the interests of religion, ordered the prætor to burn the books.” 293   Let each one believe what he thinks; nay, let every champion of such impiety say whatever mad contention may suggest.  For my part, let it suffice to suggest that the causes of those sacred things which were written down by King Numa Pompilius, the institutor of the Roman rites, ought never to have become known to people or senate, or even to the priests themselves; and also that Numa him p. 142 self attained to these secrets of demons by an illicit curiosity, in order that he might write them down, so as to be able, by reading, to be reminded of them.  However, though he was king, and had no cause to be afraid of any one, he neither dared to teach them to any one, nor to destroy them by obliteration, or any other form of destruction.  Therefore, because he was unwilling that any one should know them, lest men should be taught infamous things, and because he was afraid to violate them, lest he should enrage the demons against himself, he buried them in what he thought a safe place, believing that a plough could not approach his sepulchre.  But the senate, fearing to condemn the religious solemnities of their ancestors, and therefore compelled to assent to Numa, were nevertheless so convinced that those books were pernicious, that they did not order them to be buried again, knowing that human curiosity would thereby be excited to seek with far greater eagerness after the matter already divulged, but ordered the scandalous relics to be destroyed with fire; because, as they thought it was now a necessity to perform those sacred rites, they judged that the error arising from ignorance of their causes was more tolerable than the disturbance which the knowledge of them would occasion the state.



Plutarch’s Numa; Livy, xl. 29.

Next: Chapter 35

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