Mysticism and Signs in Ancient Rome

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Mysticism and Signs in Ancient Rome

From the very beginnings of their city the Romans married "signs" and astrology to religious ceremony and worship of the Gods. Propitiatory or negative signs such as seen in the entrails of sacrificed animals, the movement of snakes and the flight of birds such as geese, eagles or vultures were extremely important and could prove to be decisive elements of government decision.

Both of these arts were learned from the Etruscans who initially were employed to perform the rites and later looked after the instruction of the Roman acolytes. The priestly orders which performed them were the Augurs and Aruspices.

One example of the use of these signs was the very founding of Rome. Tradition would have it that it should be the elder brother to found a new city but given that Romulus and Remus were twins it could not be said which was the elder. So the two brothers set out to the top of the Palatine and Aventine hills. Remus was first to see a sign of six vultures flying in formation but just as he exalted Romulus saw twelve and so there was yet more indecision: were six vultures seen first better than twelve seen second? It is not surprising the whole affair eventually ended up in a bloody fight as Remus hopped over the sacred furrow ("pomerium") which had been dug by Romulus and paid with his life.

A later but equally memorable example was had in the event of a plague in the city. Having been unable to find a remedy the Romans consulted the Decemvirs, the guardians of the Sibylline books. The response was that the God of medicine Esculapius should be brought over from where he was currently worshipped in Greece. A ship was dispatched with some of the greatest medics to go and fetch the god. When reaching the coast the ship was boarded by a snake, which happened to be the symbol of Esculapius.

Having effectively taken the god on board, the ship promptly turned about and returned to Rome. The snake left the ship as it sailed down the Tiber and swam onto the Tiberine island, and so it was there that a hospital was built. A hospital is run on the Tiber island to this very day and the snake is still a symbol of medicine. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that an island is an appropriate place to quarantine the sick?

A parallel story is that which lead to the importing of the goddess Cibele or Magna Mater. In this event, the Romans were fighting the first Punic war (the war against Carthage) and were frightened by a greatly inauspicious sign: a great number of androgynous children were born (ie of undefined sex). The Sibylline books told the Romans to import the goddess from Pergamon (Turkey - see a map of the Roman world).

In these examples we can see how in the most extreme cases, when neither the flight of birds, nor the entrails of animals had sufficed to resolve matters, the Romans might resort to a seer called the "Sybil" - a priestess to the god Apollo. Rather like the Sybil of Cumae who had sold King Tarquin the Proud the venerate Sibylline books.

Should the Sybil prove of little value an expedition would be organised to Delphi in order to get the opinion of the world famous Oracle.

 The Sibyls

The Sibyls were gifted seers. A number of them lived throughout the empire and throughout the ages so it is difficult to put a number to them. The most famous of these have been recorded by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican.

The Sybil of Cumae sold three books of prophesies to the last of the Roman kings, Tarquin the Proud. These books were highly worshipped and consulted by the Romans in their times of greatest need. The books were guarded and kept by a priestly order called the Decemvirs.

As of the Augustan age the books themselves were kept in the temple of Apollo, god or order, which the emperor had erected on the Palatine hill.

Mysticism in Ancient Rome

A big subject which I am only just beginning to write about: The Romans were great believers and indeed lovers of mysticism and superstition in all aspects of life. We can see evidence of this scattered about ancient Roman culture to this day....

Some aspects worth a little further investigation include:

A horrifying love potion.... to say the least

Although written and hopefully made up (!) by Horace, Canidia's potion for love in Epode V tells us much of what popular culture ascribed to witches and sorcerers. Quite reminiscent of Shakespeare's Macbeth.... hubble bubble toil and trouble, fire burn and.....

"...Then Canidia, having her hair disheveled and wreathed with serpents, commanded that they should burn with Magic Fire, Fire of Colchos, wild fig-trees taken from the sepulchers, and funeral Cypresses, and eggs besmeared with the blood of a loathsome toad, together with the feathers of a night screech-own and herbs from Iolcos and Iberia; places fertile in poisons; to all which she added some bones, snatched from the mouth of a hungry bitch.

Upon this, Sagana, her gown tucked up and frightful with her bristly hair, like a sea-urchin or boar running from his hot pursuers, sprinkles the whole house with infernal waters.

Then Veia, whom no remorse of conscience could stop, with prodigious labor, dug a hole in the Earth, in which she might bury the boy so that nothing should appear but his head, as bodies swimming are covered with water and seem suspended by the chin, that he might die slowly with the desire of meat that he could not touch and which was to be changed twice or thrice:

And when once his eyes were become dim with steadily looking at the forbidden meat, his marrow, now destitute of moisture, and liver dried up, might be a medicinal composition for exciting Love."

Worse than a horror film!

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"Mysticism and Signs in Ancient Rome" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments