Papal Prodigies?

Well since the news seems to be exploding with the tale of the raven, the dove, and the gull at the Pope’s place today, it seems like a good time to compare what might have happened a couple millennia ago had the same thing happened. But first, an account of the events in St Peter’s Square. Here’s how the BBC reported things (tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for this one … pictures can be found at the link):

Two white doves released by children standing alongside Pope Francis in Vatican City as a peace gesture have been attacked by other birds.

A seagull and a crow swept down on the doves after they were set free from the Apostolic Palace during the Pope’s weekly Angelus prayer.

Tens of thousands of people watched as one dove struggled to break free.

But the crow pecked repeatedly at the other dove. It is not clear what happened to the doves that flew away.

via: Pope’s peace doves attacked by crow and seagull

When looking for precedent from ancient Rome, one naturally turns to Julius Obsequens … In 99 we read of a land law being passed by Sextius Titius — despite his colleague’s objections — at the meeting for which a couple of crows fought so vehemently above that they tore each other with their beaks and talons. In that case, the matter was referred to the augures and the law, which had passed, was overtuned. Here’s the Latin text via the Latin Library (46):

Sex. Titius tribunus plebis de agris dividendis populo cum repugnantibus collegis pertinaciter legem ferret, corvi duo numero in alto volantes ita pugnaverunt supra contionem ut rostris unguibusque lacerarentur. Aruspices sacra Apollini litanda et de lege, quae ferebatur, supersedendum pronuntiarunt.

In a couple of other situations, crows appear as a portent of defeat in the case of Mithridates, it seems. In 88, at Stratopedon, where the Senate was accustomed to meet, some crows killed a vulture of some sort (Latin Library, 56):

Mithridati adversus socios bellum paranti prodigia apparuerunt. Stratopedo, ubi senatus haberi solet, corvi vulturem tundendo rostris occiderunt.

Even earlier, in 133, a crow dropping a piece of roof tile is among the prodigies Tiberius Gracchus ignored on the day he met his demise (a serious toe stubbing too!). Again, from the Latin Library (27a):

Proditum est memoria Tiberium Gracchum, quo die periit, tristia neglexisse omina, cum domi et in Capitolio sacrificanti dira portenderentur, domoque exiens sinistro ad limen offenso pede decusserit pollicem, et corvi fragmentum tegulae ante pedes eius proiecerint ex stillicidio.

Folks who are challenged in the Latin department might want to check the translation of Obsequens that is online, but appears to be a work in progress here.

It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a dove (Palumbus) or seagull (Larus) mentioned in Obsequens. I guess you don’t get omens about peace in the Roman world.

Whatever the case, crows seem to be a not good omen of some sort. Thinking out loud on facebook, I suggested:

one is a seabird and one is a land bird … one is white and so a portent of the gods above, one a portent of the gods below … the seabird apparently annoying but unsuccessful, ditto the land bird … plenty of spins and potential expiations. … or if the doves did escape, merely a portent and no need of expiation.

Having consulted Obsequens, the crows seem to portend something dire, but don’t really seem to require expiation … a Roman would see this as a warning of some sort. Sadly, like the Romans, we won’t be able to match it up to an event until the event happens of course. Then we can do some retrojecting!

UPDATE (the next day): other Classics types are approaching the question from different angles see now:

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