Watch out for the ‘chicken watchers’


The saying goes that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past tend to repeat them. In his record of Roman history, Titus Livius tells a story from which we can easily learn a lesson or two. I am referring to the Roman “chicken watchers” who were sent to the front line when their deceitfulness was exposed.

The ancient Romans often consulted soothsayers to assist them in strategic moments, especially when preparing for major battles. A prominent group of these diviners are the pullarii called (derived from the Latin word pulluswhich means “chicken”) because they argued that the future – and especially the outcome of a battle – could be predicted by the behavior of “sacred” chickens.

If the chickens pecked, it was considered a sign that the Romans would win; and if they did not peck, the Romans were advised not to go and fight.

On one particular occasion during the second Samnite War (326 – 304 BC), the Romans had the upper hand over the Samnites. The Roman consul, Papirius (ca. 365 – 310 BC), prepared the army to launch one last attack to finally defeat the Samnites. Victory was within their reach and there was not a single man in the Roman camp who did not smell victory, and great anticipation reigned over the great victory that lay ahead.

As usual, the pullarii consulted. The pullarii – evidently equally excited about the battle ahead – they turned to the chickens and were disappointed to find that the chickens did not peck. Rather than disappoint the army and the consul, the leader of the pullarii then reported that the chickens were indeed pecking and that they could go on the attack.

As Papirius was setting up his men, he was informed that the chickens had indeed not pecked and that the soothsayers had lied. Upon receiving this news, Papirius replied that he was in any case convinced that they would win the battle, and that if this incident proved one thing, it was that the soothsayers were a pack of deceivers. Accordingly, he instructed that the soothsayers should take their places in the front line for the battle.

As the Romans marched down on the enemy, one of the Roman archers in the rear sent an arrow and the pullarii-leader accidentally hit in the back of the head. He just dropped there, dead. On receiving this news, the consul declared that everything was going according to plan anyway and that he was relieved that his army had been delivered from this liar. The Romans then indeed won the battle.

Just like the Romans in this story, we are also involved in a struggle today. However, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and this often finds expression in propaganda, legislation and political policy. Just like the Romans, we also have “soothsayers” in the form of political commentators. Not just anyone can qualify to be a reputable political commentator; at least not in the mainstream, because one has to apply the right methods to deliver political commentary.

Where the soothsayers of old turned to the chickens, the soothsayers of today turn to the dictates of political ideologies. These are now ideologies that prescribe that society should be organized on the basis of abstract ideas. Just think of Thomas Hobbes’s theory that the nation will find peace and harmony if the power of the state is absolute, or Karl Marx’s theory that society will flourish if everyone works according to their ability and receives according to their need, or Karl Popper’s theory that an “open society” that is critical of culture and tradition will “progress” faster.

Just like the chickens in Roman times, these ideologies tend to help us from the bank into the ditch, and just like the chicken watchers of old, our political commentators are not always so eager to admit that reality is their “chickens”. not proven wrong.

Just think of all the commentators who have argued over the past three decades that South Africa is in its “democratic starting blocks” and that we just need to give the ANC time to prove that they can govern responsibly, or think of the string of commentators who have said has that President Cyril Ramaphosa is just waiting for his chance before he goes to get the state-makers to task. It also reminds me of the commentator who tries to discredit AfriForum’s campaign against farm murders with power and opinion by making all sorts of sums to prove that farm murders are not that bad, only to admit in a private conversation that she herself is not on a farm will not remain because it is hopelessly too unsafe. The reader will be able to add many examples to the list.

Unlike back then, it is not so easy to make today’s soothsayers live with the consequences of their deception. We cannot, like Papirius, place the commentators in some line where their lives depend on their predictions. Yet the forecasters keep on forecasting. And the more the predictions are proven wrong, the more the forecasters predict, because instead of admitting that one is wrong and that you will have to consult other sources to make predictions, the forecasters of our time tend to admit their wrongness. simply replacing predictions with new predictions. And that’s the point – the predictions are wrong because the sources are wrong.

What we learn from this is that we should not attach too much value to the predictions and analyzes of the chicken watchers of our time. Sometimes they are right, but they are wrong more often than they care to admit. And when they realize that they are wrong, they will not simply admit it, because by admitting it, they discredit the ideologies from which their prescriptions derive.

We don’t need to consult chickens or abstract political ideologies when preparing for the future. We can simply turn, like Papirius of old, to reality and our own experience in reality.