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Ancient Divination and Experience$

Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy and Esther Eidinow

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198844549

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198844549.001.0001

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Making Sense of Chaos

Making Sense of Chaos

Civil War, Dynasties, and Family Trees

(p.134) 6 Making Sense of Chaos
Ancient Divination and Experience

Andrew Stiles

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Periods of civil war were greatly disruptive to Roman society, and the populace evidently sought to make sense of these upheavals in different ways, including through narratives involving various types of divination, which were employed to predict and explain the rise and fall of individual leaders and dynasties. This chapter analyses a group of such stories which concern trees acting in peculiar ways, such as dying and miraculously recovering, or springing up in portentous locations. Arboreal portents apparently foretold the victory of Octavian in the wars of the Triumviral period, and later, Vespasian in the conflicts of 68–9 CE, as well as predicting the particular Julio-Claudian and Flavian successors who would follow them. Rather than seeing such tales as simply the product of ‘top-down’ Augustan or Flavian propaganda, it is suggested that they were the product of a wider divinatory worldview, which was built upon a tradition stretching back into the Republic, and was fundamental to the way in which many Romans sought to comprehend social and political change. Such stories could be generated for a range of reasons, and by a range of authors. They often took on a life of their own, and were altered or updated over time. Adopting such a perspective when approaching Roman divination modifies our understanding of the relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ during the late Republic, Triumviral period, and early Principate.

Keywords:   Portent, prodigy, divination, tree, arboreal, Rome, civil war, politics, Roman historiography, dynasty

Ancient accounts of some very peculiar portents involving trees, which predicted the fortunes of future principes through a kind of arboreal sign language, allow us to examine the wider role that divination played in Roman society during times of crisis and uncertainty.1 Many of these cases are notable for the fact that they relate not only to the accession of an individual princeps, but also to his children, giving them a ‘dynastic’ message.2 Tree portents seem particularly ripe for dynastic interpretations (as opposed to thunderbolts, for instance) since the life of a tree very often extends beyond that of a man, and thus the longevity of a tree itself (whether real or fictional) enabled more than one individual’s fate to be predicted through its behaviour, and earlier signs to be reinterpreted in light of later events. Gowers recently observed that many of these arboreal stories cluster around the year 68 CE, which probably reflects the intense uncertainty and anxiety felt among the population at the fall of Nero and the civil war that ensued.3 Similar stories had emerged from the earlier civil wars of the late Republic and the Triumviral period, which suggests that their appearance in 68 CE and shortly thereafter was a revival of a phenomenon that had sprung up a number of times before.

(p.135) The central case studies examined here concern the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. The primary Julio-Claudian instance discussed is the comparatively well-known Gallina Alba portent, in which an eagle purportedly dropped a white hen, which held a laurel sprig in its beak, into the lap of Livia, the new wife of Octavian, in 38 BCE. The laurel sprig was later planted at her villa and generated a grove, which produced the laurels for the processions of subsequent imperial triumphatores. Later Julio-Claudian principes are also said to have planted their own sprigs of laurel nearby, creating distinct trees associated with each individual. There are other cases of Julio-Claudian arboreal portents that allegedly occurred during the civil wars of the first century BCE: a withering oak tree that regained its strength upon Octavian’s arrival on Capri; a palm tree that sprang up in the pavement outside Augustus’ house; and another portentous palm that produced a branch that resembled a tree in and of itself, allegedly observed by Julius Caesar at the battle of Munda in 45 BCE. As we shall see, these examples provide a wider interpretative context, and in some instances particular precedents or models, for later Flavian dynastic prodigia, such as an oak that produced a tree-like branch on Vespasian’s family estate, and a cypress that fell down and miraculously stood up again.

In fact, there is evidence that authors were compiling instances of tree portents in the Hellenistic period and late Republic, long before the elder Pliny’s discussion of arboreal prodigia, which is found within his lengthier section on trees.4 Pliny notes that Aristander (presumably Aristander of Telmessos, Alexander’s seer) compiled a collection of tree omens from Greece, within a work possibly known as de Portentis, and that a man named Gaius Epidius likewise collated examples that had occurred in Italy, in his Commentarii.5 To these two authors we can add Pliny himself in this passage, whose collection represents a similar attempt in the late 70s CE.6 These florilegia are significant in that they show a pre-existing tradition of observing and interpreting tree portents, often in relation to the fate of a city or army, prior to our examples of the late Republic and the Triumviral period.

(p.136) My reading of these portents involves branching out from a narrow focus on the principes in question, and issues of ‘propaganda’ and manipulation, by considering the divinatory worldview of the people involved in the circulation and adaptation of these narratives.7 This perspective allows us to make further observations concerning the way in which divination intersected with many other aspects of Roman society, including cultural memory, conceptions of time, and the development of historiography. The approach adopted by Ripat, in her study of omens from earlier in the Republic, is a useful springboard. Her focus on the role of the populace in granting legitimacy to claims of divine support can be carried on into the Principate, and tree portents provide a core sample which enables this to be illustrated quite clearly.8 In the examples I discuss, individuals or groups within the wider populace evidently played a similar role in conferring authority on portents relating to generals and principes through their acceptance of them, and in fact actively shaped later developments in these narratives—and in some cases even devised them in the first instance, I would suggest, in accordance with their own expectations and religious worldview.9

