Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Numa's quest for the rule of wisdom

The story was told that the founders of Crotona and Sybaris both consulted the Oracle at Delphi at the same time and were given the choice of wealth or health; Archias the founder of Sybaris chose wealth, while Myskellos chose health. (1, 2)

With the deaths of Romulus/Quirinus and Hersilia/Hora, the foundations of the Roman "thing" are set. Romulus can depart, and become a new god with an Etruscan name, because the young state was strong enough not to depend upon the particular strengths and talents of a single leader.

Ovid has Mars speak that judgment:
Mars, removing his helmet, addressed the father of gods and men in these words: ‘The time has come, lord, to grant the reward (that you promised to me and your deserving grandson), since the Roman state is strong, on firm foundations, and does not depend on a single champion: free his spirit, and raising him from earth set him in the heavens.
'tempus adest, genitor, quoniam fundamine magno
res Romana valet nec praeside pendet ab uno,
praemia, (sunt promissa mihi dignoque nepoti)           810
solvere et ablatum terris inponere caelo.'
Ovid's re-vision of the war god, who removes his helmet (perhaps recalling Homer's tender description of Hector removing his helmet when it scared his young son) -- Mars' thoughtful and attentive memory, his care for his son, is bold but doesn't draw attention to itself. It's interesting that it is the king who is to be "freed" -- when the res Romana is strong enough, the people can let the king go -- a reversal of the usual vision of top-down power structures.

Book 15 begins with a question -- the first word, Quaeritur, underscores the state of uncertainty, rich with the potential for disaster, that comes with the power vacuum after the death of a king (it was in the air.) The question of succession is felt with urgency: Romulus is dead, who shall succeed, and how shall he lead?
Quaeritur interea qui tantae pondera molis
sustineat tantoque queat succedere regi:
This being a poem by Ovid, the quest for a ruler worthy to succeed Romulus is not simply a matter of history or of political science. Instead we get a richly suggestive antipasto involving Hercules, on his return from his 10th labor, visiting Croton, then returning in the dreams of Myscellus several hundred years later, prodding the young man to leave his home city and travel to Italy, where his city will shelter Pythagoras who in turn will host Numa. Dreams, signs, harbingers, become a strong motif in book 15.

If it seems somewhat unconventional to fashion the story of Numa by mixing the legend of the greatest action hero with the history of ancient Crotona we can say it has the strangeness of Ovidian storytelling.

Instead of telling the succession of kings in the literal historical register of "first came x, followed by y," Ovid chooses to portray the event of Numa's reign as the moment when the provincial Sabine-Roman people acceded to the scientific and philosophical breadth and power of Pythagoras, the sage whose work in math and music bespoke a truly cosmopolitan consciousness. They were able to do this because the animo maiora capaci of Numa wanted to go beyond the particulars of Sabine customs, to discover universal laws upon which to base future Roman rule.

Mixing the question of political succession with the cattle drive of Hercules and the mind of Pythagoras is Ovid's way of telling not one story, but several at once. It gives the narrative a certain drunken swagger, yoking (as in Horace's callida iunctura) mythic energy to analytic insight. For Ovid, the quest for a good successor necessarily involves a questioning of "the known" -- one's own unique rules. What does it mean to go from one's narrow home, with its age-old ways and insular rejection of the larger world, to a broader realm in which an attentive mind can compare, contrast, and derive general norms from myriad particulars? To succeed in transitioning from a strong tribal leader to the enduring stability of the res Romana, one needs science, knowledge, a mind that has meditated upon the changing world and arrived at a sense of what abides, what matters and holds true not for the few, or the many, but for all.

Heracles fights Geryon, whose shield bears the image of Medusa

If Plato's philosopher wished to eject poets from the idea Republic, Ovid's ideal ruler seeks out a philosopher. The possibility of this occurs through moments of hospitality -- of Croton, who hosted Heracles, and of Myscellus's city Crotona, famed for taking in the self-imposed exile Pythagoras -- and foreshadowings -- Ovid has Crotona's founding driven both by Heracles; the legend of Myscellus invoked oracular pronouncements.

Hospitality here, as in the Odyssey, involves a civil openness to the other, broadening the mind by bringing it into contact with more of the world. The burden of the beginning of the last book of the Metamorphoses -- its quest -- is to prepare both the ruler and the people to be free. They first must accede to expansive human wisdom, which is what Numa, after broadening his views at Crotona, brought back to Rome. The quest for a stable structure of imperial rule, the poet suggests, finds solid ground not in war, but in the moment after Mars removes his helmet, when a people can choose: do they stubbornly reject all customs and races and religions who are not themselves and enslave themselves to some swaggering strong man, or do they find the philosophic latitude to "entertain" what's new and strange -- a path that can lead to enlightened freedom from kingship?

Political Science examines the conditions for what sort of governance can be had, by what sort of people, with what sort of leader. Ovid's "analysis" is oblique and fantastical -- it is, after all, a poem. In yoking the ultimate action hero to the wide-ranging mathematical and musical rigor of Pythagoras, the poet is bringing the farthest reaches of human power and human thought into proximity. The curiosity of Numa and the hospitality of Crotona are propitious augurs for the balance of knowledge and power necessary if Roman rule is to succeed.

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