CHAP. 4.—THAT PRODIGIES AND PORTENTS MAY BE CONFIRMED, OR
MADE OF NO EFFECT.
L. Piso informs us, in the first Book of his Annals, that King
while attempting, in accordance with the
books of Numa, to summon Jupiter from heaven by means of a
sacrifice similar to that employed by him, was struck by
lightning in consequence of his omission to follow certain
forms with due exactness. Many other authors, too, have
attested, that by the power of words a change has been
effected in destinies and portents of the greatest importance.
While they were digging on the Tarpeian Hill for the foundations of a temple, a human head was found; upon which deputies were sent to Olenus Calenus, the most celebrated
diviner of Etruria. He, foreseeing the glory and success which
attached to such a presage as this, attempted, by putting a
question to them, to transfer the benefit of it to his own
nation. First describing, on the ground before him, the outline
of a temple with his staff—"Is it so, Romans, as you say?"
said he; "here then must be the temple2
of Jupiter, all good
and all powerful; it is here that we have found the head"—and the constant asseveration of the Annals is, that the destiny
of the Roman empire would have been assuredly transferred to
Etruria, had not the deputies, forewarned by the son of the
diviner, made answer—"No, not here exactly, but at Rome,
we say, the head was found."
It is related also that the same was the case when a certain
four-horse chariot, made of clay, and intended for the roof of
the same temple, had considerably increased while in the
and that on this occasion, in a similar manner, the
destinies of Rome were saved. Let these instances suffice
then to show, that the virtues of presages lie in our own hands,
and that they are valuable in each instance according as they
At all events, it is a principle in the doctrine
of the augurs, that neither imprecations nor auspices of any
kind have any effect upon those who, when entering upon an
undertaking, declare that they will pay no attention whatever
to them; a greater instance than which, of the indulgent disposition of the gods towards us, cannot be found.
And then besides, in the laws themselves of the Twelve
Tables, do we not read the following words—"Whosoever shall
have enchanted the harvest,"5
and in another place, "Whosoever shall have used pernicious incantations"?6
Verrius Flaccus cites authors whom he deems worthy of credit, to show
that on the occasion of a siege, it was the usage, the first thing of
all, for the Roman priests to summon forth the tutelary divinity
of that particular town, and to promise him the same rites, or
even a more extended worship, at Rome; and at the present day
even, this ritual still forms part of the discipline of our pontiffs.
Hence it is, no doubt, that the name7
of the tutelary deity of
Rome has been so strictly kept concealed, lest any of our enemies
should act in a similar manner. There is no one, too, who does
not dread being spell-bound by means of evil imprecations;8
hence the practice, after eating eggs or snails, of immediately breaking9
the shells, or piercing them with the spoon.
Hence, too, those love-sick imitations of enchantments which
we find described by Theocritus among the Greeks, and by
Catullus, and more recently, Virgil,10
among our own writers.
Many persons are fully persuaded that articles of pottery may
be broken by a similar agency; and not a few are of opinion
even that serpents can counteract incantations, and that this is
the only kind of intelligence they possess—so much so, in fact,
that by the agency of the magic spells of the Marsi, they may
be attracted to one spot, even when asleep in the middle of the
night. Some people go so far, too, as to write certain words11
on the walls of houses, deprecatory of accident by fire.
But it is not easy to say whether the outlandish and unpronounceable words that are thus employed, or the Latin expressions that are used at random, and which must appear
ridiculous to our judgment, tend the most strongly to stagger
our belief-seeing that the human imagination is always conceiving something of the infinite, something deserving of the
notice of the divinity, or indeed, to speak more correctly, something that must command his intervention perforce. Homer12
tells us that Ulysses arrested the flow of blood from a wound
in the thigh, by repeating a charm; and Theophrastus13
that sciatica may be cured by similar means. Cato14
preserved a formula for the cure of sprains, and M. Varro for
that of gout. The Dictator Cæsar, they say, having on one
occasion accidentally had a fall in his chariot,15
was always in
the habit, immediately upon taking his seat, of thrice repeating
a certain formula, with the view of ensuring safety upon the
journey; a thing that, to my own knowledge, is done by many
persons at the present day.