Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.19

Annie Vigourt, Les Présages Impériaux d'Auguste à Domitien. Collections de l'Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. Études d'archéologie et d'histoire ancienne.   Paris:  de Boccard, 2001.  Pp. 532.  ISBN 2-7018-0146-X.  EUR 50.00.  

Reviewed by Alex Nice, Reed College / University of the Witwatersrand (
Word count: 2276 words

During the late Republic, as politics reorientated itself towards dynasts, we observe the reemergence of the great, named seer and the clustering of prophecies and prodigies around the individual.1 It is no surprise then, with the advent of the principate, that the imperial savant, omina imperii, and omina mortis are a standard and abundant feature of the narratives regarding the first Roman emperors.

In this work Vigourt offers the reader a weighty 532 pages on these imperial 'présages'. The title is judiciously chosen. Présage can be used as a blanket term for all types of divination: prodigies, omens, auguries, extispicy, dreams. However, as she makes clear, this is not a work about divination but rather about the relationship between religion and power. In adopting an all-inclusive approach to her subject, historiographically and historically, Vigourt has taken on a prodigious task which dwarfs previous contributions to the subject in both scope and extent.2

In the introduction Vigourt argues that neither literary nor religious approaches have been sufficient to take account of the vast number of premonitory signs present in our source material and that a more global approach to the question of imperial presages is required which takes account of the changing social realities, the political tensions, and the relationship of the historical accounts with regard to the facts (p.8). With this in mind the author sensibly dismisses the meagre epigraphic evidence leaving her free to work on the literary evidence.3

Thereafter the book is divided into four main sections: 'Valeur Historique des Présages' (pp. 17-144); 'Culture, Croyance et Vérite' (pp. 145-254); 'Le Pouvoir dans les Présages' (pp. 255-374); 'Le Jeu' (pp. 375-461). Each section is further subdivided into chapters and shorter subsections.

The cornerstone of this work is the extensive table (pp. 20-74) in Part One, Chapter One ('Sources, Variées, Objets Épars') which details each literary reference to imperial presages. There are 538 references in total. Of these 7 are regarded as repetitive signs (the same sign occurring in different principates), and 3 are discarded as spurious: these are excluded from her main table. The table is subdivided into 14 columns: presage number, date, source, designation, time or occasion, place, setting, onlooker, active elements (i.e. the person or thing acting out the prodigy), presage type, association with a specific event, proof, interpreter, meaning. Vigourt refers throughout the book to the table and her collation of evidence here is exceptional. The standard texts (Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius and Plutarch) are supplemented by less well-known authors such as Philip of Thessalonica (Anth. Pal. 9.307), Apollonides (Anth. Pal. 9.287), Solinus, Phlegon of Tralles, and Philostratus.4 The enumeration of the presages suggests that some have an exceptionally long shelf-life, reaching into late antiquity. A little oddly Vigourt does not offer a designation for the references from Julius Obsequens, although the title offered in the original 1508 Aldine edition, liber prodigiorum, suggests that all the phenomena he recorded were to be regarded as prodigia. The remainder of this chapter presents the key theme of the book: that presages can represent the power struggles between incumbents and aspirant holders of the principate. She allows too for the possibility of the manipulation of imperial signs by the ancient writers to suit their own historiographical aims and purposes (pp. 83-4).

Chapter Two ('Le Présage') concerns itself with defining the présage and the circumstances in which they occur. Vigourt takes a Liebeschuetzian line, arguing for the psychological and emotional effect of prodigies and other supernatural phenomena. The chapter also considers the presence of prodigies in the literary sources. Vigourt argues that Livy's lament on the decline of prodigies in his own day is not borne out by the evidence from the early Empire where the lack is 'no doubt due to the loss of the Tacitean books' (p. 122). The chapter ends with an overview of types of signs and their interpretation.

Part Two contains chapters three and four: 'Des Vérités Construites' (pp. 147-188) and 'Présages Impériaux et Religion Romaine' (189-255). The central focus of this Part is on the communication between men and gods. Vigourt eschews approaches that would look for evidence of belief or skepticism in the ancient writers. She suggests that presages offered writers the opportunity to present a truth whose authority was not directly contestable and that through them we can view the private conflicts, factional rivalries, personal ambitions, the grandeur and evil of an imperial reign. Given the focus of her work on the interplay between groups seeking power, it was surprising that Vigourt did not investigate more fully the importance of the miracles performed by Vespasian (p.205), which are unusual in their attribution to a Roman emperor. Given Tacitus' comments on the incorrect interpretation of the prophecies circulating in the East by the indigenous inhabitants (Tac. Hist. 5.13.2), it might have been useful to explore the correlation between Vespasian's miracle-working and similar feats by early Christian and Judaic miracle workers.

