The Augury was a Roman ritual of Proto-Indo-European roots, aimed at inferring the will of the gods from the flight of great birds of prey, especially the eagle, the vulture and several other species whose identification is disputed. The term comes from auspicium (from avis meaning bird and specere meaning to look).
The term auspicium was also used to describe the observations of the behaviour of poultry (e.g. chickens) specially kept in cages for the same purpose. In order to obtain a sign, hens were fed grain and watched to see what happened: the more greedily they ate, the more successful the outcome. As a result of the confusion of concepts dating back to antiquity, the term auspicium was also used to describe other types of supernatural signs and all kinds of omens, such as signs resulting from the observation of lightning (fulgurationes), animal guts (haruspicina), prophetic dreams (somnia), and trances (vaticinationes).
Simple bird watching was termed auspicia ex avibus and was the primary form of auspices. The flight of crows and ravens was the most frequently paid attention to. Sometimes attention was also paid to the bird’s scream itself (oscina), and in this case, the most common were woodpeckers and eagles. For the Romans, the high flight of birds (praepes) was an auspicious omen, the low flight was less happy (infera).
There were also other kinds of omens related to birds. One of them was auspicia ex tripudiis, which consisted of observing the holy hens eating behaviour. As sacred hens were bred specially for this purpose, this type of divination was easier to carry out – there was no need to expect “free” birds to appear in the sky. When the sacred chickens rushed greedily on the grains that they fell out of their beaks while eating, it was read as the most favourable prophecy (tripudium solistimum). So the birds were often starved so that later the divination would be in accordance with the wishes of those interested.
The auspices, as ancient writers say, are older than Rome itself. These rites are associated with the Latines, the city’s earliest inhabitants, and are unlikely to have been taken over from the Etruscans. Cicero, being an augur himself, in his work “De divinatione” points to the differences between auspices and the Etruscan system and does not mention the practice of preaching from the preservation of birds by the Etruscans. Auspices were also practised outside Rome (e.g. in ancient Greece), but it was the Romans who developed and passed on from generation to generation the regulations concerning this rite. It was believed that the revealed knowledge came from Jupiter, and birds were considered his messengers.
Auspices were also known in Gaul, Umbria, Greece (previously mentioned) and Asia Minor, but we have the most information about them from the Romans. It is also almost certain that only the Romans developed all the rituals for the auspices with meticulous accuracy and established strict rules for their application. This was necessary because the auspices held by a special caste of priests known as augurs were a combination of the Roman republic’s regime with its state religion. Almost all decisions that were made in the republic, all elected officials, almost everything required an inauguration before the inauguration took effect, that is, confirmation by the augurs and with the help of auspices that the facts were in accordance with the will of the gods (or at least did not face their opposition). On the basis of fortune-telling, it was judged whether a day was fit for office (dies fasti) or not. This system even allowed meetings of people’s committees to be blocked. Ancient Rome developed a natural distinction between auspicia publica and private auspicia (auspicia privata).
Auspices are not fortune-telling.
Public statements regarding state affairs were usually called simply auspicia. Only representatives of the state, who mediated between the gods and the state, could preside over them. While all patricians could exercise auspices, only patrician officials actually did. Upon assuming office, patricians received auspices, while in office they held it, and when they resigned from office, they handed it over.
When there was no patrician official, the auspices passed into the hands of all patricians (auspicia ad patres redeunt). This was the case during the monarchy, when, after the king’s death, the patricians elected an interim ruler (interrex) and granted him the right to exercise auspices. In this way, he could mediate between the gods and the state in choosing a new king. Likewise, during the republic, when the auspices surrounding the election of consuls were cancelled and as a result, they were dismissed from their offices, patricians used the interregnum to renew their auspices and hand them over to new officials.
There were also rituals and omens (private auspices) in the family life of the Romans. Before making any important decisions, the gods were asked for advice and destiny. In family life, efforts were made to complete certain rituals and ceremonies. They were carefully cared for and passed down from generation to generation. Their execution had to be very precise and careful. A simple cough meant the ceremony to be repeated. One of the most common auspicia privata circumstances was a wedding. The presence of private auspices when marrying was an important argument for the patricians against joining the commoners. They argued that this would disrupt public and private auspices. It seems that any patrician who could put templa and knew the art of augurium could lead private auspices and was called auspex or augur. Most likely, it was not necessary in such cases to use the services of public augures, members of the college, called for distinction augures publici.
Strict adherence to this requirement lasted at least until the Second Punic War. Over time, however, the position of the augurs increased significantly. This was due to the rivalry between the optimists and the popular and the struggle to improve the social position of the poorest. In the 50s of the 1st century BCE, the plebeian tribune Clodius Pulcher began radical social reforms that could threaten the rule of the mob (ochlocracy). One of the effects of Clodius’ work was the introduction of a law under which the election of officials at people’s assemblies could be interrupted in the event that augurs noticed unfavourable signs during the observation of bird flights and atmospheric phenomena. This paralyzed the election of officials in 54-53 BCE. It was evidence of how politics could be dependent on religion and augurs, or those with the right to interpret divine signs. Interestingly, Clodius Pulcher was not the initiator of the auspices. The tribune was merely referring to the old consul dismissal procedure, the election of which took place despite ominous signs in the sky, and whose choice may have been an insult to Jupiter. In addition, as early as 150 BCE there was a law Aelia et Fufia, which allowed to postpone the deliberations of the congregation to another day in the case of assessing the augurs1.
Having auspices was one of the most honourable privileges of the partisans, also known as auspicia patrum. There was a College of Augurs that initially consisted of three patricians, one for each of the oldest Roman tribus. They were selected by co-opting to the college and held the office for life.
The candidate for the new augur was nominated by two of the senior members of the college, then the electors were sworn in and the new member was solemnly inaugurated. On this occasion, there was always a great feast that all augurs came to. The only distinction among college members was age; the elder augur always voted before the younger, even if he held the higher government office. The chairman of the college was called collegium master. By custom, the augurs should live in harmony with each other, and never select any of the members of the college as an enemy augur. The augur that inaugurated the younger member was always treated by him as a parent.
As insignia of their office, the augurs wore a public robe called trabea (a kind of bright red striped toga with a purple border), and a knot-free staff bent over the top (lituus). The augur science was kept in books (libri augurales).
The size of the college was gradually increased, first to six and then to nine members. In 300 BCE plebeians were admitted to the college, establishing that of the nine members of the college there would be four patricians and five plebeians.
In 104 BCE the law of Domitius (lex Domitia) was passed, which decided to abolish the co-optation of augurs. From then on, new members of the college were selected by a vote of 17 tribus from among 35 existing members. Sulla abolished the Lex Domitia in 81 BCE, restoring co-optation and simultaneously increasing the size of the college to fifteen augurs (seven plebeians and eight patricians). The co-option was abolished again in 63 BCE by the tribune of Annius Labienius with the support of Caesar. The co-option was again annulled by Marcus Antony in 44 BCE. The Roman Emperors later had the right to appoint augurs of their own accord.
Auspices are not omens
Contrary to popular belief, auspices are not fortune-telling. Gods were not asked in this way, for example, “what to do to make it right” or “whether the battle will be won”, but whether doing this or that (eg issuing a battle on a given day, under given conditions, etc.) has the approval of the gods. The answer could be in the affirmative, negative, or postponement (generally on another date on which the auspices was resumed).
The auspices differ from fortune-telling in that is not intended to predict the future or to obtain additional information from the gods to facilitate a controversial decision. The purpose of auspices is merely to strengthen such decisions by backing them up with the authority of the gods (or weakening them by showing no such support).
Kinds of divination