The diviners of Rome: nothing was done without them

The north-south and east-west orientation was essential, as it divided celestial space into four regions imaginatively projected onto the earth, the terrestrial templum. Looking towards the south, for example, the augur watched the birds entering the temple: the favorable ones arrived from the left; the unfavorable, from the right.

The augurs observed not only the flight, but also the species of bird. Some, called alites (vulture, eagle, falcon), offered signs by their flight and account was taken of the “region” where they appeared, the height and the type of flight or the place where they were posing. Those called oscines (raven, crow, owl) gave signs by means of their cries, and one evaluated the tone, the direction of the sound or the frequency of the song. In both groups there was a hierarchy of birds, with the eagle and the picus (woodpecker) providing the most significant auspices.

Auspices were obligatory in many circumstances of the life of the Roman state. They were carried out, for example, when taking possession of the principal magistrates, such as the consuls, the censors, the military tribunes… In the case of the elected magistrates, if the auspices were not favorable, they had to resign, but the consultation could be renewed another day. Cicero reminds us once again of the ability of the augurs to dissolve the assemblies or the Senate, to cancel the sessions already held, and even to obtain that the consuls renounce their office. All that was needed, he tells us, was a simple formula: “For another day.” »

On the battlefield too, it was obligatory to consult the auspices before going into battle. Livy says that during Rome’s war against the Etruscan city of Veii, at the beginning of the 4th century BC. J.-C., the Roman army could not take the initiative of the fight, whereas the Etruscans waited for reinforcements, because the dictator Camillus (Marcus Furius Camillus) “had the glance posed on the citadel of Rome, to receive of the augurs who were there the agreed signal as soon as the birds were duly favourable”. When the Romans began to fight away from the city, communication with the augurs became more difficult. This is why, before going on campaign, the generals carried out a ceremony on the Capitol, which authorized them to take the auspices of war outside the limits of the city.


In the 1st century BC. J.-C., the last of the Republic, the augural science knew a crisis, but one can also consider that it was transformed to adapt to new times. The traditional auspices have been replaced by the technique of tripudium, consisting in the observation of the appetite and behavior of the sacred chickens: if on leaving the cage where they were locked up the birds greedily ate the grains that had been thrown at them and that some were detached from their beaks and fell to the ground, the omen was favorable; if, on the contrary, they had no appetite and flapped their wings, the omen was very unfavorable. The explanation for this change may lie in the relative simplicity of this method, compared to the complexity presented by the observation and interpretation of augural birds. Military leaders and magistrates who did not have the right of auspice resorted to this method. They had an assistant, the pullariusto practice observations.

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The diviners of Rome: nothing was done without them

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