Don’t Mess with the Sacred Chickens

Publius Claudius Pulcher

     When we last left off, Carthage had begun to seriously fight back with the successful commanders Himilco and Adherbal. The former was doing a splendid job of defending the city of Lilybaeum while the latter was successfully harassing Rome from both land and sea. To counter this new threat, one of Rome’s new consuls for the year 249 BCE, Publius Claudius Pulcher, decided that an attack against Drepana would be necessary. This was Adherbal’s base of operations and the only other Carthaginian stronghold left in Sicily. 
     After reinforcing the number of crewmen available and instilling harsh discipline to the besieging army, Pulcher set off in the night. Drepana was only a short distance away and could easily be reached before the sun rose. His original plan seems to be to try and assault Drepana with Adherbal either gone or unaware of the Roman fleet. In his war meeting with the army’s tribunes he asserted that Adherbal would be, “unprepared for such a contingency [an attack by the Roman fleet], as he was ignorant of the arrival of the crews, and convinced that their fleet was unable to take the sea owing to the heavy loss of men in the siege.” (Polybius 1.49)1 The tribunes thought that his reasoning was valid and the ships were ready with marines on board (probably 120 per ship.)

     Pulcher’s plan began to unfold like it was supposed to. Adherbal was indeed caught unprepared for a seaborne attack at Drepana. Unfortunately for Pulcher, Adherbal’s moment of being caught off-guard did not last long. “Soon recovering his composure and understanding that the enemy had come to attack, he decided to make every effort and incur every sacrifice rather than expose himself to the certitude of a blockade.” (Polybius 1.49)2 He knew what was going on in Lilybaeum and did not want to risk the same fate for Drepana. He sent word out quickly throughout the city and assembled both his crews and fighting men. He explained to them that any delay now would ensure a long and hard siege, but they could, on the other hand, sail out and try to emerge victorious in a battle and prevent that fate from happening. He gave them some words of encouragement as they decided that a pitched battle would be preferable to a drawn out siege and ordered them to follow his ship as they weighed anchor.

Sacred Chickens

     Polybius does not include the following segment that is attributed to Publius Claudius Pulcher, but it seems to have been common knowledge in Rome afterwards. Throughout their history, most Romans were quite religious and superstitious believing in many forms of divination and omens. (The key element in Roman religion, interestingly, was in orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. This basically means that even if you really didn’t believe in what you were doing, such as sacrifices for example, as long as you did it correctly then you were fine with the gods of Rome.) Even with political matters and military matters, many individuals took omens quite seriously. Our story here begins with one form of divination that was practiced in ancient Rome while on campaign. It is the form known as the ex tripudiis, “from dance.”

     Essentially, this form of divination dealt with chickens eating. What would happen is that the person in charge of the auspice chickens would open the doors to their cage or enclosure and then throw out some food before them. This would occur when a commander was looking for an open, such as before planned battle in Pulcher’s case. The omen was found in what the chickens did in response to the food. If they didn’t eat, that was bad. If they only nitpicked and barely ate that was also considered somewhat bad. Only when the chickens were ravenous and ate so greedily of the food that some fell to the ground (known as the tripudium solistimum) was it considered a highly favorable omen. (See Livy 10.40) Let’s just say that the trpudium solistimum did not occur when Publius Claudius Pulcher sought out an omen from the sacred chickens. I’ll let Cicero, who frequently refers to this incident in his “On the Nature of the Gods” and “On Divination,” relate what occurred here.

     Shall we be unmoved by the story of the recklessness of Publius Claudius in the first Punic War? Claudius merely in jest mocked at the gods: when the chickens on being released from their cage refused to feed, he ordered them to be thrown into the water, so that as they would not eat they might drink; but the joke cost the jester himself many tears and the Roman people a great disaster, for the fleet was severely defeated. (Cicero 2.7)3

     Publius Claudius Pulcher did not get the omen he was looking for and in his fury at probably being advised to not engage in the naval battle, he threw them overboard to drown the sacred chickens. Clearly this was a breach of traditional Roman piety, but Pulcher believed that he needed the element of surprise to take Carthage unawares and this would likely be lost if they turned back now. Of course, Pulcher proceeded with the Battle of Drepana, which we will cover in our next post. However, it indeed was a disaster, being the worst naval defeat for Rome during the whole First Punic War.

Publius Claudius Pulcher drowned the sacred chickens after they failed to produce a good omen for the battle ahead.
Wood engraving from Charlotte Yonge’s “Pictorial History of the World’s Great Nations.”
     Many other ancient writers besides Cicero mention or allude to Pulcher’s impiety including Florus, Livy, Suetonius, and Valerius Maximus among others. Yet, it might simply be a moralizing tale that was added to the record as a way to explain away the horrible Roman defeat that followed. Still, even though Polybius and Diodorus Siculus do not specifically mention this incident (Diodorus Siculus’ account may just not have survived to our time as this part of his writings is only fragmentary), we saw how they described his character as definitely being capable of doing such a thing in a fit of rage.

     Even if Pulcher did drown the sacred chickens, there were other reasons for the failure of the Roman fleet. Cicero in another one of his works, admittedly where he is essentially making fun of divination, argues as much.

     For, if it was the will of Fate that the Roman fleets in the First Punic War should perish—the one by shipwreck and the other at the hands of the Carthaginians—they would have perished just the same even if the sacred chickens had made a tripudium solistimum in the consulship of Lucius Junius and Publius Claudius! (Cicero 2.20)4

     In our next post, we will examine what we can about the Battle of Drepana and see how much Publius Claudius Pulcher is to blame.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum). Translated by H. Rackham. 1933.
  4. Cicero. On Divination (De Divinatione). Translated by William Falconer. 1923.