Don’t Mess with the Sacred Chickens
Publius Claudius Pulcher
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.
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.
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.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum). Translated by H. Rackham. 1933.
- Cicero. On Divination (De Divinatione). Translated by William Falconer. 1923.