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NUMEN . The word numen is a neuter form ending in -men and derived from *nuere (found in the composite verbs adnuere, "agree with a nod of the head," and abnuere, "refuse with a nod of the head"). The formation is Latin, even though it is based on an Indo-European root, *neu-, which produced a parallel word of the same meaning in Greek, neuma. Numen is semantically related to nutus ("nod of the head"), as correctly pointed out by Varro: "numen dictum ab nutu" (De lingua Latina 7.85). It signifies the manifestation, will, or power of a divinity. Because this is its characteristic meaning until the end of the republic (including Cicero), numen never appears unless accompanied by the genitive form of the divinity's name. The most ancient example is in a text of Accius cited by Varro: "Alia hic sanctitudo est aliud nomen et numen Iouis" ("Here, the holiness of Jupiter is one thing, the name and power of Jupiter another"; De lingua Latina 7.85).

This usage is also reflected in the balanced definition of Festus: "The numen is, as it were, the nod or power of a god" (Festus, ed. Lindsay, 1913, p. 178 L.). Even when the poets of the Augustan period began to substitute at times numina for dei, by way of simplication and, often, metric accommodation, the ancient usage still made itself felt. Theodor Birt has shown that Vergil was able to maintain the original sense of the word in a phrase from the opening verses of the Aeneid (1.8), "quo numine laeso," which here refers to the queen of the gods and can only mean "in consequence of the violation of her [Juno's] will."

Certain scholars, in search of "primitive culture," have tried to give a completely different orientation to the Latin term by identifying numen with a Melanesian word, mana. In his book The Melanesians, R. H. Codrington in 1891 advanced the latter term, as meaning an "autonomous, impersonal force." This assimilation of numen to "an impersonal active power" led Hendrik Wagenvoort to pass over the constant usage of the republican period and to postulate a pre-deist world that in Rome would have preceded the advent of personal divinities. He reached the point of questioning the antiquity of the expression di novensiles. He preferred to shorten it simply to novensiles. Interpreted in his own way, novensiles would mean, with reference to numen (*nou-men ), "filled with motive power." This etymological lucubration would be no more than a venial fault if at the same time it did not betray a serious error of perspective. Indeed, the attempt to abolish every individual and personal divinity at the origins of Rome results in misunderstanding the universality of an Indo-European fact: the presence of the term *deiwos for the idea of divinity, represented at the eastern and western extremes of the Indo-European domain. Numen, from the ancient times until Vergil, only expresses the manifestation of a *deiwos become deus in Latin.


Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion. 2 vols. Translated by Philip Krapp. Chicago, 1970.

Meillet, Antoine. "La religion indo-européenne." In Linguistique historique et linguistique générale. Paris, 1948. See pages 323334 and, above all, page 326 on *deiwos.

Pfister, Friedrich. "Numen." In Paulys Real-encyclopädie, vol. 17. Stuttgart, 1937. See especially pages 12731274, a fact list of the republican epoch.

Rose, H. J. Primitive Culture in Italy. 1926.

Wagenvoort, Hendrick. Roman Dynamism. Oxford, 1947. See pages 73103 and, in particular, pages 75 and 8385, which provide an exegesis of novensilis.

New Sources

Cels-Saint-Hilaire, Janine. "Numen Augusti et Diane de l'Aventin. Le témoignage de l'ara Narbonensis." In Les grandes figures religieuses. Fonctionnement pratique et symbolique dans l'Antiquité, Besançon 2526 avril 1984, pp. 455502. Paris, 1986.

Fishwick, Duncan. "Genius and numen." Harvard Theological Review 62 (1969): 7691.

Fishwick, Duncan. "Sanctissimum numen: Emperor or God?" Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 89 (1991): 196200.

Fishwick, Duncan. "Numinibus Aug(ustorum)." Britannia 25 (1994): 127142.

Henig, Martin. "Ita intellexit numine inductus tuo: Some Personal Interpretations of Deity in Roman Religion." In Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire, edited by Martin Henig and Anthony King, pp. 159169. Oxford, 1986.

Pötscher, Walter. "Numen und numen Augusti." In Aufsteg und Niedergand der Römischen Welt 2.16.1, pp. 355392. Berlin and New York, 1982.

Robert Schilling (1987)

Translated from French by Paul C. Duggan
Revised Bibliography

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