On the subject of prophecies, men are accustomed to take differing viewpoints. Some say that the predictions of oracles and diviners mean nothing at all, and should be counted as so much nonsense: any “true” predictions they make are solely the result of blind coincidence. Others say that they have independent value as evidence of our imaginative capacity; and that prophecies are, more or less, records of our psychological projections and subconscious desires. Still others believe that they should be seen more as predictions of what might happen, rather than statements of what will happen. As in so many other things, it will be the responsibility of each reader to decide for himself. But it seems to me that we should at least acknowledge that such practices have been around for millennia, and that they are found across the globe within nearly every society and culture.
The following story is found in the pages of the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who is generally seen as a reliable and sober guide. In the year 371 A.D. the emperor Valens found himself the object of plots and assassination attempts. A notary (notarius) named Theodorus enlisted a band of conspirators to try to depose the mercurial Valens. The plan was not successful. Theodorus and his associates were denounced in the city of Antioch, convicted of treason, and executed.
Valens was a “crude man” (subrusticus homo), but he knew how to hold on to power. He used the conspiracy as an excuse to round up as many imagined enemies as possible, and then try them on the flimsiest pretexts. In this he was aided by many sycophants, of the usual type that hover around men of power and influence.
According to the historian, Valens had two major faults that made him especially susceptible to the manipulations of people around him: first, he was hot-headed and prone to unrestrained anger; second, he was not interested in making an effort to distinguish someone who was truly guilty from someone who was innocent. The inevitable result of these faults was that many innocent people were sent to the executioner for no other reason than falling afoul of Valens’s temporary mood. And once this happened, it was nearly impossible for him to change his mind.
To make himself look good, he would sometimes make a big show of exercising “clemency,” but this usually was itself a terrible punishment. He would drive a man into exile and confiscate his property, as if he was doing him a favor by not putting him to death. And as Ammianus says (XXIX.1.22), “Here we must take notice of the old adage, that no sentence is more cruel than that one which, while appearing to be lenient, is more severe.” (Unde animadversum est recte hoc definitum, nullam esse crudeliorem sententiam ea, quae est–cum parcere videtur–asperior).
So this was the state of affairs. At last hearings were held to determine the guilt of Theodorus himself. Two witnesses, named Patricius and Hilarius, were summoned to provide testimony before the court. They said that they had learned information about the conspiracy through the use of a “Delphic tripod,” a device for the making and interpretations of prophecies. The two men described (XXIX.1.29) how they made the tripod and then consecrated it according to ancient rituals. It had a large metal disc attached to its apex, and around its outer rim were inscribed the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet.
The device was placed on a metallic table, a linen thread was attached to the tripod, and to this thread was tied a ring as a weight. Apparently certain incantations were recited, the ring would sway this way and that, and would at some point identify certain letters on the disc.
They then posed the question, “Who will succeed the emperor Valens?” The pendulum was then set to do its work. Eventually, the suspended ring indicated these four Greek letters: Θ Ε Ο Δ. Transcribed in the Roman alphabet, they stand for the sound Theod. Someone present said that the result proved that the conspirator Theodorus was guilty (in fact Theodorus had known nothing about this prophecy). When Hilarius had explained all of this to the judges present, they asked him what other information he had gleaned during the casting of the tripod’s oracle. Hilarius nervously recited several verses to the judges, the last line of which ran thus:
While Ares, god of war, rages on the plain of Minas.
What was the meaning of these lines? Ares, the reader will recall, is the name of the Greek god of war, the Hellenic counterpart to the Mars of the Romans. But what was the plain of Minas? The soothsayers told the judges that the tripod had in fact foretold the death of the emperor Valens. On hearing this, the judges ordered the two soothsayers to be led off to the torture chamber. This chapter of the story would end here, as Valens was successful in wiping out those who had conspired against him. Or so it seemed.
Some years later, in August 378, Valens was involved in one of the most catastrophic defeats the Romans ever suffered on the field of battle. Near the city of Adrianople, Valens ignored the advice of his generals who counseled him not to give battle to the Goths. But Valens insisted, confident of an easy victory that he wanted to have to his credit; and the Goths, making expert use of terrain and maneuver, surrounded and cut to pieces the Roman infantry. According to Ammianus, Valens’s body was never recovered from the field; he died with his troops and may have been stripped of his identifying armor or clothing by the victorious Goths.
Now at this point we should recall the prophecy given seven years before by the hapless duo Patricius and Hilarius. Valens had been told of it, and had lived in fear of what it might mean. He thought that the “Minas” in the prophecy referred to a city in Ionia, near the city of Erythrae, since the word Minas is found in Homer (Odyssey III.172). For this reason, Ammianus says, Valens always “trembled” at the thought of getting into a conflict on the Asiatic mainland (XXXI.14.8).
But the prophecy was not to be avoided. Valens was succeeded by Theodosius I, instead of the conspirator Theodorus; but both of them had names whose first four letters were as the prophecy foretold. But this was not all. After the battle of Adrianople, which took place on a plain, survivors walked the terrain to bury the dead and salvage what they could. The historian tells us that, near the place where Valens was thought to have been slain with his troops, a small stone marker or monument was found. On this marker was attached a stone tablet inscribed in Greek. The inscription stated that beneath the monument was buried a man named Minas.
This discovery was seen by some as fulfilling the last verse produced by the prophecy of the tripod, quoted above, and given seven years earlier before the judges.
Read Sallust today.