In the final book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, King Numa, successor to Romulus the founder of Rome, had travelled to Crotona to learn the doctrines of Pythagoras.
After Numa had learned the doctrines of Pythagoras (an historical impossibility, as Numa lived between about 753-673 BCE, and Pythagoras between about 570-495 BCE and lived in Croton from about 530 BCE), he returned to Rome and established its early laws and institutions.
Numa’s success depended on his wife, the nymph Egeria. Although Ovid is not explicit here, other sources make the couple’s meeting a key step in the development of Rome, as Egeria was said to have dictated the first set of laws of Rome to Numa.
Inevitably, Numa grew old and then died. His wife Egeria was heartbroken: she left the city of Rome, and went deep into the forest, where her moaning disturbed those at the nearby shrine to Diana which had been built by Orestes. Sister nymphs tried to comfort her, but could not help. They told Egeria the tragic tale of Phaedra and Hippolytus – which I have examined in detail here – but this did not ease her grief either:
The grief of others could not ease the woe
of sad Egeria, and she laid herself
down at a mountain’s foot, dissolved in tears,
till moved by pity for her faithful sorrow,
Diana changed her body to a spring,
her limbs into a clear continual stream.
I have already shown and discussed paintings depicting the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus. Those showing Numa and Egeria are not plentiful, nor are they particularly straightforward.
Nicolas Poussin’s Numa Pompilius and the Nymph Egeria from 1631-33 is thought to have been painted for his long-term friend and patron Cassiano Dal Pozzo (1588-1657), a scholar and patron of the arts, who was secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini.
It shows the meeting of King Numa, at the right, with Egeria, at the left, as she was being entertained by a young man with a lute, who may signify the Muses who apparently inspired Egeria to provide the laws of Rome. However, Numa hasn’t come equipped with any means of recording them, suggesting that this wasn’t the occasion on which Egeria dictated those laws.
Felice Giani’s much later painting of Numa Pompilius Receiving from the Nymph Egeria the Laws of Rome (1806) shows that process of dictation in full swing, with Numa working through scrolls, which are then transcribed onto the tablets of stone seen at the left. The nymph is the one sat on a throne, and is clearly in command, wagging her index finger at the King of Rome.
Ulpiano Checa’s The Nymph Egeria Dictating to Numa Pompilius the Laws of Rome (c 1886) offers a similar account, with King Numa sat writing down the laws on scrolls of paper using a reed pen. Egeria is quite different, though, and appears a simple and very naked nymph.
The only accessible painting which shows Egeria’s grief following the death of Numa is Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with the Nymph Egeria Weeping Over Numa from 1669.
Unfortunately, great confusion has arisen over the true nature of this painting, as two images of details have been published on the internet purporting to be quite different and complete paintings. Claude’s painting itself is something of a puzzle too, and the result is that many of the images shown online of this work make no sense at all.
The full painting, shown above, shows a group of people and dogs in the left foreground, set in an idealised classical landscape on the coast.
The detail, shown below, reveals the five women in that group. Second from left is most probably the figure of Egeria, although there is nothing to show her profuse weeping or grief. One of the three women to the right of Egeria is Diana, with her spear, bow, arrows, and hunting dogs. It is unclear whether she is on bended knee, or stood behind holding the leash of one of the dogs.
More puzzling is the gesture of the woman (Diana or nymph) who is kneeling on one knee. Her left hand points towards Egeria, and her right is pointing away, towards the buildings down by the water. Her meaning is obscure in the context of the story of Egeria.
Whether this painting by Claude shows the story of Egeria and her grief over the death of Numa must surely be in doubt, and the evidence bears careful re-examination.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.