In the era of the ancient Romans, life largely revolved around superstitions and religious beliefs as people believed that their gods provided guidance for them in their everyday lives and neglecting such ‘guidance’, sent in the form of omens, would result in a disaster. For example, a Roman Army General was said to have ignored the ‘message’ sent through a sacred chicken (commonly carried around by Roman soldiers) and his subsequent defeat in battle was seen as a consequence of neglecting the advice of the Gods. Omens had so much influence on the ancient Romans that if a person reported that a black cat had entered their house, or some other bad omen had surfaced, and they were going to take a day off from work, it was immediately accepted even though it would have been impossible to prove if the bad omen had actually appeared.
To guide decisions in political or military circumstances, prophetic divining techniques were used to discover if the gods approved of a proposed plan of action or a decision. A common technique employed was augury, the prophetic divining of the future by observation of natural phenomena – particularly the behaviour of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts, but also by the scrutiny of man-made objects and situations. It mainly involves the observation of aural and visual bird signs, thunder, and the feeding of sacred chickens. (www.thehelicon.com/2013/haruspicy-augury/)
Before an augury is performed, the following must be prepared:
- An auspice, the prophetic token to be examined
- An auspex, the magistrate or state official choosing the auspice
- An augur, the priest or official who interprets the signs
- Marked out ritual ground that fulfills the requirements of being in the correct orientation according to astronomical readings, and being on high ground. (NHXVIII.76-77)
- A tabernaculum erected in the center of the marked out ritual ground
The ritual begins with the auspex sitting out in front of the tabernaculum, which serves to block any naturally occurring phenomena, which could also be interpreted as omens, while his assistants, tibicines, and tibicinae sit inside it. Inside the tabernaculum, the tibicines and tibicinae (flute players) hold the responsibility of playing the flute throughout the ritual. The music is thought to be played to prevent the augur from getting distracted by environmental sounds that could also be interpreted as omens. Also, the music could have been played to attract birds to the ritual site for the augur to interpret.
Tabernaculum - square tent
After understanding more about how an augury is performed, a situation in which an augury is used can be seen in the Roman armies.
The roman army was known to carry around ‘sacred chickens’, around in cages with them for the purpose of performing augury. These chickens were brought in from Negroponte and raised by priests before being passed over to the army. Omens and interpretations were mainly drawn from their behaviour in regards with the way they dealt with their feed as opposed to the practice of performing the whole complicated ritual mentioned above. This seems to be a more practical way of interpreting omens as the sacred chicken would be easy to transport around and are available at a moments’ notice, as compared to the more traditional augury ritual which demands many requirements be met before the ritual can be performed.
The Sacred Chickens
To interpret omens from the sacred chicken, grain was presented to them and their behavior with regards to the grains was carefully studied. It was of utmost importance to take caution when interpreting omens for military decisions as a wrongly interpreted omen could result in a great military loss for Rome, which could greatly impact its’ people in a highly negative way, and mean a huge loss in power for the Roman government. An example of such a loss was seen by the person who took it into his head to do so under L. Papirius Cursor, consul, in the Roman year 482. Before the battle began, an arrow flew past and pierced the guard of the sacred chickens who had reported a false omen to which the consul shouted that the gods are with them and the criminal should be punished.
Before the interpretation of an omen, the sacred chickens were locked in their cages with no food and drink for a period of time, that is enough time to make them hungry. Then they were released and presented with grain and their behaviour indicated if the omen was good or bad. A good omen was observed if the sacred chickens were to eat the grain with gusto while scattering the grain everywhere and stamping their feet, while a bad omen was observed if the sacred chickens were to display disinterest in their food and drink.