is literally "one who looks at birds", a diviner who reads omen
An omen is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change...
s from the observed flight of birds. This type of omen reading was already a millennium old in the time of Classical Greece
Classical Greece was a 200 year period in Greek culture lasting from the 5th through 4th centuries BC. This classical period had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire and greatly influenced the foundation of Western civilizations. Much of modern Western politics, artistic thought, such as...
: in the fourteenth-century BCE diplomatic correspondence preserved in Egypt called the "Amarna correspondence", the practice was familiar to the king of Alasia in Cyprus who has need of an 'eagle diviner' to be sent from Egypt. This earlier, indigenous practice of divining by bird signs, familiar in the figure of Calchas
In Greek mythology, Calchas , son of Thestor, was an Argive seer, with a gift for interpreting the flight of birds that he received of Apollo: "as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp"...
, the bird-diviner to Agamemnon
In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was the son of King Atreus and Queen Aerope of Mycenae, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra, and the father of Electra and Orestes. Mythical legends make him the king of Mycenae or Argos, thought to be different names for the same area...
, who has led the army (Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...
I.69), was largely replaced by sacrifice-divination through inspection of the sacrificial victim's liver— haruspices
— during the Orientalizing period
In the history of ancient Greece, the Orientalizing period is the cultural and art historical period informed by the art of Anatolia, Syria, Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt, which started during the later part of the 7th century BCE. It encompasses a new, Orientalizing style, spurred by a period of...
of archaic Greek culture. Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...
notes that hepatoscopy held greater prestige than augury by means of birds.
In ancient Roman religion
Religion in ancient Rome encompassed the religious beliefs and cult practices regarded by the Romans as indigenous and central to their identity as a people, as well as the various and many cults imported from other peoples brought under Roman rule. Romans thus offered cult to innumerable deities...
, the auspices
provided divine signs to be interpreted by an augur
The augur was a priest and official in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruria. His main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds: whether they are flying in groups/alone, what noises they make as they fly, direction of flight and what kind of...
. An augur would perform a ceremony (known as "taking the auspices") and would read flight patterns of birds in the sky. Depending upon the birds, the auspices from the gods could be favorable or unfavorable (auspicious
). Sometimes bribed or politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavorable auspices in order to delay certain state functions, such as elections. Pliny the Younger
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo , better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him...
attributes the invention of auspicy to Tiresias
In Greek mythology, Tiresias was a blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years. He was the son of the shepherd Everes and the nymph Chariclo; Tiresias participated fully in seven generations at Thebes, beginning as advisor to Cadmus...
the seer of Thebes, the generic model of a seer in the Greco-Roman literary culture.
One of the most famous auspices is the one which is connected with the founding of Rome. Once the founders of Rome, Romulus
- People:* Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome* Romulus Augustulus, the last Western Roman Emperor* Valerius Romulus , deified son of the Roman emperor Maxentius* Romulus , son of the Western Roman emperor Anthemius...
Remus is the twin brother of the mythical founder of Rome.Remus may also refer to:* Remus , a fictional planet in Star Trek* Remus , a moon of the asteroid 87 Sylvia...
, arrived at the Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city...
, the two argued over where the exact position of the city should be. Romulus was set on building the city upon the Palatine, but Remus wanted to build the city on the strategic and easily fortified Aventine Hill
The Aventine Hill is one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was built. It belongs to Ripa, the twelfth rione, or ward, of Rome.-Location and boundaries:The Aventine hill is the southernmost of Rome's seven hills...
. The two agreed to settle their argument by testing their abilities as augurs and by the will of the gods. Each took a seat on the ground apart from one another, and, according to Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...
, Remus saw six vultures, while Romulus saw twelve.
Auspices in Ancient Rome
In ancient Rome, the appointment and inauguration of any magistrate, decisions made within the people’s assembly and the advancement of any campaign always required a positive auspicium
. Unlike in Greece where oracles played the role of messenger of the Gods, in Rome it was through birds that Jupiter’s will was interpreted. Auspices showed Romans what they were to do, or not to do; giving no explanation for the decision made except that it was the will of the Gods. It would be difficult to execute any public act without consulting the auspices.
It was believed that if an augur committed an error in the interpretation of the signs or, vitia, it was considered offensive to the gods and often was said to have disastrous effects unless corrected. Elections, the passing of laws and wars were all put on hold until the people were assured the Gods agreed with their actions. The men who interpreted these signs, revealing the will of the gods were called augures. Similar to records of court precedents, augurs kept books containing records of past signs, the necessary rituals and prayers and other tricks of their trade to help other augurs and even member of the aristocracy understand the fundamentals of augury.
