Latin Contemplation in Flight

On Murmurations of Starlings and Other Auguries Ancient and Modern

Rider with Birds and Nike, 6th cent. B.C. Laconian kylix, from the British Museum. (source)

Looks like it’s starting to rain, I thought as I felt drops land on my shoulders and backpack while waiting for the 8 tram on a stop by the Tiber. I was not paying close attention. My brain was throbbing after two and half hours of Italian class, and I was indulging my ears with a podcast in English, a guilty oasis from the still unfamiliar language around me. My forecast was confirmed by a woman next to me opening a yellow umbrella, but the disgust on her face caught my eye. Curious, I took the headphones out of my ears. A thick drone topped with shrill creaking enveloped me. I looked up in horror to see that the trees above were choking under a shadowy sea of… birds. The so-called raindrop on my shoulder glowed dark green in the purple dusk as another plopped behind me. With a racing heart, I walked to the next stop.

The following evening, over Trajan’s column and above the Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, the same ominous murmur swished through the sky in a murmuration, or flock, of these fascinating creatures, the starlings. Their presence in Rome stems from at least the 1st century CE, but in the mid 1920s they started to arrive in the huge, increasing numbers we see today. Over four, one estimate even says ten, million sturni vulgares conglomerate every year for a Roman holiday late in the fall before continuing their migration to north Africa. Since the city is significantly warmer than its surroundings, many of these stormi di storni, the fun Italian phrase for flocks of starlings, stay for the winter months as well.

Modern Romans consider these birds to be major pests of the city due to the considerable amount of their excrement, the acidity of which erodes enveloped cars and the slippery nature does not fare well for skidding tires and consequent traffic incidents. The sheer quantity of these feathered beings increases the chances of seeing a dead one on the street, just as I have on multiple occasions on Piazza Venezia. Such sightings have revealed a bird about half a foot long, with glossy metallic plumage speckled with white, a long yellow beak, and pink, agile legs. Seeing this vibrant bird in static death is somehow less haunting than looking up to discover a shadowy mass of the loquacious birds in lively flight.

Sturnus vulgaris, the European starling. (source)

I have trouble describing the movement of a murmuration. It is animated gloom in darkening dusk, constantly changing in its shape, density, and direction; a throng of chaos and grace, beauty and terror. Pliny the Elder, in the Naturalis Historia, was also perplexed, saying,

sturnorum generi proprium catervatim volare et quodam pilae orbe circumagi, omnibus in medium agmen tendentibus,
it is a thing unique to starlings to fly in troops and to be turned round in a circle just like a ball, with each bird striving towards the middle multitude (X, 35; translation mine).

To call starlings troops is to capture the impressive number of individuals acting as one with militaristic discipline. The Latin illustrates the slippery movement — did you notice the omnibus tendentibus surrounding the in medium agmen? Pliny’s use of the passive infinitive circumagi raises the question of agency: how does a seemingly unified, huge, intelligent structure actually communicate? The ability of thousands to move in the same direction or change directions quickly, in proximity, and with no collisions (usually) is based on local interactions rather than centralized decision-making. Recent research shows that spontaneous order stems from each starling tracking and reacting to the movements of the six other birds around them in a topological range, meaning it need not matter how close or how far away those other six are. Impressive, though less impressive than ornithologist Edmund Selous’ 1931 telepathy hypothesis.

A murmuration of starlings. Such flocks are commonly seen today in Rome. (source)

While we know how these movements occur, we are still merely guessing at why. Perhaps there is safety in numbers, to help battle against their natural predators, gulls and peregrine falcons, as well as the new American falcons released by the government this year. Perhaps they are better able to capture insects as a group, or stay warm, or communicate with other smaller groups from a distance. Or perhaps, they are a sign from the gods.

It has been a month since my first encounter with starlings, yet each day, I see more clearly why augury and divination were such a huge part of ancient Roman life. When the sun sets and I walk by Trajan’s forum on my way home from Italian class, the outline of the stone pine trees are entirely covered by silhouettes of pointed beaks and slick, jabbering heads. Other flocks still slither in the sky before their descent into these roosts. This is precisely the time when augurs made their auguries for the next day, before the important decision of any political campaign. It would be appropriate in these moments for me to feel like an auspex or augur — a venerated bird watcher, someone who interprets whether a proposed action in politics or private life is approved by the will of the gods as interpreted from augurium or aspicium of the movement, singing, or feeding patterns of birds.

