THE SUPERSITIOUS ROMAN: talking cows and weeping horses

Superstition was rife and omnipresent in the Roman world, presumably as much amongst women as men. Persius singles out god-fearing grandmothers and aunts, in his satire on the inefficacy of men’s clandestine prayers to the gods. Prayers are expert in averting the evil eye and may predict a life of extravagant wealth, a good marriage, an altogether rosy life: but Persius is far from convinced and no nurse will ever hear a prayer from Perseus . Juvenal too satirises the anxia mater at the temple of Venus for optimistically wishing her daughter’s beauty 1.

In a world where it was considered unpropitious for a black cat to enter your house or a snake to fall from the roof into your yard 2, where it was unlucky if a statue of a god was seen to sweat blood 3, where a horse was born with five legs, a lamb with a pig’s head and a pig with a human head, where a rampant bull ran up three flights of stairs, and a cow talked 4, and where a statue laughed uncontrollably, a horse cried hot tears 5 , in a world where it was inauspicious to sneeze in the presence of a waiter holding a tray or to sweep the floor when a guest was standing up 6, where it was de riguer to whistle when lightning flashed , in such a world it should come as no surprise to hear what were probably exclusively female superstitions such as only trimming your nails on market days – and then starting with the forefinger and doing it in silence – but never at sea; Pliny records that in certain Italian towns it was forbidden by law for women to walk through the streets carrying a spindle . We see how certain days of the year were avoided by betrothed couples when choosing their wedding day, and how the groom carried his bride over the threshold to avoid any chance of an unlucky stumble .

Kalends, Nones and Ides were out because, as Varro tells us, the days after these were ‘black days’ 7; Mundus Cereris: the three days of the year (August 24th , October 5th , and November 8th ) when ghosts were afoot because the doors of Hades (mundus) gaped open; the Lemuralia: the 9th, 11th and 13th of May devoted to celebrating the festival of the dead: hence, ‘mense Maio malae nubent (they marry ill who marry in May); February 18th – 21st for similar reasons: the Parentalia in honour of family ancestors; May and early June because time was better spent farming the land, or because the cleaning of the temple of Vesta by the Vestal Virgins was not completed until the 15th; March 1st, 9th and 23rd were to be avoided because the dancing priests of Mars, the Salii, were moving the shields .   In short, a wedding should take place on a happy day, hilaris dies. One famous anecdote from the end of the 2nd century BC involved Caecilia who was married to Metellus; she was anxious to find out what the future held for her betrothed niece so she and the niece took up post in a temple and waited…the gods were reticent, until the bored niece asked to sit down next to her aunt. Her aunt innocently, but prophetically, invited her to take her place – and dropped down dead; Metellus then married the niece.

The Romans were clearly very superstitious, then. But it is important to remember that they were probably no more so than other cultures and societies. Indeed, if we look at the old wives’ tales recounted by George Orwell from a rural childhood around 1900 in Coming Up for Air can we say they are any less absurd or irrational than the Romans’ ? Take for example ‘swimming was dangerous, climbing trees was dangerous…all animals were dangerous…horses bit, bats got in your hair, earwigs got into your ears, swans broke your leg…bulls tossed you…raw potatoes were deadly poison, and so were mushrooms unless you bought them at the grocer’s…if you had a bath after a meal you died of cramp…and if you washed your hands in the water eggs were boiled in you got warts…raw onions were a cure for almost anything’ 8.

  1. Persius 2,34; Juvenal 10, 289; Dio, 49, 43, 5; 52, 36, 2-3. Livy 8, 18.
  2. Terence, Phormio 705.
  3. Cicero, de Div 1, 34, 74.
  4. Livy 31, 17, 12; 21, 62, 3; 3, 10, 6.
  5. See also Suetonius, Divus Julius 81; Caligula 57.
  6. Petronius, Satyricon 104; Pliny, NH 28, 26-29
  7. Varro, de Lingua Latina 6,29 and Macrobius 1, 21.
  8. Pliny, op cit 28, 25. See Silius Italicus 7, 172. Orwell, Coming Up for Air pp. 51-52 (Penguin edition).


© 2015 Paul Chrystal