The Secret of the Roman Oracles

ARCHÆOLOGISTSof the old school believe — and we are inclined to believe with them — that the present generation has carried rather too far the furore for archaic art. As a classic musician is lowered in his own estimation if his performance is understood by a general public, so the lecturer on ancient art, ambitious to be considered “ one of the elect,” must confine himself to the very remotest period of Greek plastic art, when the modeling of the human form was still in its rudimentary stage. Professional scholars who are in this frame of mind can remain indifferent, and even cold, before productions of a highly developed age, but go into ecstasies at the sight of a torso shaped like the trunk of a tree, or of a head whose eyes bend inwards at an angle of thirty-five degrees. They go much further than the Preraphaelites, and that is saying a good deal.

An exaggerated temper of this kind has led students to show, possibly to feel, a decided contempt for Greco-Roman art of the first and second centuries of our era. Rome has been avoided as if it were a place hardly worth wasting one’s time upon, much less seriously studying. “ Rome was born too late for us,” said a dear American friend once, on his way from Council Bluffs to Athens ; and he stands by no means alone in the expression of such feelings. We feared at one time that our case was lost forever. Three or four centuries of Roman history had been wiped from the pages of textbooks ; and those who still had a spark of faith in old traditions were denounced by Ihne as “ perverted by an obstinate historical conservatism, very much akin to superstition.”

How slow the reaction against this unjust proscription has been in coming ! But it has come at last ; students begin to perceive that there are other periods in the history of art worthy their attention, besides the Dædalian infancy of plastic works ; that the archaic must be taken as a starting-point, not as defining the limit of their studies ; that the evolution of Greek sculpture into various styles and schools can be followed nowhere so advantageously as in Rome, by means of the copies chiseled, cast, or painted in imperial times ; that if Greek art is divinely ideal, the Romans understood better how to apply its many productions to the necessities and comforts of life ; that Rome, in short, is the best centre for the study of practical archæology.

In a paper on The Methods of Archæological Research, read by Sir Henry Haworth, July 24, 1894, at the Shrewsbury meeting of the Royal Archæological Institute, I find these words, which I submit for the consideration of American students : —

We can scarcely realize that hardly a generation has gone since, at the British Museum, it was the fashion to admit only classical antiquities as worthy of collection, and that the priceless treasures dug up by Faussett and Rolfe were treated as rubbish, unworthy of a place in that sanctuary of the arts, and had to seek a home in a provincial museum. Fifty years ago, a man who had devoted his time, his purse, and his knowledge to creating a worthy department of British antiquities would not have been rewarded with the Order of the Bath, but would have been treated by the students of so-called high art as a barbarian and a Philistine, fit only to consort with people like you and me. We have changed all this, but its mischievous results still remain. If we go to the British Museum, we shall find the noblest collection of Greek art in the world. Taken altogether, it is quite unapproachable, thanks to the labors, the zeal, and the taste of many good men, and notably of the late and the present curators of that department. But when we turn to Rome, — Rome, the mother of modern Europe ; Rome, the Britain of old days, the great type of practical good sense in government ; the Rome whose roads and bridges, whose colonies and towns, whose laws and municipal institutions, are only rivaled by our own, and which ruled the world for a thousand years and more, — where are we to look for an adequate picture of the life her citizens led, and of the vast colonial dependencies she controlled ? We have a few busts, we have a room devoted to the antiquities of Roman Britain, and then we find the mistress of many legions, and mother of us all, treated everywhere as a sort of Cinderella to her favored sister of Greece, — a mere outhouse and barn attached to a Greek palace. Our contention is that there ought to be in our great museum, if not a special department of Roman antiquities, at least special rooms devoted to them, worthy of the fame of Rome, and of its importance in human history. For many of us who love art, but also love history, it is quite as important to know what were the surroundings of Tiberius and of Marcus Aurelius as of Pericles and Alexander the Great.”

I fell to thinking over these things, apropos of a discovery lately made at Terracina which throws light on the ancient oracles. Having occasion to refer to Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, to ascertain whether Jupiter Anxur, worshiped at Terracina, had been given a place among the oracular divinities, I found thirty columns given up to the illustration of the Greek oracles, and barely one to that of the Roman.1 And yet if we wish to make ourselves acquainted with the organization, structure, and management of these world-renowned sanctuaries, not by reading texts alone, but by personal examination ; if we wish to discover the secret of those organized impostures, there is no place so abundant as Italy — nay, as the neighborhood of Rome — in existing remains, ready to tell us how responses were given.

