When you look at lists of UFO sightings through history, one of the events that makes the list is recorded in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (The History of Rome), and took place in 218BC. You tend to just see the quote in isolation, and here it is:
vanadium speciem de caelo adfulsisse
… or in English:
Phantom ships had been seen gleaming in the sky…
That’s from Benjamin Oliver Foster’s 1929 translation. An earlier one, from Rev. Canon Roberts goes with this:
A phantom navy was seen shining in the sky…
Pretty compelling, eh? But this shows the danger of taking a tiny quote out of concept. It’s human nature, and it happens all the time. People don’t like to muddy the waters of their pet conspiracy theories by acknowledging that there is a wider context. So let’s look at the whole quote:
During this winter many portents occurred in Rome and the neighbourhood, or at all events, many were reported and easily gained credence, for when once men’s minds have been excited by superstitious fears they easily believe these things. A six-months-old child, of freeborn parents, is said to have shouted “Io Triumphe” in the vegetable market, whilst in the Forum Boarium an ox is reported to have climbed up of its own accord to the third story of a house, and then, frightened by the noisy crowd which gathered, it threw itself down. A phantom navy was seen shining in the sky; the temple of Hope in the vegetable market was struck by lightning; at Lanuvium Juno’s spear had moved of itself, and a crow had flown down to her temple and settled upon her couch; in the territory of Amiternum beings in human shape and clothed in white were seen at a distance, but no one came close to them; in the neighbourhood of Picenum there was a shower of stones; at Caere the oracular tablets had shrunk in size; in Gaul a wolf had snatched a sentinel’s sword from its scabbard and run off with it.
That’s the Rev Roberts’ translation, and here’s Foster’s:
In Rome or near it many prodigies occurred that winter, or – as often happens when men’s thoughts are once turned upon religion – many were reported and too easily credited. Some of these portents were: that a free-born infant of six months had cried “Triumph!” in the provision market; that in the cattle market an ox had climbed, of its own accord, to the third storey of a house and then, alarmed by the outcry of the occupants, had thrown itself down; that phantom ships had been seen gleaming in the sky; that the temple of Hope, in the provision market, had been struck by lightning; that in Lanuvium a slain victim had stirred, and a raven had flown down into Juno’s temple and alighted on her very couch; that in the district of Amiternum, in many places, apparitions of men in shining raiment had appeared in the distance, but had not drawn near to anyone; that in the Picentian country there had been a shower of pebbles; that at Caere the lots had shrunk; that in Gaul a wolf had snatched a sentry’s sword from its scabbard and run off with it.
So now we have some context. This is Livy’s work, and he starts off with a warning to his readers to take this all with a big pinch of salt. He makes it pretty clear that he gives little credence to this stuff, and it’s typical of superstitions causing imaginations to run riot. And the “navy in the sky” has to be considered in the context of some other claims, including:
- A very gifted baby
- A resurrection
- Raining stones
- Magically shrinking stone tablets
This is the problem with so many conspiracy theories that spring up. To subscribe to them you have to pick up upon one little detail and ignore everything that surrounds it. Sorry, but that’s a best ill-informed and at worst idiotic. If you want to believe that this really was a UFO sighting, then you’re going to have to acknowledge that the other things on that list are also real.
…or we could bring some common sense to the proceedings, and think instead about the following possibilities:
- Misunderstood baby babbling
- The guy wasn’t actually dead in the first place
- Some shady looking people nobody wanted to talk to
- A hail storm
- Nobody ever measured them in the first place
…and a meteorite shower. Or, if you prefer, people do sometimes get drunk or make up any old nonsense to stave off boredom. RP