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Oracles of Astrampsychus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman mosaic
Roman mosaic

It is a known fact that in the world of ancient Romans, the poorer bourgeoisie could not count on the rights that wealthy Romans had only from being born into an eminent family. Unfortunately, plebeians tried unsuccessfully to fight for their rights, but in general official legal institutions were not interested in the problems of ordinary people.

Occasionally, however, Roman jurists looked at matters of the lower classes of Rome. An example of this would be the Herculaneum case, which was documented on several clay tablets. The case concerned the problem of deciding whether a certain resident of the city was born as a slave or a free person. Except in a few cases, Roman law was beyond the reach of most of the empire’s inhabitants. To whom were ordinary people supposed to turn, if not to the courts? Very often, they were alternative support systems such as: gods, supernatural forces or fortune-tellers. One of these measures, and interestingly one of the strangest documents that have survived from classical antiquity, are the title “Oracles of Astrampsychus” (of course they have nothing to do with the famous Egyptian magician).

“Oracles of Astrampsychus” bring us closer to the problems faced by men and women of the Roman street on a daily basis. In the introduction to the document, you can find a note that the author of the work is Pythagoras and the content is related to the secret behind the successes of Alexander III the Great’s conquests. In fact, the work is a ready-made set of predictions dating back to the 2nd century. The whole consists of a numbered list of ninety-two questions that the client could have asked the fortune teller and over a thousand possible answers. The idea was that the questioner chose one of the questions that best reflected his problem, and after various types of intricate manipulations, selecting further numbers, he came to the only correct answer. These 92 questions covered most of the problems that plagued the Romans at that time. However, some of them only concerned exclusive clients, such as “Will I become a senator?”. Such questions did not plague many people from the lower classes. Often the questions were fantasies of some kind, similar to modern ones. However, most questions focus on more down-to-earth concerns, such as, “Will I survive the disease?”; “Am I going to be caught in adultery soon?” The “Oracles of Astrampsychus” system could provide a positive, negative or ambivalent answer to any of the 92 questions. The replies were often “You will not be caught in adultery,” which sounded much better than “You will be caught in adultery, but not in the near future.”

From today’s point of view, the answers to the 92 questions in “Oracles of Astrampsychus” could often sound ridiculous. However, it was one of the few support systems that the poorer inhabitants of the Roman Empire could afford. Since even the law bypassed the lower classes, it was necessary to use what was available.

Author: Michał Mozyrski (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016

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