The most popular mode of divination in central Italy was the drawing of lots, or sortes. The sortes were little counters, made of bone or wood, inscribed with a sentence, and kept in a kind of dice-box. A boy would draw one at random, and the words written on it would be taken as a response or omen. Livy relates that in 218 B. C. one of the lots kept for use in the temple of Falerii leapt out of its own accord. It bore the words Mavors telum suum concutit (” Mars shakes his javelin ”), which were taken as a warning of the advance of Hannibal by Lake Trasimene. Another device practiced in times of public calamities was the substitution of smaller sortes for those generally in use. This alleged miracle was called attenuatio sortium, and its awe-inspiring omen was averted, or supposed to be averted, by the celebration of the lectisternium.

A considerable number of sortes were discovered in the sixteenth century in the Euganean Hills, near the Bagni di Abano, the ancient Fons Aponi. Here was an oracle called the oracle of Geryon, because it was connected with the tenth labor of Hercules ; with the capture, that is, of Geryon’s oxen, and the driving of the herd from Spain to Greece. The oracle was consulted by Tiberius at the beginning of his campaign in Illyricum : the words which he drew by lot told him to throw golden dice into the spring. Suetonius says that in doing so he turned up the highest possible numbers (sixes), and that the gold dice could still be seen under water in Hadrian’s time. The Abano counters registered in Corpus lnscr. Latin., vol. i. nos. 1438-1454, are seventeen in number, and contain about fifteen syllables each. There is very little common sense in them ; at all events, they are altogether enigmatical. For instance : (No. 1452.) “ Do you come to consult me, after you have lost all hopes ? ” (No. 1450.) “ Now you come to consult me ? The time is past.” (No. 1445.) “ Many men are mendacious. Do not believe them.”

Sortes were not always drawn by a boy. To avoid the least, suspicion of foul play, they were sometimes thrown into a situla, or urn, filled with water ; and when this was poured out, the lot which first appeared floating on it was decisive.

This childish and innocent kind of divination was given up towards the end of republican times, except at Præneste (Palestrina), and new methods were devised by the keepers of oracles to satisfy the curiosity of their clients.

The number of these clients must have been enormous, to judge from the size, magnificence, and wealth attained by Roman oracular sanctuaries in the first century of our era. Let us remember that Tivoli, a straggling city of 10,297 inhabitants, is built almost entirely within the inclosure of the sanctuary of Hercules, and that 6129 Palestrinians dwell comfortably in a portion of the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia Prænestina. This structure covers 1,700.000 square feet on the slope of Monte S. Pietro : the frontage of the tower terrace is 1500 feet ; the pinnacle of the rotunda rises to the height of 420 feet above the same terrace.

The temple of Hercules Victor at Tivoli was but little inferior in magnitude. The length of the structure, which includes porticos, libraries, theatre, basilicas, covered ways, stairs, gardens, dwellings of priests, etc., is exactly 2000 feet ; the area, 800,000 square feet. These figures convey only the idea of size ; they give no idea of the elegance and artistic wealth which made such places serve for museums of statuary, picture-galleries, recordoffices for the history of the Roman world, and exhibition places for curiosities of every description.

The responses of the oracular god Hercules were given not only in his sanctuary at Tibur, but also in his more modest Roman temple by the Circus Flaminius ; and while we remain uncertain just how the trick was done at Tibur, the secret of the Roman shrine was found out in 1864. On August 8 of that year, the masons Antonio Cancedova and Luigi Andreani discovered in that portion of Pompey’s Theatre now occupied by the Palazzo Pio (Righetti, piazza del Biscione, 95) a sort of huge coffin, built of stones and covered with slabs of marble, at the bottom of which was lying the colossal gilt-bronze statue of Hercules, which the discoverer presented to Pope Plus IX. It has since been given a place of honor in the rotunda of the Vatican. Since this Hercules was the protecting god of riders and charioteers, his temples are always found close to Roman circuses. The one connected with the Circus Flaminius was placed under the protection of Hercules Magnus ; the one connected with the Circus Maximus was dedicated to Hercules Victor. It was natural that riders and charioteers, with their backers and bookmakers, should be anxious to know what their chances were on the coming of great race-days. The oracle was close by, and the priest only too ready to cater to their demands. The responses were given in the following clumsy way. In the back of the head of the statue there was a hole, thirty-eight centimetres in diameter, through which a fullgrown youth could easily make his way into the body of the colossus. The experiment was actually tried by a boy named Pietro Roega, in November, 1864, in the presence of Commendatore Tenerani, Visconti, Grifi, and other personages, and the sound of the boy’s voice, in answer to the questions addressed to him, was very impressive, and almost supernatural in its suggestion.

