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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.