The stories are usually assumed to have been produced by someone near the top of the political hierarchy, and are often imagined to have operated in Roman society by tricking, or at least influencing, the plebs to accept that divine favour was bestowed upon certain leaders, thereby securing popular support. For instance, Flory’s study of the Gallina Alba portent aimed ‘to describe the political reasons for the omen, its psychological value to (p.137) Octavian in shaping public opinion, and, finally, to connect the omen with a famous passage in the Aeneid’.10 Elsewhere in her article, there are clear indications of what could be described as a ‘top-down’ model—for example, her conclusion that ‘Augustus understood the gullibility of the unsophisticated and how to capture their loyalty’.11 This approach implies a somewhat simplistic relationship between political power and religious authority and practice that should be called into question.12 Yet the evidence Flory presents, and indeed some of her own observations about the representation of the Gallina Alba story in different sources, point to adaptation over time, by, and for, different audiences, despite her overall emphasis on the uniformity and control of Augustan ideology.13 I am not at all proposing that this ‘propagandistic’ element should be discounted altogether, but would suggest that more can be made from this omen and similar examples if we switch the focus onto the receptiveness of the audiences themselves, and the role that such narratives may have played in Roman society more generally. There are a range of possibilities which complicate a ‘top-down’ model; just as honours could be offered to a senator or princeps by different individuals and constituencies on their own initiative, both in Rome and in the provinces, so stories could also be told to honour leaders in less official ways.14 Such stories might stem from communities or groups that sought to explain and (p.138) praise the prominence of an individual, in accordance with a pre-existing model or tradition of portents and omens.15 For instance, a delegation from Tarraco announced to Augustus that a palm tree had sprung up on their altar dedicated to the princeps, to which he replied, ‘it is obvious how often you light fires on it’—probably not the reaction the Tarraconians would have desired.16 Opportunism on the part of those writing speeches, poems, and other works should also not be dismissed, whether those who composed them were close to the princeps, or simply aspired to be. Alternatively, in certain situations, even when a particular leader was not favoured by an individual or a particular constituency, these defeated opponents (or those with no preferred candidate) might nevertheless circulate a tale about divine intervention or divinatory confirmation of an individual’s supremacy to explain their own lack of success.17 The evidence that survives can support an interpretation that modifies the picture formed in much modern scholarship of the relationship between politics and divination during the late Republic, the Triumviral period, and the early Principate.18

1. Julio-Claudian Tree Portents

The Gallina Alba story we have noted is one of the most well-attested dynastic tree omens encountered in the sources, appearing in the works of Pliny, Suetonius, and Dio.19 In Suetonius and Pliny (but not in Dio), the emperors are also said to have planted their own sprigs of laurel again at the (p.139) same site, producing distinct trees associated with each individual. Flory and Reeder have already explicated the various religious and triumphal connotations of the laurel, the potential use of the chickens for the tripudium, and thoroughly examined possible artistic resonances for this omen in Augustan art and architecture.20 For our purposes, the unique aspects of each version are the most important elements. This is because they reveal adaptation and change over time, and demonstrate that interpretations of such signs were contested. We may begin with Pliny’s discussion of laurel (HN 15.136–7), written in the late 70s CE, which is the earliest extant account.21

One of the most significant aspects of the account by Pliny is that the haruspices are consulted about the portent and provide advice on how to expiate it (by planting the laurel and rearing the hen). Haruspices do not appear in the other versions of this story—their identity, and the extent to which their assessment of the portent was deliberately designed to benefit Octavian, cannot be known. Whether the initial portent, in the minds of some Romans, would have fallen into the category of ‘private’ or ‘public’ is rather difficult to assess: on the one hand, the portent supposedly occurred on a road (cf. Suet. Galb. 1, discussed below), and the haruspices were consulted; on the other, the expiation took place on private land (Livia’s villa), and importantly, as far as we know, the senate was not consulted.22 Whatever the case initially, certainly by later phases in the story’s reception (including this retelling by Pliny) it would have been considered relevant to the state, in the sense that the princeps and his family had become an integral part of the res publica.23 As Pliny observes, subsequent principes used the (p.140) laurel from this grove in their triumphs. The haruspices are also notable in that they provide an external confirmation of the portent, and thus, implicitly, of the story itself.

An interesting parallel scenario, involving a portent concerning Octavian in which the haruspices were consulted, is that of the thunderbolt which occurred only two years afterwards, in 36 BCE.24 It seems that Octavian relied on their consultation in creating a series of positive readings of events which, in some cases, had traditionally been seen as negative or ambiguous portents. Lightning strikes, comets, floods of the Tiber, and so on were all interpreted as positive signs in the early Principate by those in power, despite their being attested as more often negative in earlier Republican instances.25 While there is limited evidence for the particular interpretation of tree portents earlier in the Republic provided by Pliny and Livy, the involvement of the haruspices here, combined with the fact that Octavian sought to have other negative portents assessed in a positive light by the haruspices, suggests that the Gallina Alba portent itself may not have been seen as straightforwardly positive by all when initially circulated.26 An indication that this was the case is the reaction of the populace in Dio’s account, discussed below.

