Giambattista Fontana, The Brothers, Disputing Over the Founding of Rome, Consult the Augurs, pl.7 from the series The Story of Romulus and Remus
This work is only intended to act as an introduction to the practice, not a set reference or guide. As such, it will be continually updated and more sources will be added. As a consequence of this, some information may also change
In cultures all over the world, there exists practices of divination, of trying to discern the will of the divine realm beyond the mortal bounds. In ancient Rome, this practice was known as auspices (auspicia) or augury (auspex) and included, but was not limited to, the observation of natural phenomena, primarily the flight and behavior of birds, crack of lightning and behavior of chickens.
Auspicium translates to “(one) looking at birds” (Word Information, 1998)
Augur is most commonly thought to originate in the terms avis and gero, latin for “directing the birds”, or the term aug which means to prosper (Hall, p. 148)
Auspices and the two categories
Events in our material world that were interpreted as originating through divine intervention were seen as Auspacia, or as we more commonly know it as Auspices. As we will see later, whether an event could be interpreted as an auspice was not always clear. There were primarily two categories of auspices, those petitioned for and those occurring without petition.
The aguraculum was the place in which auspices were most commonly taken that involved observation of the sky. It was a roofless temple and could be a building in the case of the auspice being taken in the city, or the center of a tent in the case of an auspice being taken in the field or on a campaign.
Auspicia Imperativa were signs that were directly petitioned by their observer. They were responses to queries posed by the observer, and were thus always either yes or no, depending on what criteria the auspice had set. Often, these auspices were performed very closely in time before an important public event. This was primarily because an auspice was seen to have various conditions of expiration: One was time, usually an auspice was only considered to be valid within the same day it was taken, the other was space. If a magistrate took an auspice on one side of a lake considered as a boundary of space, they would have to perform a new auspice were they to cross it.
Auspices petitioning the Gods to reveal their will were very important, they were most often taken prior to an important public activity, such as promoting a person to a high office (also known as investiture auspices) or a magistrate making an important decision. It was, in fact, required by public law that an auspice be performed for a decision to be seen as legitimate.
Requesting Auspicia Imperativa
The magistrate who was to perform the auspice rose just before dawn. They performed the auspice within the area designated as templum, which was an area designated by an augur for the purposes of the auspices. To create a templum, they would align the auguraculum with the cardinal points of heaven and earth. The altar and entrance were sited on the east-west axis: the sacrificer faced eased. The precinct was thus “defined and freed” (effatum et liberatum). (Beard et al. p. 23)
Then, the magistrate would position himself and perform his prayer to the gods, like Jupiter in the example of King Numa’s inauguration and specify to the god what they wanted a response to and what kind of response they were expecting. They would then observe the sky and await a sign. In most cases, signs to the augur’s left (north) showed divine approval and signs to his right (south) disapproval. As mentioned previously, these auspices only produced yes and no answers.
This type of sign was the one that manifested itself without petition. Instead, they appeared as unusual incidents in daily life, such as mishaps during a ceremony or unusual natural phenomena. It can be asked, then, what can truly be seen as signs from the gods and what cannot? A possible approach to this is mentioned in An introduction to roman religion:
“The enlightened elite recommended not attributing everything to the will of the gods and not living in anxiety about every small sign. According to this view, the whole skill of a pious man lays in recognizing the divided line between a calm resolve based on trust in the benevolence of the Gods and on obstinate refusal to recognize “real signs”” – (Scheid and Lloyd p. 116)
However, there were a kind of non-petitioned auspices that were considered to be very obviously the result of divine intervention. These were known as Prodigies, or Portents. They were different from regular Auspicia Oblativa in that they manifested at great cost to Rome; natural disasters, epidemic and humiliating defeat could all be seen as a type of prodigy. The Collegium Pontificum, or college of pontiffs, kept a record of all prodigies of the year to analyze them and determine whether an expiatory sacrifice needed to be made to make amends with the Gods.
Interpreting the signs
One could then ask, who determines what is and is not a sign from the gods and a legitimate auspice?
There existed a group of priests known as the Augurs, who acted as advisors on the matters of auspices. They assisted magistrates and other romans to interpret signs and determine whether or not a sign was really divine in origin.
