Augurs and Omens
The Romans put great faith in the divine world and their gods and they attached a great importance to things like omens. The omens were interpreted by the Augur who was a priest specially trained to read and interpret the signs from the gods. There was an official college of augurs, the members of which were originally three patricians. At about 300 BC the number of patrician augurs was increased by one, and five plebeian augurs were added. Later the number was again increased to fifteen. Its very important to note that they did not foretell the future, but rather ascertained whether the gods were pleased with a specific plan of action, such as a voyage, a battle or the passing of a law. The word Augur or auspex meant a diviner by birds, but later it was applied in a more extended sense incorporating other styles of divination. To read evidence of divine intent from the flight of birds was also called taking the auspices, this practice was older then Rome itself but the Romans had their own distinct version of taking the auspices. The most famous case of taking the auspices is of course by Romulus and Remus at the founding of Rome (excerpt from Titus Livius' or Livy's (59 BC - 17 AD) book "Ab Urbe Condita" :
"As they were twins and no claim to precedence could be based on seniority, they decided to consult the tutelary deities of the place by means of augury as to who was to give his name to the new city, and who was to rule it after it had been founded. Romulus accordingly selected the Palatine as his station for observation, Remus the Aventine. Remus is said to have been the first to receive an omen: six vultures appeared to him. The augury had just been announced to Romulus when double the number appeared to him. Each was saluted as king by his own party. The one side based their claim on the priority of the appearance, the other on the number of the birds. Then followed an angry altercation; heated passions led to bloodshed; in the tumult Remus was killed. The more common report is that Remus contemptuously jumped over the newly raised walls and was forthwith killed by the enraged Romulus, who exclaimed, "So shall it be henceforth with every one who leaps over my walls." Romulus thus became sole ruler, and the city was called after him, its founder."
Another example from Livy is about one of the Roman kings Tarquin in 600 BC:
"Tarquin thought his army was weakest in cavalry and decided to double the centuries, which Romulus had formed, of the Ramnes, Titienses, and Luceres, and to distinguish them by his own name. Now as Romulus had acted under the sanction of the auspices, Attus Navius, a celebrated augur at that time, insisted that no change could be made, nothing new introduced, unless the birds gave a favourable omen. The king's anger was roused, and in mockery of the augur's skill he is reported to have said, "Come, you diviner, find out by your augury whether what I am now contemplating can be done." Attus, after consulting the omens, declared that it could. "Well," the king replied, "I had it in my mind that you should cut a whetstone with a razor. Take these, and perform the feat which your birds portend can be done." It is said that without the slightest hesitation he cut it through. There used to be a statue of Attus, representing him with his head covered, in the Comitium, on the steps to the left of the senate-house, where the incident occurred. The whetstone also, it is recorded, was placed there to be a memorial of the marvel for future generations. At all events, auguries and the college of augurs were held in such honour that nothing was undertaken in peace or war without their sanction; the assembly of the curies, the assembly of the centuries, matters of the highest importance, were suspended or broken up if the omen of the birds was unfavourable. Even on that occasion Tarquin was deterred from making changes in the names or numbers of the centuries of knights; he merely doubled the number of men in each, so that the three centuries contained eighteen hundred men. Those who were added to the centuries bore the same designation, only they were called the "Second" knights, and the centuries being thus doubled are now called the "Six Centuries."
To observe the auspices the magistrate (note NOT the augur, he interpreted the signs the magistrate observed the signs) sought out a high spot then he used his staff, the lituus, to mark out a square in the sky (called a templum) in which he would observe the flight of the birds. He then prayed to the gods asking the question for which he was taking the auspices and maybe indicating the desired signs he would be looking for. The augur attended the ceremony and probably advised the magistrate and then reported to his colleagues on the conduct of the ritual. If the magistrate determined that the auguries were unfavourable, no action could be taken. If they were favorable, action on the specific issue could be taken of course, law passed ,war declared etc. The Senate would ask the college of augurs to review the event and determine if the auguries were properly performed. If not, the action was deemed invalid "ab initio". Because the rules and rituals for taking auspicies were so detailed and technical, the possibility of an error was high and if the rules were violated, the magistrate had to start over again from the beginning. If, in retrospect, the college of augurs determined the magistrate had erred in a ritual detail, whatever political action had ensued did not count. And this was of course a very handy way to get unfavourable laws nullified and therefore the position of Augur was much desired by and later given to, the emperor.
Looking at the flights of birds wasn't the only way to take the omens, the Romans also used the Etruscan art of reading the entrails of a sacrificed animal. This was called haruspices ("men who look at guts"). The animal to be sacrificed was blessed, a procession was made to an altar and the god(s) were invoked. The animal chosen to be sacrificed had to be of a specific age, gender, color etc. and had to be killed with a single blow. If the animal struggled, it was a very bad sign indeed. The haruspex then butchered the animal and divided the meat into a section that would be inspected, a section that would be offered to the god(s) and a section that would be shared by participants at the sacrifice. If the signs were favorable the participants would feast, and the action for which divine sanction had been sought could be pursued.
