Last updated
Modern depiction of an augur with sacred chicken; he holds a lituus, the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins Augur, Nordisk familjebok.png
Modern depiction of an augur with sacred chicken; he holds a lituus, the curved wand often used as a symbol of augury on Roman coins

An augur was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury, the interpretation of the will of the gods by studying events he observed within a predetermined sacred space (templum). The templum corresponded to the heavenly space above. The augur's decisions were based on what he personally saw or heard from within the templum; they included thunder, lightning and any accidental signs such as falling objects, but in particular, birdsigns; whether the birds he saw flew in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, the direction of flight, what kind of birds they were, how many there were, or how they fed. This practice was known as "taking the auspices". As circumstance did not always favour the convenient appearance of wild birds or weather phenomena, domesticated chickens kept for the purpose were sometimes released into the templum, where their behaviour, particularly how they fed, could be studied by the augur. [1]


The augural 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. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome's pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being). [2]


Although ancient authors believed that the term "augur" contained the words avis and gerō Latin for "directing the birds", historical-linguistic evidence points instead to the root augeō: "to increase, to prosper".[ citation needed ]

History and public role

Political, military and civil actions were sanctioned by augury and by haruspices.

Historically, augury was performed by priests of the college of augurs on behalf of senior magistrates. The practice itself likely comes from the neighboring region of Etruria, where augurs were highly respected as officials. Magistrates were empowered to conduct augury as required for the performance of their official duties. Magistracies included senior military and civil ranks, which were therefore religious offices in their own right, and magistrates were directly responsible for the pax, fortuna, and salus of Rome and everything that was Roman.

The presiding magistrate at an augural rite held the "right of augury" (ius augurii). [3] The right of nuntiatio announcing the appearance of auspicia oblativa (unexpected sign) was reserved for the officiating augur, which would require the interruption of the proceedings then underway. [4]

Kingdom of Rome

The Roman historian Livy stressed the importance of the augurs: "Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the auspices, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the auspices?" [5]

In the Regal period, which ended 509 BC, tradition holds that there were three augurs at a time; they numbered nine by the third century BC; Sulla increased their number to fifteen. By the Principate, their numbers swelled even further to an estimated 25 members. [6]

Roman Republic

During the Republic, priesthoods were prized as greatly as the consulship, the censorship, and the triumph. Membership gave the lifelong right to participate prominently in processions at ludi and in public banquets; augurs proudly displayed the symbol of the office, the lituus . [6]

Roman augurs were part of a college (Latin 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.

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. Cicero himself was co-opted into the college only late in his career. [7]

In the later Republic, augury was supervised by 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. [8]

Roman Empire

The effectiveness of augury could only be judged retrospectively; the divinely ordained condition of peace (pax deorum) was an outcome of successful augury. Those whose actions had led to divine wrath (ira deorum) could not have possessed a true right of augury (ius augurum). [9] 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. [10] In the Stoic cosmology the pax deorum is the expression of natural order in human affairs. [11]

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. [12]

Despite their lack of political influence under the Empire, the augurate, as with its fellow quattuor amplissima collegia, continued to confer prestige on its members.

Augurs, auguria, and auspices

In ancient Rome the auguria (augural rites) were considered to be in equilibrium with the sacra ("sacred things" or "rites") and were not the only way by which the gods made their will known.

The augures publici (public augurs) concerned themselves only with matters related to the state. The role of the augur was that of consulting and interpreting the will of gods about some course of action such as accession of kings to the throne, of magistrates and major sacerdotes to their functions (inauguration) and all public enterprises. It sufficed to say that the augur or magistrate had heard a clap of thunder to suspend the convocation of the comitia. [13]

Since auguria publica and inaugurations of magistrates are strictly connected to political life this brought about the deterioration and abuses that condemned augury to progressive and irreversible debasement, stripping it of all religious value.

Ancient tradition

According to Varro, [14] before his time augures had distinguished five kinds of territory: ager Romanus, ager Gabinus, ager peregrinus, ager hosticus, ager incertus. These distinctions clearly point to the times of the prehistory of Latium and testify the archaic quality of the art of augury. [4]

The jus augurale (augural law) was rigorously secret, therefore very little about the technical aspects of ceremonies and rituals has been recorded. We have only the names of some auguria:

The terms augurium and auspicium are used indifferently by ancient authors. [18] Modern scholars have debated the issue at length but have failed to find a distinctive definition that may hold for all the known cases. By such considerations Dumezil [19] thinks that the two terms refer in fact to two aspects of the same religious act:

In Varro's words "Agere augurium, aves specit", [20] "to conduct the augurium, he observed the birds".


