The belief in portents and auguries was common before the modern era. We moderns, comfortably ensconced in our towers of science and “rationalism,” are likely to view with extreme skepticism the notion that future events can be foretold. Such a view would appear to some as a superstitious relic from a less enlightened era. Or so we would like to imagine.
The historian of late antiquity Ammianus Marcellinus had a few words to say about portents. In book XX of his history, he describes the Roman emperor Constantius’s siege of the town of Bezabde in what is now southeast Turkey (modern Zabdicene). He was at the time engaged in a bitter struggle against the Persian king Shapur II, who had made moves to retake Roman Mesopotamia. For many days, Constantius’s forces put the city to siege in the year 360, but were unable to take it. Thunder, lightning, and heavy rains then came, turning the ground around the city into dense mud, a fact that made military operations even more difficult.
Rainbows then appeared with frequency (XX.11.26: Accedebant arcus caelestis conspectus assidui). Ammianus is careful to explain the appearance of rainbows as a natural phenomenon. He does not believe they are miracles: he offers a very rational explanation of how they appear. He knows that water vapor in the air refracting sunlight is the cause of the rainbow (XX.11.26), although of course the spectral nature of refracted white light is not in his vocabulary. He associates rainbows with changes in weather patterns; but for Ammianus, they are not just a natural phenomenon. They were something more than this. They were an indication that the goddess Iris had been sent “when it was necessary to change the present state of things” (cum praesentium rerum verti necesse sit status).
Iris is not a very well-known goddess today. She was a harbinger—personified by the rainbow—sent by the more powerful gods to pass on signs of change: that is, when old things are replaced by new ones. A little bit later in his history (XXI.1), Ammianus goes into more detail regarding his belief in portents, auguries, and divination. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with this sort of thing is irrelevant: it mattered to him, and to nearly every other ancient historian. We cannot simply dismiss these things out of hand, just because they run counter to our modern sensibilities. Ancient man was not a fool: he did not have the techniques or tools of modern science, but his model of explaining the world did have a consistent logic to it, as someone who actually takes the time to read the original texts themselves will understand.
The power of divination, Ammianus believed, was a kind of elemental spirit surrounding all things (elementorum omnium spiritus, utpote perennium corporum praesentiendi motu semper et ubique vigens). Under the right conditions, divination could reveal signs foretelling future events in one way or another. The goddess Themis had general control over such prophecies; she is the embodiment of the Divine Order of the world, a personification of the natural “balance” of the universe. For good reason Themis has been depicted holding scales: these are the universal scales of justice, and this gives her the power to detect disturbances in the natural order of things. Themis interpreted the rulings decreed by the “Fates” (i.e., things “fixed”).
But how, according to Ammianus, are such prophecies revealed to men? It can happen in various ways. One way is through the trained inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals. “The original instructor of this discipline is Tages, who according to legend arose suddenly from the earth in parts of Etruria” (XXI.1.10).
Another way divination can take place is when people become agitated and are moved to speak “sacred words” (cum aestuant hominum corda, sed locuntur divina). Under the right conditions, a person can literally channel a divine force, and speak convincingly of future events. The divine power of the sun (Ammianus says) can literally “light up” the right oracle, and cause a prophecy to be issued. This is why, he tells us, “the prophetic Sibyls [of Cumae] often say they are burning.” Other things can trigger cosmic awareness, too: starlight, the right noises, thunder and lightning, or other natural phenomena. Yet another way prophecies are revealed is through the power of dreams. This is a powerful transmitter of fateful information, according to Ammianus, but the interpreters of dreams can easily be led astray.
Our intrepid historian anticipates that many people will laugh at the idea of divination and prophecy, and he has an answer for them. Belief in such supernatural occurrences was as much mocked in the ancient world as it is today. He knows that many people will scoff and say, “Well, if prophecy were indeed an art or a science, why can’t an oracle predict things with consistency or accuracy?” His answer to this is:
It is sufficient to point out that even a grammarian sometimes speaks incorrectly, or that a musician hits a note out of tune, or that a doctor is unaware of some cure: but even with all this, neither grammar, music, nor medicine have stopped in their tracks. Cicero has an appropriate comment on this subject: “The gods give us signs of future events; if an interpreter makes a mistake reading them, the fault lies not with the gods, but with the interpretation.” [XXI.13]
This was Ammianus’s response. As I said at the beginning of this article, we should not be too quick to judge and condemn previous eras for their belief in prophecies, auguries, and divination. Ancient man was not a fool, as I have said before. He did not have the same advantages we have today; he had to interpret the world in terms that were consistent with the corpus of knowledge he had available to him. Stated another way, his interpretations of the world more or less fit the accepted data at the time.
And perhaps we can look at this matter another way. It may very well be that our “modern interpretations” of the world are not much more enlightened than Ammianus’s. Perhaps it is only that we have discovered new terms, new names, and new concepts with which to cloak old ideas. It may be that what Ammianus called “prophecy” or “divination,” we today call psychic phenomena, psychoanalysis, dream therapy, or other unexplained mental phenomena. A cynic or a humorist might remind us that very little is new in history except arrangement. Or it may be that natural events can indeed give us clues as to what will come, if only we use our modern scientific instruments in the right ways. The volcanologist, the geologist, and the meteorologist are all “predicting” future events, and have to learn to read the signs available to them.
There are valid arguments for each side. At the very least, we should not be too quick to claim the moral high ground over our ancestors. I will leave the final verdict on these matters, of course, to the considered judgment of the reader.
Read more on this subject in Pantheon:
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