I’m listening to the Librivox version of “On Architecture” by Marcus Virtuvius Pollio. I’ll note anything interesting (beyond, by the way, a very detailed guide on how to design Roman and Greek rooms, which are fun for people who like high-detail sagas.)

I knew, and I presume we all knew, that Romans, before founding a town, killed cattle and had a quick look at their livers, to see what the omens were. What I did not know is that architects like Pollio used to insist on this, and it had nothing to do with gods.

The point was to look for irregularities in the liver because the cattle used were those which had lived in the area where the new city was to go. If the livers were black, or otherwise unhealthy, people waited a couple of years and tried again, and if the livers were always bad, they adjudged that there was something unhealthy in the physical environment of the area, and would not settle there. He gives a couple of excellent examples of this process in action, including one town where the cattle didn’t have spleens, which was traced back to a herb of medicial use for inflamation of the spleen.

Next time: a tree to resist Flambeau magi with.


3 replies on “Quick aside: Haruspexes

  1. Have you been watching the British TV show on Australian television at the moment which features 6 modern day builders given the task of constructing a Roman villa? The subject of cattle sacrifice came up and it turns out that cattle grazed on damp land are prone to liver fluke, and of course damp land is not suitable for building on. So there was method to the Roman madness. Here’s a link about liver fluke: http://www.thedairysite.com/articles/2257/liver-fluke-the-facts


  2. So this was a proto-science rather than an exercise in metaphysical navel-gazing. I seem to recall a similar bit of lore from South America.

    The locals made “offerings” of sugar to the jungle “intelligences.” The locals believed that these gifts prevented outbreaks of pestilence. The first anthropologists who encountered this thought that they were making symbolic gifts to spirits in the hope of avoiding unrelated pestilence.

    Later a better translator asked the locals about the details and found that the entire process was materialistic. The “pestilence” was an outbreak of ants. The locals found that if they put sugar OUTSIDE the houses, the ants would stay outside, but if they failed to distract the ants, the ants would come inside their houses and take the food uninvited.

    The later translator concluded that it was not a religious ritual, but rather an exercise in wildlife management.


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