The augures themselves were not the ones with the final say. Though they had the power to interpret the signs, it was ultimately the responsibility of the magistrate to execute decisions as to future actions. The magistrates were also expected to understand the basic interpretations as they were often expected to take the auspices whenever they undertook any public business.
Until 300 BC only patricians could become augures. Plebeian assemblies were forbidden to take augury and hence had no input as to whether a certain law, war or festival should occur. Cicero, an augur himself, accounts how the monopoly of the patricians created a useful barrier to the encroachment of the populares
Populares were aristocratic leaders in the late Roman Republic who relied on the people's assemblies and tribunate to acquire political power. They are regarded in modern scholarship as in opposition to the optimates, who are identified with the conservative interests of a senatorial elite...
. However in 300 BC a new law Lex Ogulnia, increased the number of augures from four to nine and required that five of the nine be plebeians, granting, for the first time, the ability to interpret the will of the Gods to lower classes. With this new power, it was not only possible for plebeians to determine the gods will in their favor but it was also now possible for plebeians to critique unfair interpretations by patricians.
History of Auspices
According to unanimous testimony from ancient sources the use of auspices as a means to decipher the will of the Gods was more ancient than Rome itself. The use of the word is usually associated with Latins as well as the earliest Roman citizens. Though some modern historians link the act of observing Auspices to the Etruscans, Cicero accounts in his text De Divinatione several differences between the auspicial of the Romans and the Etruscan system of interpreting the will of the Gods. Cicero also mentions several other nations which, like the Romans, paid attention to the patterns of flying birds as signs of God’s will but never once mentions this practice while discussing the Etruscans. Though auspices were prevalent before the Romans, Romans are often linked with auspices because of both their connection to Rome’s foundation and because Romans were the first to take the system and lay out such fixed and fundamental rules for the reading of auspices that it remained an essential part of Roman culture. Stoics, for instance, maintained that if there are gods, they care for men, and that if they care for men they must send them signs of their will.
Types of Auspices
There were five different types of auspices. Of these, the last three formed no part of the ancient auspices.
This auspice involved the observation of thunder and lightning and was often seen as the most important auspice. Whenever an augur reported that Jupiter had sent down thunder and lightning, no comitia (a gathering deemed to represent the entire Roman population) could be held.
Though auspices were typically bird signs, not all birds in the sky were seen as symbols of the will of the Gods. There were two classes of birds, Oscines, who gave auspices via their singing and Alites, who gave auspices via how they flew. The Oscines included ravens, crows, owls and hens, each offering either a favorable omen (auspicium ratum) or an unfavorable depending on which side of the Augures designated area they appeared on. The birds of the Alites were the eagle, the vulture, the avis sanqualis, also called ossifraga, and the immussulus or immusculus. Some birds like the Picus Martius, the Feronius, and the Parrha could be considered among the oscines and the alites. Every movement and every sound made by these birds had a different meaning and interpretation according to the different circumstances, or times of the year when it was observed.
These auspices were read by interpreting eating patterns of chickens and were generally used on military expeditions. Cicero shows that at one point, any bird could perform the tripudium however as the practice progressed it soon began customary to use only chickens. The chickens were kept in a cage under the care of the pullarius who, when the time came, released the chickens and threw at them some form of bread of cake. If the chickens refused to come out or eat, uttered a cry, beat their wings, or flew away, the signs were considered unfavourable. Conversely if the chicken left its cage to feast so that something fell from its mouth and landed on the ground it was deemed tripudium solistimum, (tripudium quasi terripavium, solistimum, from solum, according to the ancient writers) and was considered to be a favourable sign
Auspices could also be taken from animals who walked on four feet, though these auspices were not part of the original science of augures and were never used for state affairs. Often these aupices took the form of a fox, wolf, horse, or dog ran across a persons path or was found in an unusual location the meaning could be interpreted (by an appointed augur) as some form of will of the Gods.
This category of auspices represented every other event or occurrence which could result in an auspice which does not fit into the above categories. Often actions of sneezing, stumbling and other slightly abnormal events could be taken as a sign from the Gods to be interpreted.
Offered and Requested signs
There were two classifications of auspice signs, impetrative (impetrativa
, sought or requested) and oblative (oblativa
, unsought or offered). Signs that fall under the category of impetrativa
were signs that resulted due to the actions performed by the augur during the reading of the auspice. The other category of signs, oblativa
, were momentous events which occurred unexpectedly, while the magistrate was either taking auspices or participating in public debate. Ex Caelo
("from the sky") signs of thunder and lightning or other natural phenomeno, would be considered an “offered” sign. Unless the magistrate was accompanied by an augur it was up to them to decide whether or not the “offered” sign was significant.