CHAPTER VIII. AUGURIES AND AUSPICES
Augury, Gods, Signs, Business, Augur, Roman
So far we have been considering the regular relations of man and god, seen in recurring or special offerings, in vows and in acts of purification and lustration—all based on the contract-notion, all endeavours on man's part to fulfil his bounden duty, that the gods may be constrained in turn to theirs. But so strong was the feeling of divine presence and influence in the Roman's mind, that he was not content with doing his best by these regular means to secure the favour of the gods, but wished before undertaking any business of importance to be able to assure himself of their approval. His practical common-sense evolved, as it were, a complete 'code'—in the flight and song of birds, in the direction of the lightning-flash, in the conduct of men and animals—by which he believed that the gods communicated to him their intentions: sometimes these indications (auspicia) might be vouchsafed by the gods unasked (oblativa), sometimes they would be given in answer to request (impetrativa): but as to their meaning, there could be no doubt, provided they were interpreted by one skilled in the lore and tradition of augury. We may observe here, though our evidence is much slighter, the same three stages which we have noticed in the sacrificial worship, the homely domestic auspices, the auguries of the agricultural life, and the organised system in the state.
In the household the use of auspices was in origin at any rate very general indeed: 'Nothing,' Cicero tells us, 'of importance used to be undertaken unless with the sanction of the auspices' (auspicato). The right of interrogating the will of the gods, rested, as one might expect, with the master of the house, assisted no doubt by the private augur as the repository of lore and the interpreter of what the master saw. But of the details of domestic augury we know but little. Cato in one passage insists on the extreme importance of silence for the purpose, and Festus suggests that this was secured by the master of the house rising in the depths of the night to inspect the heavens. We have seen already that the taking of the auspices played an important part in the ceremonies of betrothal and marriage, and that the indications of the divine will might be very varied we may gather from a story in Cicero. An aunt wishing to take the auspices for her niece's betrothal, conducted her into an open consecrated space (sacellum) and sat down on the stool of augury (sella) with her niece standing at her side. After a while the girl tired and asked her aunt to give her a little of the stool: the aunt replied, 'My child, I give up my seat to you': nothing further happened and this answer turned out in fact to be the auspicious sign: the aunt died, the niece married the widower and so became mistress of the house.
Of augury in agricultural life we have some indication in the annual observance of the 'spring augury' (augurium verniserum) and the midsummer ceremony of the augurium canarium, which seems to have been a combination of the offering of a red dog (possibly to avert mildew) and an augury for the success of the crops. To the rustic stratum possibly belongs also the augurium salutis populi, though later it was a yearly act celebrated whenever the Roman army was not at war and so became connected with the shutting of the temple of Ianus.
The state greatly developed and organised the whole system of auguries and auspices. The college of augurs ranked second only in importance to the pontifical college, and their duties with regard to both augury and auspice are sufficiently clear. Like the pontifices in relation to cult, they are the storehouse of all tradition, and to them appeal may be made in all cases of doubt both public and private: they were jealous of their secrets and in later times their mutual consciousness of deception became proverbial. The right of augury—in origin simply the inspection of the heavens—was theirs alone, and it was exercised particularly on the annual occasions mentioned and at the installation of priests, of which we get a typical instance in Livy's account of the consecration of Numa.
The auspices on the other hand—in origin 'signs from birds' (avis, spicere)—were the province of the magistrate about to undertake some definite action on behalf of the state whether at home or on the field of battle. Here the augur's functions were merely preparatory and advisory. It was his duty to prepare the templum, the spot from which the auspices are to be taken—always a square space, with boundaries unbroken except at the entrance, not surrounded by wall or necessarily by line, but clearly indicated (effatus) by the augur, and marked off (liberatus) from the surroundings: in the comitia and other places in Rome there were permanent templa, but elsewhere they must be specially made. The magistrate then enters the templum and observes the signs (spectio): if there is any doubt as to interpretation—and seeing the immense complication of the traditions (disciplina), this must often have been the case—the augur is referred to as interpreter. The signs demanded (impetrativa) were originally always connected with the appearance, song or flight of birds—higher or lower, from left to right or right to left, etc. Later others were included, and with the army in the field it became the regular practice to take the auspices from the feeding of the sacred chickens (pulli): the best sign being obtained if, in their eagerness to feed, they let fall some of the grain from their beaks (tripudium solistimum)—a result not difficult to secure by previous treatment and a careful selection of the kind of grain supplied to them. But besides this deliberate 'asking for signs,' public business might at any moment be interrupted if the gods voluntarily sent an indication of disapproval (oblativa): the augurs then had always to be at hand to advise the magistrates whether notice should be taken of such signs, and, if so, what was their signification, and they even seem to have had certain rights of reporting themselves (nuntiatio) the occurrence of adverse ones. The sign of most usual occurrence would be lightning—sometimes such an unexpected event as the seizure of a member of the assembly with epilepsy (morbus comitialis)—and we know to what lengths political obstructionists went in later times in the observation of fictitious signs, or even the prevention of business by the mere announcement of their intention to see an unfavourable omen (servare de caelo). The complications and ramifications of the augur's art are infinite, but the main idea should by now be plain, and it must be remembered that the kindred art of the soothsayer (haruspex), oracles, and the interpretation of fate by the drawing of lots (sortes) are all later foreign introductions: auspice and augury are the only genuine Roman methods for interpreting the will of the gods.
Here then in household, fields, and state, we have a second type of relation to the gods, running parallel to the ordinary practice of sacrifice and prayer, distinct yet not fundamentally different. As it is man's function to propitiate the higher spirits and prevent, if possible, the wrecking of his plans by their opposition, so it is his business, if he can, to find out their intentions before he engages on any serious undertaking. As in the ius sacrum his legal mind leads him to assume that the deities accept the responsibility of the contract, when his own part is fulfilled, so here, like a practical man of business, he assumes their construction of a code of communication, which he has learned to interpret. In its origin it is a notion common to many primitive religions, but in its elaboration it is peculiarly and distinctively Italian, and, as we know it, Roman.
|Written By Cyril Bailey|
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