Suetonius’ version of the story differs from Pliny’s account in a few significant ways, and perhaps most importantly, provides a more extensive narrative arc (Galb. 1):

The race of the Caesars ended with Nero. That this would be so was shown by many portents and especially by two very significant ones. Years before, as Livia was returning to her estate near Veii, immediately after her marriage with Augustus, an eagle which flew by dropped into her lap a white hen, holding in its beak a sprig of laurel, just as the eagle had carried it off. Livia resolved to rear the fowl and plant the sprig, whereupon such a great brood of chickens was hatched that to this day the villa is called Ad (p.141) Gallinas, and such a grove of laurel sprang up that the Caesars gathered their laurels from it when they were going to celebrate triumphs. Moreover, it was the habit of those who triumphed to plant other branches at once in that same place, and it was observed that just before the death of each of them the tree which he had planted withered. Now in Nero’s last year the whole grove died from the root up, as well as all the hens. Furthermore, when shortly afterwards the temple of the Caesars was struck by lightning, the heads fell from all the statues at the same time, and his sceptre, too, was dashed from the hand of Augustus.27

A crucial difference in this version is that the haruspices have been replaced by Livia herself in the decision-making role concerning the course of action to take (‘Livia resolved to rear the fowl and plant the sprig’). This may point to a later circulation of the tale, when Livia’s position in the state had grown in importance, either as the wife of Augustus or, from 14 CE, as the mother of the princeps, Tiberius.28 Suetonius also adds new details, stating that the tree planted by each princeps was observed to wither before his death, and claiming that in the last year of Nero’s reign, the entire grove (as well as the entire brood of hens) died off. These details demonstrate clearly that there was at least one other addition to the story, most likely in the early Flavian period or in the midst of the civil war in 68–9 CE. Yet it is noteworthy that (p.142) Pliny, writing in the late 70s CE, does not mention the demise of the grove. If the grove had in fact withered, this may point to the close relationships that Pliny had with Vespasian and Titus, and his desire not to cause offence; alternatively, he may simply have been unaware of the grove’s current state.29 A third and perhaps more likely possibility is the explanation that the grove continued to grow at the villa (not exactly a public site, nor particularly easily accessible), while at the same time a rumour was circulated in Rome that it had withered, drawing attention to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and this rumour was later picked up by Suetonius and Dio.30 If this was the case, then the tale of the grove’s demise might indicate an adaptation of the story in line with wider audience expectations, contrary to the physical fact of its continued existence.

Finally, there is Dio’s version (48.52.1–53.3), which lumps the Gallina Alba narrative together with a range of other portents. This account includes an even greater emphasis on Livia’s role than that of Suetonius.31 Dio adds that ‘Livia was destined to hold in her lap even Caesar’s power and to dominate him in everything’, reporting that although she herself was pleased with the portent, it ‘inspired the rest with dread’ and disturbed ‘the other people in the city’. Here Livia is presented in a sinister light, which is most likely a development of the later Augustan or Tiberian era.32 This version with its reference to unfavourable reactions from others in Rome also contains more of the original Triumviral political context—a period in (p.143) which Octavian’s position was extremely volatile.33 Dio agrees with Suetonius in noting the decline of the laurel grove and brood following Nero’s death, though he does this in a separate passage, whereas Suetonius, as we have seen, rolls the original signs and their eventual end into the one account.34 Dio thus preserves more clearly the multiple stages in the story’s development, since they are placed within their respective political contexts. Suetonius’ arrangement reflects his biographical mode (discussed further below), which decontextualizes various portents and presents them together in a more truncated form.

Thus, the story itself developed prior to these later accounts by Pliny, Suetonius, and Dio, and its meaning was apparently contested both at the time and at later stages, and in this process different details were added or emphasized. In the story’s original context in the 30s BCE, perhaps the most important element for its audience would have been the continuity it emphasized between Caesar and his heir, Octavian, rather than between Augustus and his potential successors, seen in the later Suetonian version. This is suggested by the fact that Caesar himself had received a similar omen in 49 BCE.35 Dio reports that a kite dropped a sprig of laurel onto one of Caesar’s friends in the Roman forum.36 As Flory notes, a parallel might have been drawn between Caesar defeating the Pompeians in the earlier generation, and Octavian planning to defeat their next generation in Sicily, with a similar indication of divine support.37 The Caesarian association with laurel was to benefit Octavian as he sought to improve his standing in Rome and fend off other claims to Caesar’s legacy, during a period in which Italy was blockaded.38 Dio’s report of the Gallina Alba omen suggests that Rome’s populace was unsettled in this period by the effects of war, and as a consequence it may have been intended to reassure the populace of Rome in a time of unrest. Octavian’s controversial betrothal to Livia, divorced from Tiberius Claudius Nero and pregnant with the Elder Drusus at the time, is also significant in this early context, since she brought with her political connections to people who had previously been hostile to Octavian—an aspect of Livia’s role explored in detail by Welch.39 At the (p.144) same time, Octavian’s own divorce, from Scribonia, can be seen as a move away from Sextus Pompeius and towards the advantages that Livia’s lineage provided, a motivation that probably sat alongside any romantic feelings he may have had for her. In this context, the report that the sign had been sent to Livia might have helped to build her reputation as an upright matrona worthy of receiving messages from the gods, despite the Antonian propaganda that sought to cast their marriage in a scandalous light.40

After this initial Triumviral context, there was very likely at least one (though probably more than one) intermediate stage in the story’s reception prior to the Suetonian account. This is suggested by the role of Livia and her negative portrayal in Dio’s later version of the story. She is characterized as dominating Augustus, which suggests that this stems from a reinterpretation of the story in the later Augustan or more likely the Tiberian period, when her public role in the domus Augusta became much more significant. A similarly meddling Livia, with the negative literary associations of a stepmother, is found in Tacitus’ Annals.41

Finally, we have the reinterpretation of the tale following the death of Nero. At this point, the most important element in the story was the symbolic end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Unlike the first potential reading with its focus on Julius Caesar, at this point attention might be turned in the other direction, towards Augustus’ successors, their monopoly on triumphs, and the crisis that had engulfed Rome as a consequence of Nero’s lack of heir. In the intervening period, the details of the story had been updated to incorporate future generations of Caesars, with different laurel plants withering with the passing of each princeps.

