Susan Satterfield, “Prodigies, the Pax Deum and the Ira Deum

tl;dr version: we shouldn’t think of prodigies as signaling a rupture in the pax deum (good relations between gods and Romans), but rather as signaling future danger that requires the pax to avert it.

undergrads could certainly understand this, but the point is pretty subtle

stakes: a (slightly?) different way of thinking about some concepts central to Roman religion

This is a fairly subtle revision of the traditional way of thinking about prodigies and Roman religion. Prodigies are weird and interesting. If you’ve ever taken a look at Livy or Tacitus, say, you’ll remember the recurring lists of unnatural events (“a talking chicken, a hermaphrodite birth, a plague, etc.” 432).

On the traditional view, such bizarre occurrences signaled a rupture in the pax deum. The pax was the state of favorable relations between gods and mortals, and a prodigy indicated that some human action had angered the gods, so that the pax had now been replaced by the ira deum. Reaction to prodigies thus involved finding the source of the anger and performing expiation of some kind, so as to restore the pax.

Satterfield, relying on a recent analysis by Federico Santangelo, argues instead that the pax is not something stable and lasting that could possibly be “ruptured.” Instead prodigies are the signal that the pax is needed to protect against some (imminent) future danger. Prodigies, therefore, can sometimes be a symptom of the gods’ care for humans (how nice of them to send us a talking chicken as a warning of coming danger!) rather than of their anger.

At the very end of the piece Satterfield suggests that these two ways of thinking about prodigies (as signals of divine anger caused by human fault v. as helpful warnings of future dangers destined to occur at some point) might indicate different approaches of different religious bodies: the haruspices and the decemviri sacris faciundis. This is pretty interesting, although there wasn’t really enough evidence presented to give a sense of how plausible it is.

One side note: the language used around the pax deum (which was the basis of the Santangelo argument Satterfield is developing) reminded me of kids’ books I read long ago in which “pax!” is a “truce term” — a common way of responding to bickering — in early 20th century English public schools. It makes sense, I guess, to yell “peace!” the way kids now might yell “time out!” — but Satterfield’s account of Romans “seeking” or “asking for” or “praying for” the pax sounded as if the school kid use of the term might actually be based on the Roman notion of the pax deum rather than simply the word “peace.” Wonder how you’d find out something like that?