Many of us believe that the world has been going straight downhill since the fall of the Roman Empire. Rome, founded in 753 B.C., survived as a kingdom, a republic or an empire until about A.D. 476. Any society that can survive 1,229 years must be doing something right.
One reason Rome flourished as long as it did was that public policy was determined by signs and portents. Nobody ever did anything in ancient Rome without first reporting that he had seen two eagles dueling over a dead goat, or a hailstorm miraculously erupting from the Praetorian Guards' favorite fig bowl. These omens were used to justify everything: invading Thrace, deposing a rival, raising taxes, even divorcing your spouse so you could marry someone younger or richer from Egypt.
By and large, the Roman people did not object to the capricious actions of its leaders, as long as they were accompanied by at least one sign or portent. But it had to be a good sign or portent, not one of those "a little birdie told me" type things.
Thus, when Augustus announced that he was taking over Rome in 43 B.C., the public was initially taken aback:
"You can't just waltz in and seize power like that. What do you take us for, clowns?"
Augustus: "Oh, I forgot to tell you. Twelve vultures appeared around lunchtime last Thursday, and, as everyone knows, a surprise visit by more than five vultures signifies that it's OK for me to topple the republic, confiscate everyone's money and exile everyone I don't like."
Relieved public: "Fine. But next time, could you try telling us about the signs and portents first? I mean, really."
Signs and portents continued to play a role in societies throughout the Middle Ages and did not go out of fashion until the time of Scotland's Robert the Bruce, who was encouraged by a spider to declare himself king and throw out the English. (The spider may have been French.)
The disappearance of such omens has been a great loss to all of us, as they make it much easier for people to deal with sudden shifts in policy, surprise firings or bad news about the economy.
Nowadays, politicians hold a press conference and announce they have to raise taxes to meet unanticipated, but wholly necessary, expenditures. Nobody really believes any of this; taxes get raised because politicians like to raise taxes. How much easier it would be to accept these dire pronouncements if they were accompanied by signs and portents.