Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.39

Federico Santangelo, Divination, Prediction and the End of the Roman Republic.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xii, 357.  ISBN 9781107026841.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Daniele F. Maras, Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia (

Table of Contents

Federico Santangelo has written a wonderful book on a difficult, crucial subject that has never been discussed in such depth in the past, although a great number of scholars have dealt with the interaction of religious issues and politics in the late Republican period. The excellent methodology and rich bibliography, accurate editing, and a reasonable price make this book well worth purchasing by historians of pre-Roman and Roman Italy.

Santangelo has chosen a historical focus for his work, grounding his deductions and conclusions in a thorough analysis of the relevant literary sources―with occasional references to inscriptions―putting each piece of information in its correct chronological and historical context.1

As a result the reader has a clear and detailed overview of the political intelligence behind the ostensibly rigid religious formality of Roman institutions, and the complex relations between political and religious authorities, such as the augurs. 2

Cicero’s figure dominates the greater part of the chapters, as “a competent and intelligent witness of Roman divination” (35). In fact Chapter 1 (10-36) starts with the need to provide a historical context for De divinatione, which is our most important source on divination and prediction. The dialogue takes the form of two monologues delivered by the characters Quintus and Marcus, the former defending the value of divinatio, the latter railing against superstitio.

Santangelo points out that the De divinatione was written over a period of two years, between 45 and 44 BCE, when Cicero was forced to diminish his political commitment during the dictatorship of Caesar (32-33), and was finished after the Ides of March, thus allowing the author to reassess his personal commitment to both politics and public religion, and to express in the conclusion his own views on the subject through the words of Marcus (13). The dialogue was part of a trilogy with the De natura deorum and the De fato. Unfortunately, the close of the latter work does not survive; Santangelo supposes that it would have clarified the scope of the trilogy as a whole (17).

In Chapter 2 (37-68) a detailed discussion of the history of the terminology of divinatio and its different meanings over time is probably one of the best parts of the volume. A sub-chapter is devoted to the distinction between superstitio and religio, which is fundamental for understanding Cicero’s negative use of the former term (38-47). It is important to note that early attestations of the word superstitiosus show a close link with prophecy, as a form of divinely inspired divination3; later uses of the concept seem to refer mainly to forms of religious fear or unacceptable religious practices. As a confirmation, Nigidius Figulus observes that the suffix –osus implies a negative slant, and quotes an old carmen comparing religiosus to religens, maintaining that the former “is applied to one who has involved himself in an extreme and superstitious religio” (42). Therefore, when thundering against superstitio, the character Marcus in the De divinatione describes correct practice as “to regulate religion” (moderare religionem), as stated in the De natura deorum.

The abstract noun divinatio is never attested before the late Republic (48-49), and probably derives from the necessity of translating a Greek term such as mantiké; but the reference to the “divine” adds a special value to the Latin word. Different uses of this concept and word in Cicero’s works show that divinatio implies a prognostication depending on the interpretation of signs, whether they are of divine origin or not: in this sense, even the ability to foresee future political or military events can be defined as divinatio. And “fore-seeing” is exactly the original meaning of the term prudentia (providentia), with which Santangelo deals in the second part of the chapter (56-68), along with prudens. In the De inventione Cicero defines prudentia as a form of knowledge (scientia), divided into three parts, memoria, intellegentia, providentia, respectively referring to past, present and future events.

Again, in Cicero’s philosophical works prudentia is probably a translation of the Greek phronesis, as opposed to sophía-sapientia; but the etymology of the Latin word is more informative of its actual meaning (57). Moreover, the meaning of the verb providere “may be that of ‘foresee’, but it can also mean ‘to take appropriate action before something happens’ ” (64). The further development of prudens as a synonym of sciens shows its progressive separation from the concept of divinatio: prudentia “refers to specific forms of expertise, which are clearly codified and may be taught. It is also used to refer to wisdom” (68).4

Cicero’s works are not informative on issues of ritual or religious practice relating to divination (69), and should be considered a biased source when studying forms of divination that were not directly controlled by the elites or involved in the political activity of the ruling class (14-15). Chapter 3 (69-83) is dedicated to some less structured forms of divination, such as the interpretation of dreams and cleromancy, as well as foreign practices. The author states correctly that Cicero is not always a reliable witness for these practices. Although in this context Santangelo refers to some iconographic and epigraphic material, he does not take into consideration the discovery of inscribed lots in Latin as well as Italic and Etruscan contexts during the Republican period, which would have provided further, material evidence for the practices he mentions. 5

Chapter 4 (83-114) is devoted to the activity of the haruspices in the late Republic, highlighting their responses as increasingly prophetic in comparison to other forms of divination.6 It seems that in Roman religion Etruscan lore had found a niche not filled by other practices, which may account for its great prominence in political life. Cicero’s careful rebuttal of the interpretation of Clodius for the prodigies of 56 BCE (in the De haruspicum responsis) testifies to this situation, since the orator never questions the authority of the haruspices, but stresses instead the need for an interpretative effort on the part of those who receive their response (102-107).

