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The Shilling of a Sacred Deer: Plutarch’s Sertorius and The White Fawn

I’ve mentioned my current long-term reading project is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and how enjoyable the passages on Archimedes were. Another favorite sequence is on Quintus Sertorius.

If you’ve read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then you’ve already got an idea of what kind of guy Sertorius was: a statesman, a member of the nobility, and a general. He died a few decades before the action of the play; however, he fought against the Pompey mentioned by Shakespeare. Sertorius went rogue (or was forced to rebel, I suppose) during civil strife in Rome. He was extremely successful–capturing an entire peninsula and having several disparate tribes come under his rule–until being assassinated in a way not dissimilar from the famous Ides of March in Shakespeare’s play.

One of the engrossing details in Plutarch’s version of Sertorius is his use of a white fawn as a means of maintaining political control. He received the doe as a gift (or payment for protection) and he was able to tame and take walks with it, even through military camps. Sertorius got the idea to use the superstitions of various groups around him to his benefit. He told them that Diana, the goddess, spoke to him through the deer. He then had his messengers and generals only speak to him about news coming from the battlefields and cities. He would then pretend that the deer was a channel through which Diana would reveal information to him. For example, if he knew about a battlefield victory, he would hide the messenger, have the deer garlanded. He would make a show of calling to the deer, and her giving the sign of victory through her decoration.

I found the white deer such an unexpected image of political and military control. I guess one could say it’s also a manipulation of superstition and belief–something much less unexpected.

From Plutarch:

Spanus, a plebeian who lived in the country, came upon a doe which had newly yeaned and was trying to escape the hunters. The mother he could not overtake, but the fawn — and he was struck with its unusual colour, for it was entirely white — he pursued and caught. And since, as it chanced, Sertorius had taken up his quarters in that region, and gladly received everything in the way of game or produce that was brought him as a gift, and made kindly returns to those who did him such favors, Spanus brought the fawn and gave it to him. Sertorius accepted it, and at the moment felt only the ordinary pleasure in a gift; but in time, after he had made the animal so tame and gentle that it obeyed his call, accompanied him on his walks, and did not mind the crowds and all the uproar of camp life, he gradually tried to give the doe a religious importance by declaring that she was a gift of Diana, and solemnly alleged that she revealed many hidden things to him, knowing that the Barbarians were naturally an easy prey to superstition. He also added such devices as these. Whenever he had secret intelligence that the enemy had made an incursion into the territory which he commanded, or were trying to bring a city to revolt from him, he would pretend that the doe had conversed with him in his dreams, bidding him hold his forces in readiness. Again, when he got tidings of some victory won by his generals, he would hide the messenger, and bring forth the doe wearing garlands for the receipt of glad tidings, exhorting his men to be of good cheer and to sacrifice to the gods, assured that they were to learn of some good fortune.

By these devices he made the people tractable, and so found them more serviceable for all his plans; they believed that they were led, not by the mortal wisdom of a foreigner, but by a god. 

And later:

He was now greatly disheartened because that doe of his was nowhere to be found; for he was thus deprived of a wonderful contrivance for influencing the Barbarians, who at this time particularly stood in need of encouragement. Soon, however, some men who were roaming about at night on other errands came upon the doe, recognized her by her colour, and caught her. When Sertorius heard of it he promised to give the men a large sum of money if they would tell no one of the capture, and after concealing the doe and allowing several days to pass, he came forth with a glad countenance and proceeded to the tribunal, telling the leaders of the Barbarians that the deity was foretelling him in his dreams some great good fortune. Then he ascended the tribunal and began to deal with the applicants. And now the doe was released by her keepers at a point close by, spied Sertorius, and bounded joyfully towards the tribunal, and standing by his side put her head in his lap and licked his hand, as she had been wont to do before. Sertorius returned her caresses appropriately and even shed a few tears, whereupon the bystanders were struck with amazement at first, and then, convinced that Sertorius was a marvellous man and dear to the gods, escorted him with shouts and clapping of hands to his home, and were full of confidence and good hopes.

Categories: Inspiration Reading

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Stephen McClurg

I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.

1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals

2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).

3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet

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