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Vocabula Mira: “Indigetes” and “Novensiles”

Gregory DiPippo

In our first Vocabula Mira post, we saw the word “indigitamenta”, for the collections of names of the many gods to be invoked in public acts of propitiation. Related to this is the noun “indigetes”, meaning “heroes elevated to the rank of gods after their death, and regarded as the patron deities of their country.” (Lewis and Short.) Towards the very end of the Aeneid, Vergil uses this term to refer to Aeneas, in the speech by which Jupiter convinces Juno to accept what the Fates have determined for the founder of the Roman people.

“indigetem Aenean scis ipsa et scire fateris
deberi caelo fatisque ad sidera tolli.

You know, and confess that you know, that Aeneas must become a tutelary god, and be raised up to the stars by the fates.” (12, 794-5)

Likewise, Livy says of Aeneas’ last battle against the Latins:

“Secundum inde proelium Latinis, Aeneae etiam ultimum operum mortalium fuit. Situs est, quemcumque eum dici ius fasque est super Numicum flumen: Iovem indigetem appellant.

The battle resulted in favor of the Latins, but it was the last mortal act of Aeneas. His tomb, whatever it is lawful and right to call him, is situated on the bank of the Numicius; he is addressed as ‘Jupiter Indiges.’ (Ab Urbe Condita 1.2.6)

In 8.9.6, Livy mentions the “indigetes” as one of a group of gods invoked by the consul Decius Mus before an important battle with the Samnites in 340 B.C. Decius begins his prayer by calling on “Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus (Romulus’ name as a god), Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles, divine Indigites, ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies, and you, divine Manes.”

An important scholar of Roman religion in the later 19th and early 20th century, the German Georg Wissowa, posited that the word “indigetes” was related to “indigenus – native.” He therefore contrasted them with the group of gods whom Decius Mus names before them, the “novensiles” or “novensides”, whose named he derived from “novus – new” and “insideo – to settle.” The “indigetes” would therefore be the native gods of the Roman people, and the “new settlers” would be those adopted from other peoples, as the Roman were wont to do. These etymologies are, however, not generally accepted, especially since the word “novensiles” strongly suggests instead a derivation from “novem – nine.” We must therefore resign ourselves to the fact that the precise meaning of the name of both classes is uncertain.

On a visit to Naples many years ago. I stumbled across an interesting example of the word “indigetes” repurposed for a Christian context. Outside the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, a short walk from the main train station, is a monument which commemorates one of the occasions on which St Januarius saved the city and the region around it from the eruptions of Vesuvius, in 1707. The dedicatory inscription begins with the words “Divo Januario, Urbis Neap(olitanae) Indigetum Principi – to Saint Januarius, chief among the patron saints of the city of Naples.”

In the photographs below, the monument to St Januarius outside the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello, and a closer view of the inscription.

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