Persians: Varro on Pythagoras’ and Numa’s adoption of Persian forms of divination (first century BCE / early fifth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Varro on Pythagoras’ and Numa’s adoption of Persian forms of divination (first century BCE / early fifth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 20, 2024,

Ancient authors: Marcus Terrentius Varro (first century BCE), Human and Divine Antiquities, book 1 (Cardauns, fragments 3-4), as cited by Augustine, City of God 7.34-35 (link; link to Latin).

Comments: In this intriguing passage, Augustine is continuing to cite and respond to an earlier work by Terentius Varro on Human and Divine Antiquities, a now lost first century BCE work focussed on the customs of the Romans specifically. In one section, Varro apparently told the story of the rediscovery of books used by the (legendary) second king of Rome, Pompilius Numa (who would be imagined to exist in what we would call the mid-eighth century). What is most interesting for us here is that Varro’s story implies that important Roman customs, in this case relating to divination, derived from the Persians. The story goes that, when the books of Numa were accidentally found and this derivation was discovered, there was a conundrum as to whether to make the contents public due to the implications for the foreign origin of Roman customs.

This is an unusual story for a Roman to tell. It was more common for the Roman literary elites to do one of two things regarding foreign practices and ideologies. On the one hand, it was most common for the literary elites to distance themselves (at least for public purposes) from “superstitious” foreign practices, as we see with Pliny on the Magians (link). Roughly contemporary with Varro, the poet Catullus likewise has only bad things to say about Persian Magian ways, for instance (link). On the other hand, when certain Roman elites joined with Greek elites in speaking of wise “barbarians”, the focus was on the “wisdom” withint some elite sub-group of a far-away people and not on adopting the practices of some foreign population (see many examples in category 4 to your right). The reference to Pythagoras likewise learning from easterners matches with that wise “barbarian” tendency. Having proposed these options, there are plenty of reports of Romans and Roman elites consulting experts in eastern knowledge in Rome itself (link). So maybe this controversial story is meant to appeal to that crowd.

As a Jesus adherent in the fifth century (when the Roman elites had to make up there minds of whether to go with the new Christian trend), Augustine’s response to such material aims to show that the old Roman ways involving multiple gods actually derive from lower spirits, or demons.  Augustine nonetheless seems a bit horrified at this discover of the book and of the foreign derivation of Roman practices. He seems to believe Varro’s story.


[Varro on the discovery of the books of Numa]

(7.34) [Augustine’s introduction of the story:] Unfortunately, that very great scholar himself [Varro] has told the story of the books of Numa Pompilius [second legendary king of Rome] and of how the real sources from which the rites were drawn were so disgusting that they were unfit to be kept even in a book hidden in the dark, let alone to be openly read by conscientious people. In my third book, I promised to speak about this matter in its proper place, and so a word must now be said. Here is the story as it is told by Varro himself in the book he wrote on the worship of the gods:

“Once upon a time, a man called Terentius owned a farm at the foot of the Janiculum hill [in Rome], and one day his ploughman was making a furrow near the tomb of Numa Pompilius. The ploughshare turned up the books of Numa in which were written the reasons for instituting the rites of the gods. Terentius brought the books to the city praetor. As soon as the praetor had read the opening lines, he realized the importance of the discovery and brought the books to the senate. When the senators read in the book a few of the original reasons why this or that rite had been instituted, they were moved, as the dead Numa had been moved, by a sense of ritual obligation, and they voted that the praetor should have the books burned.”

[Augustine’s comments:] Anyone is free to believe what he thinks: if anyone can be found to defend the infamy of those books, that person is free to say whatever an unreasoning contentiousness may suggest. My own suggestion is that the explanation of the Roman rites as written out by king Pompilius who instituted them was never meant to be known by the people, the senate, or even to the priests themselves. It appears that Numa Pompilius, by some illicit curiosity, had learned the secrets of the lower spirits (daemones) and then wrote them out in order to have a memorandum he could read. Yet, he seems to have been afraid to teach them to anyone, even though as king he had nothing to fear from any of his subjects. At the same time, he was afraid of destroying them, or of losing them, or even of letting the pages become worn out. So he was afraid that men might be taught wickedness which he wanted no one to know, and he was equally afraid that lower spirits might be angry with him if he injured the books. So, he buried them in a safe spot, as he thought, never imagining that a plough would ever come near his tomb.

