Ancient Romans Used Chickens to Predict Battle Outcomes
Few tales capture the peculiarities of ancient Roman beliefs as much as that of the sacred chickens. These were not ordinary birds but revered animals, consulted as avian oracles before significant military actions. Even more bizarrely, their eating habits held sway over the decisions of generals and could determine the fate of entire battles.
The practice of interpreting omens from the observed behavior of birds was known as Augury. Chickens were the responsibility of a designated priest, known as the Pullarius. Before a military engagement, the priest would scatter food before these sacred birds. If the chickens ate with vigor, it was seen as a favorable omen, indicating that the gods were pleased, and the battle would likely be won. If they refused to eat, it was an ill omen, advising against engagement.
Consequences of Ignoring the Feathered Prophets
One famous account from Cicero's De Divinatione relates a naval event where the chickens refused to eat before a sea battle. The frustrated naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, exclaimed, “If they won't eat, let them drink!” He then proceeded to throw the sacred birds overboard into the sea. This act of defiance against the omens supposedly led to a significant Roman defeat at the Battle of Drepana in 249 BC. Pulcher's blatant disregard for the sacred ritual led to his summons to Rome and subsequent exile, a testament to how seriously the Romans took the prophecies of the chickens!
Another account comes from the historian Livy. He recounted an event during the First Punic War when the sacred chickens were released from their cage, but rather than eating, they dispersed. The Roman fleet took this as a very negative omen, and they indeed suffered a loss in the subsequent battle.
- Before Chicken Domestication, The 'Exotic' Birds Were Revered, Not Eaten
- Birds in the Ancient World: Messengers of Omens and Auguries
Depiction of a Pullarius with a sacred chicken (Public Domain)
Chickens as Divine Instruments
What could possibly explain this reliance on the eating habits of chickens? For the Romans, omens were a direct means of communication with the gods. Birds, being creatures of the sky, were especially connected to the divine. The way in which birds ate, flew, or sang were all viewed as messages. The sacred chickens, therefore, were specifically chosen instruments through which the gods offered guidance.
While it might seem bizarre to modern sensibilities, these beliefs were deeply rooted in Roman culture. The juxtaposition of a mighty empire seeking counsel from the humble chicken underlines the complex tapestry of beliefs that shaped its decisions and destiny!
Top image: Ancient Roman feeding chicken. Source: AI generated.
Meddings, A. (2017). The Sacred Chickens that Shaped Roman Decision-Making. History Collection. Available from: https://historycollection.com/sacred-chickens-shaped-roman-policymaking/2/
History Skills. Cock-a-Doodle-Doom: The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome and the Risks of Ignoring Them. Available from: https://www.historyskills.com/classroom/ancient-history/sacred-chickens/