The Ghosts and Superstitions of Ancient Rome
The history of the military conquests of the ancient Romans has often neglected to highlight some characteristics, which are still typical of the citizens of the Urbs Aeterna (Eternal City ). The Romans have always shared an undisputed love for a salacious joke and for witty phrases. The Horatian expression Italum acetum expresses the witty and biting spirit that characterized, and still characterizes, the citizens of Rome, who dared to taunt even heroes, popes and emperors. Any defect could be subjected to irony, such as a hump, a hunched back, or a characteristic such as avarice. Even during the triumph of Gaius Julius Caesar the soldiers at a certain point exalted his physical and moral defects, calling him adulterous and bald.
The Triumph of Caesar' by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio. (c. 1510) Lowe Art Museum. (Public Domain)
The irrational, superstitious fear of any events considered supernatural may have characterized even the leaders who made Rome great and counterbalanced the Romans’ passion for derision. Everyone, some more and others to a lesser extent, feared to encounter the shadows of the dead; the ghosts who dwelled in some cursed houses. It was believed that if a wolf first looked at a man, he would become mute. Sailors, during their sea voyages, were careful not to cut their nails or hair, unless the wind raged. To hear the cry of the parra (bird of ill omen) was an omen of misfortune, as well as when a divine statue was sweating blood. Deep terror shook those who heard the screams of the witches who performed their mischief at night. However, even witches could be mocked.
The nocturnal visionary tradition of the Benandanti led the Roman Inquisition to accuse them of being witches, malevolent Satanists depicted in this 1508 woodcut by Hans Baldung (1508) (Public Domain)
One of the greatest Latin poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus narrated the scene of a nightly spell on the Esquiline Hill by two awful women, Canidia and Sàgana. Witnessing their witchcraft was a figure of the god Priapus carved in a fig tree trunk, who saw Canidia wandering around barefoot, with disheveled hair, together with Sàgana, both horrible in their pallor. The two witches, who desired to summon the spirits to consult with them, brought a woolen puppet and a wax puppet along to conduct an evil spell.
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Alessandra Filiaci is the creator of ‘Tarosofia’, a system of study and creative use of the Tarot and author of the books I Tarocchi. Il Sentiero Degli Uomini E Degli Dei" (1999) and I Tarocchi Della Nuova Era. Percorso Spirituale, Divinazione, Applicazioni Ludiche (Tarot of the new era. Spiritual path, divination, playful applications )(2017)
Top Image: The Imprisonment of Beatrice Cenci by Achille Leonardi ( b: 1800 d. 1870) (Public Domain)