The Romans believed that the gods communicated with men indirectly through signs - this communication could be unsought (as with omens) or deliberately sought (as with augury).
Entrance to the cave of the Cumaean sibyl. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)
A sibyl was a Greek prophetess. The story goes that one of her kind offered to Tarquinius Superbus a collection of prophecies and warnings in the form of nine books at a high price. When he refused, she threw three of them into the fire and offered him the remaining six at the original price of the nine. He refused again, so she burned three more and offered him the rest, still at the same price. This time he bought them. The Sibylline Books were consulted on the orders of the senate at times of crisis and calamity, in order to learn how the wrath of the gods could be allayed. They were accidentally burned in 83 BC, and envoys were sent all round the known world to collect a set of similar utterances. Augustus had the new collection put in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where it remained until it was finally destroyed in the fifth century AD.
Apollo with lyre, copy of a cult statue in the Palatine temple of Apollo. The androgynous rendering is typical of this type of statue, associating the god with poetry and the muses. (VRoma: Glyptothek Museum, Munich: Barbara McManus)
Disasters were seen by the Romans as manifestations of divine disapproval, and unusual phenomena as portents of catastrophe. The taking of auspices - the literal meaning of which is “signs from birds” - was a standard procedure before any state activity.
Denarius of Augustus, showing him in his priestly role as an augur with crooked staff of office. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
An official augur, who was present on such occasions merely as a consultant, marked out and prepared the statutory square measure of ground and then handed over to the state official who was to perform the ritual. He took up his position and observed the flights of any birds he could see, their kind, height, position, speed, direction of flight. If there was any doubt about the interpretation of what the official saw, the augur was called upon to advise.
Birds on a bowl, detail of a mosaic. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)
Armies took with them a portable auspice-kit, consisting of a cage of sacred chickens, in front of whom bits of cake were placed to see what would happen. It was a bad sign if they refused to eat: good if they ate the cake and let bits of grain fall from their beaks. Public business was frequently interrupted so that the omens could be consulted. A law passed by an assembly or an election could be declared invalid if the correct procedure had not been carried out.
Lightning which appeared while auspices were being taken was good news: not so when it came unbidden. (Illustration by Jennifer Campbell from Antony Kamm, Scotland in Roman Times, Scottish Children’s Press 1998)
There was a distinction between signs that were solicited and those which appeared without invitation. The more startling or unexpected the sign, for instance a flash of lightning or an epileptic fit on the part of a member of an assembly, the more seriously it was taken.
Believe it or not:
In the winter of 218/217 BC, with Hannibal ensconced in Italy, the following portents were said to have been observed: “In Rome a 6-month-old freeborn infant shouted ‘Victory’ in the vegetable market; in the cattle market an ox climbed up three flights of stairs on its own and then jumped out of a window in fright when the inhabitants screamed; phantom ships glowed in the sky; the temple of Hope, in the vegetable market, was struck by lightning. In Lanuvium a spear moved of its own accord, and a crow flew down into the temple of Juno and alighted on her sacred couch. In the district of Amiternum, ghostly men in shining garb materialized in many places but did not approach anyone. In Picenum it rained stones. At Caere oracular tablets shrank. In Gaul a wolf stole a sentry’s sword from its sheath and ran off with it” (Livy, History of Rome XXI. 62).
In 249 BC, the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher began a sea-battle against the Carthaginians in spite of the fact that the sacred chickens had refused their food. So he threw the uncooperative birds into the sea, observing that if they would not eat, they could drink. In the ensuing debacle 93 Roman ships and their crews were captured. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar’s consular colleague, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, fearful of venturing out of doors in the prevailing state of unrest, stayed at home for the remaining eight months of office. Instead he sent messages to say that he was watching the sky for omens. Any announcement of unfavourable omens had to be made personally before the start of the business of the day. Bibulus could not do so without risking bodily harm. Was this justification for not appearing in person? Nobody was sure. Caesar’s measures were approved, but there were doubts as to whether they were legal.