Concerning the fate of the Gallina Alba portent, Flory argues that the ‘abrupt end of the grove on the Via Flaminia suggests an understandable disinterest of emperors after Nero in continuing a family myth which only underscored their own lack of connection with the blood line of Augustus’.42 From this, it seems that Flory is referring to the physical maintenance of the grove in Livia’s villa, rather than the circulation of the story. If the post-Neronian emperors did lose interest, it seems probable that they would not seek to advertise the demise of this grove, since that story in and of itself would emphasize the discontinuity between the Julio-Claudian dynasty and subsequent principes. Yet it is clear that there was an ongoing fascination with the (p.145) story of the grove, which is likely to have stemmed not from the new princeps or his supporters, but rather from those who were watching for predictions about the future, and especially arboreal signs that had been useful in the past. Perhaps the grove continued to thrive, but the associations that had developed between it and the Julio-Claudian principes meant that audiences insisted that it must have withered. The population of Rome was evidently on the lookout for such messages from the gods. The variety of stories of ancient or sacred trees that marked the fall of Nero by following suit points to the populace’s expectation and desire for confirmation that an event as momentous as the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was foretold or at least predestined in some way (an idea that may have provided a sense of security).43 Thus a portent that probably began its life as a story that was potentially quite useful to Octavian had outgrown the realm of propaganda and the politics of civil war, and now had a much broader function in Roman society.

2. Flavian Tree Portents

The lack of an obvious successor to Nero resulted in a power vacuum, and appeals to different kinds of authority were made by various interested parties. This problem of what constituted the basis of ‘legitimate power’ in Rome is one of the main themes explored in the sources that narrate the events of 68–69 CE. Moving beyond the Julio-Claudians was a difficult process for Roman society to undertake, since the ideology that had developed around them had put down deep roots by the time of Nero’s death. As extant sources for this period make clear, dynasty was an important consideration for any potential successor to Nero, since it promised a continuation of peace; despite Vespasian’s comparatively humble origins for an imperial contender, his ready-made dynasty in the form of Titus and Domitian would have been a significant advantage. Under Vespasian, the problem was not so much with the future, as with his past, which necessitated the difficult process of grafting him onto the ‘good’ Julio-Claudians as much as was possible (perhaps most strikingly illustrated in the lex de imperio Vespasiani). As we shall see in the following Flavian portents, this (p.146) anxiety with Vespasian’s ancestry is possibly reflected in the way the arboreal omens that concern him are located temporally, in his youth, and geographically, on his ancestral estates. By considering that the inevitability of his rise to power was revealed in these signs from the gods, one could smooth over the intervening period of disorder and uncertainty, at the same time as making light of the fluctuations in Vespasian’s fortunes under earlier principes.

The idea that a Roman audience in the post-Neronian era might expect the behaviour of trees to indicate future military victory, and in some cases dynastic succession, is supported by examples in Suetonius’ Augustus, which bear notable similarities to the stories concerning Vespasian. Suetonius notes that a withering oak tree regained its strength at Octavian’s arrival on Capri, which pleased him to the extent that he decided to acquire the island from Naples in exchange for Ischia/Aenaria. In the same passage, he records that a palm tree sprang up in the pavement outside Augustus’ house, which Augustus transplanted to his inner courtyard and cultivated beside the Penates.44 Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, he notes that in 45 BCE a palm tree at the battle of Munda allegedly produced a shoot which grew into a branch larger than the tree itself (much like a branch of Vespasian’s oak, discussed below), and in which doves built their nests, which was interpreted as a dynastic omen by Julius Caesar.45 This apparently led Caesar to adopt Octavian, who founded his own dynasty. The latter example is important for several reasons, including the fact that it combines a tree with dynastic connotations with unusual behaviour on the part of birds—and the Suetonian account contends that a dynastic interpretation of these events was made by Caesar himself. A palm tree in and of itself of course connoted victory, but in addition, the ‘palm’ of the human hand (also palma) was a symbol of power in the Roman world—a connection explored by Corbeill.46 In the same manner in which the Caesarean precedent of a kite dropping a laurel sprig may have prepared the way for the eagle’s air raid on Livia’s lap with the laurel-clasping hen, that story, as well as the story of (p.147) Caesar’s dynastic palm tree at Munda, may have provided a precedent for Vespasian’s oak tree, which is described by Suetonius:

While Otho and Vitellius were fighting for the throne after the death of Nero and Galba, he began to cherish the hope of imperial dignity, which he had long since conceived because of the following portents. On the suburban estate of the Flavii an old oak tree, which was sacred to Mars, on each of the three occasions when Vespasia was delivered suddenly put forth a branch from its trunk, obvious indications of the destiny of each child. The first was slender and quickly withered, and so too the girl that was born died within the year; the second was very strong and long and portended great success, but the third was the image of a tree. Therefore their father Sabinus, so they say, being further encouraged by an inspection of sacrificial victims, announced to his mother that a grandson had been born to her who would be a Caesar. But she only laughed, marvelling that her son should already be in his dotage, while she was still of strong mind. (Suet. Vesp. 5.1–2)

There are two angles from which we can approach the growth of this story, which may in fact be two sides of the same coin: Vespasian’s desire for such a tale to be circulated, or, if we focus on a potential audience in Rome, a locus for expectations which had been established by the various Republican and Julio-Claudian precedents.47

The fact that the tree was sacred to Mars possibly relates to the martial context through which Vespasian obtained the supreme power. Another important element is the scepticism of Vespasia, which adds an air of authenticity to the portent, in that its veracity and full importance was not revealed until after Vespasian had succeeded Vitellius as princeps, with Titus and Domitian in tow. In the case of this oak tree, the ‘dynastic’ element appears to have been contained within the original story, perhaps as a consequence of the presence of Titus and Domitian at the point of Vespasian’s accession. Unlike both the Gallina Alba portent and Vespasian’s cypress (discussed below), the story of the oak is only recorded by Suetonius, which may point to it being less widely known by contemporaries.

