The One-Eyed Shaman in Rome

War was the duty of every male Roman citizen. The state’s military ambitions and frequent wars of conquest certainly made battle traumas, including blindness, a common phenomenon from the earliest days of Rome’s existence. Romans did indeed know of that many a soldier would be left completely blind as a result of battlefield trauma. Lucan, for instance, provides us with a vivid description of the soldier Tyrrhenus whose eyes were dashed out by a missile at the siege of Massilia.[1] But complete blinding in battle made a far less dramatic tale than the loss of just one eye since it took the hero out of action. Combined with Rome’s militarism, this has led to a much greater interest in the one-eyed warrior than in the blind bard.


Although the Roman god of war himself does not sport any physical impairments, some of the favourite of Rome’s legendary heroes, as Africa argues, share the characteristics of those warrior-gods.[2] Africa in his 1970 article on monophthalmia in ancient Rome offers a whole roster of such one-eyed heroes. Among them, Horatius Cocles, whose agnomen quite literally means ‘one-eyed’, is a figure of doubtful historicity famed for defeating the Etruscans in the sixth century. Horatius’s biographers provide no precise explanation of his partial blindness, and some even suggest that the name originated from his rather cyclopean appearance, his eyebrows meeting right above his flat nose.[3] However, it is more likely that Horatius was never a man at all, but a god or legendary hero.


In his response to Africa’s article, Moeller shows that one-eyed figures in Roman, Celtic and Germanic myth ‘form a complex that is held together by characteristics over and beyond monophthalmia.’[4] Georges Dumézil in his fundamental study of European mythology also points out the remarkable similarities between Horatius, the Irish Lugh and his son, the hero Cúchulainn, and Odin-Wotan.[5] Horatius and Odin are one-eyed, whereas Lugh closes one eye when he fights, and Cúchulainn makes one of his eyes fall into its socket during his ‘battle transformation’. Horatius is lame, while Lugh and Cúchulainn stand on one leg when fighting or performing magic. There are other parallels between them, but they all indicate that Horatius, like many other figures of early Roman history, is a euhemerised god. ‘Long after his exploits,’ Africa writes, ‘Horatius was connected with a crude statue of a one-eyed, lame figure, and the hero's lameness suggests that he may have originally been Vulcan.’[6] Whether he was indeed the smith-god or a different warrior deity that became lost to the Romans, the association with Vulcan on the Romans’ behalf is quite reasonable, since he is a magician, lame and associated with one-eyed figures – the cyclopes. Missing an eye, a hand or a leg, or even having a limp, was for the Celtic, Germanic and early Italic tribes the mark of a magician and warrior.[7]


This allowed many later military generals to enter the realm of myth. Among them are Sertorius, who was a general during the second civil war, and Hannibal. While Sertorius did indeed lose an eye as a result of a battle injury, Hannibal’s partial blindness was most likely caused by an infection.[8] The Carthaginian commander became a mythical figure in the eyes of both the Romans and the barbaric troops he recruited. While Roman writers in their imagination surrounded him with their own gods and goddesses, either helpful or threatening to blind him completely,[9] he must have benefitted extremely from the Lugh-Odin cult, being seen as a man of supernatural powers due to his impairment. In Africa’s words, ‘long after the great captain had returned to the mysterious land from whence he had come, the barbarians of Spain and Italy who had served him recounted the exploits of the guileful, one-eyed war chief, who could change shape, had supernatural contacts, and had once led them against the hated Romans.’[10] Sertorius, too, was seen as a semi-divine leader, at least in direct communication with the gods. In his figure, the Iberian Celts he commanded against his Roman enemies saw ‘the religious aspect of the one-eyed war chief,’[11] similar to Lugh, who was the head of their pantheon.


The Romans and their neighbours evidently did not share the modern concept of the ‘evil eye’, not fearing to be cursed by the gaze of a one-eyed person. Quite oppositely, the loss of an eye was often associated in their militaristic minds with heroism, and on a deeper, mythological level, with divine powers and magic. Some of this attitude survives to this day. Despite modern scepticism, there is still something supernatural in the figures of admiral Nelson or Kutusov, who are the heroes of modern legend, perhaps embodying the ancient concept of the god-like warrior.




[1] Pharsalia 3.709–721; see also Trentin (2013) 100. It must be noted that this scene is likely to be a partial tribute to Homer’s blinding of Peisander discussed above, with the hero Menelaus substituted by an indifferent device to contrast the idealised heroic time to the Roman civil war. Nevertheless, Lucan is one of the most naturalistic Latin authors, and this scene certainly shows an awareness of and horror at this kind of trauma.

[2] Africa (1970)

[3] Plutarch, Poplicola 16.4–7

[4] Moeller (1975) 402

[5] Dumézil (1944) 169-72

[6] Africa (1970) 530

[7] see Moeller (1975) 404-405

[8] Livy Ab Urbe Condita 22.2.10

[9] e.g. Coelius Antipater Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae 1 frag. 34

[10] Africa (1970) 531; Africa’s conclusion that the figures of Odin and Lugh are therefore based on Hannibal, however, is false.

[11] ibid. 534

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© 2019 by Alexandra Zhirnova