The same system of giving responses by word of mouth was practiced in the oracle of Valpantena. This oracle, in spite of its typical importance, is little known to students, and I think it has been examined arehæologically twice only : about 1740, by Scipione Maffei, who describes it in his Verona Illustrata, and in 1819, by Antonio Bresciani, who calls it una delle cose rarissime d’ Italia.

At the entrance to the Valpantena, north of Verona, there is a church of Santa Maria delle Stelle, built on a spur of the Monte di Mizzole, and surrounded by wild and impressive scenery. It appears that when the Euganeans were driven towards the Alps and the Lago di Garda by the Heneti, or Veneti, and settled in the district which still bears their name, the spur of Santa Maria delle Stelle was selected as the seat and centre of their mysterious worship, where prophetic responses were given in the name of one of their gods.

If we can believe the description by Bresciani, the pilgrim wishing to penetrate the Antrum Sortium (the Cave of Responses) was made to follow a passage only four feet high and one and a half wide, cut in the living rock. Before he had proceeded far into the depths of the mountain he was arrested by a sort of wail or lamentation, as if some one were dying of asphyxia ; and indeed, the want of air, the narrowness of the passage, and the deadly loneliness of the place gave to the pilgrim himself a feeling of suffocation. At a turn of the passage the feeble groans suddenly changed into a thundering noise, as if a hundred lions were roaring at the same time, or as if a hundred bulls were being slain on the subterranean altar of the god. Both effects were produced by the sound of a waterfall which indistinctly strikes the ear in the first arm of the corridor, and becomes deafening as soon as one enters the second and more direct passage. In this excited and terrorized frame of mind the oracle-seeker was introduced into the cave. Bresciani says that the acoustic properties of the cave are such that even the low tones of the human voice have a strange and mysterious effect. A square opening in the ceiling, like a chimney pipe, communicates with a recess where one or more priests could hide themselves and give their responses to the applicant below. The oracle of Valpantena was connected with a temple, turned afterwards into a church (the crypt of the present one) in the time of Pope Honorius II.

But the most recent and most curious discovery bearing on this subject of oracular practice was made at Terracina early in 1894. Terracina, or Tarracina, founded by the Volscians, who called it Anxur, colonized by the Romans B. C. 329, owed its reputation, first, to its being the most important station of the Appian Way, halfway between Rome and Capua ; secondly, to its sanctuary of Jupiter Anxur, or Anxurus, which is mentioned more than once by classic writers, although its exact location was until recently a matter of dispute.

Livy (xxviii. 11, and xl. 45) relates that the temple was struck hy lightning in the years 548 and 575. It has been inferred from this statement that the structure must have occupied a commanding and exposed position, a fact confirmed by Virgil (Æneid vii. 799), who says that it could be seen for many miles around, as far as Ardea and the banks of the Numicius. There is a promontory at Terracina, the Monte Sant’ Angelo, a noted landmark for coasting - vessels, which rises abruptly from the sea to the height of (610 feet, and although the ruins by which the promontory is crowned bore the false name of Palazzo di Teodorico, local archæologists had pointed it out as a possible or probable site of the sanctuary of Jupiter. No better or more prominent location could have been selected on the whole coast between Monte Argentaro and Gael a. with the exception, perhaps, of the sacred island of Circe, which was crowned in its turn by monuments of prehistoric ages.

