Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.42

Veit Rosenberger, Gezähmte Götter. Das Prodigienwesen der römischen Republik.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 287.  ISBN 3-515-07199-7.  DM 68.  

Reviewed by Anthony Corbeill, University of Kansas
Word count: 2502 words

Gezähmte Götter ("Domesticated Deities") would seem an odd title for a book devoted to events showing the gods at their most unrestrained, as they bewilder human beings with bleeding statues, talking cows, and torrents of stones. In some ways it is also an unfortunate title. For as Veit Rosenberger demonstrates, the Roman prodigy process did not aim simply at discovering divine intention behind any odd occurrence. Rather, the Roman senate, the key player throughout the process of accepting and expiating prodigies, concentrated not so much on interpretation as on defusing a prodigy's harmful potential. If the gods were in fact being "tamed" through the process, it would be difficult to explain, for example, why the appearance of a hermaphrodite had to be expiated on five separate occasions within an eight-year period (Obsequens 46-53). Rather than aiming at mastery of the gods, the senate attempted to ensure that divine will, without being understood, could conform with the best wishes of the Roman community. As elsewhere in Roman ritual, piety and political expediency coexist happily.

R.'s introductory survey of past research into the study of prodigies in Rome reveals that independent treatments of the subject are few (12-13). Reasons are not hard to find. Our earliest collection, culled from Livy by Julius Obsequens in the late fourth century, comprises a bare list of oddities, with less exegesis than a decent issue of National Enquirer. It is assumed that Obsequens included a preface (now lost) that explained why he bothered to assemble the compendium but, if so, this explanation is not clear from the portions of the collection that survive. Since the lists in all our ancient sources are short, with historical context or details of expiation provided only on rare occasions, the modern scholar does not have much data with which to work. When the subject is not simply ignored, discussion has centered on two points of emphasis: either the prodigies are rationalized, with predictably mixed results (showers of stones are really bad hailstorms, disembodied voices in the mountains are the rumblings of an earthquake, etc.), or the prodigies are read in a political context, a process that requires a great amount of speculation.1

The strength of R.'s treatment is in adopting all three approaches. In the first of four main chapters ("Vom Umgang mit den Prodigien oder: Mentalitäten und Macht," 17-90) he ignores the prodigies themselves, focusing instead on the mechanism for treating them. In so doing he demonstrates how these supernatural phenomena are used by the senate to maintain social and political harmony. Rationalization dominates the second chapter ("Die Bedeutung der Prodigien oder: Zeichen und Ängst," 91-126), but rather than try to explain the prodigies from a scientifically enlightened perspective, R. examines them for indications of what elements would have appeared particularly threatening to the Roman mentality. With these divine signs posited as the concrete embodiment of communal angst, R. turns in the next chapter to how the expiation of these signs through the senate serves to unite the Roman community in times of crisis ("Die Entsühnung der Zeichen oder: Ritus und res publica," 127-196). In the final chapter ("Wendepunkte der Entwicklung oder: Aufstieg und Niedergang," 197-240), R. traces the rise and fall of the importance of prodigies in Rome, demonstrating convincingly that the sighting and expiation of prodigies is inextricably tied up with the republican form of government. The book as a whole offers a finely nuanced reading of the prodigy process that fits in nicely with recent scholarship on the interconnections between Roman religion and politics. Although the treatment of prodigies is controlled at every step by the senate, R. does not adopt the familiar model of a cynical and enlightened aristocracy manipulating the superstitious masses. The nature of religious piety at Rome is the dominant theme.

Despite its careful organization and convincing thesis, the book does have significant lapses: the anthropological parallels frequently adduced as explanatory models more often confuse than enlighten, and there are a number of digressions and repetitions that should have been edited out. These flaws seem, however, ultimately to derive from an enthusiasm for providing readers with a Geertzian "thick description" of the context of Roman prodigies. The reader is certainly never unsure of how the argument is proceeding.

A brief introduction clearly delineates the book's thesis (7-16). Although Latin terminology for divination is not entirely consistent, R. distinguishes prodigia from omens, auspices, and private forms of fortune-telling such as astrology and dream interpretation. Prodigia encompass unusual occurrences, both animate and inanimate, that were understood to express unfavorable conditions for the Roman state. Unlike other forms of divination, prodigies are not normally predictive but rather indicative of general disapproval by the gods, the disruption of the pax deorum. In addition a prodigy -- and here we find an important difference from Greek forms of prophecy -- can be countered by appropriate religious activity, such as the rites of expiation regularly celebrated in Rome near the beginning of the new year.

