An auspicium ("auspice", Lat.: "looking at birds") is a type of divination. Not a prediction of future events, the auspicia simply provided a sign from the gods indicating approval or disapproval of a proposed action. Auspicia were governed by the Ius auspicii.
In the most ancient times, no public or private action took place without consulting the auspices.
"Auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace, domo militiaeque omnia geri, quis est, qui ignoret?" Livy ab urbe condita (vi.14)
While all nations of antiquity sought to learn the will of the gods by various means, each separate nation held a sort of national belief that their particular gods revealed the future to them in a distinct and peculiar manner. Therefore, each people possessed a national μαντική or divinatio, which was supported by the laws and institutions of the state, and which was guarded from mixture with foreign elements by stringent enactments.
The Romans looked upon astrology and the whole prophetic art of the Chaldaeans as a dangerous innovation. They paid little attention to dreams, and hardly any to inspired prophets and seers. They had, however, learned from the Etruscans to attach much importance to extraordinary appearances in nature — Prodigia. In common with other neighbouring nations they endeavoured to learn the future, especially in war, by consulting the entrails of victims. They laid great stress upon favourable or unfavourable omina. In times of danger and difficulty they were accustomed to consult the Sibylline Books, which they had received from the Greeks. However, the mode of divination, which was peculiar to them, and essentially national, consisted in those signs included under the name of auspicia.
Before performing any public act (e.g., calling a comitia, starting a battle) a magistrate consulted the gods by "taking the auspices". This consisted of observation of birds (aves). The magistrates themselves performed these "auspicia impetrativa", and it was up to them to determine how to interpret what they saw. Augurs served two roles; they could be consulted by magistrates regarding any questions related to the auspices, and the augurs were responsible for creating and inaugurating the auguracula, the spaces in and from which the auspices were taken. Three permanent auguracula existed within Rome itself; on the citadel , on the Palatine and on the Quirinal . Auguracula were also established in other cities and in military camps. Auspicia impetrativa were narrow in scope, only indicating simple approval or disapproval by the gods of a specific course of action that a magistrate proposed to undertake. These auspices were also limited in space and time since they were valid for one day only and only until the magistrate crossed certain boundaries, such as that between the Campus Martius and the city proper, the amnis Petronia . Once such a boundary was crossed, the auspices had to be taken again.
Whereas auspicia impetrativa were initiated by magistrates, auspicia oblativa were manifested by the gods themselves. Any seemingly significant or unusual human or natural event could be seen as an auspicium oblativum. The most extreme of these could be considered as prodigies. Auspicia oblativa might be observed by a magistrate directly, or they might be brought to the notice of a magistrate. Except for often in the case of prodigies, the magistrate could decide to accept or reject the auspicium oblativum.
The observation of the auspices was, according to the unanimous testimony of the ancient writers, more ancient even than Rome itself, which is constantly represented as founded under the sanction of the auspices, and the use of them is therefore associated with the Latins, or the earliest inhabitants of the city. There seems therefore no reason to assign to them an Etruscan origin, as many modern writers are inclined to do, while there are several facts pointing to an opposite conclusion. Cicero, who was himself an augur, in his work De Divinatione, constantly appeals to the striking difference between the auspicia and the Etruscan system of divination; and, while he frequently mentions other nations which paid attention to the flight of birds as intimations of the divine will, he never once mentions this practice as in existence among the Etruscans (Cic. de Div. i.41, ii.35, 38; de Nat. Deor. ii.4). The belief that the flight of birds gave some intimation of the will of the gods seems to have been prevalent among many nations of antiquity, and was common to the Greeks, as well as the Romans; but it was only among the latter people that it was reduced to a complete system, governed by fixed rules, and handed down from generation to generation. In Greece, the oracles supplanted the birds, and the future was learnt from Apollo and other gods, rarely from Zeus, who possessed very few oracles in Greece. The contrary was the case at Rome: it was from Jupiter that the future was learnt, and the birds were regarded as his messengers (Aves internuntiae Jovis, Cic. de Divin. ii.34; Interpretes Jovis optimi maximi publici augures, Cic. de Leg. ii.8).
There are many examples in Valerius Maximus that show how disaster follows those who disregard the auspices:
- Valerius Maximus 2.1.1: "Among our ancestors, no affair was undertaken, either in public or private, before taking the auspices."
- Valerius Maximus 1.4.2 on Ti. Gracchus "No he died as a result of disregarding the portents."
