BMCR 2006.04.10

Mantikê. Studies in Ancient Divination

, , Mantikê : studies in ancient divination. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world, v. 155. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (322 pages).. ISBN 9781429453585 €94.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In a recent volume on African divination Philip Peek suggested that divination is the ‘primary institutional means of articulating the epistemology of a people’.1 Anthropologists then might be surprised that divination does not occupy a similarly central space in the scholarly work on the Greco-Roman world. In this volume, the nine contributors, taking their lead from Vernant ( Divination et Rationalité, Paris, 1974), reevaluate the intellectual and social implications of divination as a significant phenomenon in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.

The introduction (pp. 1-28) presents the case for divination. Sarah Iles Johnston suggests, rather charitably, that the place of divination — somewhere between the good (religion) and the bad (magic) — and the lack of broadly applicable theories, means that Classical scholars have found it a less than desirable object of enquiry. This may be true, but I suspect that she is closer to the mark when referring to divination as ‘somewhat irrational’ with unverifiable practices (p. 7). Viewed in this light divination has more in common with modern-day tarot card readers, crystal ball readers, and astrologists, with all their pejorative connotations. Academic respectability has meant that we have been required to use grander terms, ‘semiotics’ for example, or to couch the study of divination in the context of other ‘trendier’ subjects: the construction of authority, gender, and so on. Nonetheless, for the ancient intellectual there were no such pretensions. From the pre-Socratics to St. Augustine mantikê was worthy of intellectual pursuit, closely interconnected with similar enquiries into questions of religion or fate. Johnston’s call then goes beyond the scope of a volume which had its inception as a series of conference papers. Her underlying implication is that the subject can be restored to respectability amongst modern scholars.

The chapters that follow are arranged on broad thematic bases. Burkert’s contribution is the most generally framed (pp. 29-49). Accepting the ubiquity of divination in antiquity, he presents three paradoxes which reflect on the ambivalence between the irrational and the rational that is a consistent feature of the mantic arts. Firstly, he argues that the interference of natural signs and supernatural pronouncements is best understood by the human quest to know more. Observation has as its necessary concomitant interpretation, which is made explicit through language. Where the results might be ambiguous or subject to misinterpretation, religion, of which divination is a part, offers a ‘claim of certainty’. Burkert’s second paradox observes that belief in the gods does not preclude intelligent manipulation of divine signs. Finally, he addresses the fear that uncontrolled, charismatic divination might pose to ruling authorities. Implicit here, as in the first paradox, is the desire to know more. In their quest to know more, prophets confound the status quo and assist the disenfranchised (e.g. the sacrificulus et vates of the Bacchanalian affair, or Eunus, the leader of the Sicilian slave rebellion) in finding a voice.

The three contributions that follow (Graf, Klingshirn, Grottanelli) concern themselves with forms of kleromancy: dice oracles from Asia Minor, the Sortes Sangallenses, and the nature of literary/archaeological evidence for lot divination. Graf’s and Klingshirn’s papers do not dispense totally with the documentary analysis that Johnston critiques in her introduction: a sure indication that still more empirical analysis of divination in the Greco-Roman world is required. Graf sets out in neat terms the Lycian monuments (listed in an appendix), their discovery, the texts (with a useful digression on astragalomancy (dice divination)), and the significance of the oracles. Their clients were primarily businessmen who tried to regulate the forces of chance in the conduct of their business, whether the vagaries of ancient travel or sickness. They prayed to Hermes, the god of travel, communication, and the chance find, who mediated the words of his brother Apollo, the god of prophecy. The final section of the paper anticipates Klingshirn’s article, indicating the replication of the Greek techniques in the Sortes Sanctorum from Southern Gaul.

Like Graf, Klingshirn sets out the evidence for an unfamiliar set of lots, the Sortes Sangallenses, which survive on a composite palimpsest manuscript datable to c. AD 600. Klingshirn draws some general conclusions regarding the interactions of diviner and client, but for him the real value of the divinatory lots lies in their social importance. The coincidence of Roman vulgar law and recurrent Christian themes reflects the intersection of these two worlds during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. This was a world in which church leaders were trying to implement new codes of public policy and moral behaviour. Ultimately, Klingshirn argues, the Sortes Sangallenses, unlike the Sortes Sanctorum, were too Roman, too secular to survive into late Merovingian and early Carolingian Gaul.