But I don’t. The starlings were not one of the birds of interest for ancient augurs. For me, they were only a catalyst, a point of inspiration for my own moment of augury. Just as one starling looks out to six others in a murmuration, I was standing on the Aventine looking out at the other six hills when I saw it, an usual flight pattern of birds. The movement was not in the clear, blue sky, however: it was in the Latin text in my hands.

More on that later. First, a bit on augury in ancient Rome.

According to Cicero, divination is central to Stoic philosophy: if there are gods, they care for humans; if they care for humans, they must present signs of their will (De Legibus, II.13). Following this logic, communication from the gods has a long tradition of manifesting through unusual appearances in nature. Some of this tradition is older than the Romans; Etruscan religion used haruspicy, the examination of the entrails of sacrificed animals, to see the future and, according to Plato’s Phaedrus (244C), this future-telling was more prestigious than augury with birds. Roman augury, or the taking of auspices, may or may not be derived from Etruscan tradition, and it differs from haruspicy because it does not show the future, but simply states whether the gods approve or disapprove of a certain action. The process was similar to a consultation of a Magic 8-Ball — only yes or no questions could be answered.

The strange occurrences which augurs observed did not just come ex avibus, from birds, but also fell into four other categories. Ex caelo stems from the Etruscans and had to do with unusual signs in the sky, such as lightning; ex tripudiis was the observation of chickens feeding, the more gluttonous the chicken, the more auspicious the sign; ex quadrupedibus had to do with the movement of quadrupeds such as horses or dogs; and ex signis were miscellaneous moments such as sneezing and tripping. The branch having to do with birds was divided into two further categories: Oscines were birds whose singing was observed, such as owls, ravens, crows, and chickens; Alites were birds whose flight was of import. The latter is a Roman tradition entirely distinct from the Etruscans. It mainly involved vultures and eagles, which is appropriate, since Jupiter is frequently depicted as an eagle, and was considered mainly responsible for these signs.

The Arkesilas Cup, from the Bibliotheque Nationale in France. (source)

Unfortunately, the sturnus vulgaris, our starling, was not among the alites we have listed in our sources. Yet, I can imagine that ancient Romans would give more respect to these birds than the current Italian government. It is not unusual to see troops of workers in white hazmat suits carrying speakers which blast the alarm cry of these birds to scare them from their roosts, as if a peregrine falcon was on the scene. More questionable courses of action include the actual increase of their predators with this year’s introduction of the American falcon. Such manipulation would be unheard of in antiquity because, after all, the movement of birds are a sign of the will of the gods. Every important event in Rome, public and private, was preceded by taking the auspices. No public act, no election, no new law, no declaration of war, not even a marriage, could occur without a prior consultation.

And while Rome is currently trying to decrease the number of starlings, a higher count of birds was key to the successful foundation of the city, so the story goes. Ovid writes that when brothers Romulus and Remus were scouting a location for their new city,

Contrahere agrestes et moenia ponere utrique
Convenit: ambigitur moenia ponat uter.
‘Nil opus est’ dixit ‘certamine’ Romulus ‘ullo;
Magna fides avium est: experiamur aves.’
Res placet: alter init nemorosi saxa Palati;
Alter Aventinum mane cacumen init.
Sex Remus, hic volucres bis sex videt ordine; pacto
Statur, et arbitrium Romulus urbis habet.
It is agreed for each of the two to assemble the rustics and put up walls; it’s doubtful which one may put up the walls. “There’s no need for any combat,” said Romulus. “Great confidence comes from birds: let’s test out the birds!” It is agreed. One enters the rocks of the grovey Palatine; the other comes upon the Aventine peak in the morning. Remus sees six birds, but this one sees two times that in a row. It’s fixed by the pact, and Romulus has power over the city. (Fasti 4.811–8)

Thus, through augury, Rome was founded on the Palatine by Romulus rather than a Reme on the Aventine by Remus because the augurium of the higher rank wins out, and if the signs are of equal rank, than the sign with the greater number dominates. Seems a bit fishy, but Romulus not only founded the city with an auspice, as Cicero writes, it is said that he was the best augur: principio huius urbis parens Romulus non solum auspicato urbem condidisse, sed ipse etiam optumus augur fuisse traditur (De Divimatione I.2).

Both brothers chose hills to “test out the birds” because those lofty locations are ideal for setting up temples. It should be noted that while aedes means a religious building, a dwelling of a god or gods, a templum, before being transferred to mean a sacred place, meant a space marked out, specifically, a space for observation marked out by an augur with his staff.

