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Roman Augury: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the ancient Roman practice of future-telling called augury, and test your understanding about Roman religion, culture and politics in the ancient world.

It's a Bird

Have you ever given much thought to birdwatching? On the surface, it might seem like an unexciting hobby. But to those who do it, it can be peaceful and even fun. And in ancient times, birdwatchers had another reason to keep an eye on winged creatures -- they thought watching birds could help predict the future.

Augury is an ancient Roman religious practice of watching birds for omens. An omen is a magical sign that foretells the coming of change. Certain omens meant that something good would happen, while others foretold doom. The omen was derived from the flight patterns and behaviors of the birds being observed.

Augury
Augury

Keep Your Eye on the Birdie

The practice of watching birds to foretell events predates the Romans, but is most associated with them because the Romans standardized the practice as part of their religion. Roman religion was polytheistic, meaning it had several deities. Many believed that gods must care for the fate of humans, and therefore would send signs, or omens, to help them prepare for the future.

Augury was most associated with the will of the powerful deity Jupiter. In Roman mythology and history, augury was very important and even held responsible for the founding of Rome. The founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, arrived in the area and debated the exact spot to found the city. Each chose a spot and watched for birds. Romulus saw 12 vultures while Remus saw only 6, and so Romulus chose the spot on which to build Rome.

Romulus watching the birds
Romulus

There were five types of auspices, or interpretations of omens. The two involving birds were ex avibus, from birds, and ex tripudiis, from birds feeding. Ex avibus auspices involved bird behaviors and were divided into two categories. Oscines, including ravens, crows, owls, and hens, communicated either positive or negative omen by their song, both where it was heard and what it consisted of. Alites, eagles and vultures, communicated by their flight patterns. Different patterns corresponded to locations and times of year to present positive or negative omens.

Are we sure this is a good omen?
Vultures

The ex tripudis auspices involved watching birds, almost always chickens, eat. This form of auspice was usually used in military expeditions, and the chickens were brought along specifically for this use and were not to be eaten. Their caretaker, the pullarius, released them onto the ground, tossed bread, and watched. If the chickens beat their wings or refused to eat, it was a bad omen. If the chicken ate so much that food fell out its mouth, it was a good omen and the military would continue with whatever activity was being questioned.

The Augur

Someone had to be responsible for interpreting the omens, and this person was called the augur. Interpreting the will of the gods was an important position, and the augur's appointment had to be accompanied by positive omens if they were allowed to practice. To misinterpret an omen could prove disastrous for all of Rome, since it would upset the gods.

Augurs were meticulous record-keepers and documented omens, prayers, and secrets of their art. Augurs were the only ones allowed to interpret the omens, but did not make the final decision about what action to take. The magistrate or military commander took the advice of the augur and decided a course of action.

Reading the omen
Omen

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