An auspice is an omen based on natural phenomenon and more precisely the behavior of birds.
From Latin auspicium , auspex, literally “one who looks at birds”.
In the Amarna correspondence (fourteenth century BCE), it is related that the king of Alasia in Cyprus has need of an 'eagle diviner' to be sent from Egypt. Calchas, a bird-diviner, has led the army of Agamemnon (Iliad I.69).
In ancient Rome, the auspices provided a sign from the gods, as interpreted by an augur. Unlike in Greece where oracles played the role of messenger of the Gods, in Rome it was through birds that Jupiter’s will was interpreted. Auspices showed Romans what they were to do, or not to do; giving no explanation for the decision made except that it was the will of the Gods. Elections, the passing of laws and wars were all put on hold until the people were assured the Gods agreed with their actions. The men who interpreted these signs, revealing the will of the gods were called augures.
An augure would perform a ceremony (known as “taking the auspices”) and would read patterns of birds in the sky. Depending upon the birds, the auspices from the gods could be favorable or unfavorable (auspicious or inauspicious). Sometimes bribed or politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavorable auspices in order to delay certain state functions, such as elections. Pliny the Younger attributes the invention of auspicy to Tiresias the seer of Thebes, the generic model of a seer in the Greco-Roman literary culture.
One of the most famous auspices is the one which is connected with the founding of Rome. Once the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, arrived at the Palatine Hill, the two argued over where the exact position of the city should be. Romulus was set on building the city upon the Palatine, but Remus wanted to build the city on the strategic and easily fortified Aventine Hill. The two agreed to settle their argument by testing their abilities as augurs and by the will of the gods. Each took a seat on the ground apart from one another, and, according to Plutarch, Remus saw six vultures, while Romulus saw twelve.
Types of Auspices
There were five different types of auspices. Of these, the last three formed no part of the ancient auspices.
ex caelo This auspice involved the observation of thunder and lightning and was often seen as the most important auspice. Whenever an augur reported that Jupiter had sent down thunder and lightning, no comitia (a gathering deemed to represent the entire Roman population) could be held [.
ex avibus Though auspices were typically bird signs, not all birds in the sky were seen as symbols of the will of the Gods. There were two classes of birds, Oscines, who gave auspices via their singing and Alites, who gave auspices via how they flew . The Oscines included ravens, crows, owls and hens, each offering either a favorable omen (auspicium ratum) or an unfavorable depending on which side of the Augures designated area they appeared on. The birds of the Alites were the eagle, the vulture, the avis sanqualis, also called ossifraga, and the immussulus or immusculus . Some birds like the Picus Martius, the Feronius, and the Parrha could be considered among the oscines and the alites. Every movement and every sound made by these birds had a different meaning and interpretation according to the different circumstances, or times of the year when it was observed.
ex tripudiis These auspices were read by interpreting eating patterns of chickens and were generally used on military expeditions. Cicero shows that at one point, any bird could perform the tripudium however as the practice progressed it soon began custoMary to use only chickens. The chickens were kept in a cage under the care of the pullarius who, when the time came, released the chickens and threw at them some form of bread of cake. If the chickens refused to come out or eat, uttered a cry, beat their wings, or flew away, the signs were considered unfavourable. Conversely if the chicken left its cage to feast so that something fell from its mouth and landed on the ground it was deemed tripudium solistimum, (tripudium quasi terripavium, solistimum, from solum, according to the ancient writers) and was considered to be a favourable sign
ex quadrupedibus Auspices could also be taken from animals who walked on four feet, though these auspices were not part of the original science of augures and were never used for state affairs. Often these aupices took the form of a fox, wolf, horse, or dog ran across a persons path or was found in an unusual location the meaning could be interpreted (by an appointed augur) as some form of will of the Gods.
'ex diris This category of auspices represented every other event or occurrence which could result in an auspice which does not fit into the above categories. Often actions of sneezing, stumbling and other slightly abnormal events could be taken as a sign from the Gods to be interpreted .
Offered and Requested signs
There were two classifications of auspice signs, imperativa (requested) and oblativa (offered). Signs that fall under the category of imperativa were signs that resulted due to the actions performed by the augur during the reading of the auspice . Ex Tripudiis, a sign read by a chickens desire to eat or not, would be an example of an imperativa sign in which the augur preformed a particular ceremony with expected results. The other category of signs, oblativa, were momentous events which occurred unexpectedly, while the magistrate was either taking auspices or participating in public debate . Ex Caelo, signs of thunder and lightning or other natural phenomenon, would be considered and “offered” sign. Unless the magistrate was accompanied by an augur it was completely up to them to decide whether or not the “offered” sign was significant.
The augur would define in advance the signs he wanted, the kind of birds, the direction and the pattern of the flight, then wait until the sign show up in the sky. The most popular birds were eagles, vultures and osprey but as far as the flight or the calls of the birds are concerned, owls, ravens and crows or woodpeckers were also chosen.
Birds coming from the East or South were most auspicious whereas birds coming from the North, behind the augure or to the right were considered ill-omened. The higher the flight of the birds, the more favorable the omen. If a bird suddenly changed direction, there might be unexpected opposition or traitors. If a bird sang when it took flight, it was a good sign to go ahead with any matter. A bird who call when it lands may indicate to be cautious. There was considerable variation in the interpretation of the bird call depending on the season, sound and circumstances or the deity invoked. The appearance of an eagle, Jupiter's symbol, would indicate the best circumstances.
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