An auspice’s legitimacy was in large part dependent on the recognition of a magistrate. While this certainly lead to cases of abuse, the common Roman, be they plebian or patrician, was certainly fearful and respectful of the Gods. While we tend to see the average Roman as sceptic, this was not the case in a large part of the population. As such, a magistrate or augur would most of the time report their auspices and not shy away from accepting a negative auspice or “no” answer, due to their respect of the Gods. It is also important to remember that a “no” as a reply could mean as much a “not yet” as a “not today”, but seldom, if ever, a “never”.
Another aspect of interpreting an auspice is the conflict of interest between two magistrates in opposition; where one questions the legitimacy or interpretation of the auspice of the other. While it is not widely known exactly how much conflict this lead to, we can speculate that this both meant that Auspices were held under great scrutiny, thus ensuring they be less abused, and also the subject of common investigation.
Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy, author of “roman republic augury; freedom and control”, discusses this notion as following:
“..They needed to be taken seriously (and, as in divination in other cultures, to be verified and argued about) by his contemporaries, elite and non-elite, and this would not have been possible if either of these groups thought that augury was under direct human control. This is why it makes sense to read augury as a testament not just to the power of the elite, but also to a Roman belief, at both elite and non-elite levels, in the superior power of Jupiter.”
Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy, Roman Republic Augury
As seen in the above quote, augury was of course a source of conflict and abuse, just as any religious practice, but it was also a practice well-respected amongst the Romans, both of the elite and general populous.
Types of auspices
Raven, part of the “oscines” category (Image: Pexels)
Now we know what categories of auspices there are, and how they could be interpreted, but what shapes did auspices actually come in?
Ex Caelo (From The Sky)
Ex Caelo involved observing the most basic element of natural phenomena: the sky. It concerned watching for phenomena like thunder and lightning, which were considered par excellente, the prerogative of Jupiter and therefore the most authoritative sign of all the auspices.
Ex Avibus (From Birds)
Another way of observing the sky was to observe its’ inhabitants, the birds. There were two kinds of birds who were seen as signs from the Gods:
Oscines: Who provided signs through their singing, and included ravens, crows, owls and hens which all either provided a favorable or unfavourable sign depending on which side of the augur they appeared on, the pitch, intonation and frequency of their song.
Alites: Who provided signs through their flight and included eagles and vultures, their speed, direction, number and height determined if their appearance was favorable for unfavorable.
Ex Tripudiis (From the dance of birds)
This auspice came from another kind of bird, the chickens. The auspice was carried out by observing and interpreting how chickens ate the food (often bread) thrown on the ground. They were kept in a cage by a special chicken keeper who would care for them during military campaigns. If the chickens refused to exit their cages, to eat, cackle, beat their wings or flew away they were considered to provide unfavourable signs. If the chicken left the cage and ate without other remarks and the food it ate fell onto the ground it was considered a tripudium solistmum (from the latin solum, ground) and was considered a favourable sign.
Ex Quadrupedibus (From Quadrapeds)
Moving from the family of birds we move from two legs to four. The animals involved in these auspices included foxes, wolves, horses and dogs who crossed paths with an individual’s or were found in strange places. These could then be interpreted by an augur to determine whether they had a message from the gods. These auspices were not widely used and never were recorded to be used for state auspices and could be seen as a form of private auspicia oblativa.
Ex Diris (From Portents)
This kind of auspices included the previously mentioned mishaps or unusual events that could be seen as a message from the gods, like someone falling, a mistake being made during a ceremony or something of the like.
Auspices throughout the ages
Little is known of how auspices were carried out during the archaic period and not a lot is known about the post-civil war period of Julius Caesar. The reasons for the archaic period not being known is that it was not well documented, and the same is mostly true for the imperial era as well. The reason for the imperial era lacking proper documentation, however, is because of the reforms of Augustus following his ascension to emperor. Prior to his reforms, the previously mentioned conflicts of interest with auspices was primarily the reason that auspices were recorded as they were, but his system, giving the power of deciding the outcome of auspices to the emperor and members of the imperial family, mostly eliminated these kinds of conflicts. It is however known that auspices, both at the private, municipal, provincial, state and military level were performed in the imperial era as well.
During the era of the republic, auspices were primarily performed through observation of natural phenomena. In the beginning, this was done by observing the flight, song etc of birds in the sky, but it later turned into mostly observing the feeding behaviors of chickens.
