nomen omen (English version)
I have just finished reading the novel Oracle Night by Paul Auster (b. 1947, New Jersey), in a Spanish translation (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2004). A novel which is well constructed using the technique of Russian dolls: a novel within another novel within another novel…
But what interests me here is that the protagonist, the author’s alter ego, reflects upon a curious belief which I have shared since my youth: the enunciation of a future deed may occasion its fulfillment in reality. That is to say, a verbal enunciation, a word, a name (nomen), can have a performative force, conjuring the destiny (omen) and therefore determining the future. Here are some comments on the matter in Auster’s novel:
“Thoughts are real,” he pronounced. “Words are real. Everything human is real, and at times we know things before they occur, even when we are not conscious of it. We live in the present, but the future is always in us. It may be that writing is reduced to that, Sid. Not to set down the deeds of the past, but to cause things to happen in the future. (p. 235) […]The Romans shared this superstition. They blindly believed that a verbal enunciation could determine the future. The very word for “fate” in Latin is fatum, which literally means “that which is said” (linguistically fatum is the neuter form of the passive perfect participle of the defective verb *for, “to speak, to say”).
After more than twenty years of those events, I think that Trause was right. Sometimes we know things before they happen, even though we never find out.” (p. 236)
Let us now evoke a relevant episode from the history of Rome.
We are in the year 230 B.C. The Illyrian kingdom (located on the Adriatic coast, facing Italy, in the territory that today is Albania) follows an expansionist policy under the reign of the queen Teuta. In addition, the kingdom sponsors piracy in the Adriatic, which harms Rome’s sea-borne commerce (just as in the 16th century the kingdom of England sponsored pirates who attacked Spanish galleons in the Atlantic). The Romans, after attempting a diplomatic settlement, undertake a war against the Illyrian kingdom. And in the year 229 they conquer the cities of Corcyra (modern Corfu), Apollonia, and Epidamnos. They do not depose Queen Teuta, but force her to submit to tribute and limit the expansion of her kingdom, and establish a protectorate in the occupied territories:
But the name of the city of Epidamnos raises a bad omen for the Romans, since they fear that their occupation would prove “to the harm” (epi-damnum) of Rome. The solution?: they change the name, introducing the already existing denomination Dyrrachium (modern Durrës, in Albania, some 30 km west of Tirana). The Latin writer Pomponius Mela, whose origin was in Hispania and the author of the geographic compendium De chorographia, alludes to this change of name:
Dein sunt quos proprie Illyrios vocant, tum Piraei et Liburni et Histri. urbium prima est Oricum, secunda Dyrrachium, Epidamnos ante erat, Romani nomen mutavere, quia velut in damnum ituris omen id visum est. (2.56)One final detail. As the Romans considered that the mere mention of a misfortune could cause it to take place, they frequently used a linguistic and rhetorical formula which they called aversio, in order to prevent its fulfillment (therefore with an apotropaic character, in order to ward off misfortune). The basic formula is quod di omen avertant (“may the gods avert such an omen”), although there can be variants (see Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. omen, 2b). For example, in his fourth Philippic, Cicero mentions Mark Anthony’s intention to militarily conquer Rome and to share out the booty among his henchmen. To prevent that which is pronounced as a possibility from reaching fulfillment, Cicero adds the corresponding formula of aversio:
Then they come those who are called Illyrians, and also Piraeans, Liburnians, and Histrians. The most important of their cities is Oricum, the second Dyrrachium, which was previously called Epidamnos, but the Romans changed its name, for it seemed to them an augury that would be a misfortune for those who arrived.
Quibus M. Antonius –o di inmortales, avertite et detestamini, quaeso, hoc omen!– urbem se divisurum esse promisit. (Cic. Phil. 4.9)
With these, Mark Anthony –oh immortal gods, drive away and detest, I beg you, this augury!– has promised that he would share Rome.