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The augur was a priest and official in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruriamarker. His main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of the birds (whether they are flying in groups/alone, what noises they make as they fly, direction of flight and what kind of birds they are), known as "taking the auspices." The ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society—public or private—including matters of war, commerce, and religion.

Consider the words of the Roman historian Livy, who writes (VI.41): auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace domi militiaeque omnia geri, quis est qui ignoret? ("Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the divinations, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the divinations?")

Etymology and derivatives

The derivation of the word augur is uncertain; ancient authors believed that it contained the words avi and gero --Latin for "directing the birds"--but historical-linguistic evidence points instead to the root aug-, "to increase, to prosper."

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed.

Augurs in Ancient Rome

Roman augurs were part of a collegium of priests who shared the duties and responsibilities of the position. At the foundation of the Republic in 510 BC, the patricians held sole claim to this office; by 300 BC, the office was open to plebeian occupation as well. Senior members of the collegium put forth nominations for any vacancies, and members voted on whom to co-opt.

In the Regal period tradition holds that there were three augurs at a time; by the time of Sulla, they had reached fifteen in number.

Augury sought the will of the gods, whose natures, whims, desires and judgement might be beneficial or lethal. Divine powers required the placation of honores (honours) in any proposed course of action which might affect Rome's pax, fortuna and salus (peace, good fortune and wellbeing). The divinely ordained condition of peace (pax deorum) emerged from divine good will to Rome, and reflected successful augury. In the Stoic cosmology, pax deorum is the expression of natural order in human affairs.

Political, military and civil actions were sanctioned by augury, which had been historically performed by priests of the college of augurs and by haruspices on behalf of senior magistrates. Lawful, effective augury required the authority of presiding magistrates, who thus held the “right of augury” (ius augurium). Magistracies (which included senior military and civil ranks) were therefore religious offices in their own right, and magistrates of various degrees and kinds were directly responsible for the pax, fortuna and salus of Rome and everything that was Roman. Success in military and political life was held to reflect successful augury and confer auctoritas. According to Cicero, the auctoritas of ius augurum included the right to adjourn and overturn the process of law: consular election could be - and was - rendered invalid by inaugural error. For Cicero, this made the augur the most powerful authority in the Republic.

In the later Republic, augury came under the supervision of the college of pontifices, a priestly-magistral office whose powers were increasingly woven into the cursus honorum. The office of pontifex maximus eventually became a de facto consular prerogative. When his colleague Lepidus died, Augustus assumed his office as pontifex maximus, took priestly control over the State oracles (including the Sibylline books), and used his powers as censor to suppress the circulation of "unapproved" oracles.

Augury and the ira deorum

Ira deorum ("the anger of the gods") was represented in human affairs by failure of polity, defeat in war and by civil strife, omens and prodigies. The haruspex might read divine displeasure in the sacrificial entrails: the augur might read it in natural phenomena he observed within the "sacred space" of the sacrifice (templum). Their interpretation would inform the magistrate's course of action. Livy makes clear that error (vitium) in augury, and neglect of due and proper sacrifice had displeased the gods and led to military and civil disasters. Some non-Roman cults and practices were held to risk ira deorum. Others might be permitted or deliberately imported after due consultation with augurs or oracles. In times of peace, "foreign cults" were closely supervised. In 213BCE, during the near-hysteria engendered by the threat of Hannibal, the censors and pontiffs scrutinised and suppressed some "foreign" cults and oracles as superstitio which were likely to provoke further ira deorum.

Those whose actions had led to ira deorum could not have possessed true ius augurum. Of all the protagonists in the Civil War, only Octavian could have possessed it, because he alone had restored the pax deorum to the Roman people. Lucan, writing during the Principate, described the recent Civil War as "unnatural" - a mirror to supernatural disturbances in the greater cosmos. His imagery is apt to the traditional principles of augury and its broader interpretation by Stoic apologists of the Imperial cult.

Augurs in Han China

Historian Hans Bielenstein translates the title of one of the subordinate officers of the Ministry of Ceremonies as "Prefect Grand Augur," a post established in 104 BC during the Han Dynasty of Chinamarker. This officer was in charge of rituals of divination that were used to influence state policy. For example, the Prefect Grand Augur performed a ceremony in 90 BC on whether or not Han forces should assault the northern nomadic Xiongnu Empire. Another example was the ceremony in 3 AD, when the Prefect Grand Augur performed a ritual to determine whether or not it was auspicious for Wang Mang's daughter to become the empress.

See also


  1. Brent, 20.
  2. Brent, 17-18.
  3. Brent, 17, 20: Brent describes augury as the “spiritual equivalent of consulting the polls.”
  4. Beard et al, Vol 1, 17-21: priesthoods were for life, but most magistracies ran for only a year. Priesthoods therefore offered evident advantages in maintaining a high public and political profile.
  5. Brent, 21-25, and 19,20: citing Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 2.4.
  6. Brent, 59: citing Suetonius, Augustus 31.1-2. cf official reactions to "foreign cult" during the Punic crises, above.
  7. Beard et al, Vol 1, 12-20: the magistrate could repeat the sacrifice until favourable signs were seen, abandon the project or seek further consultation with colleagues of his augural college.
  8. Livy, 25.16.1-4 & 6.1.12: Livy wrote at a time of extreme civil strife, during the era of Rome's transformation from Republic to Principate.
  9. Rosenstein, 58-60
  10. Livy, 4.30.11.
  11. Brent, 43.
  12. In Seneca's words, "religio honours the gods, superstitio offends them": cited in Beard et al, Vol. 1, 216. Although superstitio was (like religio) a constructed rather than an absolute category, it tended to counterpoint religio as being "non-customary", "excessively devoted" or otherwise inappropriate and dangerous, rather than "false". It did not, however, mean all these things at all times, and is used in Ulpian and 50.2.3 with reference to beliefs (including Judaistic monotheism) by which legitimate oaths may be sworn. See Martin, 126-135 for Roman perceptions of "selfish dedication" to superstitio as overwhelmingly negative for the res publica [1]: see also Martin's comparison of Latin superstitio to greek daisidaimonia, and Roman reactions to mystery cults and the practise of magic.
  13. Rosenstein, 57-8: nevertheless, the post hoc search for vitium in Republican ritual seems motivated by a need to limit aristocratic responsibility for military disaster, and offer some protection against accusations of incompetence by rivals.
  14. Brett, 48, citing Lucan, Pharsalia, 1, 522-605: "as if the stars themselves had strayed from their courses".
  15. Bielenstein, 19.


  • Beard, Mary, John North, Simon Price, Religions of Rome: A History (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Bielenstein, Hans. (1980). The Bureaucracy of Han Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521225108.
  • Hornblower, Simon and Anthony Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition) (Oxford: OUP, 1996), s.v. augures

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