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We Were Warned! Omens and Portents Foretelling Victory and Defeat

Michael Flower

Princeton University

In sharp distinction to Thucydides, who (contra Kallett 2013) was highly skeptical about such things, Xenophon and Herodotus, as well as the fragmentary historians of the fourth and third centuries, attributed an historical agency to supernatural powers. Modern historians, despite arguments to the contrary (Parker 2000, 2004; Pritchett 1979: 140-53; Flower 2008), continue to assume that these writers simply made up portents and omens or that all such phenomena were the contrivances of elites who were intent on manipulating popular opinion.  In this paper I will take an emic perspective, according to which omens and portents, while not strictly speaking divine interventions in a causal sense, signify that events of great moment are about to take place and that the gods are attempting to warn the participants of that fact. But portents may also indicate, as in the case of missing weapons and open temples, either that the gods themselves are about to participate in the coming struggle or have abandoned a place or people. Moreover, in the aftermath of battle, they can provide an explanation for defeat.

I will present the battle of Leuctra as a case study, because Xenophon, Ephorus of Cyme, and Callisthenes collectively record a uniquely large number of portents. Although Xenophon saw Leuctra as the god-sent retribution for the Spartan seizure of the Theban Cadmeia, he nonetheless seems skeptical about the particular omens that were said to have appeared at Thebes before the battle (Hell. 6.4.7): “Some say that all of these things were contrivances of the leading men.” Diodorus (15.53, probably following Ephorus; see Parmeggiani 2010) names the Theban general Epaminondas as being the chief contriver (Stylianou 1998: 393; Tuplin 1993: 136; Trampedach 2015: 218-34). A series of negative omens had occurred as the army was marching out of Thebes, and these perturbed the rank and file. Later, when the army was encamped at Leuctra, Epaminondas provided reports of various contemporary portents and ancient oracles in order to rid the soldiers of their “superstition.” Callisthenes of Olynthus, by contrast, straightforwardly presented a substantial series of portents as genuine communications from the gods. 

Cicero says that Callisthenes recorded various pre-battle omens that appeared at Sparta, Thebes, Lebadia, Delphi, and Dodona (On Divination 1.74 and 2.54 = FGrH 124, F 22a; see Tuplin 1987: 99, 89n). Six omens in five locations is a spectacular example of the gods attempting to send a strong forewarning of the epoch changing event that was about to take place. It surely too was a dramatic narrative device employed by Callisthenes. But these two functions need not be mutually exclusive, for the psychological tension created by the gods in advance of the battle could also be used by the historian to create dramatic tension and anticipation for his readers. Cicero’s remarks reveal that Callisthenes was not skeptical about the authenticity of these portents; and I intend to argue that, if the relevant passages are read in a broader narrative context, neither were Xenophon or Ephorus. Xenophon is hedging his bets, and it is incorrect simply to assume that Ephorus was as skeptical as Diodorus (who sometimes advances his own themes and biases; see Sachs 1990).

Given that the Theban victory over Sparta at Leuctra was both universally unexpected and epoch making and that the Thebans were fully expecting to be crushed by Sparta, it is consistent with the normative Greek world-view that omens were perceived both prospectively and retrospectively. Scholars have been much more open to accepting the historicity of the latter type (on retrospective post-traumatic omen-formation see Guinan 2002 and Flower 2008: 108-110), but the former are not inherently improbable in a culture that was continually on the look out for god-sent signs. Herodotus was not saying anything controversial in terms of Greek religious belief when he commented (6.27): “There is usually some sign given in advance when great misfortunes are about to befall a city or nation.”

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Learning from War: Greek Responses to Victory and Defeat

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