I was not expecting to encounter consecrated cluckers when reading a book about the ancient and very fearsome Roman army. It seems that the Romans adopted divination as a belief from the even more ancient Etruscans, who wanted a religious reason to do just about anything. Ever the practical empire, Romans also adapted a host of gods that very much resembled Greek gods, but with different names.
Back to birds. Robert Hughes, in his hefty book Rome, recounts how Etruscan diviners looked for signs to “read the will of the gods” from such portents as “lightning flashes” and “the flight of birds,” plus other more unsavory sorts of activities. The idea was not just to “foretell the future, but to find out whether important plans were “likely to have the approval of the gods.” In the earlier republican times and even into empire times, Hughes amusingly says “Roman religion was an absurd bureaucratic clutter of minor gods.” Covering all their bases, Romans also had a collection of principal gods who had their own priests and rituals.
Enter the chickens. A cage would be carried into a field by Roman armies and the birds fed before a battle. If they ate with gusto, an “excellent omen” was seen. If they ignored their food, this was a big, bad omen. Even a halfhearted appetite had meaning. While many high-ranking officials were serious about this ritual, one Roman admiral did not like his chicken dinner reading and tossed the poor things overboard. “Alas, he lost the ensuing battle,” says Hughes.
I may never look at chickens in quite the same way again. Or artists’ renderings of big, burly Roman centurions.