The rival tale of Vespasian’s cypress tree is an indication that an association between trees and dynasties was perhaps more popular than usual in this period. This narrative was no doubt also influenced by Republican precedents of trees that, having fallen over, either stood up again or (p.148) produced shoots when apparently dead, which Pliny informs us were considered to be good omens by those who witnessed them.48 Another important symbolic connection that may have linked the life and fortunes of a man to that of a cypress was the more general association between cypresses and funerary contexts in Rome.49 Vespasian’s cypress tree is also reported by Suetonius, along with the oak:

A cypress tree, also, on his grandfather’s farm was torn up by the roots, without the agency of any violent storm, and thrown down, and on the following day rose again greener and stronger than before.(Suet. Vesp. 5.4)

There are other parallel accounts of the cypress, with notable variations, in both Tacitus and Dio.50 In Suetonius’ version, this cypress is not merely a straightforward omen of empire, as it is in the other accounts, but reappears in his life of Domitian, accompanying the latter’s demise. The fact that the narrative has these two ‘stages’ relating to two principes means that it is also ‘dynastic’, though in a different way from the aforementioned oak:

The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew then on a sudden fell down again. (Suet. Dom. 15.2)

(p.149) In this instance, we can observe another narrative which began its life as one of a number of omens portending Vespasian’s future rule, rather like Livia’s hen and laurel sprig, before being reinterpreted at a later date (after it was of any use to the Flavians), in this case to make sense of the end of another dynasty, and the new transition that was occurring.

3. Historiography, Biography, and the Future

The variety and longevity of these stories points to an ongoing interest in tree portents, and their appropriation in different situations. They played an important role in explaining the rise and fall of particular leaders and the establishment of dynasties by appealing to a pre-existing tradition of portents in the form of extraordinary arboreal behaviour. As we have seen from the examples discussed above, this interest in, and reliance upon, tree omens seems to have been particularly common in times of crisis or uncertainty, such as during civil war. It points to the significance that these narratives possessed in the religious outlook of many in the Roman world.

The use of these stories by historians when shaping their works is another element that challenges a straightforward propagandistic model. It seems clear that these arboreal omens were used as a way of framing, or encapsulating, particular periods of Rome’s history, and the dynasties that came to rule Rome in those periods. Suetonius’ use of these omens, in particular, reflects such an application. The demise of the Ad Gallinas grove has been discussed by Power, who argued against Syme’s idea that this episode was displaced, to the beginning of the Life of Galba, from the end of Suetonius’ Life of Nero.51 He suggested that it serves as an introduction to the three lives of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, by showing the fall of the dynasty which had brought about their bids for power, which is a consistent theme in the first two chapters of the biography of Galba, with its focus on ancestry. Suetonius’ version encapsulates the Julio-Claudian dynasty’s rise and fall, acting as a kind of chronological concertina to introduce the post-Neronian era. His use of the story very likely reflects a view that was shared by others in Rome.

The popularity of discussions of omina imperii in Roman society in the Triumviral period and early Principate, shown by the variety of examples (p.150) preserved in our sources, coincided with a swing in Roman historiography towards biography, and biographical ways of writing history. Biographical accounts undoubtedly influenced, and were in turn influenced by, a popular conception of the future of Rome’s government as a series of principes, based upon the model of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Such a conception made the future more ‘predictable’, and in some ways more ‘safe’, with these signposts from the gods pointing the way forward. The long duration of the rule of Augustus and his successors, and the manner in which they were woven into the fabric of the traditional institutions of the res publica, altered the way in which the future of Rome was imagined. The temporal framework of those in Rome, formerly a more ‘annalistic’ mindset with a focus on annually elected magistrates (that was also reflected in historiography), was ‘stretched out’ in various ways once attention was paid to potential successors, which caused a political and religious crisis following the dramatic death of Nero. As a result, a large section of Rome’s populace must have been expecting, and hoping for, equivalent forms of omina imperii, and particularly those that mapped out a secure future for the res publica in the form of a dynasty.

When considering the manner in which Suetonius used such dynastic arboreal omens to frame periods of Rome’s history, one might also consider how other people in the Roman world would have received such stories, and the way in which the stories may have been circulated and reinterpreted over time. By shifting attention away from the principes themselves, we can see more clearly the role that such omens played in Roman society, as the populace attempted to make sense of the chaos of civil war and the political and religious changes that it brought about—and the hopes that they entertained for a peaceful future. The arboreal omens found in the works of Suetonius and other authors demonstrate how the world of divination could provide signposts towards events in the future, and buttresses to historical narratives, thereby creating a sense of inevitability in a disordered world.


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(1) Many thanks to Nicholas Purcell, Kathryn Welch, the anonymous reviewers, and especially the conference organizers, Esther Eidinow and Lindsay Driediger-Murphy, for their comments on an earlier version of this piece—any errors that remain are entirely my own.

(2) Some of these tree portents have been examined by a small number of modern scholars with varying interests. Particularly worthy of note are articles by Flory and Reeder (concerning Livia’s Gallina Alba portent, and the triumphal connotations of laurel), and more recently, Gowers (her primary focus the trees and family trees in the Aeneid) and a longer study on sacred trees by Hunt. See Flory 1989; Reeder 1997; Gowers 2011; Santangelo 2013: 259–60; Hunt 2016: 199–223.

(3) Gowers 2011: 87–8.