The auspicia were divided into two categories: requested by man (impetrativa) and offered spontaneously by the gods (oblativa). Both impetrativa and oblativa auspices could be further divided into five subclasses:

Only some species of birds (aves augurales) could yield valid signs [21] whose meaning would vary according to the species. Among them were ravens, woodpeckers, owls, ossifragae, and eagles.

Signs from birds were divided into alites, from the flight, and oscines, from the voice: The alites included region of the sky, height and type of flight, behaviour of the bird and place where it would come to rest. The oscines included the pitch and direction of the sound. [22]


Magistrates endowed by the law with the right of spectio (observation of auspices) would establish the requested auspicium (observation platform) before taking the auspicia impetrativa ("requested" or "sought" auspices; see above). The templum, or sacred space within which the operation would take place had to be established and delimited (it should be square and have only one entrance) [23] [24] and purified (effari, liberare). [25]

The enunciation of the requested auspicia that began the observation portion of the ceremony was called legum dictio. [26] Observation conditions were rigorous and required absolute silence for validity of the operation. Technically the sky was divided into four sections or regions: dextera, sinistra, antica, and postica (right, left, anterior and posterior). [27]

The prototype of the ritual of inauguration of people is described in Livy's [28] description of the inauguration of king Numa Pompilius:

The augur asks Jupiter: [29] "Si fas est" (i.e. if it is divine justice to do this) "... send me a certain signum (sign)" then the augur listed the auspicia he wanted to see. When they appeared Numa was declared king.


Since the observation was complex, conflict among signs was common. [30] A hierarchy among signs was devised: e.g. a sign from the eagle would prevail on that from the woodpecker and the ossifragae (parra). [31]

During the last centuries of the republic the auspices ex caelo and ex tripudiis supplanted other types, as the other forms could be easily used in a fraudulent way, i.e. bent to suit the desire of the asking person. [32] Cicero condemned the fraudulent use and denounced the decline in the level of knowledge of the doctrine by the augurs of his time, [33] but in fact the abuse developed from the evasion of negative signs, described in the next subsection.[ citation needed ]


The interpretation of signs was vast and complex, and magistrates devised protective tricks to avoid being paralysed by negative signs. [34] Against the negative auspicia oblativa the admitted procedures included:

Attus Navius

Contrary to other divinatory practices present in Rome (e.g. haruspicina, consultation of the libri Sibyllini) Roman augury appears to be autochthonous and pre-historical, originally Latin or Italic, and attested in the Iguvine Tables (avif aseria) and among other Latin tribes.

The very story or legend of the foundation of Rome is based on augury. the ascertaining of the will of gods through observation of the sky and of birds. Romulus and Remus indeed acted as augurs and Romulus was considered a great augur throughout the course of his life.

The character that best represented and portrayed the art however was Attus Navius. His story is related by Cicero:

He was born into a very poor family. One day he lost one of his pigs. He then promised the gods that if he found it, he would offer them the biggest grapes growing in his vineyard. After recovering his pig he stood right at the middle of his grape yard facing South. He divided the sky into four sections and observed birds: when they appeared he walked in that direction and found an extraordinary large grape that he offered to the gods.

His story was immediately famous and he became the augur of the king (see above the episode with king Tarquinius narrated by Livy). Henceforth he was considered the patron of the augurs. [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Roman censor</span> Roman magistrate and census administrator

The censor was a magistrate in ancient Rome who was responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government's finances.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jupiter (mythology)</span> Chief deity of Roman state religion

Jupiter, also known as Jove, is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods in ancient Roman religion and mythology. Jupiter was the chief deity of Roman state religion throughout the Republican and Imperial eras, until Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire. In Roman mythology, he negotiates with Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, to establish principles of Roman religion such as offering, or sacrifice.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vesta (mythology)</span> Ancient Roman goddess of the hearth, home, and family