Another form of taking the auspices was looking at the feeding habits of chickens this was called tripudium and was especially employed on military expeditions. The chickens (pulli) 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 to the chickens a kind of soft cake. If they refused to come out, refused to eat, uttered a cry, beat their wings, or flew away, the signs were considered unfavourable. On the other hand if they ate greedily, so that something fell from their mouth and struck the earth, it was called tripudium solistimum and this was seen as a favorable sign.
There was not a man, whatever his rank or condition, in the camp who was not seized by the passion for battle, the highest and lowest alike were eagerly looking forward to it; the general was watching the excited looks of the men, the men were looking at their general, the universal excitement extended even to those who were engaged in observing the sacred birds. The chickens refused to eat, but the pullarius ventured to misrepresent matters, and reported to the consul that they had eaten so greedily that the corn dropped from their mouths on to the ground. The consul, delighted at the news, gave out that the omens could not have been more favorable; they were going to engage the enemy under the guidance and blessing of heaven. He then gave the signal for battle.
However it came to the generals ears that the pullaris had lied to him and Livy continues:
He then issued instructions to the centurions to place the pullarius in front of the fighting line. The standards of the Samnites were now advancing, followed by the army in gorgeous array; even to their enemies they presented a magnificent sight. Before the battle-shout was raised or the lines closed a chance javelin struck the pullarius and he fell in front of the standards. When this was reported to the consul he remarked, "The gods are taking their part in the battle, the guilty man has met with his punishment." While the consul was speaking a crow in front of him gave a loud and distinct caw. The consul welcomed the augury and declared that the gods had never more plainly manifested their presence in human affairs. He then ordered the charge to be sounded and the battle-shout to be raised.
And the battle was won of course
Another story involves the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher who also took the omens before a great naval battle. The chickens however refused to eat which was a terrible omen. Confronted with this unexpected setback and having to deal with a superstitious and now terrified crew Pulcher quickly figured an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard, directly into the Mediterranean, proclaiming: They don't eat, so let them drink! He then suffered a catastrophic defeat in battle by the Carthaginians and this was of course blamed as punishment for having ignored the omens.
The weather was also observed to take the auspices especially Lightning being the sign of Jupiter. A lightning bolt passing from left to right was a favorable omen; a lightning bolt passing from right to left was a sign that Jupiter did not approve of current political events. Furthermore, whenever the augurs reported any sign of lightning, the magistrates of Rome were required to cancel all public assemblies on the following day. Of course another useful political tool of the post of augur used (abused) to postpone unwanted meetings, delay the passage of laws, or prevent the election of certain magistrates by popular assemblies.
Omens didn't just appear when the people asked for them, sometimes the gods gave signals and omens showing they needed attention. These were called Monstra and could be any natural but bizarre event (our word monster derives from examples like the birth of two-headed calves, etc.) When such events occurred, the Senate decided first whether or not they were indeed prodigies. If they were the haruspices were called in to find out what was on the god(s)' mind. The haruspices would advise the Senate on their meaning and what remedia were necessary if any. These divine signs weren't necessarily fatalistic harbingers of doom they could be either good or bad and the Romans understood these signs as warnings from the gods that they felt somehow neglected. The Romans needed to heed them, determine what prompted them, and remedy the underlying situation. Romans might fail to act quickly or effectively enough to forestall the wrath of the gods - but they were given a chance.
Here is one last example from Livy 's book "AB Urbe Condita" on omens send by the gods:
Whilst the citizens were in a state of tense expectancy of a fresh war, the column erected on the Capitol during the Punic war by the colleague of Ser. Fulvius was shattered from top to bottom by a stroke of lightning. This accident was regarded as a portent and reported to the senate. The Keepers of the Sacred Books announced that the City must undergo a lustration; that intercessions and special prayers must be offered; and that animals of the larger size must be sacrificed both at Rome in the Capitol and in Campania at the Promontory of Minerva. Games were also, as soon as possible, to be celebrated for ten days in honour of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Other incidents increased the religious terrors. It was reported that showers of blood had been falling for three days at Saturnia; an ass was foaled with three legs, and a bull with five cows had been destroyed by a single flash of lightning at Calatia; at Auximium there had been a shower of earth. In expiation of these portents, sacrifices were offered and special intercessions for one day, which was observed as a solemn holiday.
For this article I mainly used the texts from these websites:
The book of Livy "AB Urbe Condita" is available online on several sites I used the one here: