My friend Joseph Howley, who teaches classics at Columbia University, leans over to me at a bar and asks, “Have you ever heard of Julius Obsequens?” At some point I became known among some friends and acquaintances as someone who collects strange and interesting information, which means I’m now passed all manner of strange tidbit and interesting factoid: over the Internet, at bars, over coffee. This is how Julius Obsequens came into my life—a writer whose story is also about the strange way knowledge is transmitted.
How does knowledge move through the world, how does it slip from person to person, get recorded, passed on? How does it get forgotten, mislaid, suppressed, overwritten? With the rise of the Information Age and the world of data analytics, there are billions of dollars being spent employing thousands of researchers to answer such questions. What makes content go viral, how does a lie spread via social media, how do you stamp out an inconvenient fact? Lately, though, I’ve been far more interested in how these mechanisms worked hundreds or even thousands of years ago, when much of it fell to error, happenstance, and the whim of individuals.
Julius Obsequens is known for a strange book of unknown provenance that he put together, called Liber Prodigiorum, or “The Book of Prodigies.” Very little is known about Obsequens himself, except that his book emerged sometime in the Fourth Century CE. He was possibly a Christian, though this has been disputed; he may have instead been part of the last gasp of the pagan Roman intelligentsia—either he was at the end of one era or the beginning of another. His book is nothing but a collection of signs, portents, and wonders: each year is identified by whoever was in power that year, followed by a catalog of all the “prodigies” of that year, and a sentence or two devoted to war, politics or palace intrigue. Nothing else.
Consulship of Marcus Claudius and Quintus Fabius Labeo: There was a rain of blood for two days in the precinct of Vulcan, and for the same length of time in the precinct of Concord. Off Sicily, a new island in the sea arose. Hannibal died of poison in Bithynia. The Celtiberians were overcome.
Consulship of Publius Africanus and Gaius Fulvius: In Amiternum the sun was seen by night, and its light appeared for some length of time. An ox spoke, and was maintained at the public charge. There was a rain of blood. At Anagnia the tunic of a slave blazed up, and when the fire had died out no trace of flame was visible. On the Capitol at night a bird uttered groans which sounded human. In the temple of Queen Juno a Ligurian shield was struck by lightning. Runaway slaves began a war in Sicily, after a conspiracy of slaves in Italy had been crushed.
The classicist Bernard Knox has called Obsequens’ book a “monotonous compilation,” but such dismissal mistakes the rhetorical beauty and intellectual intrigue hidden in such brevity. Hidden in the structure is the wild and strange variety of nuance and suggestion, as the book evokes without describing, offering precious and incomplete details in lieu of comprehensive fact.
Consulship of Gaius Marius and Lucius Valerius: A blazing meteor was seen far and wide at Tarquini, falling in a sudden plunge. At sunset a circular object like a shield was seen to sweep across from west to east. In Picenum houses were flattened in pieces by an earthquake, while some, torn from their foundations, remained standing out of plumb. A clash of arms was heard from the depths of the earth. Gilded four-horse chariots in the Forum sweated at the feet. The runaway slaves in Sicily were butchered in battles.
Consulship of Gaius Marius and Manius Aquilus: The sacred shields rattled and moved of their own accord. A slave of Quintus Servilius Caepio emasculated himself in devotion to the Great Mother, and was shipped across the sea, that he might never return to Rome. The city was purified. A she-goat with horns afire was led through the city, expelled by the Naevian Gate, and abandoned. On the Aventine it rained mud. The Lusitanians were subdued, and Farther Spain enjoyed peace. The Cimbri were wiped out.
Even more bizarre than Obsequens’ writing is its origin. Where did such a work come from? Difficult to say for sure. Scholars have long noted the syntactical and rhetorical similarities to the Roman historian Livy, and many scholars now agree that Obsequens’ source material is Livy’s massive History of Rome. In its original, Livy’s history comprised of 142 books, but only 35 or so now survive along with some fragments. Obsequens, many scholars agree, was working from Livy’s text (though he may have only had access to a condensed epitome of the complete text), copying out passages to suit his own need, transcribing only prodigious events. The volumes he worked from are those that are themselves now lost, so that all that we have of those missing volumes is Obsequens’ derivative work.
Things last because someone is passionate about them, because someone finds in them something worth keeping alive. Where there is an absence of this passion, history falls silent, like the acoustical dead spots in a cathedral.
Obsequens’ Liber Prodigiorum has become a sourcebook for classicists: while very little of it can be independently confirmed, it’s a useful historical document for understanding Roman attitudes towards omens and prodigies, as well as offering the smallest sliver of a glimpse into the classical world. But Obsequens himself is rarely an object of study or scholarship; there doesn’t appear to be too much work out there about him as a writer, nor work that treats his book as a subject for serious study in its own right.
Perhaps this is because the book itself is so inexplicable: it’s impossible to say who Julius Obsequens was, impossible to say how he composed his book, impossible to say for sure that it’s sourced from Livy. Impossible to say anything about Obsequens’ Book of Prodigies, save that it exists, and that it has endured.
It has endured in contrast to the history by Livy that now we imagine has been lost—but what kind of endurance is this? Obsequens found a single strand of an intricately woven carpet, delicately excised it from the other fibers, and allowed the rest of the pattern to burn. His means of preserving Livy’s lost writing is not to preserve it as a whole but rather to find in it his own obsession and curiosity, and to make a mirror of himself in Livy’s writing.
Things last because someone is passionate about them, because someone finds in them something worth keeping alive. Where there is an absence of this passion, history falls silent, like the acoustical dead spots in a cathedral. In such dead spots time withers and is obliterated. Any work, no matter how important or vital, will get chewed up by the maw of time without someone to care for and nurture it, to carry it over these dead spots. History—at least as it’s written, recorded, passed down—is the history of human passion. What Obsequens’ work reminds us of is that one need not even save the whole work—one can, for better or worse, strip out one’s passions and leave the rest to molder in the dust.
Obsequens’ edit has another effect: it makes time itself immanent. In the original volumes as we imagine Livy having written them, time is a mixture of both the noteworthy and the mundane. But in Obsequens’ version, all of time is reduced to signs of imminent and radical change—it is a picture of history as apocalypse, as a perpetual revealing.
Consulship of Quintus Aelius Paetus and Marcus Junius: At Rome several places, both consecrated and common, were struck by lightning. At Anagnia there was a shower of earth. At Lanuviam a blazing meteor was seen in the sky. At Calatia on land owned by the state blood trickled for three days and two nights. King Gentius of Illyricum and King Perseus of Macedonia were conquered.
Everything is momentous and miraculous, and each sign portends divine change and an unveiling of the infinite. There is no longer any down time, no room for the paused breath. What Obsequens has attempted to edit out are the very dead spots of the past.
And yet, in the process of trying to erase all of the empty, mundane moments of the past, he has called explicit attention to them. The strangeness of his text magnifies the material he excised, just as it magnifies the distance between us and his original source. This, too, is the nature of history.
Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), along with two other books of nonfiction. He is also the editor, with Joanna Ebenstein, of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, and he teaches at National University.