Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Why did the chickens refuse to eat before the Roman defeat at Deprana (249 BC)?

Andrew N. Williams
Leicester, England

The Roman defeat by Carthage during the First Punic War at the naval battle of Deprana (or Drepanum, modern Trapani) is also remembered for its preceding event of the refusal of the sacred chickens onboard the Roman flagship to eat. Witnessing this unfavourable omen, the Roman commander and consul Publius Claudius Pulcher ordered the chickens to be thrown overboard. Curiously, this story is not recorded by the historian Polybius but three centuries later by Suetonius (Suet. Tib. 2.2.: “If they will not eat, let them drink.”)

The Roman and Carthaginian fleets, both of over one hundred warships, were equally matched. Although their warships carried masts and sails, the sailors’ role especially in terms of timely deployment and subsequent naval battle was of oarsmen. Pulcher’s plan was to trap and destroy the Carthaginian fleet in its harbor at Drepana. Ten thousand Roman sailors had just been brought over to Sicily, marched overland, and placed into Roman warships before setting off about midnight to be outside Drepana harbor the following dawn (Plyb. 1.49 3-7). So, why did this plan go so wrong?

Pulcher’s motive for his attack was that he stood a chance of inflicting a decisive defeat upon the Carthaginian fleet. A Carthaginian reinforcement of seventy warships was on its way, which would surely have been too big for his fleet to deal with. It is reasonable to assume that knowledge of this arriving reinforcement drove the entire Roman plan. Pulcher was to position his fleet so that the two Carthaginian fleets did not unite but were isolated and sequentially destroyed. Tarn (1907, 54-55) believes that Pulcher must have known of their arrival ahead of time. Moving ten thousand sailors is no small logistical challenge.

That the Roman fleet had a serious shortcoming in its training is demonstrated by it not keeping in close order during the night. This was not helped by Pulcher placing his flagship in the rear to encourage stragglers rather than at the front, where he could more efficiently view the evolving situation and give timely orders. The Roman fleet and Pulcher were out of position on arrival off Deprana. The Carthaginian fleet was able to exit the harbor, successfully deploy for battle, and win.

Roman losses were so heavy (twenty thousand captured, eight thousand killed, ninety-three ships sunk or captured) that they ceded control of the Mediterranean to Carthage. Pulcher returned to Rome in disgrace, was put on trial, and was fined heavily for sacrilege concerning the chickens. His sister Claudia later achieved notoriety for publicly making an arrogant statement when jostled by a crowd.

The question is why the Roman losses were so great. The sacred chickens not eating is a clue. Secretly, ten thousand Roman sailors had been landed in Sicily, then were led on a march to board the warships. Because time was so pressing, straight after the march and presumably a meal, the sailors were placed onto the warships, the chickens onto the flagship, and rowing they set off at midnight. As the chickens on the flagship were carefully tended to, we should not consider contaminated feed supply. The chickens should also have been familiar with being on a moving oared warship during the day.

Night maneuvers are a test for any navy. Ideally, to be conducted successfully, they need a rested crew deeply familiar with their warship’s handling, but neither was the case. There would have been a lot more noise and stress on board, especially if the flagship was maneuvering to chide stragglers. The Roman ships did not deploy as planned, and the chickens were exhausted, having had no sleep and a preceding stressful day. No wonder they did not eat. As the Carthaginian navy was exiting the harbor and deploying, a poorly positioned Pulcher found he could not turn back and had to engage.

As canaries in coal mines give an indication of a safe environment for miners, here the chickens could also have played such a role for the sailors, as an indicator of the sailors’ physiological limits. Third century BC Sailors, though undoubtedly physically tough human beings, were trained to row, not to march all day, then row all night, and then win a major naval battle. They fought hard but would not have had the level of fitness expected of Roman legionaries, and this surely contributed to their defeat. Thus, the failure of the chickens to eat was an indicative failure of Roman planning, seamanship, and deployment. The crews were insufficiently rested and inexperienced in nighttime sailing, leading a Roman fleet forced to fight on increasingly disadvantageous terms as the battle progressed. The chickens’ failure to eat was symptomatic of that state of affairs.

There were two additional sequelae. In 242 BC, Gaius Lucius successfully captured Drepana while the whole Carthaginian navy was in Africa. Polybius tells us that afterwards Lucius daily exercised his fleet “to the condition of trained athletes” in preparation for the inevitable Carthaginian reply (Plyb. 1. 59. 1-8). Later still, in 207 BC, during the second Punic War, Tiberius Nero of the same Claudian family as Pulcher successfully undertook a similar strategy, but this time on land. He rested his army after a long forced march before the battle of Metaurus against Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother. I would hazard that Tiberius Nero consulted the fully rested sacred chickens before engaging the enemy which led to the destruction of Hasdrubal’s army. The earlier severe tainting of the Claudian family name might therefore explain Tiberius Nero having Hasdrubal’s head severed after the battle and catapulted into Hannibal’s camp.


  • Plyb. 1.49. 3-7.
  • Plyb. 1. 59. 1-8.
  • Suet. Tib. 2.2.
  • Tarn, W.W. 1907. The Fleets of the First Punic War. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 27: 48-60.

ANDREW N. WILLIAMS, MA candidate—Classical Mediterranean. University of Leicester.

Spring 2024



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