(4) Plin. HN 17.241–5. While some examples portend foreign and civil conflict, only one of those that he cites in this particular passage is related to dynasties per se: an olive grove that purportedly crossed a road to swap places with other crops following the death of Nero.

(5) This Gaius Epidius was perhaps a relation of the tribune of 44 BCE, Gaius Epidius Marullus, or of Marcus Epidius, supposedly the tutor of both Antony and Octavian—particularly if the author of our commentary is Gaius Epidius of Nuceria, cf. Suet. Rhet. 4. On Aristander and trees, see Nice 2005: 90–3; for the possibility of this author being an ‘Aristander of Athens’ instead, see King 2004: 82, n.57.

(6) Cf. Gowers 2011: 88, n.5 on some instances in Pliny.

(7) Scholarship from the earlier twentieth century placed perhaps the greatest emphasis on the propagandistic value of these stories. Lattimore provides a more nuanced perspective, attributing some of these stories to a general expectation about Vespasian’s success, and others (such as the miracles in Alexandria) to the deliberate invention of Vespasian’s inner circle (Lattimore 1934: 446). A recent study of sacred trees in the Roman world by Hunt (2016) provides the wider arboreal religious context for the particular points made here concerning the ‘dynastic’ tree portents. See especially Hunt 2016: 199–223 on arboreal portents.

(8) Ripat 2006: 155–6 writes ‘What has received less attention in discussions of prophecy and authority is the role the general population of non-élites played in this ideological system which served the interests of the powerful rich, either collectively or individually, at the expense of the less powerful poor. […] authority, the expected reward of élite claims of divine favouritism, can be neither universally shared nor coerced. It must be willingly granted to an individual or segment of society by an authority-lacking majority. Where divination is concerned, the identification of an occurrence as a “real” divine message is subjective, and general concession to accept one person’s (or one group’s) claims about divination as true is a concession of real authority. In short, if élite claims of divine favouritism were made to impress the general population, the general population had to be impressed for the claims to be at all meaningful.’

(9) On the continuing importance of portents to large segments of the Roman population in the Imperial period, see also Santangelo, this volume.

(10) Flory 1989: 344.

(11) Flory 1989: 355.

(12) This is possibly derived from the Polybian view (6.56.6–12) of a cynical elite manipulating the gullible plebs, which has shaped the opinion of numerous modern scholars writing about Roman religion and divination. Particular readings of Cicero (e.g. Nat. D. 1.42), Tacitus, and other authors have also contributed to this modern notion of ‘insincerity’ among the upper classes in using divination and religion for political ends. The idea that religion and divination in the Republic were largely manipulated by the elite for their own ends has been challenged by numerous modern scholars including Davies 2004; Johnston 2005; Ripat 2006; and especially Santangelo 2013: 5–7, and Champion 2017: 1–22, the latter providing a synopsis of much recent scholarship that both maintains and, more importantly, challenges this position, alongside a new critique. It is clear that most principes attempted to assert some level of control over religious and divinatory practices in Rome, cf. Potter 1994: 174–82; nonetheless, studies of divination in the Principate have been less willing to challenge what Champion calls the ‘elite-instrumentalist’ view, perhaps owing to the assumption that the princeps had much greater control over the religious behaviour of the populace than was likely the case. Edicts banning particular prophetic methods and the numerous expulsions of astrologers and diviners point, if anything, to the enduring popularity and diversity of divinatory practice. Cf. Burkert 2005: 43–8, on the issue of control.

(13) E.g. Flory 1989: 353, where Flory suggests that Dio’s account ‘shows how the story continued as a living legend, subject with time to different explanations’.

(14) Potter 1994: 162 notes the example of Pliny who, when addressing Trajan (Pan. 5.3–4), claims he himself witnessed an omen portending Trajan’s future rule. Josephus’ prediction of Vespasian’s accession and his own release is another example of the benefits that might result from projecting favourable omens ‘upward’: Suet. Vesp. 5.6–7; Cass. Dio 66.1.4; Joseph. BJ 3.399–408.

(15) E.g. Noreña 2011: 271, writing about provincial honorific responses to the princeps, notes: ‘The main obstacle to understanding this honorific system has been to see the primary audience of it as external. I would like to suggest that the main audience for these imperial statues and local honors for the emperor was not external but internal—not imperial, but local—and that, over time, these statues, inscriptions, and honors became an important means for provincial communities throughout the Roman West to represent the emperor to themselves in what had become, as a result of official publicity, a familiar symbolic language.’ See also the classic account of the so-called ‘theology of victory’ by Fears 1981.

(16) Quint. Inst. 6.3.77. See now Hunt 2016: 217–23, who discusses the afterlife of this story on Tarraconian coinage after 14 BCE, and in an epigram by Philippus of Thessalonica, in which the palm has metamorphosed into a laurel.

(17) An interesting example of this phenomenon are Jewish responses to being conquered or oppressed, which often describe the conquerors (Pompey, Vespasian, et al.) as being the instruments of the Jewish god (at least temporarily), who are used to inflict just punishment on the Jews for their transgressions (e.g. Joseph. B.J. 5.369, 5.412). This model may have stemmed from the experience of the Babylonian exile. Cf. de Lange 1978.

(18) On the diversity (and often contestation) of possible interpretations in divinatory processes, see also Maurizio and Davies, in this volume.

(19) There is also a possible allusion to this portent in Velleius Paterculus (2.79.2–3).

(20) On the role of the hen and subsequent brood in the omen, and their potential use as pulli in divination, see Flory 1989: 349–52; Reeder 1997.