Both Greeks and Romans had an eye for beauty in their edifices, as well as a keen discrimination in the selection of sites. The greater part of the headlands of Peloponnesus, Attica, Ionia, of the Ægean islands, of the western coast of Italy, of Magna Græcia and Sicily, were covered with temples, or trophies, or tombs of heroes. These structures of shining marble, backed by masses of evergreens, seen under the play of light and shade, sometimes among the clouds and flashes of lightning, sometimes tinted by the rays of the setting sun or by the opal dawn of Aurora, must have given to those coasts a type of marvelous beauty. “ The mainland of those days appeared to the eyes of the weather-beaten sailor like the image of Cybele, who, crowned with towers and sitting on her rocky throne by the shore, ordered her son Neptune to make smooth the way to the harbor.’" 2

The discovery to which I refer was due, like so many others, to chance. A treasure-hunter, Luigi Antonio Capponi, having been led to believe that gold coins in considerable number were buried among the ruins of Monte Sant’ Angelo, was caught in the act of digging at the southwest corner of what proved afterwards to be the temple of the god Anxur. The city engineer saw at once the importance of what Capponi had uncovered, and with the pecuniary help of the municipality and of the state was able to undertake regular excavations.

The temple, 33.50 metres long, 19.70 metres wide, faces due south, and is built in the Corinthian order, with columns of alabaster from Monte Circeo. There are remains of the altar on which the statue of the god was placed ; of the steps leading from the sacred area to the temple ; of the frieze, ornamented with heads of lions : there are also fragments of statuary. The temple was undoubtedly destroyed in or about the year 426, after the promulgation of the edict of Theodosius for the suppression of pagan places of worship. The ruin of the beautiful structure was caused by fire, as shown by a layer of coals, ashes, and calcinated stones above the pavements. The statues were broken in pieces, and the fragments thrown into the burning ruin. One of the favissæ containing votive offerings to the god, lias been found uninjured by fire.

To understand the meaning and importance of these extraordinary votive objects, we must remember that the national Volscian god Anxur was represented as in the prime of youth : therefore, when in course of time Anxur was Romanized, the title of “ Jupiter puer became his special attribute. A pedestal inscribed “ Iovi puero ” was seen at Terracina by Schott in 1624, and the image of the god on the denarii of the gens Vibia is decidedly youthful in appearance. No wonder, then, that votive offerings to Jupiter Anxur should take the shape of crepundia, or childish playthings. The objects are cast in lead from a mould, so that there are several reproductions of the same toy. There is a complete set of furniture for a tiny dining-room, comprising a three-legged table (mensa tripes), an easy-chair (cathedra supina), a sideboard (repositorium), a candlestick (ceriolarium), a waiter carrying a tray (puer dapifer), a pair of dancing-slippers (soleœ), a plate of fish (piseiuni patina) containing a pair of mullets ( ? mullus barbatus), a salt-cellar in the shape of a shell, a soup-plate, a fruit-plate, a drinking-cup in the shape of an œnochoe (a dipper-like utensil for filling the winecup), and several kitchen utensils, like a fryingpan, a gridiron, etc. These tiny implements are about one inch in length.

Jupiter Anxur not only watched over the safety of coasting-vessels from his lofty observatory, but also gave responses to those seeking to read the book of the future. The field of inquiry, however, must have been very limited, because the child-god could say only yes or no. His answers, in the affirmative or in the negative, were given in a very ingenious way.

East of the temple a pinnacle of live rock rises from the level of the platform, like a pyramid, measuring seven metres by six metres at the base, and five metres in height. The rock is pierced by a hole communicating with a cave or crypt, which in its turn is accessible by means of a narrow passage opening in the side of the mountain. The pilgrim would state his case to the god, throwing at the same time a handful of straw or of dry leaves into the funnel of the pinnacle. According as the leaves or straws were absorbed or shot up into the air, the pilgrim read his answer as yes or no. The absorbing or rejecting current could easily be produced by lighting a fire in the cave, by shutting or opening the entrance door, etc.

The edict of Theodosius did not put a stop to superstitions of this kind. Pagan worship was suppressed, but not the practice of divination. It would be highly interesting to follow the various manifestations of this practice from the fall of the empire to our own times. The theory of that eminent naturalist who divided the human species into two classes, those who cheat and those who are cheated, is as true now as it was in the good old times of the oracles.

Rodolfo Lanciani.

  1. Vol. ii. pp. 277-92. Third edition. 1891.
  2. Chateaubriand, Itinéraire, p. 118.