Chapter I traces how a prodigy is treated from the moment of its occurrence to its official recognition and expiation. No single text provides all the details for this procedure, so R. assumes that the steps mentioned by our various sources were included in every rite (23-24). This is an acceptable assumption, supported by both the inherent conservativeness of Roman ritual and the neatness of the resultant model. What is to be noticed especially is the constant involvement of the state at every point in the process. The prodigy is first reported to a magistrate, usually a praetor or consul, who refers the matter to the senate. The senate then decides whether to grant the occurrence official status as a prodigy. If accepted, one or more of three priestly bodies is consulted (pontifices, decemviri, haruspices), which makes suggestions for purification. The senate then determines whether or not to accept these recommendations. The popular assemblies are never consulted at any point. The Roman elite dominates the procedure, especially when one recalls that both pontifices and decemviri consist of senate members. This much is clear, but R. resists making the simple division between belief and political manipulation, insisting instead that Roman religion finds its clearest manifestation in practice and that the leaders recognize their responsibility to ensure proper procedure. R. then turns briefly to the prodigies themselves, and both here and throughout the book it is in the particular that the analysis is weakest and most repetitive. After acknowledging that most prodigies can be subjected to scientific rationalization, he turns to the believability of ancient reports (30-31), where he not only repeats the distinction made earlier between omina and prodigia (8-11) but uses the same examples from the final day of Tiberius Gracchus (repeated again, 215-216): "fictitious" signs refer to specific events in the life of an individual that would have been constructed ex eventu for political or literary motives, whereas "authentic" signs are non-specific and apply to the state as a whole. R. is more interesting when he provides ancient criteria for assessing whether particular signs were credible. Believability depends upon the political power of the witness. After citing examples of prodigies being ignored when the reporter belongs to a lower social order, R. makes interesting points concerning the unimportance of dream interpretation and lone prophets during the Republic, concluding that the human need to explain the chaos of nature is superseded during this period by the necessity that the senate and priestly colleges control the process (40-46). R. sees the political elite acting as a strong filter, deliberately selecting signs that fit into some preconceived notion. But what that notion is and how it is defined and redefined is regrettably a question R. chooses not to pursue, despite the fact that a number of recent studies of the Republic have attempted to account for the workings of the elite Wizard hiding behind the curtain of Romanitas.2 The chapter continues with a discussion of the priesthoods that treated the signs (46-56), the process of interpretation (56-71), and Roman views of the value of prodigy and divination (71-83). Each section provides a helpful overview of its topic, although there is little new and discussion could have been reduced at a number of points (e.g., a digression on the di indigetes ends up having no relevance to prodigies [62] and that on Cicero's De divinatione only little [78-83]). This latter criticism is especially applicable to the closing section on Varro's theologia tripertita (83-90), the main point of which seems to be that the Romans were capable of multiple views concerning divination.

In Chapter II R. attempts to construct a model for how known prodigies express Roman uncertainty and angst. Here the comparative method is particularly unhelpful. After noting how Obsequens compares Romulus' bird signs with the twelve vultures that appeared to Octavian in 43 (Obseq. 69), R. comments on how this type of analogical reasoning provides "orientation in an unknown world," and in one short paragraph compares the use of analogy in the perception of fowl excrement among the Azande, in the use of similes in Homer, and in forms of greetings in Plautus (93-94). The discussion becomes especially frustrating when R. concludes that the principle of analogy rarely provides help in the understanding of prodigies (96; see too the discussion of Liv. 10.27.8-9 on p. 99 where a wolf crossing boundaries should, from the point of view of analogy, have negative meaning and not the positive one R. ascribes to it). R.'s subsequent treatment of the notion of liminality raises similar methodological problems (107-126). Following Mary Douglas and Victor Turner, R. posits boundaries and margins as places of unclarity and therefore impure and finds a parallel concern in the existence of the boundary gods Janus and Terminus. Thus far the model is promising. Unlike Douglas and Turner however, who apply the notion of liminality to limited phenomena (to bodily orifices and persons in stages of transition, respectively), R. extends its range to the point where the concept is no longer useful.3 Once he starts looking, he finds borders being violated everywhere as he moves from acceptable examples (animals entering temenoi or passing through city gates; hermaphrodites transgressing gender boundaries) to the less tenable (lightning passing through the barrier of an animal's or person's skin; earthquakes forcing objects to cross boundaries). These are unfortunately only the most conspicuous places where parallels from outside the Roman context are ill-considered.