The disciplina Etrusca “was a set of doctrines, … but it was not an immutable practice. It was the object of study and reflection and that very process of critique and enquiry took place within the Etruscan elites” (100). This explains both the transmission of the haruspical tradition within families of Etruscan origin and its link with power and politics, as well as the continuous updating work of each generation, which reshaped and adapted the original lore of Tages to current times. This is particularly evident in the brontoscopic calendar of Nigidius Figulus, which dates back to the Iron Age,7 but includes elements referring to Hellenistic Etruria and late Republican Rome (101).8

With Chapter 5 (115-127) we reach the central argument of the volume: expectations for the future of Rome during the troubles of the 1st century BCE, in coincidence with the advent of a new age of history that Virgil―among others―depicts as a Golden Age. A reflection upon the periodization of time with special regard to the history of Rome and the number of saecula that were allocated to the city was inserted into the Hellenistic philosophical debate, but this also involved the experience of the Etrusca disciplina, which possessed its own doctrine of saecula, as recorded by Censorinus quoting Varro.9 Of course Augustan propaganda made use of the most optimistic views on the future age; but fears for the possible end of Rome still lingered in the air (127).

In Chapter 6 (128-148) Santangelo deals with the tradition of the Sybilline prophecies, and their reference to Roman history: in the Greek world in the case of some oracles handed down by literary sources, and at Rome as regards the Sybilline Books. These were burned along with the Capitol in 83 BCE, and restored some years later by gathering oracles and prophetic sayings from several sources in Italy and the Mediterranean. By transferring the Sybilline Books to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine in 12 BCE, Augustus incorporated them in his religious propaganda, thus averting the potential opposition of the (quin)decemviri in charge of the consultation of the texts (137-141).

The destabilising influence of private consultations of soothsayers (harioli and vates) on public opinion and on statesmen is addressed in Chapter 7 (149-173), with reference to the potential threat of uncontrolled practices and the relevant measures taken by the Senate from time to time.

Pessimistic views of the inescapable decline of society, and the related explicit or implicit predictions of the decline of Rome are the argument of Chapters 8 and 9, with reference to Cicero’s late correspondence (174-181) and Sallust’s moralistic and ‘irreligious’ view of history (182-191). The protagonist of Chapter 10 (192-219), on the other hand, is Livy, who in contrast “took religious themes and motifs very seriously” (192).

In the 19th century Livy was at the center of a debate on his skeptical attitude towards the irrational aspects of Roman religion (193-196). According to Santangelo, Livy’s purpose in writing “a comprehensive political and moral history” of Rome is apparent in his stigmatization of religious negligence as a cause of crisis and decline: current tendencies towards harboring a contempt for the gods are opposed to the piety and religiosity of the ancient times (197-199), and overlooking religious obligations causes an interruption of the pax deorum (203). In relation to this, Santangelo presents a case study of Livy’s accounts of divinatory practices and responses, as well as their interpretations, whether correct or flawed (203-208).

Virgil is the subject of Chapter 11, which focuses on his use of prodigies and prophecy as a literary device for foretelling the tragedy of the Civil War, as well as the glorious future of Rome and the advent of a new Golden Age (220-234). In this regard, it is interesting to note that most of the prophecies that we encounter in the Aeneid “come from gods and do not take place in a ritual context” (227).

Chapter 12 (235-266) describes the reshaping of the practice of divination in Rome, which was boxed in by the religious agenda of the newborn Principate. Augustus skillfully turned in his own favor the rumors of prodigies that preceded and accompanied Caesar’s death (236-240), and attached a number of favorable omens to his own rise to power in order to gather a general religious consensus (240-246). This is also the background of the princeps’ sudden interest in astrology, which “did not fade away throughout his long reign” (251).


1.   On the other hand, an adequate search for archaeological and iconographical evidence is missing, with special regard to Etruscan studies: see recently L. Bonfante, J. Swaddling, Etruscan Myths, Austin 2006; L.B. van der Meer, Etrusco Ritu. Case studies in Etruscan ritual behaviour, Louvain-Walpole 2011; N. de Grummond, Haruspicy and Augury: Sources and Procedures, in J. Turfa (ed.), The Etruscan World, Oxford 2013, 539–556.
2.   See also the Appendix (273–278) on Mark Antony’s activity as an augur.
3.   The preservation of this old meaning of superstitio casts new light on the famous sentence of the late Christian writer Arnobius (Adv. nat. 7.26), who labelled Etruria as genetrix et mater superstitionum.
4.   In actuality Santangelo does not take into consideration the complex cross-reference with the terms scientia and disciplina―the latter closely bound to the divinatory science of the Etruscan haruspices―, which should have led him to be cautious in drawing definitive conclusions on the subject.
5.   D.F. Maras, ‘Le sortes’, in Il dono votivo, Pisa-Rome 2009, 37–40.
6.   This is probably the historical background in which the reshaping of legends on public prodigies in the age of kings took place, such as Romulus’ auguria (217–219) and the caput Oli (85, note 6).
7.   J. Turfa, Divining the Etruscan World, Cambridge 2012, not seen by Santangelo, but including much more than an “English translation and extensive discussion” on the work by John Lydus (100, note 66).
8.   On the Etruscan origin of Nigidius Figulus, see now G. Colonna, in Studi Etruschi 73, 2009, 101–134.
9.   See also F. Mora, ‘I saecula etruschi’, in Res Antiquae 5, 2008, 173–180.

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