The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making

Alexander Meddings - November 10, 2017

Some might say Julius Caesar was the most influential figure in Roman history. Others might nominate Brutus, the man who drove out the last of Rome’s kings, or Augustus, who 700 years later essentially went on to became one. But although this figure’s admittedly less known, there’s another strong contender for being one of Roman history’s most influential: the humble pullarius, or “priest of the sacred chickens”.

The pullarius was responsible for keeping sacred chickens and using them to make divinations or “predictions.” These holy birds, which had been sourced from the island of Negreponte (now Euboea, near Athens), were kept unfed in their cages for a predetermined amount of time before being released and presented with some grain. If they ate the grain, the venture upon which the Romans were consulting them was deemed favorable. If they didn’t touch it, however, the venture lacked the god’s backing and was therefore to be abandoned.

This was just one of many forms of augury — not to be confused with “orgy”, though the Romans had plenty of those too — that completely consumed Roman decision-making. There were many ways of trying to divine the will of the gods through auguring. Observing and interpreting natural or manmade phenomena — a thunderstorm, perhaps, or an inauspicious chant by the crowd at the games — are a couple of examples. But the most common, ritualized, and legal methods of auguring were getting a priest to either read the entrails of a slaughtered animal or extrapolate meaning from the behavior of birds.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
Bas relief depicting a haruspex (the priest responsible for the reading of entrails) hard at work. Theodore Darlymple

Augury was central to Roman policymaking; if the auguries weren’t good, the undertaking would be abandoned. If you think that’s insane, imagine how Rome’s enemies must have felt (frustrated, most likely; chickens being notoriously difficult to bribe). I mean it’s not like antiquity was lacking in genius. These were, after all, the centuries that produced Socrates and Plato; Cicero and Virgil. You might have thought one of Rome’s enemies would consider sneaking some food into the coops: satiating the sacred chickens’ hunger and thereby saving their city from marauding Roman forces.

Then again, in the one episode for which we have any substantial information about the pullarius such guile wasn’t even necessary. For as important as the sacred chickens were to the superstitious practices of the Romans, on this one occasion they were simply ignored. The episode in question took place during the Third Samnite War (298 – 290 BC), fought between the Roman Republic and one of its southern, persistently troublesome neighbors, the Samnites.

The Samnites inhabited the area of what is now the Italian region of Campania — famous for cities such as Naples, and sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and of course Vesuvius. As native speakers of Oscan, the Samnites were linguistically and ethnically different from the Latin speaking Romans. They were politically autonomous too, eventually bringing them into conflict with territorially snowballing Romans.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
Map of Ancient Samnium. The site of the battle, the city of Aquilonia, appears here as Beneventum (a name later given by the Romans). Wikimedia Commons

This wasn’t the first time the two powers had come to blows. As the name of the war suggests, they had already fought two wars, in the late fourth century BC, when Rome began expanding southwards. Rome had won both, but not without suffering some serious and humiliating defeats, particularly at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC. The Third Samnite War wouldn’t be the last conflict between the two either. The Samnites were the last to hold out against the Romans during the so-called Social War of the 90s and 80s BC; an effort that ushered in their ethnic cleansing under the ruthless Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
Contemporary depiction of Samnite Warriors (taken from a fourth-century BC Samnite tomb). Getty Images

By today’s strategic standards the beginning of the campaign was a farce. One Roman consul, Spurius Carvilius, was able to storm the town of Amiternum completely unopposed (a spurious claim — sorry) while Samnites were busy observing sacrifices and drawing up secret plans. Meanwhile, Rome’s other consul, Lucius Papirius Cursor, stormed another town, Duronia, taking fewer prisoners than his consular colleague but slaughtering what to a Roman general would have been a nevertheless satisfying number of Samnites.

Papirius then advanced on the Samnite stronghold of Aquilonia where the majority of the enemy forces were stationed. Mustering his forces outside Aquilonia’s walls, he ventured upon a two-part, quintessentially Roman speech. The first part was concerned with the battle: the weapons the Romans should use and where in the enemy’s armor they should stick them. The second part concerned gods, specifically how the Samnites had so gravely displeased them by breaking their treaty with Rome. Their vengeance, Papirius assured his army, would soon be delivered.

Having worked his men up into a battle frenzy, Papirius then informed them that the battle would, in fact, be tomorrow and that now was probably a good time to get some sleep. This did nothing to quench their bloodlust though, as we’re told that all through the night they hungered for battle. As dawn crept closer at the third-night watch, Papirius rose from his quarters. He sent for his pullarius. It was time to check the omens.

