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Helene A. Guerber

The Strange Signs of the Romans

A LTHOUGH the senator had told the Romans that Romulus had gone, never to return, they did not at once elect another king. They were afraid that their first ruler might yet come back, and so they let the senate govern the city for a while alone.

As time passed on without bringing any news of the missing king, they little by little grew sure that he would never return, and finally they elected a new ruler. This was Numa Pompilius, a Sabine, who was wise, just, gentle, and very good.

The new king of Rome was a pious man, and he built many temples for the worship of the gods. One of these was round, and was set aside for the service of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, whose fire was guarded night and day by the Vestal Virgins.

Numa also built a square temple, in honor of the double-faced god Janus. This god was supposed to be the patron of all beginnings, and it is for this reason that the first month of the year was called January, or the month of Janus.

The Temple of Janus was built in the form of a gateway; and the king ordered that its doors should be open in time of war, so that the people could go in freely to pray, and closed only in time of peace, when they felt no need of the god's help.

The second king of Rome was so wise that many people fancied that he was advised by a nymph, or water fairy, called Egeria. They said that this nymph lived in a fountain near Rome, in a beautiful spot which the king liked to visit; and whenever he went there to be quiet and think, they declared that it was to consult Egeria.

Numa Pompilius was not at all ambitious, and he had no wish to be king. He had accepted the office, therefore, only on condition that the people would obey him, and would try to be good.

Now, as you know, the Romans were a fighting people, and until then they had always been at war with some of their neighbors. But the new king made them keep the peace, and closed the gates of the Temple of Janus. Then he taught the Romans how to plow their fields, bade them sow and harvest grain, and showed them that farming was a far better and wise occupation than war.

The people were very superstitious, and thought that the stars, the weather, the flight of birds, and the actions of certain animals were signs of what would happen, if you could only understand them aright. Numa, therefore, said that there should be two companies of priests, whose duty it should be to tell what the gods wished, in a way that the people could understand.

In the first place, there were the Pontiffs,—priests who had general charge of all public worship, and who told the people which days would be lucky and which ones unlucky.

The other company of priests were called Augurs. They watched the changes in the weather, the flight of the birds, and the behavior of the geese which they kept in the temple. By observing these things carefully, they thought they could tell the future; and the people often asked them the meaning of certain signs, such as the sudden appearance of some bird or animal on their right or left side when they were starting out on a journey.

Of course all this was mere nonsense; yet some people still believe in these foolish things. You have all heard the saying, "See a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck," and "If your left ear burns, some one is talking ill of you." It was such signs as these that the Romans believed in; and the augurs were supposed to know all about them, and to explain them to the people.

Besides the pontiffs and augurs, there was a lower class of priests, called Haruspices, who told the future by means of sacrifices. In those days the Romans used to offer up bulls, goats, sheep, and other animals, on the altars of their gods. It was the duty of these priests to kill the animals, open them, burn certain parts, and carefully examine the insides of the victims.

The haruspices thought that they could see signs in the bodies of the animals they had sacrificed, and that these signs gave them very important knowledge. Of course this was all humbug, but the early Romans believed that the priests could thus learn much about the future.

As these Romans lived a long time ago, and had few chances to learn, their mistakes were very excusable; for you know it is no shame to be ignorant when one has no chance to learn. But it is a very great shame to be ignorant in such a country as this, where you can all attend good schools, and have teachers to explain anything you do not understand. Nowadays, when people believe in such silly things as signs, they are said to be superstitious. But as soon as they learn more, they see how foolish they have been.