Vesta is the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman religion. She was rarely depicted in human form, and was more often represented by the fire of her temple in the Forum Romanum. Entry to her temple was permitted only to her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, who guarded particular sacred objects within, prepared flour and sacred salt for official sacrifices, and tended Vesta's sacred fire at the temple hearth. Their virginity was thought essential to Rome's survival; if found guilty of inchastity, they were buried or entombed alive. As Vesta was considered a guardian of the Roman people, her festival, the Vestalia, was regarded as one of the most important Roman holidays. During the Vestalia privileged matrons walked barefoot through the city to the temple, where they presented food-offerings. Such was Vesta's importance to Roman religion that following the rise of Christianity, hers was one of the last non-Christian cults still active, until it was forcibly disbanded by the Christian emperor Theodosius I in AD 391.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Consus</span> Ancient Roman god of grains

In ancient Roman religion, the god Consus was the protector of grains. He was represented by a grain seed. His altar (ara) was located at the first meta of the Circus Maximus. It was either underground, or according to other sources, covered with earth, which was swept off during the two Consualia, his festivals on August 21, December 15, and on July 7 when the pontiffs held a sacrifice there. He was thus a chthonic god.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Honos</span>

Honos or Honor was the Roman god personifying honor. He was closely associated with Virtus, the goddess of manliness, or bravery, and the two are frequently depicted together. Honos is typically shown wearing a chaplet of bay leaves, while Virtus is identified by her helmet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Di Penates</span>

In ancient Roman religion, the Di Penates or Penates were among the dii familiares, or household deities, invoked most often in domestic rituals. When the family had a meal, they threw a bit into the fire on the hearth for the Penates. They were thus associated with Vesta, the Lares, and the Genius of the pater familias in the "little universe" of the domus.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aventine Hill</span> One of the seven hills of Rome, Italy

The Aventine Hill is one of the Seven Hills on which ancient Rome was built. It belongs to Ripa, the modern twelfth rione, or ward, of Rome.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Omen</span> Portent, harbinger

An omen is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change. It was commonly believed in ancient times, and still believed by some today, that omens bring divine messages from the gods.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religion in ancient Rome</span> Religious practices in ancient Rome

Religion in ancient Rome consisted of varying imperial and provincial religious practices, which were followed both by the people of Rome as well as those who were brought under its rule.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Augury</span> Roman religious practice

Augury is the practice from ancient Roman religion of interpreting omens from the observed behavior of birds. When the individual, known as the augur, interpreted these signs, it is referred to as "taking the auspices". "Auspices" literally means "looking at birds", and Latin auspex, another word for "augur", literally means "one who looks at birds". Depending upon the birds, the auspices from the gods could be favorable or unfavorable. Sometimes politically motivated augurs would fabricate unfavorable auspices in order to delay certain state functions, such as elections. Pliny the Elder attributes the invention of auspicy to Tiresias the seer of Thebes, the generic model of a seer in the Greco-Roman literary culture.

Caelus or Coelus was a primal god of the sky in Roman mythology and theology, iconography, and literature. The deity's name usually appears in masculine grammatical form when he is conceived of as a male generative force.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ancile</span>

In ancient Rome, the ancilia were twelve sacred shields kept in the Temple of Mars. According to legend, one divine shield fell from heaven during the reign of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. He ordered eleven copies made to confuse would-be thieves, since the original shield was regarded as one of the pignora imperii , sacred guarantors that perpetuated Rome as a sovereign entity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lutatia gens</span> Ancient Roman family

The gens Lutatia, occasionally written Luctatia, was a plebeian family of ancient Rome. The first of the gens to obtain the consulship was Gaius Lutatius Catulus in 242 BC, the final year of the First Punic War. Orosius mentions their burial place, the sepulchrum Lutatiorum, which lay beyond the Tiber.

Aetna was in Greek and Roman mythology a Sicilian nymph and, according to Alcimus, a daughter of Uranus and Gaia or of Briareus. Stephanus of Byzantium says that according to one account Aetna was a daughter of Oceanus. Simonides said that she had acted as arbitrator between Hephaestus and Demeter respecting the possession of Sicily. By Zeus or Hephaestus she became the mother of the Palici.

The gens Pinaria was one of the most ancient patrician families at Rome. According to tradition, the gens originated long before the founding of the city. The Pinarii are mentioned under the kings, and members of this gens attained the highest offices of the Roman state soon after the establishment of the Republic, beginning with Publius Pinarius Mamercinus Rufus, consul in 489 BC.