The Sibylline Books
The sibylline books was a collection of verses only consulted in state affairs following serious observed prodigies, they provided an explanation of the prodigies and indicated why the relationship between the romans and the gods had crippled, they also provided ways to make amends and improve the relationship once again.
They were consulted by a priest who chose two verses, then wrote out the individual letters of the first line(s) in an acrostic (every new letter forming a new line/sentence). The priests would then, by the help of assistants knowledgeable in greek, fill the lines of the acrostic in so-called hexameter verse, which would then make up the sibylline oracle.
A separate entry ought to be made on the books, as they warrant their own article.
Haruspicy and Extispicy
There were two kinds of practices concerned with the entrails of sacrificed animals; haruspicy (haruspicina) and extispicy (extispicium).
Extispicy, the inspection of exta, or entrails, was concerned with the five elements that made up the organs, which could include the liver, intestines and lungs of the animal. If no anomalies were found on these elements, then the sacrifice was deemed to be accepted by the gods. If not, the sacrifice had to be performed again. The practice of extispicy was carried out by the official known as a haruspex.
Haruspicy, on the other hand, was concerned with inspecting the exta with the purpose of producing a prognosis. Instead of inspecting the exta to see if the sacrifice of the animal was accepted, it was focused on finding signs to explain observed prodigies. The haruspices deduced explanations or predictions from these signs to explain the prodigies, which could include predicting military victories or defeats.
Most likely, both extispicy and haruspicy was carried out by the same practitioners.
How does Roman augury and divination differ from that of other cultures?
Roman augury was very direct and sought the answer to a question in a yes / no answer, alongside Chinese and ancient Mesopotamian divination, Roman divination is seen to have been among the more systemized and regulated methods of divination in the ancient world. As such, there was very little room for interpretation in comparison to other traditions and methods. While other methods such as Greek Oracle consultation involved a more “negotiation focused approach”, where the enquirer would have an active dialogue with the Oracle and contribute new information, clarifications and terms, the Roman method involved specific enquiry on a specific topic. (Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy, 2019)
An example of this could be the following:
Greek Method: “Who stole from the city treasury?” (Wide question, possibly wide answer)
Roman Method: “Are you in favor of this legislation?” (Short question, short answer)
Example – The Inauguration Of King Numa
Prior to accepting his own inauguration as king of Rome, Numa Pompilius wanted to consult the gods’ will on his investiture, like Romulus before him. Told to us through the History Of Rome, written by Livy, we are presented with an example of how an auspice on behalf of a magistrate could be performed:
“An augur conducted him to the citadel (the Arx, to the east of the capitol) and caused him to sit down on a stone facing the south. The augur seated himself on numa’s left, having his head covered and holding in his right hand his crooked staff without a knot, which they call a lituus. Then, looking out over the city and the country beyond, he prayed to the gods, and marked off the heavens by a line from east to west, designating as “right” the regions to the south, as “left” those to the north, and fixing in his mind a landmark opposite to him and as far away as the eye could reach; next shifting the crook to his left hand and laying his right hand on Numa’s head, he uttered the following prayer: “Father Jupiter, if it is heaven’s will that this man, Numa Pompilius, whose head I am touching, be king in rome, do thou exhibit to us unmistakable signs within those limits which I have set”. He then specified the auspices which he desired should be sent, and upon their appearance Numa was declared king.” – Livy, History Of Rome, 1.18.6-10
Beard, Mary, et al. Religions Of Rome. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hall, Whitmore. The principal roots and derivatives of the Latin language, with a display of their incorporation into English. Unknown, 1861, https://books.google.se/books?id=k9UNAQAAMAAJ&vq=avis%20gero%20latin&hl=sv&pg=PA148#v=snippet&q=avis%20gero%20latin&f=false.
Livy. History Of Rome.
Scheid, John, and Janet Lloyd. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2003. Internet archive, https://archive.org/details/introductiontoro00sche.
Word Information. “auspic-, auspec-.” Word Information About English Vocabulary, https://wordinfo.info/unit/258?letter=A&spage=16.
LINDSAY G. DRIEDIGER-MURPHY. (2019). Roman Republican Augury. Oxford University Press.