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Attus Navius – How Losing A Pig Could Help A Birdwatching Career In Ancient Rome

Attus Navius – How Losing A Pig Could Help A Birdwatching Career In Ancient Rome
Authored By Viktor Susnyak

Attus Navius (a.k.a. Attius Nevius) was a legendary Roman augur – a priest who read the divine will from the flight of birds. He made a name for himself during the reign of a legendary Roman king Tarquinius Priscus. The king almost tricked him into admitting he lacked divine powers just to see Navius demonstrate them in a miracle.

The Lost Pig And The Found Skills

We know a nice story about the humble beginning of this superstar of augury.

He came from a poor family who nevertheless possessed a small farm. His father relied on young Navius and frequently asked him to help out. So it happened, that the boy did a job of a swineherd, taking the family pig for a nice feast of fresh grass. If you have ever done a task like this, you will know that when the pigs eat, overly active participation of the swineherd is not required. It is therefore not a surprise, that the boy Navius fell asleep.

As soon as he woke up, he realized something went wrong. The pig was missing. Afraid of the expected punishment waiting for him, he decided to find the missing animal. However, the area that needed to be searched was vast and he obviously needed help for such a task. There were no people to ask, so he asked the gods. He promised the largest cluster of grapes on the whole farm as a sacrifice if the divine power will help him find the missing pig. The promised clearly worked – he found the pig in a short while.

His trouble was not over though. He promised to sacrifice the largest cluster, but the vineyard was large. How could he determine which cluster was actually the largest? Here comes the augury!

He stood in the middle of the vineyard, divided it to 4 parts (in accordance with the cardinal directions) and waited for the birds to show up. The movement of the birds was different in the 3 parts than in the 4th, so he ruled out the three. The last one he again divided into 4 parts. By repeating this process and thanks to the cooperation of the birds he found the cluster of grapes of extraordinary enormous size and dedicated it to the gods as promised.

At this moment his father finally noticed something was happening. Amazed by the grapes, he asked his son what had happened. Young Navius duly told the whole story. The dad was amazed and recognized a huge potential in the newly found skills of his kid. He immediately took him to school to gain some education (one wonders if he had intended to leave his son uneducated before all this). Later he left the kid in the company of some famous Etruscan augurs, who had the reputation of being the best. Young Navius studied hard and the combination of talent and education made him an augury legend and a role model for all the miserable swineherds of the ancient world.

Tricking The Augur Or Tricking The King

Many years later Attus Navius enjoyed the peak of his career as an augur in Rome. He made a very nice living out of birdwatching/divination.

One day the king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, planned to do some changes in the Roman society that would require the approval of the gods (or at least the augur). In addition to the traditional three tribes of the Romans (defined by Romulus a hundred years before), he intended to add three more and name them after his friends. Of course, this would be a nice favour to his friends, but it would also mean promoting new men to the rank of knights and hence strengthening Roman cavalry. Navius, however, opposed such changes. He claimed the gods didn’t wish to change the traditional way.

Tarquinius was too ambitious and resourceful to give up. He knew there was a way to pass the new law, but he needed to destroy the augur’s credibility. He devised a plan.

The king publicly asked the augur whether a mysterious project he just had in mind was possible or not. Of course, this was a tricky question. Navius had no chance of reading the king’s mind and even if he did, the king could just change it based on the augur’s reply. Despite the tough circumstances, Navius didn’t show any hesitation. He observed the birds and confidently replied: “Yes, my king, what you have in mind is possible”.

This was the moment of the king’s triumph. He laughed and told the crowd what his project was – to cut a whetstone in half by a razor. I don’t need to tell you this is an impossible feat and razors don’t cut through stones.

But our augur was not afraid. He stood by his words and asked the king to try what he promised to try – take the razor and cut through the whetstone. To huge amazement of everyone involved (with the exception of Navius, who just had his in-your-face look) the razor miraculously cut through the stone. Tarquinius couldn’t believe it, but he really accomplished his silly project.

The king’s opinion about the augur’s powers changed. Not only he complied and didn’t create new tribes, but he also built a statue of Attus Navius on the Roman forum. What an honour for a lousy swine-herd!

Sources:

Dionysius of Halicarnassus - The Roman Antiquities

Cicero – On Divination


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