Bird Signs: The Swallow

Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, I.25.6-8

During the siege of Helicarnassus, Alexander took his midday rest. A swallow, however, flew about his head twittering loudly. Here and there it alighted on his bed, singing more intently than usual.

The irritant woke Alexander, yet he couldn’t quite keep from sleeping. Annoyed by the chirping, he shooed the swallow away (not harshly) with his hand. He did hit it. And since it had to move off a little, it settled on Alexander’s head, and would not budge until Alexander was fully awake.

Alexander did not treat the incident as insignificant: he told Aristander, the Telmissian seer, about the swallow. Aristander responded that it was a sign that one of Alexander’s friends was plotting against him, but it was also a sign that the plot would be revealed. That is because the swallow is a companionable bird, friendly to humans, and also more talkative than any other bird.

ἔτι γὰρ πολιορκοῦντος αὐτοῦ Ἀλεξάνδρου Ἁλικαρνασσὸν ἀναπαύεσθαι μὲν ἐν μεσημβρίᾳ, χελιδόνα δὲ περιπέτεσθαι ὑπὲρ τῆς κεφαλῆς τρύζουσαν μεγάλα καὶ τῆς εὐνῆς ἄλλῃ καὶ ἄλλῃ ἐπικαθίζειν, θορυβωδέστερον ἢ κατὰ τὸ εἰωθὸς ᾄδουσαν: τὸν δὲ ὑπὸ καμάτου ἐγερθῆναι μὲν ἀδυνάτως ἔχειν ἐκ τοῦ ὕπνου, ἐνοχλούμενον δὲ πρὸς τῆς φωνῆς τῇ χειρὶ οὐ βαρέως ἀποσοβῆσαι τὴν χελιδόνα: τὴν δὲ τοσούτου ἄρα δεῆσαι ἀποφυγεῖν πληγεῖσαν, ὥστε ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς τοῦ Ἀλεξάνδρου καθημένην μὴ πρόσθεν ἀνεῖναι πρὶν παντελῶς ἐξεγερθῆναι Ἀλέξανδρον. καὶ Ἀλέξανδρος οὐ φαῦλον ποιησάμενος τὸ τῆς χελιδόνος ἀνεκοίνωσεν Ἀριστάνδρῳ τῷ Τελμισσεῖ, μάντει: Ἀρίστανδρον δὲ ἐπιβουλὴν μὲν ἔκ του τῶν φίλων σημαίνεσθαι αὐτῷ εἰπεῖν, σημαίνεσθαι δὲ καί, ὅτι καταφανὴς ἔσται. τὴν γὰρ χελιδόνα σύντροφόν τε εἶναι ὄρνιθα καὶ εὔνουν ἀνθρώποις καὶ λάλον μᾶλλον ἢ ἄλλην ὄρνιθα.

Color photography of a painting of a small bird perched against a stucco wall
(This is a goldfinch, not a swallow.)
Carel Fabritius. 1654.
The Hague.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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