Around 462-461 BCE, ancient Rome was able to obtain a brief moment of peace from its ongoing wars with the Volscians and Aequians. Yet, peacetime was tense in those years, as the Romans were reportedly plagued by natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires. Nature’s wrath prompted the Romans to scour their surroundings for omens, and the supernatural signs they discovered were apparently not good. Flocks of birds behaved erratically and, according to the historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17CE), “it rained lumps of meat” (History of Rome, 3.10). Birds, however, were not the only animals behaving strangely—the cows were acting even more oddly.
Somewhere in the pastures of ancient Rome, a cow allegedly began to speak. It seems to have been a single cow who went on a two-year talking spree. During its first year of speech, presumably in 462 BCE, the eloquent cow was largely ignored by the community. Cowherds and those nearest to the animal tried to spread the word about the opinionated beast, but the rest of Rome dismissed the rumors as a prank or ruse.
The talkative cow paid no heed to the disbelief of average Romans, however, and it continued to have conversations as before. It supposedly continued to speak well into the next year, coinciding with the earthquakes, fires, and raining meat of 461 BCE. Considering all of the bizarre signs occurring at the time, the Romans soon began to reconsider the rumor about the talking cow. According to Livy, “a cow talked—there was a rumor that a cow had talked the previous year, but nobody believed it: this year they did” (History of Rome, 3.10).
Just as the Romans were getting to the bottom of the talking cow investigation, the Volscians and Aequians cruelly resumed their continual hostilities with Rome, thereby pulling the attention of our sources away from the bovine orator. The fate of the talkative cow remains unknown.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Daedalus, Pasiphae and wooden cow. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.