People have always been eager to know the future, especially when important decisions have to be made. In India for instance no important decision is taken without the assistance of an astrologer and Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer during the presidency of her husband. The Romans too were susceptible for all kinds of omens and had various specialists interpreting these. One of these was the pullarius, the keeper of sacred chickens. When asked for a favourable omen, the chicken were fed and when they ate so eager that grain fell out of their mouth, it was a good omen. This is procedure is called tripudium. It is interesting that the Azande – a tribe in northers Central Africa - also had a ritual with chicken. The British anthropologist Sir Evans-Pritchard did fieldwork in the thirties of the last century amongst the Azande and he describes a ritual by which it was possible to find out whether witchcraft was involved in someone’s misfortune. A small amount of poison was given to a chicken and when the poor animal didn’t survive, witchcraft was certainly involved. Of course both the tripudium and the Azande ritual can easily be manipulated.
Belief in good omens is not without its value: trust in a favourable outcome can strengthen the efforts necessary to achieve this. It works then like a self-fulfilling prophesy or placebo.
Cicero had his doubts – to put it mildly - about the validity of omens. In his De divination – written in 44 BC – he let his brother Quintus be spokesman for those believing in omens, while he himself in the second part comes with refutations. This dialogue is a mine of information for scholars of Roman religion, quoting often from otherwise lost sources.
The following story is about Gaius Flaminius neglecting bad omens before confronting Hannibal at the battle of Trasimenus in 217 BC. He better had taken heed of all the warnings: his army was annihilated and he and 15.000 men lost their lives.
Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.77
(Quintus is speaking)
Quid? bello Punico secundo nonne C. Flaminius consul iterum neglexit signa rerum futurarum magna cum clade rei publicae? Qui exercitu lustrato cum Arretium versus castra movisset et contra Hannibalem legiones duceret, et ipse et equus eius ante signum Iovis Statoris sine causa repente concidit nec eam rem habuit religioni obiecto signo, ut peritis videbatur, ne committeret proelium. Idem cum tripudio auspicaretur, pullarius diem proelii committendi differebat. Tum Flaminius ex eo quaesivit, si ne postea quidem pulli pascerentur, quid faciendum censeret. Cum ille quiescendum respondisset, Flaminius: “Praeclara vero auspicia, si esurientibus pullis res geri poterit, saturis nihil geretur!” itaque signa convelli et se sequi iussit. Quo tempore cum signifer primi hastati signum non posset movere loco nec quicquam proficeretur, plures cum accederent, Flaminius re nuntiata suo more neglexit. Itaque tribus iis horis concisus exercitus atque ipse interfectus est.
consul iterum: Flaminius was consul for the second time
clades –es (f.): disaster
exercitu lustrato: `the army being inspected’ (Originally this included a kind of apotropaic or purifying ceremony, hence lustrato.)
Arretium versus = versus Arretium (south of Florence and north of Lake Trasimene)
signum: (here) statue
Iupiter Stator: Jove in his function of the god who prevents fleeing
concido concidi: to fall together
eam rem habuit religioni obiecto signo: he held this incident for no (reason for) concern, though a warning has been given. (litt. he had this thing not for concern (religioni: predicative dative), a sign being given.)
religioni: the word religio has a far wider range of meanings than our `religion’ and has not often the meaning `religion’ in the way we use it.
peritis: to the experienced (in such omens)
auspicor: to perform a divination
ex eo: from him
si ne postea quidem pulli pascerentur: if the chickens would not even eat later
quiescendum: to be quiet (i.e. not to engage into battle0
esurio esurivi: to be hungry
satur –is: full, sated (saturis pullis)
signa convelli: the standards to be picked up
signifer primi hastati: the standard bearer of the first company (i.e. the company in front of an attack, armed with spears (hastae)
nec quicquam proficeretur: and nothing could be accomplished
suo more: in his usual way
tribus iis horis: within just three hours
concido concidi concisum: to destroy
A good omen!