Roman Augury

Roman Augury image

How to seek a prediction: Entreat an augur with access to birds--or you may need to also find a special bird

Equipment: birds, plus possibly equipment to measure/observe their behavior (e.g. a wooden frame)

Personnel: An augur trained to interpret the behavior of birds

Ancient Roman divination was tied to the concept of auspices, which literally means “looking for fortunate signs in birds” in Latin. (An individual who looks for these signs is called an augur.) Indeed, the founding myth of Rome involves Romulus and Remus performing bird augury to decide that Rome should be built on the Palatine Hill. Notably, however, like most things in Roman religion, the concept of auspices appears to be “borrowed” from other religions, specifically the ancient Greeks.

Auspices were taken before any major undertaking (private or public) began in Ancient Rome. The birds apparently made #random flight patterns and noises, and whether or not they fed when offered food were all interpretable by the #human augurs as auspices. The signs relayed by the augurs were often vague and most explanations behind the vague predictions were simply that it was “the will of the gods.” As a result, at least in the case of public auspices, the Roman Senate debated the meaning of the auspices before coming to an actionable decision.

Membership in the priesthood of augurs was prestigious. Until 300 BC, membership of the priesthood of augurs restricted to only members of the patrician -- ruling -- class; the Lex Ogulina allowed for plebeians -- commoners -- to become augurs. Note that augurs often held other posts outside of the priesthood -- for example, Cicero, the famous orator and senator, was also appointed an augur later on in his political career.

Meet the Expert: Professor Emma Dench

Professor Emma Dench is the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History and of the Classics at Harvard University. She is the author of Romulus' Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian. Professor Dench has been awarded the Harvard College Professorship, an award given for excellence in undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and advising.

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