Anthropological models do, however, prove enlightening in Chapter III when R. treats the rites used to expiate prodigies. For comparison he outlines the public ritual of the Sisala of Northern Ghana, in which the elders of the community expiate harmful occurrences through scapegoating. Despite dissimilarities in detail, R. finds in this African example the same structure and function as the Roman ritual: the expiation of prodigies both strengthens public morality and ensures political stability (128-130), creating a situation that R. later terms "post-disaster utopia" (151-153). The rites that manufacture this sense of stability in Rome are divided by R. into four types: the literal or symbolic banishment of a prodigy to somewhere outside the borders of Rome (as exemplified in the casting adrift of hermaphrodites); the delimiting of a prodigy within the city walls (as in the monumentalization of areas struck by lightning); the renewal of Rome's borders (through a lustratio); the reestablishment of proper divine and human communication (through ceremonies such as lectisternia or public supplication). These categories are quite helpful but, as often occurs in structural analyses, the most interesting cases prove to be those which fall outside precise categories. Why, for example, was the unchastity of the Vestals in 216 treated as a prodigy, whereas in 114 a similar case does not seem to have been so construed? The case in 216 contrasts with the normal conception that the gods send prodigies to humans. What is clear, however, is that Livy explicitly states that, in this particular case, contemporary concerns were the motivating factor in classifying the offense as a prodigy (hoc nefas cum inter tot, ut fit, clades in prodigium versum esset...; Liv. 22.57.4). Considerations of classification seem to have restricted R. from discussing this event as exemplifying more than the containment of prodigies within the city walls (135-140). R. is at his best, however, in the remainder of the chapter, in which he examines how expiatory rites contribute to stability. Particularly interesting are his remarks on the public listing of prodigies by the pontifices (161-170). The fact that the prodigies were expiated with striking regularity (at least every two or three years) caused these listings to represent a kind of meta-history of Rome, in which the state continually passes the tests presented to it by the gods. By this reading, the recurrence of prodigies, especially in times of crisis, reflects not a decline in confidence among the populace but rather demonstrates that, despite apparent problems of internal politics or external enemies, the gods are expressing approval at how the Roman state is operating. The chapter concludes with three fine case studies of prodigy accounts from the second Punic War (175-196). R. demonstrates how the procedures for accepting and expiating prodigies are applied or ignored in accordance with the politics of three particular historical moments.

In Chapter IV, having established the role of prodigies in the Republic, R. supports his claims for the interconnectedness of religious procedure and politics by offering a historical survey of prodigies in Rome from Romulus to Augustus. His basic claim is both simple and convincing. During periods of monarchical rule, prodigies appear much less frequently than omens, which normally occur to prominent individuals and have a prophetic function. In other words, omens provide confirmation of an individual's competence to rule (or lack thereof); prodigies, on the contrary, are directed towards the general stability of the state and therefore occur chiefly during the Republic, most regularly from the mid-third to the mid-first century. The decline in the reporting of prodigies that subsequently begins in the nineties is attributable not to a supposed religious decline -- here R. accepts the arguments of Liebeschuetz and others4 -- but to the rise of increased individual competition for political power (210-214). Powerful individuals such as Marius, Sulla, and Caesar appropriate divine signs for their own purposes, and the expiation of prodigies becomes correspondingly less frequent (219-223). A concluding section, provocatively entitled "Augustus and the Power of Signs" (233-240) convincingly demonstrates how Rome's first emperor successfully harnessed prodigies for his own purposes. R. concludes by asserting that such manipulation could only take place in a context of continuity: the belief in the nature and importance of divine communication remained strong; it was the political system that had changed. The book closes with a summary of its main themes (241-246).

Although it could have been more tightly argued, Gezähmte Götter is well worth reading: R.'s thesis is convincing, and he gathers in one place the most relevant sources. The book complements well other recent investigations into the complex relationship between the human and the divine during the Republic.


1.   Rationalization of prodigies: F. Krauss, An Interpretation of the Omens, Portents and Prodigies Recorded by Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius (Diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania 1930); prodigies and politics: see esp. B. MacBain, Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Republican Rome (Brussels 1982), Collection Latomus 177, who offers a convenient list of public prodigies attested in the ancient sources (82-106).
2.   See, for example, J.-M. David, "Eloquentia popularis et conduites symboliques des orateurs de la fin de la République," QS 12 (1980) 171-211; E. Narducci, "Le risonanze del potere," in G. Cavallo, P. Fedeli, A. Giardina eds., Lo spazio letterario di Roma Antica (Rome 1989) 2.533-577; T. Habinek, "Why Was Latin Literature Invented?," in The Politics of Latin Literature (Princeton 1998) 34-68.
3.   M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (London 1966) esp. 114-128; V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago 1969) 94-130.
4.   He cites J. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford 1979); A. Wardman, Religion and Statecraft Among the Romans (Baltimore 1982); J. North, "Religion and Politics, from Republic to Principate," JRS 76 (1986) 251-258.

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