24 Jan 2010

Sertorius and the White Hind

A 19th-century cartoon showing a classics teacher impersonating Sertorius.

Following reports of the White Stag that appeared in the British media recently, I was reminded of Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius, the first-century-BC Roman statesman and general who rebelled against Rome. He attempted and almost succeeded in establishing an independent republic in Iberia before he was assassinated in 72 BC. One of the keys to Sertorius’s transitory success was his ability to win over and inspire the Celtic or semi-Celtic peoples who inhabited Northern, West, and Central Iberia through an understanding of their culture, traditions, and pagan religion.

These tribes had a belief in the White Hind (a female deer) that echoed the British belief in the White Stag. Plutarch describes how Sertorius exploited this belief to enhance his prestige among the tribes:
"Most of the tribes voluntarily submitted themselves, won by the fame of his clemency and of his courage, and, to some extent, also, he availed himself of cunning artifices of his own devising to impose upon them and gain influence over them. Amongst which, certainly, that of the hind was not the least. Spanus, a countryman who lived in those parts, meeting a hind that had recently calved, flying from the hunters, let the dam go and pursuing the fawn, took it, being wonderfully pleased with the rarity of the colour, which was all milk-white.

"As at that time Sertorius was living in the neighbourhood, and accepted gladly any presents of fruit, fowl, or venison that the country afforded, and rewarded liberally those who presented them, the countryman brought him his young hind, which he took and was well pleased with at the first sight; but when in time he had made it so tame and gentle that it would come when he called, and follow him wheresoever he went, and could endure the noise and tumult of the camp, knowing well that uncivilized people are naturally prone to superstition, by little and little he raised it into something preternatural, saying that it was given him by the goddess Diana, and that it revealed to him many secrets.

"He added, also, further contrivances. If he had received at any time private intelligence that the enemies had made an incursion into any parts of the districts under his command or had solicited any city to revolt, he pretended that the hind had informed him of it in his sleep, and charged him to keep his forces in readiness. Or if again he had noticed that any of the commanders under him had got a victory, he would hind the messengers and bring forth the hind crowned with flowers, for joy of the good news that was to come, and would encourage them to rejoice and sacrifice to the gods for the good account that they should soon receive of their prosperous success."
Later in the story, Plutarch describes what happened after the hind went missing. Despite the element of deception, I think this passage is particularly touching:
"He was much concerned that his white hind could nowhere be found; as he was thus destitute of an admirable contrivance to encourage the barbarous people at a time when he most stood in need of it. Some men, however, wandering in the night, chanced to meet her, and knowing her by her colour, took her; to whom Sertorius promised a good reward, if they would tell no one of it; and immediately shut her up. A few days later, he appeared in public with a very cheerful look, and declared to the chief men of the country that the gods had foretold him in a dream that some great good fortune should shortly attend him; and taking his seat, proceeded to answer the petitions of those who applied themselves to him. The keepers of the hind, who were not far off, now let her loose, and she no sooner espied Sertorius, but she came leaping with great joy to his feet, laid her head upon his knees, and licked his hands, as she formerly used to do. And Sertorius stroking her, and making much of her again, with that tenderness that the tears stood in his eyes, all that were present were immediately filled with wonder and astonishment, and accompanying him to his house with loud shouts of joy, looked upon him as a person above the rank of mortal men, and highly beloved by the gods; and were in great hope for the future."

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