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The Imprisonment of Beatrice Cenci by Achille Leonardi ( b: 1800 d. 1870) (Public Domain)

The Ghosts and Superstitions of Ancient Rome

The history of the military conquests of the ancient Romans has often neglected to highlight some characteristics, which are still typical of the citizens of the Urbs Aeterna (Eternal City). The Romans have always shared an undisputed love for a salacious joke and for witty phrases. The Horatian expression Italum acetum expresses the witty and biting spirit that characterized, and still characterizes, the citizens of Rome, who dared to taunt even heroes, popes and emperors. Any defect could be subjected to irony, such as a hump, a hunched back, or a characteristic such as avarice. Even during the triumph of Gaius Julius Caesar the soldiers at a certain point exalted his physical and moral defects, calling him adulterous and bald.

The Triumph of Caesar by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio. (c. 1510) Lowe Art Museum. (Public Domain)

The Triumph of Caesar by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio. (c. 1510) Lowe Art Museum. (Public Domain)

The irrational, superstitious fear of any events considered supernatural may have characterized even the leaders who made Rome great and counterbalanced the Romans’ passion for derision. Everyone, some more and others to a lesser extent, feared to encounter the shadows of the dead; the ghosts who dwelled in some cursed houses. It was believed that if a wolf first looked at a man, he would become mute. Sailors, during their sea voyages, were careful not to cut their nails or hair, unless the wind raged. To hear the cry of the parra (bird of ill omen) was an omen of misfortune, as well as when a divine statue was sweating blood. Deep terror shook those who heard the screams of the witches who performed their mischief at night. However, even witches could be mocked.


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