How Amazing Sacred Chickens Shaped Roman Policy Making

Some would say Julius Caesar was the most influential figure in Roman history. Others might nominate Brutus (the man who drove out the last of Rome’s kings), or Augustus (the man who, 700 years, later essentially became one). But though he’s admittedly less known, there’s another strong contender for one of Roman history’s most influential figures: the pullarius, or “priest of the sacred chickens”.

The pullarius was responsible for keeping and making divinations, or predictions, from his sacred chickens. Taken from the island of Negreponte (now Euboea, near Athens), these holy birds were kept unfed in their cages for a predetermined amount of time before being released and presented with some grain. If they ate the grain, the venture upon which they were being consulted was deemed favorable. If they didn’t touch the grain, the venture lacked the god’s backing and was, therefore, to be abandoned.

This was just one of many forms of augury—not to be confused with an orgy, though the Romans had plenty of that too—that completely consumed Roman decision-making. There were many ways of auguring (or trying to understand the will of the gods). Observing and interpreting natural or manmade phenomena—a thunderstorm, perhaps, or an inauspicious chant by a crowd at the games, are a couple of examples. But the most common, ritualized, and legal methods were having a priest read the entrails of a slaughtered animal or extrapolate meaning from the behavior of birds.

Bas relief depicting a haruspex (the priest responsible for the reading of entrails) hard at work. Theodore Darlymple

Augury was central to Roman policymaking: if the auguries were not good, the plan would be abandoned. If you think that’s incredible, imagine how Rome’s enemies must have felt (frustrated, most likely; chickens being notoriously difficult to bribe). Moreover, antiquity was hardly lacking in genius. These were, after all, the centuries that produced Socrates and Plato; Cicero and Virgil. You might have thought someone would consider sneaking some food into the chicken coop: satiating their hunger and thereby saving their city from marauding Roman forces.

Then again, in the one episode for which we have any information about the pullarius this wasn’t even necessary. For the sacred chickens—important as they were to the superstitious practices of Roman religion—were quite simply ignored. The episode in question took place during the Third Samnite War (298 – 290 BC), fought between the Roman Republic and one of its southern, persistently troublesome neighbours, the Samnites.

The Samnites inhabited an area of what is now the Italian region of Campania—famous for such cities as Naples, and for such sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and, of course, Vesuvius. As speakers of Oscan, they were ethnically and linguistically different to the Latin speaking Romans. They were also politically autonomous; something that brought them into conflict with Rome.

Map of Ancient Samnium. The site of the battle, the city of Aquilonia, appears here as Beneventum (a name later given by the Romans). Wikimedia Commons

As the name of the war suggests, this wasn’t the first time the two powers had come to blows. They fought two wars in the late fourth century BC as Rome began expanding southwards. Rome won both, but not without suffering some serious and humiliating defeats, particularly at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC. Nor would the Third Samnite War be the last: the Samnites were the last to hold out against the Romans during the so-called Social War of the 90s and 80s BC; an effort that brought about their ethnic cleansing under the ruthless Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla.