Augurs of Rome, Masters of the Birds

Cycles of nature were at the core of the ancient practice of divination to decipher the will of the gods. Many different methods of divination were practiced in antiquity, such as dream interpretations (oneiromancy), interpreting the entrails of slaughtered animals (haruspicy), and augury (ornithomancy) which interprets the movements and activities of birds. Augury in particular became famously influential in the Roman empire.

Toth Relief in Temple Ramses II. in Abydos, Egypt
Toth Relief in Temple Ramses II. in Abydos, Egypt, by By Olaf Tausch – CC BY 3.0

The belief that the flight of birds may provide clues as to the will of the gods, seems to have prevailed among many ancient cultures. Birds represent many of the most powerful gods and goddesses in the ancient world. In ancient Egypt, the ibis was venerated as a symbol of the god Thoth, the god of writing, magic, wisdom and the moon. In ancient Mesopotamia, doves were very prominent as symbols of Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, and in the ancient Levant, doves were used as symbols for the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah. Birds have also been seen as spirit messengers of the gods. In Norse mythology, the twin ravens Hugin and Munin whispered news into the ear of the god Odin. During the Inca and Tiwanaku empires of South America, birds were depicted as the animals able to cross the boundaries between the earthly realm and the underworld. In the Etruscan and Roman religions, priests were involved in the practice of augury, interpreting the activities of birds to foretell events.

The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. Public Domain
The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. Public Domain

A Brief History of Augury

The practice of augury has been reported even before the Roman Empire, throughout the Anatolian peninsula and elsewhere along or near the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the earliest writings about this method of divination derive from the ancient Hittites more than a few millennia before Pliny (23–79 AD). Homer’s Iliad, book 8, describes an event where an eagle was sighted grabbing a small fawn which was dedicated to Zeus as a sacrifice, and interpreted as a sign to inspire courage among the Greek warriors. However, it was the Romans that later streamlined the practice of augury into a complete system, governing it by fixed rules, and passing it down from generation to generation. In fact, much of what is known about augury in the classical world comes from the writings of the ancient Romans.

In ancient Rome, augurs were members of a religious college whose duty it was to observe and interpret the signs, or auspices, sent by the gods to express their approval or disapproval of any proposed undertaking. The college’s early history is credited to Romulus or Numa Pompilius for its foundation. The office of the augur was granted only to persons of distinguished merit and was greatly sought after because of its political significance. Although Tarquin later doubled this number, the college had only four members in 300 BC with two places vacant. In the same year, the Ogulnian law increased that number to nine, adding five plebeian members to the four patrician members. In Sulla’s time, there were 15 augurs until it was increased by Julius Caesar. That number continued in imperial times, and the college itself existed as late as the fourth century AD. Augurs often held other posts outside the priesthood— for example, Cicero, the famous orator and senator, was later also appointed an augur.

Coinage of Vespasian, 69-79 AD.
Coinage of Vespasian, 69-79 AD.

Auguring the Foundation of Rome

The Roman historian Livy stressed the importance of the augurs when he says: Auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace, domo militiaeque omnia geri, quis est, qui ignoret? (“Who does not know that this city was founded after taking the auspices, that everything in war and peace, at home and abroad, was done after taking the auspices?”)

Livy was right. Rome was founded after the twins Romulus and Remus took the auspices. Romulus and Remus are said to have been the direct descendants of Aeneas, whose fate-driven exploits are mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid. Romulus and Remus were related to Aeneas through their mother’s father, Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, an ancient town of Latium in central Italy. Before the birth of Romulus and Remus, the reign of Numitor was usurped by his younger brother Amulius. Amulius inherited control of Alba Longa’s treasury that helped him to dethrone Numitor and become king. In order to avoid any potential disturbance in his rule, Amulius killed the male heirs of Nimitor and forced Nimitor’s daughter Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin.

Commemorative stone with representation of augur. End of the 6th century BC.  National Archaeological Museum of Florence. By Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0
Commemorative stone with representation of augur. End of the 6th century BC. National Archaeological Museum of Florence. By Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0

Although a few myths suggest that Mars appeared and conceived with Rhea Silvia, the demi-god hero Hercules is also attested by other myths to be the father of Rhea Silvia’s children. Livy says Rhea Silvia was actually raped by an unknown man, but blamed her pregnancy on divine conception. Nevertheless, Rhea Silvia fell pregnant, and gave birth to her twin sons. Although it was customary for any Vestal Virgin to be buried alive for betraying her vows of celibacy, believing that Rhea Silvia had lain with a god and fearing the god’s wrath, King Amulius did not wish to directly stain his hand by killing Rhea Silvia and her children.

King Amulius imprisoned Rhea Silvia and ordered the death of the twins. He believed if the twins died from the elements instead of by a sword, the gods would save him and his city from retribution, so he decided to have them tossed into the Tiber River. However, the servant who was to carry out this death sentence took pity on the twins and spared their lives. The servant left the twins on the river Tiber in a basket, and the river carried the boys to safety.

The basket carrying the twins was caught in the roots of a nearby fig tree in the Velabrum marsh, at the foot of the Palatine Hill. The twins were first found by a she-wolf, who gave them her breasts to suck. A woodpecker also fed them and thereafter they were found and cared for by a shepherd and his wife. Like their adoptive father, the two boys grew up as shepherds. One day, while the twins were tending to their sheep, shepherds of King Amulius challenged them and they fought. Although Romulus managed to escape, Remus was captured and brought before King Amulius. To save his brother, Romulus gathered and incited a band of local shepherds to join him in rescuing Remus. Romulus freed his brother and killed King Amulius in the process.

The murder of Rhea Ilia's brother Lausus by her uncle Amulius, while Rhea Ilia watches
The murder of Rhea Ilia’s brother Lausus by her uncle Amulius, while Rhea Ilia watches.

After Amulius’ death, the brothers refused the crown of Alba Longa and instead restored their grandfather Nimitor as king. Romulus and Remus then left Alba Longa to establish their own city. After each setting out to find the best place for their new city, the brothers quarreled over where their new city was to be founded; Romulus wanted to found the city on the Palatine Hill while Remus wanted to the city to be on the Aventine Hill. As they were twins and no claim to precedence could be based on seniority, Romulus and Remus agreed to consult the place’s tutelary deities through augury to decide where the city needed to be, who would give the new city its name and who would rule it after it was created. Romulus thus selected the Palatine as his station for observation, and Remus selected the Aventine for his observation. Remus was the first to receive an omen when six vultures appeared to him. A little after Remus received his answer, Romulus also saw 12 vultures, twice the number that his brother had seen. Each brother was saluted by his own party as king as, on Remus’ side the argument was based on who saw the birds first, and on Romulus’ side it was argued that the number of birds seen were more important.

A wild brawl followed leading to bloodshed and Remus was killed in the chaos. Another famous story is that Remus leapt across the newly built walls and was immediately killed by the furious Romulus. Romulus thus became sole ruler, and the city of Rome was named after him.

"Mars and Rhea Silvia" by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620
“Mars and Rhea Silvia” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620

The Augur and the King

Livy provides another example of early Roman augury. Tarquinius Priscus (reign 616–579 BC), a Roman king, felt his army was too weak. This king proposed to double the number of the equestrian centuries originally set up by Romulus, and to name the three new ones after himself and two of his friends. However, as Romulus had behaved under the auspices’ approval, Attus Navius, a respected augur at the time, determined that no improvement or addition should be made unless the birds offered a favorable omen. This aroused the king’s indignation and, to ridicule the augur’s abilities, Tarquin then commanded him to divine whether that what he was thinking about in his mind, without telling anyone what it was that he was considering, could be done. When Attus, after consulting the birds, declared that it could, the king held out a whetstone and a razor. It is said that without the slightest hesitation Attus sliced through it.

" Tarquinius the Ancient asks Augur Attius Navia" by Ricci Sebastiano, around 1690
” Tarquinius the Ancient asks Augur Attius Navia” by Ricci Sebastiano, around 1690

A statue of Attus, representing him with his head covered in the Comitium, was later erected on the steps of the senate-house where the incident had happened. The whetstone was also put there for future generations to commemorate the marvel.

This story illustrates an early example of how much respect auguries and the college of augurs received. Nothing was done in times of peace or war without their sanction. The formation of colonies, the launch of a campaign, the mustering of an army, senate sessions, and decisions affecting peace or war were all opportunities to take auspices. Matters of supreme importance were postponed or dissolved if the birds’ omens were unfavorable. The story of Tarquin and Attus ended with Tarquin being deterred from making changes in the names or number of the soldiers’ centuries. However, he still doubled the number of men in each, so that the three centuries consisted of 1,800 men.

Death by Chicken

The regular way of taking the auspices was as that the augur first marked out a division in the heavens called the templum within which he intended to make his observations with a lituus (wall). A solemn formula divided the station where he was to take the auspices, from the rest of the land. The augur pitched a tent in the demarcated area, took the auspices and waited for the signs to appear. During this time there were to have been no interruptions of any kind.

Ancient augural styles focused on certain types of birds, noting their appearance, flight, calls and feeding to predict the possibility of favorable or unfavorable occurrences. For example, an owl perching near a public square signaled an alarming potential and chickens vomiting grain before an anticipated war implied divine help for an incursion into the military. Unusual behavior of the birds was generally perceived as the gods making strong statements, typically as a harbinger of some punitive calamity.

Noting the feeding habits of chickens, called tripudium, was especially employed during military expeditions. The chickens were kept in a cage, under care of a person called the pullarius. When the auspices were to be taken, the pullarius opened the cage and threw soft cakes to the chickens. If the chickens refused to come out, refused to eat, uttered a cry, beat their wings, or flew away, the signs were considered to be unfavorable. On the other hand, if the chickens ate so greedily that a morsel dropped out of their mouths to the earth, it was seen as a sign of favor. In Book 10 of his History of Rome, Livy details elements of that augural custom. Also, in the same book, Livy provides an account of the death penalty imposed on an augur for relaying a misreading. Therefore, as an act of accountability, if an error occurred in the auspices, the augurs may inform themselves of the circumstances and comment on it, whether it was by their own will or at the behest of the Senate.

In another story, the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher took the omens from chickens before a great naval battle. However, the chickens refused to eat. Surprised with this unexpected setback and finding himself in a position where he had to calm a superstitious and terrified crew, Pulcher quickly thought of an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard and proclaimed loudly, “Bibant, quoniam esse nollent!” (if they don’t eat, let them drink!) He then suffered a catastrophic defeat in battle by the Carthaginians – which was blamed as punishment for having dismissed the omens.

Death of Clodius, By Silvestre David Mirys, Public Domain
Death of Clodius, By Silvestre David Mirys, Public Domain

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