Having recently discussed gluttony and hurling, I thought I'd turn briefly to their opposite - refraining from eating and hurling. This story is pretty well known and you may be familiar with it already. But it's one of my absolute favorites, so I just can't resist.
During the First Punic War the Romans, historically a nation of landlubbers, had managed to construct a navy from scratch and win a series of victories at sea against the Carthaginians, the preeminent naval power of the western Mediterranean.
Publius Claudius Pulcher, was the bluest of Roman bluebloods. His patrician family, the Claudii, boasted of consular ancestors going back to Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis, who served as Consul in 495 BC. Some 250 years later, in 249 BC, Appius' descendant Publius was also elected Consul. Rome was then engaged in a vicious and longstanding (since 264 BC) grudge match with the Carthaginians, principally over the island of Sicily, known as the First Punic War. Historically a nation of landlubbers, the Romans had somehow managed to construct a fleet from scratch and win a series of naval victories over the Carthaginians, the preeminent naval power in the western Mediterranean.
Along with his consulship in 249 BC our proud, pretty Publius ("Pulcher" meant "handsome" in Latin}was awarded command of a substantial Roman fleet, some 224 vessels strong He proceeded to direct it to the Sicilian town of Lilybaeum, at the western point of the island, which a Roman army was then besieging.
Thirsty for glory, Publius had no intention of remaining in a supporting role. At his insistence his fleet then set out for the harbor of Drepanum, about twenty five miles up the coast, where the Carthaginian fleet was based. Preparing to engage, the Romans determined, in accordance with custom, to consult the sacred chickens carried in cages aboard Publius' flagship to insure that the omens were favorable.
Now the deal with the sacred chickens was pretty basic. You let them out of their cages and threw some grain or feed on the ground (or, in this case, deck). If they ate, the omens were good; if they didn't, watch out! As the description suggests, the whole thing seems to have been fairly manipulable. You want the sacred chickens to eat, well, just starve them a little beforehand. And so it usually went.
Not today, however. The chickens were let out from their cages, the grain was scattered - and the damned things wouldn't eat. Maybe they were seasick. But for whatever reason, the omens were bad, bad, bad. The frickin' chickens' refusal to eat meant that the battle would be a disaster for the Romans. Publius would have to break off contact and return to Lilybaeum.
The proud Publius, however, refused to take no for an answer. No frickin' chickens (sorry, I can't resist) were going to humiliate him and deprive him of military glory. Rather than withdraw with his tail between his leg, he promptly had the sacred chickens tossed overboard into the sea, uttering the immortal words, "Let them drink, since they won't eat" (Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt).
Two of our three sources for this wonderful story are Cicero and the biographer Suetonius, Cicero describes the scene in his De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods):
Nihil nos P. Clodi bello Punico primo temeritas movebit, qui etiam per iocum deos inridens, cum cavea liberati pulli non pascerentur, mergi eos in aquam iussit, ut biberent, quoniam esse nollent? Qui risus classe devicta multas ipsi lacrimas, magnam populo Romano cladem attulit.
Will the presumptuousness of Publius Claudius during the First Punic War trouble us not at all? He mocked the gods only in jest. When the sacred chickens were taken from their cage and would not feed, he ordered them to be thrown into the water so they would drink, since they chose not to eat. Followed as it was by the defeat of his fleet, his ridicule cost him many tears and brought great calamity to the Roman people.
Suetonius recounts his similar version in his Life of the emperor Tiberius (who was also a member of the Claudian gens):
Claudius Pulcher apud Siciliam non pascentibus in auspicando pullis ac per contemptum religionis mari demersis, quasi ut biberent quando esse nollent, proelium navale iniit; superatusque, cum dictatorem dicere a senatu iuberetur, velut iterum inludens discrimini publico Glycian viatorem suum dixit.
Claudius Pulcher began a sea-fight off Sicily, though the sacred chickens would not eat when he took the auspices, throwing them into the sea in defiance of the omen, and saying that they might drink, since they would not eat. He was defeated, and on being bidden by the senate to appoint a dictator, he appointed his messenger Glycias, as if again making a jest of his country's peril.
Our prnicipal source for the battle is the historian Polybius, who recounts it at some length in Book 1 of his Histories. The fact that Polybius, who was writing only some 100 years after the event, fails to mention our Felicitous Fowl in his detailed account has led some to conclude that the story is apocryphal. I would note, however, that Livy, too, apparently included the tale in his account. Book XIX (19) of Livy's History of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita Libri) has been lost, but a Fourth Century summary or epitome of the Book, known as the Periochae, includes a reference to the Sacred Squabs:
Consul Claudius Pulcher fought without success against the Carthaginian navy after evil omens (he had ordered the holy chickens to be drowned, which refused to eat). He was recalled by the Senate, ordered to appoint a dictator, and chose Claudius Glicia, a man of the lowest kind. Although he was forced to lay down his office, he afterwards attended the games in a purple-bordered toga.
Claudius Pulcher cos. contra auspicia profectus (iussit mergi pullos, qui cibari nolebant) infeliciter adversus Carthaginienses classe pugnavit, et revocatus a senatu iussusque dictatorem dicere Claudium Gliciam dixit, sortis ultimae hominem, qui coactus abdicare se magistratu postea ludos praetextatus spectavit.
The sources uniformly attest that the Holy Hens proved prescient. The Romans suffered a catastrophic defeat. Polybius records that in the ensuing Battle of Drepanum the Romans lost of 93 of 124 ships, with only about 31 escaping.
The defeat was also a disaster for Publius personally. Although his flag ship was one of the 31 that managed to slip away, Polybius records his subsequent public trial (perhaps for incompetence or impiety or both) and disgrace:
Publius . . . fell into ill repute among the Romans, and there was a great outcry against him for having acted rashly and inconsiderately and done all a single man could to bring a great disaster on Rome. He was accordingly brought to trial afterwards, condemned to a heavy fine, and narrowly escaped with his life.