The Capitoline had a permanent temple called the Auguraculum, now below the Ara Caelis. These temples were built facing south, with the other three sides closed off. The enclosure, along with the droning of flute-players, helped the augur focus on the sky, where he established a rectangle in which to spot a proposed sign. From a temple (i.e. an observation point) on the ground, a temple in the air was inspected, and it is from this process that the etymology of “contemplation” is derived. One such contemplative man was Cicero; he too was an augur, and much of what we know about augury comes from his De Divinatione. He saw auspices as the best restraint of democracy. However, the science of augury had declined around his time, and he also speaks of its neglect.

Perhaps another form of augury was taking form among his contemporaries. A consultation with the gods that did not provide proper conclusions, but rather rich ambiguities. The point of observation not a rectangle in the sky, but the constraints of a wax tablet. What if, as modern augurs, we too could observe this ancient murmuration not of starlings, but of Latin letters?

Fair warning, this is about to get trippy.

It would appropriate to connect the garrulous starlings with languages of antiquity, considering how, according to Pliny, Britannicus and Nero, Claudius’ son and step-son, were teaching a starling to speak Greek and Latin (Naturalis Historia X, 59). Perhaps the optumus authority of this form of augury was Marcus Terentius Varro, an important figure for Cicero and Pliny, as well as Ovid, Virgil, and Quintilian, to name a few. Augustine quotes Cicero in his now lost Academica in declaring Varro as the sharpest and most learned of all men (De Civitate Dei, 6.2). Most works of this prolific writer are not extant, but we know that he dedicated books 5–25 of his De Lingua Latina to Cicero, of which we have 5–10.

My moment of augury occurred on the Aventine hill on a crisp morning, and I believe it was more auspicious than Remus’. My temple was the boundaries of a piece of paper which held an excerpt of Book 5 of Varro’s De Lingua Latina. As we, the Paideia fellows, read his etymology of the name of the hill on which we were standing, I saw the starlings flutter on the page. Varro writes,

AVENtinum aliquot de causis dicunt. NAEVius ab AVibus, quod eo se ab Tiberi ferrent AVEs, alii ab rege AVENtino Albano, quod ibi sit sepultus, alii AdVENtinum ab AdVENtu hominum, quod commune Latinorum ibi Dianae templum sit constitutum. Ego maxime puto, quod ab AdVEctu: nam olim paludibus mons erat ab reliquis disclusus. Itaque eo ex urbe AdVEhebantur ratibus, cuius VEstigiA, quod ea qua tum AdVEctum dicitur VElAbrum, et unde escendebant ad infimam Novam Viam locus sacellum VElAbrum
They call it Aventine for a number of reasons. Naevius says it’s from birds, because the Aves carry themselves there from the Tiber, and while some say it’s from the Alban king Aventinus, because he was buried there, others still say it’s actually Adventine, from the Advent of people, because there, they set up a temple of Diana, common to the Latin people. I really think it comes from Advect, since, a long time ago, it was a mountain, isolated by the remaining swamps. Thus, there from the city, they Vested their passage on ships, of which there are Vestiges, because that path in which the Advectum occurred is now called Velabrum, and from the place where they used to ascend, at the bottom of New Road, there is a place of little sanctuaries, also called Velabrum. (5.7)

Oh boy. The Loeb comments that etymologies of place names in Varro are “particularly treacherous.” That is true. If we judge this etymology through our modern linguistic standards of correctness, this gives no real explanation of why the hill is called Aventine. But what if the ancients liked to play with their words more than we do? In his Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets (1985), Frederick Ahl argues that the basic unit of sense for wordplay is the syllable, not the word. He shows that with this tool, Varro expands etymological possibilities rather than contracts them (Metaformations, 65). Indeed, this passage is a great example of such playful potential, since Varro is directly etymologizing the word Aventine, and he manipulates the syllables from this word within the straightforward definitions to illustrate more indirect ideas.

Varro warms us up to his favorite etymology by sharing three that sound more and more unfamiliar. Had he started with Aventine stemming from Advectum, he would have lost his audience; but the progression from Aves, to Aventinus, to Adventinum, to Advectum keeps his readers’ attention. This development tells a story of isolation and movement. The Aventine hill was not within the city proper until king Ancus Marcius’ reign, so the initial seclusion and gradual increase of communication represented by flying birds and sailing ships makes sense.

We can see these themes in the word order. The two phrases commune Latinorum ibi Dianae templum and paludibus mons erat ab reliquis show words referring to the Aventine in the middle of words referring to the things that are part of the surroundings, the temple of Diana and the swamps, a lovely illustration of the hill’s isolation through word order. The phrase aliquot de causis shows de moving into the center of the phrase (in English word order, it would be de aliquot causis).

