“Greek, Hittite, Mongol, Norman and even Anglo Saxon military leaders pondered all manner of omens, signs or portents when deciding how and when to make war. Here are some examples.”
IT WAS A BRAVE ROMAN who insulted the gods, especially before a battle.
But that’s just what one commander named Publius Claudius Pulcher did before sailing into action against a superior Carthaginian fleet in 249 BCE.
Facing an equal number of more seaworthy enemy ships off the west coast of Sicily, Pulcher did what any Roman commander would before an engagement – he asked his holy men which navy the gods favoured in the coming fight.
To test the mood of Jupiter, Neptune, Mars and the other deities, the soothsayers aboard Pulcher’s flagship made an offering of grain to a flock of chickens kept in the vessel’s hold for just such an occasion. If the birds devoured the food, it would be seen as proof that the gods backed Rome in the coming contest. If the animals refused to eat, it portended defeat for the republic.
As it became clear that the birds weren’t interested in the offering that day, Pulcher flew into a rage and tossed the chickens into the sea.
“Let them drink if they don’t want to eat,” he supposedly shouted at his horrified priests. 
By the end of the battle, Carthage had sunk or captured 93 of 120 Roman ships. While the republic’s defeat had more to do with the superior maneuverability of the enemy warships and the professionalism of the other side’s sailors, to the average Roman, the loss could just as easily be attributed to the will of the gods.
The people of Rome weren’t the only ones in the ancient world who saw innocuous natural events or phenomenon as messages from the heavens – Greek, Hittite, Mongol, Norman and even Anglo Saxon military leaders pondered all manner of omens, signs or portents when deciding how and when to make war. Here are some examples:
While ancient Greeks understood a great deal about astronomy, a run of the mill solar eclipse in 585 BCE frightened two warring Hellenic leaders all the way to the peace table. According to the early historian Herodotus, the Medes and the Lydians, who had been locked in conflict for five years already, were in the midst of battle on the banks of the River Halys when the sun unexpectedly went dark. The two horrified rulers, Alyattes II of Lydia and Cyaxares of Medes, immediately called a truce and decided that the sudden twilight was a sign that the gods were angry about the war. Both agreed to suspend hostilities at once and declared the river they were fighting near would become the new border. To cement the pact, the Lydian king offered his daughter’s hand to the son of the Medean ruler. Using astronomical data about the movement of the sun and moon, historians can be sure that the Battle of Halys took place on May 28, 585 BCE. This makes it the earliest historical event that can be so precisely determined. 
When a Hittite ruler in the 14th Century BCE saw a solar eclipse, he assumed that the event was a warning from the gods to cancel a planned invasion of a neighbouring empire. King Mursili II was organizing an army to strike at the Kaskas people in present day Turkey when what was described as an “omen of the sun” forced the monarch to reconsider. Historians are still uncertain whether the eclipse, which reportedly took place in the tenth year of Mursili II’s rule, actually happened in 1312 BCE or 1308 BCE. Astronomers are certain that eclipses occurred in the near east on these two dates – they just don’t know which one the ancient Hittites were referring to.
Not all celestial events end wars and save lives – at least one actually led to the deaths of thousands of Greek soldiers and sailors during the Peloponnesian War. After observing a lunar eclipse on Aug. 27, 413 BCE, the Athenian general Nicias postponed his plan to retreat from Syracuse and sail for home. Holy men close to the Athenian leader warned that the blood red moon was a message from the gods not to depart. While the Greeks dithered, the Spartan and Syracusan fleets surrounded the Athenian-held harbour. The delay proved disastrous – the Athenians were crushed in what became known as the Second Battle of Syracuse. Ten thousand hoplites and sailors were killed or sold into slavery. Most of those captured died in captivity. Nicias was executed by the enemy.
Like solar and lunar eclipses, ancient military leaders also pondered the meaning of comets when they appeared in the heavens. That was certainly the case for Harold II, ruler of England on the eve of the Norman invasion of 1066. When Halley’s comet arrived in our solar system, as it does every 76 years, the Anglo Saxon leader and his retinue saw it as a sign of doom. Harold had assumed the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, much to the outrage of William the Duke of Normandy, who had also claimed the title. The comet’s appearance, which was reportedly nearly as bright as the moon, left Harold with the sinking feeling that the inevitable showdown would end in defeat for his army. On the other side of the channel, William saw the same comet. Instead, he inferred that it was a message from God to press his attack. After the Battle of Hastings, William would control England and Harold would lie dead. Halley’s Comet actually appears on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, the 230-foot-long embroidery that chronicles the famous battle.
Another ruler who was inspired by Halley’s comet was Genghis Khan. According to legend, the notorious Mongol conqueror witnessed the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon in the year 1222. After bending China and most of Asia to his will, Khan looked on the comet as a personal invitation from the cosmos to next ride his hoards westward into the heart of Europe. His three-year campaign would see more than 7 million die in Russia alone.
Perhaps the last occasion in which Halley’s comet would be viewed by an army in battle as an omen (as opposed to a naturally occurring phenomenon) was in 1456 during the Ottoman siege of Belgrade. During the standoff, which saw a force of 4000 European men at arms in the city surrounded by up to 100,000 Turks, a “hairy and fiery star” appeared in the night skies. Pope Calixtus III declared the comet as a warning that God would smite the Muslim invaders. As the siege approached its third week, the Belgrade garrison was suddenly joined by tens of thousands of peasants, possibly inspired by the comet (or the pope’s interpretation of it). The reinforcements swarmed the invaders forcing them to break off the siege and flee.
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