As for the senate, it did not dare to condemn the ancient ritual obligations, and, in this sense, had to share the ideas of Numa. On the other hand, the senate was so convinced of the danger of such books that they were too afraid to merely bury them. They knew that, with so many in the secret, human curiosity would try desperately to find the books. So, they decided to destroy by fire every trace of such monstrous wickedness. The rites, they felt, simply had to go on, but it was better for the people to be wrong in ignorance than for the state to be wrecked by a knowledge of the original reasons for the rites.

[Varro on the foreign and Persian origin of some Roman practices of divination]

(7.35) [Augustine’s commentary continues:] After all, Numa had no prophet of God or any holy angel to tell him what ritual obligations he should ordain and observe. So, his only recourse was to divination by water (hydromantia), to the images of the gods or, rather, illusions of the lower spirits (daemones) which he thought he could see in water.

Varro tells us that:

“This kind of divination was introduced from Persia and was made use of by Numa and later by Pythagoras the philosopher. When blood is used and information is sought from those in the lower regions it is designated using the Greek word ‘nekuiomanteia’ (literally, divination by way of the dead). Under either name, divination by water or divination by way of the dead (necromanteia), it is the same thing, an apparent divination by way of the dead.”

[Augustine’s commentary:] By what tricks such things are done is their business, not mine. Yet I feel obliged to say that, even before the coming of our Saviour, such skills (artes) were forbidden by laws of the People under the sanction of very severe punishment. I hate to mention this, but it may just be possible that in Pompilius’ time such skills were allowed. At any rate, he used them to learn about the sacred rites. Then, he revealed the rites, but concealed the origin [i.e. the Persian origin], because he himself was afraid of the reasons for the rites which he had learned. It was the books which contained these reasons which the senate ordered to be burned.

What does it matter, then, whether Varro devised all sorts of natural interpretations of the ritual obligations. Certainly, the books would not have been burned if those were the interpretations to be found in the books or, if they were, then the members of the senate would have also consigned to the flames the books which Varro wrote and published and which he addressed to Caesar as high priest.

Another point that Varro makes in his book is that:

“It was because Numa Pompilius ‘carried out (egesserit)’ water for the hydromancy that he is said to have had the nymph Egeria for his wife.”

[Augustine’s response about lower spirits as the source of such practices]

[Augustine’s continuing commentary:] It is another illustration of the way a sprinkling of falsehoods can turn history into fables. So it was by means of divination by water (hydromanteia) that the overcurious king of Rome learned both the rites, which were to be kept in writing in the priestly books, and also the reasons for the rites, which were meant to be known by no one but himself. These reasons, written down but kept apart, he decided, so to speak, to let die with himself. He took care, therefore, to have them buried and withdrawn from the knowledge of men.

Two hypotheses may be suggested: either what was written in the books were the lusts of the lower spirits, which were so sordid and wicked as to make the whole of civic discourse about the gods (theologia) seem disgusting even to the priests whose life it was to perform such shameful services; or else, the whole thing was just stories about men long dead, who, with the lapse of time, had come to be reckoned by nearly all the populations of the peoples as immortal gods. Even in the latter case, the lower spirits were delighted with such rites by which they had themselves worshiped under the guise of dead men. It was the lower spirits who saw that the dead men were viewed as gods and who managed to produce the witness of sham miracles.

It was by the hidden providence of the true God that the lower spirits were permitted to confess what they knew to their friend Pompilius, after he had won them over by the skills of divination by water. Yet, they were not permitted to warn the dying king that he should burn rather than bury the books. Nor did the lower spirits have any power to prevent the plough from discovering the books, or of the pen of Varro from preserving a record of what happened when the plough unearthed the books. The lower spirits have no power but what they are permitted to have. Yet, by a just and inscrutable judgment of God, they are allowed to afflict those souls that have deserved affliction and even to deceive and dominate others.

Regarding the books themselves, we can judge how evil they were and how remote from the worship that is due to genuine divinity from the fact that the senate preferred to burn the books which the frightened Pompilius had buried rather than to share his fears. If, then, a person is determined to be impious in this temporal life, let him look for eternal life in the rites. However, if a person has no liking for the company of evil lower spirits, let him abandon his fear of that evil superstition by which they are adored and embrace the true ritual obligation in whose light the lower spirits stand discovered and dismayed.


Source of translation: D.B. Zema and G.G. Walsh, Saint Augustine: The City of God, books I-VII (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1950), public domain (Zema passed away in 1948; Walsh passed away in 1952), adapted by Harland.

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