I have capitalized certain letters to show how the same two ideas of movement and isolation are reflected on a syllabic level. The first etymology from birds gives us the syllables A and VE with which to play (I couldn’t resist showing the rearrangement of the first four letters of Aventine in Naevius’ name, which is cool, but unrelated to my focus); the second etymology has even more of the same letters from Aventine joining A and VE but mentions the burial of a king. The next etymology displays this image by “burying” a letter in between A and VE in AdVENtu. Once Varro brings in his favorite etymology from AdVEctum, the syllable VE stands tall in isolation, encased by the swampy letters d and c, as he directly describes the geography of the hill in that sentence. With the introduction of a passageway from Rome to the Aventine, the syllables are abruptly flipped from A VE in AdVEhebantur to VE A in VEstigiA. It seems that as soon as we look back on this trail from Rome to the Aventine, a motion of return is established. Indeed, the VElAbrum was later filled with lots of back and forth motion of trade as buyers and sellers of oil and cheese carried out business. Here, the VElabrum conjures up the sails, vela, as the wings of ships, and a veil of sorts (a velabrum was a giant sail stretched over theatres to keep spectators in the shade). It thinly conceals Varro’s continual play with the syllables of the Aventine.

Does this phenomenon add to the etymology of the Aventine? It certainly complicates the meanings with its dynamic, far from straightforward imagery. If the paragraph was a swarm of starlings, the A VE syllables would be individual birds in perpetual awareness of their relationship to the syllables around them, changing their position and relationships, context and nuances. There is constant shifting, yet the overall structure remains uniform. As in the starling murmuration, there is “spontaneous” order in local variations of syllables, and the densities and direction of motion changes through the multi-layered, non-linear, non-singular meanings which require an interactive participation from the reader.

Many might dislike this phenomenon because it might spatter on their fixed ideas of what Latin literature is (call in the hazmat crew!). Without the comfort of fixed meanings and straightforward etymologies, it is easy to complain that such wordplay is offspring of chance rather than the intentional craft of the author. In terms of augury, dissenters would categorize this is auguria oblativa, auguries occurring by chance, rather than the sought after, meaningful auguria inpetrativa (Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergelii carmina comentarii, 6.190). Yet the choice to actively seek out a specific augurium is what gave augury its power; I believe more people should give seeking out wordplay a try. It will not give a straightforward, yes-or-no answer, but instead the power to observe the artistic will of authors like Varro, a god of Latin.

Having auspices was for a long time an exclusively patrician right in both public and private affairs until the Ognulian law in 300 BCE. The augury of wordplay, on the other hand, is accessible to all with an open mind and the intention of allowing themselves to find it. I challenge myself and other lovers of Latin to consider such beautiful ambiguities not only in Varro, but also in Cicero, Pliny, Virgil, Ovid, and Lucretius. This form of augury adds bounty to Latin literature when we know what to look for and actively choose to add this level of reading to our repertoire.

When we take the headphones whispering modern expectations out of our ears, we can hear the thunderous chirping of Latin syllables. Latin is not a dead, colorful though decaying starling on a Roman sidewalk. It is a powerful, unruly yet orderly mass of spontaneously unified, chattering syllables of a roaring language begging for our contemplation.

It has been several months now since my first starling encounter and my first augury. I thought the starlings had all left Rome, but I found one perched on the fence of a dog park by Quattro Venti, gurgling sweet sounds in its throat. I was reading C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image on a shady bench when I came across a paragraph that felt eerily familiar:

Nothing will seem stranger to a modern than the series of chapters which Chalcidius entitles ‘On the utility of Sight and Hearing’. The primary value of sight is not, for him, its ‘survival-value’. The important thing is that sight begets philosophy. For ‘no man would seek God nor aspire to piety unless he had first seen the sky and the stars’. God gave men eyes in order that they might observe ‘the wheeling movements of mind and providence in the sky’ and then, in the movements of their own souls, try to imitate as nearly as they can that wisdom, serenity, and peace. This is all genuine Plato (from Timaeus 47b), though hardly the Plato we learn most of at a modern university.

Oddly enough, this excerpt from an introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature perfectly describes my experience with spectacles both ancient and modern. I saw the natural phenomenon of the starlings in flight in parallel to the natural assonance of Varro’s fluttering syllables. Whether this wheeling movement was the movement of Varro’s soul, or simply my own, it is important to keep treating these Latin pages as temples, that is, to keep observing.

Luby Kiriakidi is a 2018–19 Paideia Rome Fellow.