- Valerius Maximus 1.4.3 During the First Punic War [249 BCE], P. Claudius, a man of impulse, wanting to join battle at sea, sought auspices in the traditional fashion. When the pullarius reported that the chickens did not leave their coop, he ordered them flung into the sea, saying, "Since they will not eat, let them drink." Soon afterwards he lost his fleet off the Aegates islands with great damage to the republic and his own destruction. [Cic. Nat. Deor. 2.7]
- Valerius Maximus 1.4.4 "L. Junius, colleague of P. Claudius, having neglected auspices and lost his fleet in a storm, forestalled the ignominy of a conviction by voluntary death." [Cic. Nat. Deor. 2.7; Div. 2.71]
- Valerius Maximus 1.4.7 "M. Brutus, colleague of Cassius, was forewarned of the outcome of the civil war against Caesar and Antonius [42 BCE]. For two eagles flying above the field on which he fought arose from the two camps, came together, and clashed with each other. The winner went off to Caesar Augustus, whereas the one which had flown up from Brutus' camp was put to flight." [App. Bell. Civ. 4.128; Plut. Brut. 48]
- Valerius Maximus 1.6.6 C. "Flaminius was made consul without auspices. When he was about to engage in battle with Hannibal at Lake Trasimene and gave orders for the standards to be pulled up, his horse slipped and he was thrown over its head to the ground. Not daunted by the prodigy, he threatened the standard-bearers who told him that the standards could not be budged from their positions with a flogging unless they dug them up immediately. But would that he had paid the penalty for his rashness only with his own mishap and not with a great calamity of the Roman people!" [Liv. 22.3.11-14]
- Valerius Maximus 1.6.7 "To Flaminius' headlong audacity succeeds C. Hostilius Mancinus with his insane obstinacy [137 BCE]. These prodigies came his way as he was about to leave for Spain as consul, when he was minded to offer sacrifice at Lavinium, the chickens on being let out from their coup fled into a nearby wood and could not be found though most diligently sought . When he was going aboard ship from the habor of Hercules, where he had arrived on foot, a voice from nowhere came to his ears, "Mancinus, remain!" Frightened by this, he changed route and made for Genua, where he boarded a boat: a snake of extraordinary size appeared and then disappeared. So he equaled the number of portents with the number of his disasters, a lost battle, a disgraceful treaty, a lamentable handover."
- Valerius Maximus 1.6.8 "Such temerity in a man of little judgement is rendered less strange by the sad end of a most respected citizen, Ti. Gracchus, which a prodigy warned but prudence did not avoid. For when as (pro) consul [212 BCE] he made a sacrifice in Lucania, two snakes suddenly appeared from hiding , at the liver of the victim he had immolated, and withdrew into the same lair. He then went on that account to repeat the sacrifice, and the same prodigy occurred. A third victim was slaughtered and its entrails more carefully guarded, but the approach of the serpents could not be blocked nor their withdrawal prevent. Although the haruspices said that the life of the general was concerned, Gracchus allowed himself to be brought by the treachery of a false friend, Flavus, to a place where the Carthaginian commander Mago lay in ambush with an armed band, and was there killed unarmed." [Liv. 25.16]
- Valerius Maximus 1.6.9 As [M. Marcellus] enquired the will of the Gods in a ceremonial sacrifice. The liver of the first victim to fall before the hearth was found to he headless and the second had a double-headed liver. After inspection the haruspex pronounced with a gloomy countences that the entrails disliked him, because the first showed mutilated and the second excessive. Thus admonished to avoid rash enterprise, on the following night M. Marcellus ventured out with a few companions to reconnoiter [208 BCE]. Surrounded by a large number of enemies, in the country of the Brutti, he perished bringing his country grief and loss in equal measure. [Liv. 27.26]
- Valerius Maximus 5.6.3: "When praetor Genucius Cipus was leaving by the City gate wearing his general's cloak, a portent of a strange and unheard-of description befell him. For suddenly the semblance of horns crept out on his head; and an oracle was given that if he returned to the City he would be king. Lest that should happen, he sentenced himself to voluntary and perpetual exile. Piety worthy to be preferred to the seven kings in terms of real glory, testifying to which, a bronze effigy of a horned head was put into the gate by which he had left, and it was called Raduscula; for pieces of bronze once used to be called raudera." [Ovid Met. 15.565-621; Varro L. L. 5.163]
- Valerius Maximus 5.6.4 "As [praetor Aelius] was sitting in judgment, a woodpecker settled on his head. The haruspex affirmed that if the bird was allowed to live, the fate of his own house would be very happy but that of the republic very miserable; if it was killed, both predictions would be reversed. Aelius immediately killed the woodpecker with a bite before the senate's eyes. The Aelius family lost seventeen exceptionally brave men in the battle Cannae; the republic as time went on rose to the topmost pinnacle of empire." [Plin. N. H. 10.41; Liv. 41.8.1; Front. Strat. 4.5.14]
- Valerius Maximus 7.5.5 "Consul Papirius Cursor was besieging Aquilonia [293 BCE]. He wished to join battle and the pullarius reported excellent auspices, though the birds were in fact far from encouraging. Informed of his deception, Papirius believed that for himself and his army a good omen had been given and began the fray. But he placed the liar right in front of the battle line so that the Gods might have someone on whose head to visit their anger, if angery They were. Whether by chance or the providence of divine power, the first missle discharged from the opposing side was guided right into the breast of the pullarius and laid him lifeless on the ground. When the consul learned of it, he confidently invaded Aquilonia and took it. So quickly did he perceive how the insult to him as general ought to be avenged, how violated religion should be expiated, and how victory could be seized. He acted the man of severity, the religious consul, the vigorous commander by catching in a single mental impulse the measure of fear, the method of punishment and the path to hope." [Liv.29.37.17]
Incorporating material adapted from William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
Valerius Maximus (1st C. C.E.) Factorvm et Dictorum Memorabilium Libri Novem Latin
- ↑ Auguraculum on the citadel: Article at "Digital Augustan Rome"
- ↑ Auguraculum on the Quirinal: Varro, Lingua Latina, Book V
- ↑ On the amnis Petronia and the auspices, see Festus 250: Petronia amnis est in Tiberim perfluens, quam magistratus auspicato transeunt, cum in Campo quid agere volunt, quod genus auspici peremne vocatur.