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  • Ecology, Epistemology, and Divination in Cicero De Divinatione 1.90–94
  • Dan-El Padilla Peralta


In 249 bce, when the outcome of the First Punic War was still in the balance, a Roman consul misbehaved in a spectacularly memorable—and revealing—fashion. After leading a naval force towards the harbor of Drepana in an effort to surprise the Carthaginian fleet moored there, Publius Claudius Pulcher sought the approval of the gods prior to battle. The sacred chickens kept on board for auspice taking were let out of their cages and feed was sprinkled before them. They did not peck, an emphatic, “Do not proceed,” from the gods to P. Claudius Pulcher, but the commander, itching for battle, chose not only to ignore the omen but to have the chickens tossed overboard. The ensuing battle was a calamity: of the more than one hundred Roman ships at the encounter, only thirty escaped; the remainder were captured or sunk. Beating a quick return back to Rome, P. Claudius Pulcher was forced to appoint a dictator by the senate and narrowly escaped conviction on a malfeasance charge. In the exemplary discourses of the late Roman republic and early empire, the incident became a byword for the temerity and foolishness of mocking and disregarding the auspices.1 [End Page 237]

Long a source of delectation for students of Claudian superbia, “arrogance,” the report of P. Claudius Pulcher’s misbehavior has also been mined for information about Roman divination, notably the ritual and theological parameters of the communication between pullarii, “chicken keepers,” and commanders at the taking of the auspices.2 But rarely singled out, let alone emphasized, is the brute fact of these chickens’ precipitation into the water or the shock likely felt by these animate devices of divination during their previous transfer from land to ship. Whether or not the chickens’ lack of appetite was a consequence of motion sickness,3 the frictions (temperamental, cognitive, ecological) involved in transferring a divinatory technique featuring landlubber animals to a ship gliding over the waters are what emerge from the wrecks of Drepana, as “the increasing distance from the city of Roman operations” forced changes in the practice of augury.4 In the era of the Punic Wars and after, collision with new—or experienced as new—environments shifted Roman understandings of how their techniques of communication with the gods were meant to work.5 Early Roman encounters with the sea generated traumas that rippled across literary and artifactual media; if nothing else, the episode of P. Claudius Pulcher’s defiance of the auspices illustrates how the specific trauma of ecological disorientation penetrated the domain of religious practice at a time of seismic ritual and cultic innovation.6

One of our main sources for the incident at Drepana is a notice in Cicero’s de Divinatione, a treatise whose full value for clarifying the [End Page 238] emergence of an ecological reflexivity within the Roman religious imagination has not been sufficiently exploited. With a view to tracking how Roman divination was reshaped and reconceptualized by confrontations with Mediterranean ecologies, this essay will pan away from Drepana to scrutinize another passage in de Divinatione that more explicitly foregrounds the interplay between divination and nature to dramatic effect: chapters 90–94 of Book 1. This section of the dialogue is remarkable for its fine-grained representation of how Romans came to recognize that ethnic variations in divinatory practice embodied culturally contingent ways of knowing and that these different ways of knowing were ultimately rooted in ecological phenomena. In order to flesh out this interpretation of the passage, I will first argue that the practice of divination at Rome acquired an ecologically contrastive and comparatist flavor by the last few decades of the Roman republic: at least some practitioners of divination were thinking about the association between particular forms of divinatory expertise and the distinctive natural landscapes scattered all over the Mediterranean. From there, I will show that such thinking came to be premised on the perception that different ecological niches prompted the development of different divinatory competencies—a belief that, in turn, owed a great deal to discourses of religious expertise in the Hellenistic and Roman...


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