Image for Omens of War from Actium to Ukraine

As early as December 2021, two months before Russian troops attacked Ukraine, the White House released intelligence findings that a possible invasion was looming. Two weeks before Russia’s attack in February, foreign diplomats began pulling out of Kyiv. The world took these as omens that Putin’s military buildup was no bluff but the genuine prelude to war. 

Ancient people too looked for omens of war, but with more attention to divine signs. Before beginning a battle, pagans would communicate with the gods. The Romans, for example, would sacrifice an animal and examine the entrails, especially the liver, for signs of the gods’ approval or disapproval. The Romans also consulted sacred chickens. On one famous occasion in 249 B.C. the admiral Publius Claudius Pulcher turned to the chickens before launching an attack on the Carthaginian fleet in Sicily. No luck: he obtained a bad omen because the chickens weren’t eating. Nothing daunted, Claudius supposedly said, “If they won’t eat, let them drink,” and had the fowl thrown overboard. He went on to lose the battle.

When a city was under attack, the gods were thought to be the arbiters of its fate. If a besieged city was doomed, the gods left town. Always eager, the Romans thought they could hasten the process by carrying out a ritual called a “summons” (evocatio). In 396 B.C. Rome laid siege to the rival Italian city of Veii. The Roman commander offered a new home in Rome to Juno, Veii’s patron deity. It worked: Veii fell, and Juno got a temple on Rome’s Aventine Hill. One story says that the Romans did something similar by “summoning” Juno when they attacked and destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C., but scholars debate the truth of the tale. Another, and documented Roman “summons” took place in 75 B.C. in what is today Turkey, but at a discount, as it were: the goddess wasn’t brought to Rome but had to settle for a new home locally.

The most famous example of a god leaving a losing cause comes from the end of the Roman Republic. The date was July 31, 30 B.C.; the place was Alexandria, Egypt. About a year earlier, on September 2, 31 B.C., the Roman Mark Antony and his lover Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, had suffered a massive defeat at sea against Octavian in the Battle of Actium in Greece. With that failure, they almost certainly forfeited control of the Roman East, which they had dominated. Still, after returning to Egypt after the battle, they tried this and that expedient to regroup and resist, but it was too late. With Octavian marching on Egypt the following summer of 30 B.C. virtually all of Antony and Cleopatra’s troops deserted. Some may have acted on Cleopatra’s orders, as she seems to have decided to jettison Antony to save their children and perhaps herself.

On July 31 Antony realized that the game was up. He held a grim banquet for his friends and announced that he hoped to die in battle the following day against Octavian’s troops encamped outside the city. Victory, he knew, was impossible.

Around midnight, so the report goes, a strange sound was heard. Suddenly it sounded as if a group of celebrants was making their way through the center of town, shouting in praise of the god Dionysus to the accompaniment of musical instruments. No one could be seen, but reports claimed that they were heard. The noise supposedly reached a crescendo when the ghostly group reached the gate opposite Octavian’s army and then disappeared. It seemed to be an omen. Antony had long associated himself with Dionysus, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, an earlier devotee of the god. The conclusion that night in Alexandria was obvious: Antony’s patron deity was abandoning him. Indeed, the Roman died on the next day and Octavian entered Alexandria as its conqueror. It was August 1, 30 B.C.

A strange ancient belief, and yet, old customs die hard. Consider a case from just earlier this year. A Ukrainian journalist lived through weeks of the Russian siege of the city of Mariupol in February–March of this year. She reported a comment by one of her neighbors in that desperate and battered city: God Himself had left Mariupol out of fear. The journalist departed shortly afterwards. Mariupol fell to the Russians in May.

  

Barry Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, Corliss Page Dean Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of the new book THE WAR THAT MADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium (Simon & Schuster).

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