(21) Plin. HN 15.136–7: Sunt et circa divum Augustum eventa eius digna memoratu. namque Liviae Drusillae, quae postea Augustam matrimonii nomen accepit, cum pacta esset illa Caesari, gallinam conspicui candoris sedenti aquila ex alto abiecit in gremium inlaesam, intrepideque miranti accessit miraculum, quoniam teneret in rostro laureum ramum onustum suis bacis; conservari alitem et subolem iussere haruspices ramumque eum seri ac rite custodiri: quod factum est in villa Caesarum fluvio Tiberi inposita iuxta nonum lapidem Flaminiae viae, quae ob id vocatur Ad gallinas; mireque silva ea provenit: ex ea triumphans postea Caesar laurum in manu tenuit coronamque capite gessit, ac deinde imperatores Caesares cuncti; traditusque mos est ramos quos tenuerant serendi, et durant silvae nominibus suis discretae, fortassis ideo mutatis triumphalibus.

(22) On the importance of senatorial consultation for a portent or prodigy to be considered ‘public’ in the Republic, see Rasmussen 2003: esp. 35, 219. On the personal consultation of haruspices by prominent statesmen in the late Republic, and their eventual integration into Roman state divination (beyond an advisory role) under Claudius, see Potter 1994: 157–8.

(23) Hekster and Rich (2006: 156) state that Augustus’ prodigy-inspired Apollo Palatinus and Jupiter Tonans temples differed from Republican prodigial temples, among other reasons, because ‘the prodigies were both individual to Octavian/Augustus, bearing on his property and personal safety’. On the idea that Augustus was in some sense ‘superstitious’ regarding omens and prodigies, see Levick 2010: 306.

(24) See Hekster and Rich 2006.

(25) On Caesar’s comet, see Gurval 1997; on Tiber floods, see Linderski 1993: 63–4; Davies 2004: 163–4; Flory (1989: 355) compares the comet with the Gallina Alba portent as examples of Augustus’ manipulation of the populace, but I would argue that the interpretations of both portents were contested, possibly from the outset.

(26) Cf. tree portents which purportedly occurred in the Republic, which can be positive or negative, depending upon the location and activity of the tree in question—for example, those noted by Plin. HN 16.132–3 (positive) and Livy 43.13.5–6 (paired with negative portents).

(27) Progenies Caesarum in Nerone defecit: quod futurum compluribus quidem signis, sed vel evidentissimis duobus apparuit. Liviae olim post Augusti statim nuptias Veientanum suum revisenti praetervolans aquila gallinam albam ramulum lauri rostro tenentem, ita ut rapuerat, demisit in gremium; cumque nutriri alitem, pangi ramulum placuisset, tanta pullorum suboles provenit, ut hodieque ea villa ‘ad Gallinas’ vocetur, tale vero lauretum, ut triumphaturi Caesares inde laureas decerperent; fuitque mos triumphantibus, alias confestim eodem loco pangere; et observatum est sub cuiusque obitum arborem ab ipso institutam elanguisse. Ergo novissimo Neronis anno et silva omnis exaruit radicitus, et quidquid ibi gallinarum erat interiit. Ac subinde tacta de caelo Caesarum aede capita omnibus simul statuis deciderunt, Augusti etiam sceptrum e manibus excussum est.

(28) See Purcell 1986 on the role of Livia as both exemplum of a more public womanly virtue, and target of invective, in the emerging autocracy. Purcell writes (1986: 87), ‘Livia’s position can only be understood through the perception that there was a graded range of activities lying between the totally domestic and the completely public, not a sharply defined boundary. Her role was developed through subtly exploiting a variety of positions in that range, at its most public verging on the male political world, but more often making use of the less sensitive intermediate zones of the range of possibilities.’ Livia’s role in the Gallina Alba story places her precisely in such a range—it is a ‘domestic’ portent with ‘public’ ramifications. Purcell also notes (1986: 90), ‘The supereminent status of that family made Livia’s case an unusually public matter, most of all when it left the realm of the merely human. It had been an estate of Livia which was dignified by the Gods with the signs of the fortune of the dynasty which was to arise from Livia’s motherhood, the wonderful miracle of the chickens and bay-trees which gave to her Prima Porta establishment the name Ad Gallinas Albas. One interpretation of the omen was that Livia should have the might of Augustus in her complete control.’ See also Severy 2003: esp. ch. 9, on the developing role of the family of Augustus, including Livia, in the early Principate.

(29) While archaeological evidence of laurel has been found at the site of the villa, it is uncertain whether the grove was contained in planter pots (ollae perforatae), as Reeder 1997 claims; other species have been found at the villa, and the planters do not suggest the location of the grove by themselves, as noted by Klynne and Liljenstolpe 2000: 127. Klynne 2005: 3 proposes that the grove was located in the villa’s ‘garden terrace’, which he reconstructs as a very large porticus triplex.

(30) On the influence of rumours (no matter how false) on the course of history, see Gibson 1998.