Almo was in ancient Roman religion the eponymous god of the small river Almo in the vicinity of Rome. Like Tiberinus and others, he was prayed to by the augurs of Rome. In the water of Almo the aniconic stone embodying the mother of the gods, Cybele, used to be washed. He had a naiad daughter named Larunda.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of ancient Roman religion</span>

The vocabulary of ancient Roman religion was highly specialized. Its study affords important information about the religion, traditions and beliefs of the ancient Romans. This legacy is conspicuous in European cultural history in its influence on later juridical and religious vocabulary in Europe, particularly of the Christian Church. This glossary provides explanations of concepts as they were expressed in Latin pertaining to religious practices and beliefs, with links to articles on major topics such as priesthoods, forms of divination, and rituals.

The Curia Calabra was a religious station or templum used for the ritual observation of the new moon in ancient Rome. Although its exact location is unclear, it was most likely a roofless enclosure in front of an augural hut (auguraculum), on the southwest flank of the Area Capitolina, the precinct of the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. Servius identifies the Curia Calabra with a Casa Romuli on the Capitoline, but Macrobius implies that it was adjacent to the Casa.

The auguraculum, was a roofless temple oriented to the cardinal points, in which the priests of ancient Rome practiced augury and ornithomancy. The priest observer was positioned at the center of the temple, in a tent or a hut, and watched portions of the sky from which came the birds, which were marked out by stones placed along the perimeter of the temple. From this observation, the priest was believed to be able to predict the future.

Lyco and Orphe are two sisters from Greek mythology. Their story survives in the works of Maurus Servius Honoratus, a Latin grammarian of the early fifth century AD.



  1. Beard, et al, volume 1, pp.22-24, 27-28
  2. Brent (1999), p. 20.
  3. Brent (1999), pp. 17, 20: Brent describes augury as the "spiritual equivalent of consulting the polls".
  4. 1 2 3 P. Catalano (1965). Linee del sistema sovrannazionale romano . Turin, IT: Giappichelli. pp.  40 note 20, p. 60 note 86, 273–280, 346–351. ISBN   9788834816608.
  5. Livy, VI. 41: auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace domi militiaeque omnia geri, quis est qui ignoret?
  6. 1 2 Martha W. Hoffman Lewis (1955). The Official Priests of Rome under the Julio-Claudians. Rome: American Academy. pp. 9–12.
  7. Cicero replaced Publius Crassus after the latter's death at Carrhae.
  8. Brent (1999), pp. 19–25: citing Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 2.4.
  9. Rosenstein (1990), pp. 57–58: 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.
  10. Brent (1999), p. 48, citing Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.522–605: "as if the stars themselves had strayed from their courses".
  11. Brent (1999), pp. 17–18.
  12. Brent (1999), p. 59: citing Suetonius, Augustus 31.1–2. cf. official reactions to "foreign cult" during the Punic crises, above.
  13. Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.72–73
  14. Varro, Lingua Latina, 5.53
  15. Pliny Nat. Hist. 18.14
  16. Festus, p. 386 L2
  17. Paulus ex Festus s.v. p. 467 L2: "auguria messalia".
  18. e.g. in Cicero, De Legibus, De Divinatione.
  19. G. Dumezil (1974). La religion Romaine archaique. Paris.
  20. Varro, Lingua Latina, 5.83
  21. Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.76
  22. Festus, p. 348 L2; Varro, Lingua Latina, 6.76
  23. Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii, 3.89
  24. U. Norden (1939). "Die Spruchformel des Augur auf dem Burg". Aus Altroemischer Priestenbuchen. pp. 3–106.
  25. Varro, Lingua Latina, 7.8–10
  26. Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii, 3.89
  27. Varro, Lingua Latina, 7.7
  28. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita , 1.18, 5.10
  29. signa belong to Jupiter
  30. Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii, 4.462
  31. Maurus Servius Honoratus, In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii, 2.374
  32. Cicero, De Divinatione, 2.72–73
  33. Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.25; Leg. Agr., 2.32 and 2.34
  34. See Ovid, Fasti 3.339–344, for an instance in the conversation between king Numa and Jupiter.
  35. Cicero, De Divinatione, 1.17