In this chapter too (p. 242), which ranges across the Roman religious experience (rituals, diviners, and associations with superstition and magic), Vigourt takes it for granted that in the treason trials the charge of magic was indicative of the widespread use of magicians under the empire. This is an argument difficult to sustain when Phillips, for example, has argued that the Roman legal system had no interest in a precise definition of unsanctioned religious (or magical) practices.5 Vigourt might also have referred to Graf, who argues that the charge of magic could be a conventional accusation to alienate the person on trial. Close investigation of some of these trials reveals that the charges of magic were often dropped.6

Part Three offers more direct comments on the relationship between prodigies and power. Chapter Five 'Controverses sur la Puissance' (pp. 257-310) examines the position of the Emperor at Rome and the way in which his power was imaged through prodigies, whether at home or abroad. Chapters Six and Seven ('Des Images du Prince, Contrastées et Ambigués' (pp. 311-342) and 'Présages, Légitimité, Pouvoir Héréditaire et Histoire de Rome' (pp. 343-374) consider questions of the divinisation or damnation of Emperors and the ambiguous role prodigies could play in these processes, either 'whitening' the accession of an emperor who acceded illegally or demonstrating that a murder of an emperor was divinely sanctioned. Furthermore, Vigourt sees divine signs marking moments of upheaval and offering continuity between principates. In particular, prodigies allowed the Senate to recognize a newly elected leader as providentially assigned.

The discussion of the terms used of Emperor seem unconvincing (pp. 258-276). Vigourt argues that writers tried to confer an exact title on the holder of the principate. I am not sure how much significance should be attached to specific instances of a title or nomeclature, for example, the fact that princeps is only used twice for Caligula and Galba (p. 263). The focus on the emperors themselves obscures the fact that Vigourt is here concentrating mainly on Suetonius. How far a term might depend on the preference of an individual author is not discussed. A comparative table of usage might have made more sense of this section.

Part Four returns to the themes announced at the beginning of the book. Chapter Eight and Nine ('Affrontements autour du Pouvoir' pp. 377-427 and 'Le "Jeu des Présages"' pp. 429-461) consider the extent to which presages might be viewed as a 'contest', where the emperor and his entourage might disseminate positive omens and their detractors negative ones when they wanted the principate to fail or to promote their own candidates for the purple. Vigourt suggests that presages were pawns which could be supportive of hope or indicative of fear. Both hope and fear in the principate and the person of the emperor, she argues, are realities which become rendered tangible through the presages.

The steps by which Vigourt gets to these conclusions are at times somewhat strained. For example, in arguing for the manipulation of prodigies by human agency (p. 381-2), she proceeds to the unfounded and remarkable suggestion that hostile factions might have assisted in increasing the number of prodigies, i.e. reporting some when there were none, or indeed have 'assisted' statues to fall to create a prodigy.

Throughout the book Vigourt maintains a focus on her central aim -- the relationship between presages and power -- and questions the global importance of prodigies as they relate to the historical circumstances of the first century AD and their appearance in the historical accounts of that period. The major strength of this volume is the extent to which Vigourt analyses the ways in which presages might reflect the power struggles inherent in the early years of the Empire and their emotional impact. She sees the literary sources reflecting the emotions of the individual and the collective populace and argues for presages as indispensable 'truths'. Due to their subjective nature, however, they are eminently malleable, subject to conservation, utilization and modification, sometimes even centuries later, where writers imposed new meanings on them, reinterpreting the past in order to justify their own present. This is made clear in her discussion of the later writers: Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus, Tertullian and Orosius (pp. 422-425). To this extent, the volume offers the modern reader some valuable insights into the ways in which divination could be used in the power struggles of the first century AD and how these were subsequently incorporated into the literary texts. Indeed, to some degree, Vigourt rehabilitates the importance of the presage. She effectively dismisses any notions of superstitio and denies the importance of the credibility or skepticism of ancient authors. She suggests that presages offered logical solutions not only for the masses but also for intellectuals in explaining the rise and fall of emperors, especially since prodigies could transcend time and the irruptions of the moment (p. 467).

Although Vigourt goes to great lengths in examining the importance of divine signs in the literary accounts, I felt there to be a continual tension between the historiographical purpose of prodigies and the games of power that were played out in real historical time. I think Vigourt is right to draw attention to the importance of presages as the backbone to the historical narratives (p. 116), a feature that must, in part, owe something to the religious origins of Roman historiography.7 But I do not think that their usefulness for an author necessarily reflects accurately the power struggles of the first century AD. A good example of this is Vigourt's discussion of Nicolas of Damascus where she comments on the lack of presages in his work compared to those of Suetonius, Dio Cassius, or Julius Obsequens (p. 99). Her argument here is that the prodigies we find later were not yet conveyed or in circulation. But the inclusion or exclusion of prodigies is, in fact, often up to the historian concerned. We may usefully compare here the active exclusion of prodigies from the works of Caesar and Sallust. This too raises the question of the kind of material appropriate for inclusion in historiography which, it has been argued, does not always draw a hard and fast line between the mythological and historical, between poetry and history.8

Readers expecting a systematic survey of the presages associated with the reigns of each individual emperor will not find it here. Often the subsections amount to no more than one to two pages. A good example is in Chapter Five where in the second subsection ('Gouverner: Comment?' pp. 276-294) there are three further subtitles (L'action; La prospérité; L'efficacité), each with further divisions. The unsystematic approach is highlighted by the second of these where 'Caligula, Néron, et le dépérissement de Rome' (p. 281) gives way to 'La prospérité augustéenne' (p. 282-283), and finally 'Mort des princes et famines' (p. 283-286). The effect is somewhat fractured, not least because each section deals with diverse source material (Plutarch, Tacitus and Suetonius; then Dio Cassius and Orosius; and finally back to Tacitus and Pliny).