(31) Οἱ δὲ ἐν τῇ Ῥώμῃ ἐταράττοντο μὲν καὶ ὑπὸ σημείων‎. ἄλλα τε γὰρ συχνά σφισιν ἐσηγγέλθη‎, καὶ ὅτι δελφῖνες πολλοὶ περὶ τὴν Ἀσπίδα τὴν τῆς Ἀφρικῆς πόλιν ἐμαχέσαντό τε ἀλλήλοις καὶ διεφθάρησαν· καί τι καὶ αὐτοῦ πρὸς τῷ ἄστει αἷμα ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ῥυὲν ὄρνιθες διεφόρησαν‎. ἐπειδή τε ἐν τῇ πανηγύρει τῇ τῶν Ῥωμαίων οὐδεὶς τῶν βουλευτῶν ἐν τῷ Καπιτωλίῳ‎, ὥσπερ εἴθιστο‎, εἱστιάθη‎, ἐν τέρατος λόγῳ καὶ τοῦτ᾿ ἔλαβον‎. τό τε τῇ Λιουίᾳ συμβὰν ἐκείνῃ μὲν καθ᾿ ἡδονὴν ἐγένετο‎, τοῖς δ᾿ ἄλλοις δέος ἐνεποίησε· λευκὴν γὰρ ὄρνιθα‎, κλωνίον δάφνης ἐγκάρπου φέρουσαν‎, ἀετὸς ἐς τὸν κόλπον αὐτῆς ἐνέβαλε‎. καὶ ἐδόκει γὰρ οὐ σμικρὸν τὸ σημεῖον εἶναι‎, τήν τε ὄρνιθα ἐν ἐπιμελείᾳ ἦγε καὶ τὴν δάφνην ἐφύτευσε‎. καὶ ἡ μὲν ῥιζωθεῖσα ηὔξησεν ὥστε καὶ τοῖς τὰ ἐπινίκια μετὰ τοῦτο πέμψασιν ἐπὶ πλεῖστον ἐξαρκέσαι‎, ἥ τε Λιουία ἐγκολπώσεσθαι καὶ τὴν τοῦ Καίσαρος ἰσχὺν καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτοῦ κρατήσειν ἔμελλε· τοὺς δὲ δὴ ἄλλους τοὺς ἐν τῇ πόλει ταῦτά τε καὶ αἱ διαλλαγαὶ τῶν ἀρχόντων ἰσχυρῶς ἐτάρασσον· οὐ γὰρ ὅπως οἵ τε ὕπατοι καὶ οἱ στρατηγοί‎, ἀλλὰ καὶ οἱ ταμίαι ἐπ᾿ ἀλλήλοις ἀντικαθίσταντο‎, καὶ τοῦτ᾿ ἐπὶ χρόνον ἐγένετο‎.

(32) Flory 1989: 353.

(33) Barrett 2001.

(34) Cass. Dio 49.63.3.

(35) Cf. Flory 1989: 344.

(36) Cass. Dio 41.39.2; on the association with Caesar and laurel, Suet. Iul. 45.2.

(37) Flory 1989: 344; Welch 2002, 2012.

(38) Octavian was later to develop this association with laurel in a range of triumphal and domestic contexts. See Reeder 1997; Flory 1989; Kellum 1994.

(39) Welch 2011: esp. 318 on the Gallina Alba portent; Purcell 1986: 82–5; Flory 1989: 352–3.

(40) Flory 1988: 352–3; Purcell 1986: 80; Barrett 2002: 19–30; Osgood 2006: 231–2.

(41) Watson 1995: 176–92; Barrett 2002: 241–3.

(42) Flory 1989: 347.

(43) Not only did the withering of the grove and the death of the brood of chickens signal the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but the aforementioned olive grove purportedly swapped places with crops on the other side of the road (Plin. HN 17.241–5), and a cypress as old as Rome itself also foretold what was to happen to Nero by falling over (HN 16.236).

(44) Suet. Aug. 92.1–2. Livy reports (43.13.5) that in 169 BCE, a palm sprang up in the courtyard of the temple of Fortuna Primigenia. This is an interesting precedent for the palm in Augustus’ pavement, since Livy lists it alongside other traditionally negative omens—this may be another example of Octavian/Augustus and others reinterpreting negative or ambiguous portents favourably.

(45) Suet. Aug. 94.11.

(46) Corbeill 2004: 20–4.

(47) See Levick 1999: 6–7 on Vespasian’s family estate, and the oak.

(48) Plin. HN 16.131–3. The first example is an elm at the grove of Juno at Nocera dated by Pliny to the Cimbrian Wars (113–101 BCE), and concerning the Roman people more generally rather than an individual leader. Yet, notably, while it is not during a period of civil war per se, it is nonetheless in a period of war. The second example, while it is not situated temporally, is placed at Philippi, and therefore may well relate to the two battles there in 42 BCE, since the other stories, such as that of Julius Caesar and the palm at Munda noted above, also have a military context.

(49) See Connors 1992: 1–2. Servius (citing Varro) and Pliny note the association between death and cypresses, its use in funerary contexts, and Pliny its consecration to Dis: Serv. Aen. 6.216; Plin. HN 16.139. Ash 1999: 131–2 suggests that Tacitus focused on the cypress omen with its funerary connotations to prefigure the eventual fall of the Flavian dynasty at the moment of its inception.

(50) Tac. Hist. 2.78. The Tacitean example has been explored by Morgan 1996, who has argued that it was chosen by Tacitus instead of the aforementioned oak tree primarily for literary reasons, to provide a contrast with Basilides’ oracle in the East, which in Tacitus’ presentation was more popular with Vespasian’s entourage. The Tacitean frame is particularly interesting, since it shows a process in which a reinterpretation of a single portent took place, as events unfolded and revealed its ‘true’ meaning (albeit in an imagined process—the private thoughts of Vespasian being difficult to access). Cf. Ash 2007: 301–8. Cass. Dio 65.1.2–3. Hunt 2016: 210–12 discusses the different nuances in the various accounts of this tree, when examining the relationship between arboreal portents and unusual but natural features of trees: ‘In short, be it Vespasian’s invincible cypress or a tree changing from the black to the white variety, there was no simple (or correct) way to read the delicate balance of the natural and the divine when accounting for unexpected arboreal behaviour.’

(51) Power 2009.