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Prodigy Reporting in the Early Roman Empire

Susan Satterfield

Rhodes College

In this paper I will show that the decline in prodigy reporting in the early Roman Empire reflects broader political and religious changes in this period. Prodigies were reported and expiated almost annually during the Roman Republic, but during the Empire, there were sometimes decades-long gaps between reports. I will provide reasons for this shift, but I will also examine the continued, though diminished, activities involving prodigy reports and expiations under the emperors. No longer routine, prodigy reports were closely controlled by the emperors, who used them to reference the Republican past and make claims about their own relationship to the gods and the state. In this time of great political change, the very traditional practices of prodigy reporting and expiating came to acquire an entirely new meaning: they confirmed that the emperors’ exceptional power was not only ordained by the gods, but also in line with Republican precedent.

In a famous passage of his histories (43.13.1-2), Livy complains of a decline in prodigy reporting in Rome. Prodigies were aberrations in nature, such as a talking chicken or the birth of a hermaphrodite, or destructive natural phenomena, such as a lightning strike or deadly plague. Almost always bad signs, they communicated the gods’ anger toward Rome. During the Republic they had been reported annually and expiated in public and high-profile ceremonies, typically conducted by the consuls before they left for their provinces, and often involving elaborate ritual responses (such as the introduction of new deities) and broad community participation. But after Augustus consolidated political and religious power in his own hands and the state became indistinguishable from his person, he naturally wanted to avoid the impression that the gods opposed his rule. Instead, omens focused on the emperor himself assumed the role of public prodigies. In this way, the emperor deprived the consuls and Senate, who posed the greatest threat to his position, of their control over prodigy and expiation, and he freed himself as leader of the state from the responsibility of performing or delegating onerous expiatory ceremonies each year.

Given the emperors’ obvious interest in suppressing prodigies, it is not at all surprising that reports declined, but rather that they continued at all. In this paper, I will examine the activities surrounding prodigies and the traditional tools of expiation (the Sibylline books and haruspices) during the early empire, from Augustus to Otho. These will include the prodigy reports of 17 BCE (leading to the performance of the Ludi Saeculares) and of 16 BCE, Augustus’ editing of the Sibylline books and relocating them from the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter to Apollo’s Palatine Temple, Claudius’ revival of reports of earthquakes and birds of ill omen as prodigies, and Nero’s consultation of the Sibylline books after the fire of 64 CE. As I will show, the emperors maintained the traditional tools of expiation in order to preserve the authority of the Roman state, and hence of themselves, as the arbiters of divination. But they rarely used these tools. Under the emperors, prodigies were reported, accepted, and expiated very deliberately and with one purpose: to evoke memories of the Republic. Ultimately, this is the best evidence to support Livy’s claims of a decline in reporting: the emperors, like Livy, saw prodigies as a symbol of a lost past.

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Change in Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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