There are some significant omissions from the bibliography. I would have thought Feeney's Literature and Religion at Rome (Cambridge, 1999) indispensable for a work of this nature. Also conspicuous by their absence are the seminal works on prodigies: L. Wülker ( Die Geschichtliche Entwicklung des Prodigienwesens bei den Römern. Studien zur Geschichte und Überlieferung der Staatsprodigien. Leipzig, 1903) and F. Luterbacher (Prodigienglaube und Prodigienstil der Röme. Darmstadt, 1904) as too are the works by F. Aumuller (Das Prodigium bei Tacitus. Frankfurt, 1944) and H. Kröger (Die Prodigien bei Tacitus. Münster, 1940). References to Thrasyllus and Nigidius Figulus could have been supported by the modern scholarly work of H. Tarrant (Thrasyllan Platonism Ithaca, NY, 1993) and A. della Casa (Nigidio Figulo Rome, 1962). The records of the Arval Brethren, which contain references to the expiation of lightning strikes during this period, are also conspicuously absent.

In conclusion, this volume retains some of the strengths of the thesis: rigorous empirical analysis,9 copious use of examples, and constant focus on the central arguments, but also some of the weaknesses: over repetition of the key themes, denseness of style, and excessive length. Indeed, I think the volume as a whole could have been improved had it been significantly reduced. However, Vigourt raises valuable questions and offers valid observations on the importance of presages in the early principate. The book has a particular contribution to make regarding the psychological effect of divine signs and the ways in which they could be manipulated by groups and individuals in power or hopeful for power. Unfortunately, despite its strengths, I think this is likely to be a volume largely consigned to library shelves, to be consulted only by the assiduous Ph.D. student or dedicated researcher of Roman divination.


1.   J. North (1990) 'Diviners and divination at Rome' in Pagan Priests ed. by M. Beard and J. North, 69-70.
2.   For example, it goes well beyond the treatment of A. Barzano 'Il topos del omen imperii nella storiografia di età imperiale' in M. Sordi (ed.) La profezia nel mondo antico, CISA 19, Milan, 1984, 107-120 or D. Potter, Prophets and Emperors. Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius Cambridge, Mass., 1994.
3.   However, she chooses not to comment on the contentious Veleda inscription here but relegates it to a footnote on p. 197.
4.   Other authors referenced include Seneca, Tertullian, Eusebius, Servius, Florus, Josephus, Ammianus Marcellinus.
5.   C. R. Phillips, (1991) 'Nullum crimen sine lege: socioreligious sanctions on magic' in Faraone, C. A. and D. Obbink, Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion Oxford University Press, New York, 260-276.
6.   F. Graf Magic in the Ancient World Cambridge, Mass. 1997, esp. 61-88.
7.   For example, see T.P. Wiseman Clio's Cosmetics Leicester, 1979, 13-17. At times I felt that Vigourt had not fully taken into account the nature of the Roman historiographical tradition. For example, on p.436 she comments: 'Tite Live puis Iulius Obsequens ne faisaient rien d'autre, recopiant les listes de présages retenus par le Sénat'. Since 1971 when Rawson disputed the possibility that the Livian prodigy lists were drawn from one authoritative source, this position has been untenable (E. Rawson, 'Prodigy lists and the use of the Annales Maximi' CQ 21 (1971), 158-169 = Roman Culture and Society, Oxford 1991, 1-15.) Furthermore, nowhere is Levene's significant contribution to Livian studies referenced (D. S. Levene, Religion in Livy Leiden, 1993). His work sheds light on the ways in which a historian can manipulate a rigid yet important feature of the annalistic form, the prodigy lists, to emphasise his own historiographical aims and demonstrates the extent to which this may be tied into the prevalent political ideology.
8.   On Caesar's unique use of prodigies at BC 3.61, see D. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome Cambridge, 1999, 19-20. For the association of poetry and history see T. P. Wiseman, 'History, poetry, and annals' in D. S. Levene and D. P. Nelis Clio and the Poets. Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography Leiden, 2001, 331-362.
9.   In addition to the main table of prodigies mentioned above we should draw the reader's attention to the tables on pp. 151-152 on the prodigies accepted by the common crowd; pp. 206-211 detailing the divinities mentioned in the prodigies; p. 447 on personalities who received omens and the origin of the presage derived.

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