Grottanelli’s article is the least successful of the volume. He compares and contrasts the treatments of kleromancy in Cicero and Apuleius: one ‘an explicit and scornful condemnation’ … the other a ‘description of a ridiculous extreme case of simulated sortition’ (p.137). He further discusses the meaning of the lots from Bahereno della Montagna ( CIL 1 2.2173-2189) before comparing the evidence to a passage from Gellius ( NA 3.3.7-8). The discussion progresses on dubious grounds. The differences in genre and date between Cicero’s De Divinatione and Apuleius, Metamorphoses are never addressed. The characterization of Cicero’s discussion of lot divination as ‘well argued and complete’ seems overstated. In fact Cicero downplays the importance of sortes by attributing them only three chapters in the whole work (1.34; 2.85-87) less than any other form of divination. Further the argument that oracles might contain answers mocking their questioners, based on just one lot and the passage from Gellius (Plautus offers a double negative in response to a diviner elsewhere too: Plaut. Poen. 791-793) requires a leap of faith that I am not prepared to take. The survival of oracles rested on their ability to retain customers, not to drive them away. Mocking lots simply would not make good business sense. Finally it is not clear to me that the final conclusion — ancient literati despised sortilege because it was a popular custom — advances our knowledge regarding the social importance of the practice. Nonetheless the observation that there is a contradiction between lot divination and the role of sortition in Roman public life seems to be a subject worth pursuing.

Struck takes us into the realm of literary criticism. His paper, a condensed reworking of material from his book ( P. Struck, Birth of the Symbol. Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts, Princeton, 2004) argues that there is a noteworthy affiliation between allegorical readings of texts and the reading of oracles. Struck’s analysis of the term ainigma indicates that poets ‘formed their ideas in analogy’ (p. 164) to prophets. Taken further, his arguments help to explain the ways in which the Latin terms vates, cano, Carmen have a natural and logical transference from the world of divination (for example, see the elogia Tarquiniensia)2 to the Augustan poets.

Dillery and Frankfurter recall Burkert’s paradoxes. Dillery chronicles the place of the independent diviner in ancient Greece from their role in myth to the fourth century BC. He focuses on the chresmologoi (those who compile or utter oracles) and the manteis (those who prophesy), who were normally thought of as separate figures, despite the fact that the two terms could overlap to some extent. With a heyday in the fifth century, Dillery argues that over time the chresmologue gradually disappeared and the mantis, an itinerant and marginal figure, was gradually incorporated into the business of the state. Dillery contends that these figures operated at the interface of literature and orality, allowing the Greeks to think about alternative courses of action and alternative structurings of their societies. The useful chronological approach highlights similarities and differences over time. Surprisingly, Dillery does not examine the status of Alexander’s mantis, Aristander, who was later credited with a literary output.3 This is a tour de force in the presentation of evidence but, at 64 pages, by far the longest paper in the collection, could have been usefully truncated without damage to the central arguments.

In contrast, Frankfurter shows how divination could be a dynamic feature of established cults in Roman Egypt. In his view, we see a cooperative and creative enterprise between priests and their local clients. Local shrines exhibit a multiplicity of divinatory practices which helped to advance the authority and oracular presence of a god (or of gods) even in the Christian period. This is an excellent contribution that subverts the traditional scholarly model of the diviner as a marginal figure, operating at the fringes of society. It also suggests that the economic aspects of religious worship can no longer be ignored; that a ‘market place’ mentality affected cults and shrines throughout the Roman Empire; that the viability of a given institution rested on its ability to recruit new customers and retain the old through a successful blend of innovation and tradition.

Faraone and Johnston offer contrasting views on the place of necromancy in the ancient world. The former argues for necromancy as a widespread phenomenon. From a close reading of the evidence from the Paris magical papyri (PGM 4.1928-2144) Faraone suggests that the scribes of the papyri were deliberately trying to hide necromantic rituals, particularly through the use of the coded terms skenos (‘corpse’) and skyphos (‘skull’), in order to escape detection by Roman authorities. The arguments, which draw more widely on the available literary evidence (including Lucan, Apuleius, and the Theodosian Code), require careful reading but nonetheless offer a persuasive allegorical interpretation of the papyri. The cloak of secrecy seems especially appropriate for rites that are positioned at the margins of society, associated with the underworld, and conducted at night.

Johnston, on the other hand, argues that the relative importance of oracles concerning the dead at Delphi (10.4% – the largest body of responses) is, in part, due to the lack of necromantic rituals in archaic and classical Greece. Three types of oracle are identified: a) when a city or individual was in trouble and the dead had to be appeased; b) when cults to the dead had to be established; c) when it was necessary to deal with the remains of a deceased person. In all these cases, Johnston suggests the ancient Greeks felt more comfortable in dealing with their gods than with their dead. Indeed, as Johnston argues, Greek interaction with the dead at Delphi can be seen as characteristic of divination in general. Divination acted at the interface between man and god. It resolved and redirected problems, offering practical solutions for the human world. Those solutions allayed fear and allowed humans control in circumstances over which they felt powerless.

