Consider the words of the Roman historian Livy, who writes (VI.41): auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace domi militiaeque omnia geri, quis est qui ignoret? (“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?”)
Etymology and Derivatives
The derivation of the word augur is uncertain; ancient authors believed that it contained the words avi and gero –Latin for “directing the birds”–but historical-linguistic evidence points instead to the root aug-, “to increase, to prosper.”
The term survives in modern English, as inauguration, the ceremony marking the beginning of an elected official’s term of office.
The office of augur dates traditionally to the Regal Period. According to Livy, the Roman King Lucius (or Lucumo) Tarquinius Priscus was waging war upon the Sabines, ca. 600 B.C. Desiring to enroll more senators, he was informed by a certain Attius Navius, whom Livy describes as inclitus ea tempestate augur, “the most famous augur of the time” that he required the approval of the auspices to do so. Infuriated, Tarquin demanded proof of the augur’s ability:
‘”Come then,” Tarquin said angrily, “Deduce, if your augury can, whether what I have in my mind right now is possible.” And when Navius, expert in augury that he was, immediately said that it would happen, Tarquin replied: “Well, I thought that you would cut a whetstone with a sharp knife. Here, take this and do what your birds have predicted would be possible.” And Navius, hardly delaying at all, took the whetstone and cut it.’
The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed.
Augurs in the Republic
Roman augurs are elected to office and are part of a college of priests who share the duties and responsibilities of the position. At the foundation of the Republic in 510 B.C., the patricians held sole claim to this office; by 300 B.C., the office was open to plebeian occupation as well.
In the Regal period tradition holds that there were three augurs at a time; by the time of Sulla, they had reached fifteen in number.
- Beard, Mary, John North, Simon Price, Religions of Rome: A History (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
- Hornblower, Simon and Anthony Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition) (Oxford: OUP, 1996), s.v. augures