We should take a moment to spare some sympathy for the pullarius, who didn’t have the easiest job in the world. Granted, all he had to do was feed grain to chickens and report back whether they’d eaten it or not. But telling a pumped-up Roman army that they couldn’t go ahead with their assault couldn’t have been easy. When he took the auguries his sacred chickens didn’t touch the grain. But the pullarius (who was presumably unsupervised) decided to lie, telling Papirius that they’d eaten so greedily it had spilled from their mouths.

Delighted with the favorable omens, Papirius drew up his troops for battle and sent word to his fellow consul to provide some cavalry in support. But just as the Samnites sallied forth, Papirius was distracted by news that there had been a dispute over the readings. Some of the other pullari — who, honestly, had been grossly negligent in not supervising — were less than convinced the sacred chickens had eaten all the corn and were suggesting the pullarius had lied.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
The probable site of the battle: the town of Agnone, Italy. TouringItaly

By this stage, Papirius was fully committed to the battle. He suggested, therefore, that the pullarius who had given him his reading be sent immediately to the frontline. If he had spoken the truth then, logically, he would have nothing to fear. If he had lied, the gods would rain down their wrath on him personally. The unfortunate pullarius was duly sent to the front line to play his very own game of chicken. Only that this time, unfortunately, he lost.

Before the battle had even commenced, one of the enemy javelins struck the poor pullarius, bringing him to the ground before the Roman standards. We don’t know whether he died instantly, but we can only hope that in his final moments he felt validated in that his prediction had been correct: the battle, at least for him, had indeed gone badly. Papirius elatedly cried out that he had been divinely punished, and the gods were clearly taking part in the battle. At that moment, we’re told, a crow passed in front of him and gave a loud “caw”: an omen that told him all he wanted to hear. Everything was going to go just fine.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
This curse tablet (found in Bath, England) pays testament to the strength of Roman superstitions. The user would engrave the name of whoever had offended them (usually along with the reason and the desired punishment) before consigning it to the ground. Then it was up to the nefarious gods… Ancient Origins

As it turned out the Romans did win, though only just. The cavalry of Papirius’s co-consul arrived just in time to rout the Samnites, driving them inside the city which soon became the scene of frenzied looting and indiscriminate massacring. So much gold and silver was said to be taken from Aquilonia that there was enough to decorate every public building in Rome, with still some leftover. We do know that Rome’s victory in the war followed shortly after Aquilonia in 290 BC. What we don’t know, because our one ancient source abruptly cuts off, is precisely how.

It must be said that our information for this period is at best sketchy and at worst missing. Almost everything we know about Roman history before the second century BC comes from the historian Titus Livy who, problematically, was writing during the Age of Augustus (31 BC – 14 AD). In the case of the sacred chickens, Livy was describing an event that took place almost 500 earlier. We should be healthily skeptical in believing him when he gives word-for-word speeches, for example. But we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of what he wrote about the sacred chickens.

Like all polytheistic ancient societies, the Romans fundamentally believed that all human misfortune could be explained as resulting from the gods acting wrathfully, either because they had been displeased or because they basically just fancied it. The Romans were therefore at pains to make sure their gods were appeased and therefore not tempted to inflict any kind of unnecessary punishment on them.

There was, of course, a difference between those who were pious and those who were overly superstitious. Superstitious people believed all human suffering could be explained only in terms of angered gods. In fact, our word “superstition” comes from the Latin superstitio: formed of the preposition super and verb stare, which translates as “standing over”. It’s precisely this image — of a wrathful god standing over us should we go astray — that gives our “superstition” its modern meaning.

It’s tempting to see the ancient gods almost like revered children in the way they demanded constant supplicatory attention. But mortals felt nonetheless obliged to keep them sweet so nothing horrific befell them, which is why they poured such attention and industry into performing their sacred rites and rituals both regularly and correctly.

The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making
Modern illustration of a pullarius giving a reading to a group of senators. Vedic Astrologer Shyamasundara Dasa

Few voices capture the powerful influence augury exerted over the Roman imagination better than the second century BC Greek historian Polybius. He describes Rome as a state held together by superstitious fear. Acting as an opium of the masses, the constant threat of the invisible, quick to anger gods served the providential purpose of keeping the lawless, violent, selfish desires of the multitude in check more than their fellow man ever could.

This is an oversimplification. In reality, the entire Roman state was held together by superstition. Specific augural law dictated every venture the Romans entertained the idea of starting. Priests were immensely powerful, which is why Rome’s first emperors were so keen to consolidate the powers and name of the pontifex maximus (or “High Priest”). Because most of us today are raised not to be superstitious, a lot of this sounds insane. But in the violent, tumultuous times of antiquity, you can understand why it might be comforting to believe some divinity had your back. As long as you treated them well.