Despite the appeal by Johnston in her introduction, theoretical sophistication still has to make room for documentary exposition. That, however, as I noted above, serves only to indicate how much more work has to be done in all aspects of Greco-Roman divination. As an example of that, it is disappointing to observe that there is almost nothing here which enlightens the reader about divination in archaic and Republican Rome. Despite its singular importance as the only extant text on divination from antiquity, a thorough analysis of Cicero’s De Divinatione in its ancient context is still wanting.4 Moreover, although aspects of prodigies, auguries, and haruspicy have been documented,5 much remains to be explored: not least the place of mantike in the interactions among literature, history, and archaeology; or the intellectual and social place of divination in the private and public lives of the Romans.

Still, overall this is a highly successful volume. The editors are to be commended for an interesting and worthy collection of articles, logically organized, and tightly edited (typographical errors are few). The contributors are to be commended for rising to the challenge posed in Johnston’s opening essay. They offer the reader interesting and thought provoking insights into the intellectual and social world of ancient divination. Divination is unveiled as an omnipresent and ubiquitous phenomenon in the public and private lives of the Greeks and Romans. At every turn, one finds divination integrated into the thought processes of the ancients. Its pervasive influence in religion, poetry, history, philosophy, and magic is manifest and profound. It is high time that the modern academy looked to the paradoxical world of ancient divination as a challenge to the intellect, an ainigma to be solved, and revealed its centrality in the epistemology of ancient Greece and Rome.


S. Iles Johnston, ‘Introduction: divining divination’ pp. 1-28.

W. Burkert ‘Signs, commands, and knowledge: ancient divination between enigma and epiphany’ pp. 29-49.

F. Graf, ‘Rolling the dice for an answer’ pp. 51-97.

W.E. Klingshirn ‘Christian divination in late Roman Gaul: the Sortes Sangallenses‘ pp. 99-128.

C. Grottanelli, ‘ Sorte unica pro casibus pluribus enotata : literary texts and lot inscriptions as sources for ancient kleromancy’, pp. 129-146.

P.T. Struck, ‘Divination and literary criticism?’ pp. 147-165.

J. Dillery. ‘Chresmologues and manteis. Independent diviners and problems of authority’ pp. 167-231.

D. Frankfurter, ‘Voices, books, and dreams: the diversification of divination media in late antique Egypt’ pp. 233-254.

C.A. Faraone, ‘Necromancy goes underground: the disguise of skull- and corpse-divination in the Paris Magical Papyri (PGM 4.1928-2144)’ pp. 255-282.

S. Iles Johnston, ‘Delphi and the dead’ pp. 283-306.


1. P. Peek, ‘Introduction: The study of divination, present and past’ in P. Peek (ed.) African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing. Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1991, 2, quoted by D. Frankfurter, p. 234.

2. M. Torelli, Elogia Tarquiniensia, Firenze, 1975.

3. Pliny, NH 17.241; 243; 1.17c.22 for a work de portentis; Artem. Oneir. 1.31.3; 4.23.1 for a dream book; Origen, contra Celsum 6.8.10 for a work on Plato.

4. There has been no full-length discussion since Pease’s marvelous display of erudition (A.S. Pease, Cicero. De Divinatione Libri Duo. Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 6, Urbana, Illinois, 1920) although there have been several significant articles: J. Linderski, ‘Cicero and Roman divination’ La Parola del Passato 37 (1982), 12-38; M. Beard, ‘Cicero and divination: the formation of a Latin discourse’ JRS 76 (1986), 33-46; M. Schofield, ‘Cicero for and against divination’ JRS 76 (1986), 47-65; N. Denyer, ‘The case against divination: an examination of Cicero’s de DivinationePCPhS 211, n.s. 31, (1985), 1-10; B. Krostenko ‘Beyond (Dis)belief: Rhetorical Form and Religious Symbol in Cicero’s de DivinationeTAPA 130 (2000), 353-391.

5. The bibliography is substantial but worth noting are the following contributions: prodigies: L. Wülker, Die Geschichtliche Entwicklung des Prodigienwesens bei den Römern. Studien zur Geschichte und Überlieferung der Staatsprodigien. Leipzig, 1903; B. MacBain, Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Republican Rome. Brussels, 1982; V. Rosenberger, Gezähmte Götter. Das Prodigienwesen der römischen Republik. Stuttgart, 1998; S. Rasmussen, Public Portents in Republican Rome. Rome, 2003; augury: P. Catalano, Diritto Augurale. Torino, 1960; J. Linderski, ‘The augural law’ ANRW 16.3 (1985), 2146-2312; haruspices: C. Thulin, Die Etruskische Disciplin. 3 vols. Göteborgs (1905-1909); A. Pfiffig, Religio Etrusca. Graz, 1975; C. Guittard (ed.), La divination dans le monde Etrusco-italique. Caesarodunum Supplement 54-56 (1986).