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.
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.