I’m writing a Roman textbook and came across a ridiculous but amusing story from Livy last night. I wrote it up this way:
The Dancing Corn
Livy tells a pithy, probably legendary, story from the last years of the Third Samnite War that illustrates how closely religion and warfare were tied in Roman culture. Republican culture was incredibly superstitious. Omens and divine signs were routinely sought, especially during important military campaigns. In 293, a consul by the name of Lucius Papirius Cursor was getting ready to attack some Samnite forces in Campania. His men were incredibly impatient to engage the enemy, but Papirius needed the blessing of the gods to act.
Roman armies often traveled with special priests who were trained to take auspices and communicate the wishes of the gods to the generals. Papirius had sacred chickens and priest who could, it was believed, find divine messages in how they ate their consecrated feed. So corn was tossed in their pen, but these chickens did not eat. In no way was this a good omen, but the army was anxious to fight. One of the priests lied to Papirius and told him the signs were favorable by a standard phrase that described how the feed fell meaningfully from the chicken’s beaks: “the corn danced.”
Happily, the Roman forces began to prepare and drew themselves up to attack the Samnites. That was when an argument broke out among the sacred-chicken-keepers. Some claimed that the auspices had actually not been positive, and that the priest was lying. The soldiers began to murmur nervously, trying to decide which was greater, their superstition or their eagerness. Thinking quickly, Papirius responded that clearly the bad portent sent by the gods was for that priest specifically, and not the whole Roman army. He proved this by placing the terrified and unarmed priest at the very front of the battle line. A thrown Samnite spear immediately killed him and the Romans could then be satisfied that the auspices had been properly heeded. The Romans won the battle and Papirius was awarded a triumph.