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Claudia Jardine

Things that Spooked the Ancient Romans

(Content warning: Interphobia)

Etenim dirae, sicut cetera auspicia, ut omina, ut signa, non causas afferunt, cur quid eveniat, sed nuntiant eventura, nisi provideris.
As a matter of fact, frightening events – as well as auspices, omens and signs – do not cause what happens, but they do foretell what will happen unless you are careful.

Cicero, De Divinatione 1.16.29.


earthquakes meteors eclipses lightning storms

an ox climbs to the third storey of a house and then panics
a baby cries ‘triumph!’ a wolf steals a sentry’s sword hot springs run with blood
the sea is on fire a cow gives birth to a colt a woman turns into a man
a pig is born with a human face
a child is born with the head of an elephant while it rains milk
four statues at the sacred grove of Feronia in Capena sweat blood

mice nibble the gold in a temple of Jupiter mice gnaw on a golden wreath
harvest grain appears blood-stained a pig is born with two heads
the altar of Neptune sweats wasps colonise the temple of Mars
bees take over the forum chickens hatch with three legs
the consul’s ox warns its master, ‘Rome, be on your guard’

a four-legged snake is seen three suns shine at once
a boy with two heads is born
a crested serpent appears at Lanuvium and Caere
and in Campania, there is ample evidence that a cow has spoken

fish are reaped from the fields ravens pick the gilding from statues and eat it
Capua is covered in locusts a colt is born with five feet meadows sink into the earth
stones fall from the sky a statue of Hercules grows hair laurel grows on a warship
a pig is born with a human head milk flows in the river
two oxen climb onto the roof of a house in a fashionable neighbourhood

a kite snares a weasel in the temple of Jupiter and drops it on the heads of the senators
sacred chickens fly the coop and make new lives in the Laurentine forest
a swan glides into the temple of Victory, no one can catch it
crows put pieces of tile before the feet of Tiberius Gracchus
an owl cries on the Capitol it rains milk for three days a dog speaks
a dog eats a banquet set out for a goddess a statue of Mars stands on its head
black snakes dance on an altar a woman vomits wheat
a cow swims through a naval battle to present itself for sacrifice


a human head is found while digging temple foundations
(here will be the head of the world)
blood flows from the altar of Jupiter
(victory is coming)
a rain of stones
a baby girl is born with a full set of teeth
(she will bring disaster wherever she goes)
a stolen column is struck by lightning
(victory for the Romans)
the statue of Apollo at Cumae weeps
(success for Romans and sorrow for Greeks)
a cow speaks
a rain of meat
dogs are seen chasing wolves in the city

honey flows from an altar
milk flows from an altar
Helvia and her horse are struck by lightning
(dishonour to the Vestal Virgins and the equestrian order)
a flame springs from earth to heaven
(a brave and handsome man is coming to take charge of the government)

a palm tree grows from an altar of Jupiter
(victory and triumphs)
the statue of Mars sweats
(danger and stress – Hannibal is coming)
two shields sweat blood
the wind knocks down a column and a golden statue
(death to all priests and magistrates – they decide to abdicate)
two black snakes invade Minerva’s temple
(citizens will die)
Mt. Aetna explodes, scattering fire and dead fish

lightning strikes a temple of Jupiter
(the annihilation of the haruspices and their children)
a sound comes from the earth and goes into the sky
(scarcity and famine)
part of a wall collapses at Pisaurum
mice gnaw on shields at Lanuvium
(a very sad thing)
the sound of a trumpet is heard in the air
(a new breed is born)
a forty-nine day old infant speaks
(and foretells ruin)

a woman gives birth to a snake
the snake is thrown in the river, and swims away upstream

a sparrow carries a grasshopper into the temple of Bellona
(conflict between landowners and the urban population)
swallows make their nest in the tent of a king on campaign
a dead man points towards Athens
(Sulla will be victorious)
lightning strikes the statues of Jupiter and Romulus and the tablets of the laws
(bloodshed, fire, end of law, civil war, the empire and the city’s fall –
Catiline wants it all)
lumps of iron rain down
(wounds will come from above)
a calf is born by the roadside with its head stuck to its leg
(a new leader for the human race is coming, but they will not be strong or secretive)
a mule gives birth
(death of respectable citizens, the laws will change,
and matrons will deliver shameful offspring – enter, the war of Caesar and Pompey)
a soldier and his war-horses are killed by a lightning bolt
(a military expedition must be abandoned)

a tree near Cumae sinks into the ground
and its branches remain sticking out
(A Sibylline oracle predicted
internecionem hominum fore,
tantoque eam maiorem quanto propius
ab urbe portentum factum esset
‘The nearer to the city this sunken tree
the greater the massacre will be –
a slaughter of human beings’)


a child of indeterminate sex is born

a child of indeterminate sex is born as large as a four-year-old
(the haruspices call it a terrible omen)
the child is put into a wooden chest and thrown into the sea

a child of indeterminate sex is born among the Sabines,
and a sixteen-year-old is found, likewise of indeterminate sex
(nature is out of order)
the children are immediately thrown into the sea

a twelve-year-old child of indeterminate sex is discovered in Umbria
the senators order that the child be put to death

a child of indeterminate sex is born at Luna
the child is thrown into the sea

a child of indeterminate sex is born
(civil strife – Tiberius Gracchus is dead)
the child is thrown into the river

a child of indeterminate sex is born
(more children will be born just the same)
the child […]

a child of indeterminate sex is born
[… ]
the child is thrown into the sea

an eight-year-old child of indeterminate sex is found in the countryside
[… ]
the child is thrown into the sea

a ten-year-old child of indeterminate sex is found
[… ]
the child sinks […]

weapons seem to clash in the sky and [… ] is found
the haruspices order […]

a sound comes from the depths of the earth and [… ]
(scarcity and famine)

a child of indeterminate sex […]
[… ] taken [… ]

a child of indeterminate sex [… ]
[… ] sea

a child of indeterminate sex is born in Urbinum
[… ] carried out […]

two children of indeterminate sex are discovered
[… ]

Claudia Jardine (she/her) is a poet, musician and postgraduate student at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has been published in earlier issues of Starling, Mimicry, perverse, Salty, and at The Spinoff. Claudia is currently researching Byzantine historiography and managing the independent release of her first collection of songs, the North EP.

Claudia writes: ‘‘Things That Spooked the Ancient Romans’ is a poem constructed from the records of ‘prodigies’ or odd events that occurred in Ancient Rome. Often these prodigies required public religious rites of purification (lustratio) in order to ward off the bad things they foretold and to placate the gods, whose anger was considered the cause of the prodigies. In the records there is evidence to suggest the Ancient Romans viewed people of indeterminate sex (whom we refer to today as intersex) as monstrous and killed them in order to keep peace with the gods. The texts I consulted when writing this poem were Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Pliny’s Natural History, and the ‘other’ Livy's Book of Prodigies. The views expressed in the poem are not my own.’