Old Roman Delusions And Customs

The old Roman delusions and customs were as extraordinary as those of any nation with which history has made us acquainted.

The augurs pretended to foretell future events from the flight of birds and the chirping and feeding of fowls, and also from other appearances. “Augurium” and “auspicium” were generally used promiscuously. Auspicium was properly the foretelling of future events from the inspection of birds; augurium from any omen or prodigy whatever. The augurs are supposed to have derived tokens of futurity chiefly from five sources—appearances in the heavens (such as thunder or lightning), from the singing or flight of birds, from the feeding of fowls, from the movements of quadrupeds, and from uncommon accidents. The birds which chiefly gave omens by sound were ravens, crows, owls, and cocks,—and those by flight, eagles and vultures. Contempt of the augurs, and neglect of their intimations, were said to be followed by dire misfortunes. Omens coming from the left were generally supposed by the Romans to be lucky. Thunder on the left was regarded as a good sign, and so was the cawing of a crow on the same side; but it was considered more fortunate to hear the croaking of a raven on the right than on the left. The Romans, as the Greeks had done before them, took omens from quadrupeds crossing their path or appearing in unaccustomed places. The augurs taught the people how to draw conclusions from sneezing, spilling salt, and other accidents, called dira.

Drawing of lots was frequently resorted to by the Romans wishing to pry into futurity. The lots were dice, or articles resembling those instruments of chance. They were thrown into an urn filled with water, or cast as dice in the ordinary way. If there was any difficulty in ascertaining the import of the dice throwing, the priests were employed to interpret. Future events were frequently inquired into by an inquisitive person cutting the branch of a tree into small pieces, and distinguishing them by certain marks, and then scattering them at random on a white cloth. The searcher after knowledge having prayed to the gods, took up the slips three times, and interpreted according to the marks. Future events were often inquired into by reading the first line or passage which happened to turn up on opening a book, or by observing the stars. It was supposed to be lucky to be born under a certain star, and unlucky to come into the world under another. Astrologers were consulted regarding one’s natal hour. Fortune-tellers and books of fate were consulted on the most trivial occasions; and persons aspiring to the magistracy, after saying their prayers in the open air, had recourse to augury with the view of ascertaining whether the gods favoured their cause.

Great attention was paid by the Romans to dreams, and persons of disordered minds were supposed to possess the faculty of presaging future events. Omens of futurity were also drawn from the appearance of the entrails of animals offered in sacrifice to the gods. The flame and smoke from the altar were noticed, and so were the circumstances attending the driving, felling, and bleeding of the victim. Sibylline books were inspected by appointment of the senate at perilous times, as they were supposed to contain the fate of the Roman Empire. There was something mysterious about the origin of the sibylline books. It is reported that a woman called Amalthæa, from a foreign country, came to Tarquin the Proud to sell nine sibylline books. Upon Tarquin refusing to give her the price asked, she went away and burned three of them. Returning soon after, she sought the same price for the remaining six. Still the price was refused, and she went away and burned other three books. She again came to the king, and demanded the same price for the three unconsumed volumes as she had asked for the nine. Tarquin, who first regarded the woman as a senseless old creature, became surprised at her strange behaviour, and inquired at the augurs what he should do. They advised him to give the woman the price she demanded. The woman delivered the books, and, after desiring that they should be carefully kept, disappeared, and was never seen again.

The use of charms and incantations originated in the worship of the heathen gods. As people in this country believe that spirits, good and bad, go about at night, so did the Romans suppose that their gods went up and down the earth during the night to observe the actions of men. The priests and others, when engaged in acts of piety or important business, took care, when turning, to move to the right. Every Roman avoided repeating words of bad omen. Certain days were reckoned unfortunate for the celebration of marriages. The month of May was thought an unlucky time for marriages being solemnized. The most fortunate time for weddings taking place was in the middle of June. The dress of a bride on her marriage day was a long white robe and her face was covered with a veil, in token of her modesty; her hair was divided with the point of a spear into six locks, and she was crowned with flowers. No marriage was celebrated before recourse to auspices. The nuptial ceremony was performed in the bride’s father’s house, or in the residence of the nearest relation. In the evening the bride was conducted to her husband’s house, taken thither apparently by force from the arms of her mother or other relative, in memory of the violence used to the Sabine women. Three boys, whose parents were alive, attended her; two of them supported her by the arms, while the third walked before, bearing a flambeau of pine or thorn. Maid-servants followed with a distaff and wool, intimating that she was to spin as matrons formerly did. Many relations and friends attended the nuptial procession. The young men repeated jests and made sport as she passed along. The bride bound the door-posts of her new home with woollen fillets, and anointed them with the fat of swine or wolves, to prevent enchantments. She was lifted over the threshold, or lightly leaped over it, as it was thought ominous to put her foot upon it, because the threshold was sacred to Vesta, the goddess of virgins. Both she and her husband touched fire and water, as all things were supposed to be produced from these two elements. With the water their feet were bathed. The husband gave a feast, and musicians attended and sang the nuptial song. After supper the bride was conducted to her bed-chamber by matrons who had been only once married, and laid on her couch, which was covered with flowers; songs were then sung by young women before the chamber door till midnight. Next day another entertainment was given by the husband, when presents were sent to the bride by her friends and relations; and she began her family duties by performing sacred rites.

Great attention was paid to funeral ceremonies. Many people believed that the souls of the unburied were not admitted into the abodes of the dead before they had wandered about the Styx at least a hundred years. If one happened to discover an unburied body and did not throw earth on it, he was compelled to expiate his crime by sacrificing a hog to Ceres. When persons were at the point of death, their nearest relation present endeavoured to catch the expiring breath with their mouth, as they believed the soul or living principle went out by the mouth. The nearest relation among the Romans closed the eyes and mouth of the deceased, after putting money into the mouth for the ferryman who was to take the soul of the dead over the lake it had to cross. A branch of cypress placed at the door where the deceased lay, indicated that there was a dead body within. People were invited to public funerals by a herald. Magistrates and priests were supposed to be violated by seeing a corpse, and therefore the dead were generally buried at night with torch-light. At funeral processions pipers and other musicians attended, and women sang the funeral song or the praises of the deceased to the sound of the flute. By the law of the twelve tables, the number of flute players was restricted to ten. Next followed actors and buffoons, who danced and sang, while one of them imitated the deceased’s words and actions when alive. Before the corpse there were carried the images of the deceased and of his ancestors. The ancients buried their dead at their own houses, whence arose the fear of hobgoblins, and a belief in lares, supposed to be the souls of the deceased.

When the body was laid in the tomb, the people present were sprinkled three times with pure water by the priest, and when the friends returned home they were again sprinkled. Beans, lettuces, bread, eggs, etc. were laid in the tombs, in the belief that the ghosts would come and eat them. Offerings were made to appease the manes. If a person, falsely reported to have been dead, returned home, he did not enter his house by the door, but went into it through the roof. Dead bodies were often violated for magical purposes, by stripping them of valuable articles, or cutting off fingers, toes, or arms. Wax images of deceased persons were made, and, after a variety of ridiculous ceremonies, burned on piles, from the tops of which eagles were let loose to convey to heaven the souls set free from the body.


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