Auspix Redux or, another new way of looking at a chicken.

3 August 2007

here, the first ever post from the archives, substantially retooled–

People sound stupid when they’re talking to animals, myself included:

Far from being an idle hobby, birdwatching in Ancient Rome was a serious affair one of the principle ways of forecasting the future. Ergo “auspice” from “avi-spex” literally the watching of birds.

Presumably this tradition has its roots in the careful observation of animals (both wild and domestic) by farmers, herders, mariners etc. for clues to changing weather patterns and such. As per their custom, the Romans took these folkloric practices to elaborate and highly regimented extremes and an entire class of fortune-tellers made a living out of the reading of animal signs for politicians and generals.

One of the most enduring augury practices was the use of chickens in preparing for military campaigns. Lacking spy satellites and RADAR, armies actually brought chickens with them into battle. The morning before a skirmish, the chicken specialist, or pullarius (I’m not going to get into all of the etymologies here…), would toss some cake to chickens. If the birds ate so ravenously that bits of food went flying around it was taken as a virtual guarantee of victory. On the other hand, if the birds ate only reluctantly or avoided the food altogether it was seen as a discouraging sign. This novel form of military intelligence was termed Auspicium ex tripudiis, or signs of the three-toed.

One notable tale of chicken reading comes from the First Punic War when Publius Claudius Pulcher lead a fleet against the Carthaginians in 249 BC. Before the battle, Claudius got an unfavorable reading from his chickens but rather than turn back, threw the chickens in the sea and pressed on reportedly snarling “if they aren’t hungry, let them drink” (ut biberent, quando esse nollent). He suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Drepana. Claudius managed to escape death, but returned to Rome humiliated and was tried for impiety and incompetence. He died soon afterward perhaps by his own hand.

If all of this seems rather odd, remember that in the States we retain a vestigial tradition of theriomancy, letting an Eastern marmot set our seasonal calendar every February. Then there are those perennial reports of animals predicting earthquakes. And let’s not forget the recent case of the feline grim reaper.

Superstitions aside, the search for predictive power through careful observation of the natural world is at the heart of modern science. It’s also a common thread cross-stitched by humanity across the globe and back into the Paleolithic at least. And while we might well remain suspicious (catch that?) of the ability of domestic junglefowl to provide good military intelligence, well here in States we ride atop a comically tiny horse these days.

I surely don’t really miss the days of “impiety” as an impeachable offense. “Incompetence” on the other hand….

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