BMCR 2020.01.41

Roman Republican Augury. Freedom and Control. Oxford Classical Monographs

, Roman Republican Augury. Freedom and Control. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 304. ISBN 9780198834434. £75.00​.

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.][1]

Roman Republican Augury is a revised, expanded, and updated version of Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy’s DPhil thesis. The book paints a different picture of augural divination in Republican Rome, far from the cynical and legalistic practice portrayed, it is averred, in other modern studies. Less predictable than modern historians think, auguries and auspices would have consisted in a true dialogue with Jupiter, a divine person much more powerful and frightening than is widely supposed.

The book includes an introduction (p. 1-50), three chapters (p. 51-201), a final conclusion (p. 203-207), a bibliography —not only in English but in the main academic languages [2]— (p. 209-255), an Index Locorum and a General Index (p. 257-277).

In the introduction, the author declines to see augury primarily as supporting Roman individuals or groups in plans and decisions that they had already formed, and Jupiter as telling those who consulted him what they wanted to hear. Instead, she argues that the Romans did not see augural divination as a way of controlling or binding their god, but rather as a way of expressing and responding to his will, accepting that the divine could clash with the desires of human beings. To sum up, she denounces two modern tenets (p. 23):

a. “Our evidence for augural theory reveals that it gave human beings the decisive role in deciding what divinatory signs to produce, to accept, and to reject.”
b. “Our evidence for augury in practice reveals that the results of augural techniques were either made to conform to what their recipients wanted or were only respected when they did so conform.”

Opposing this “erroneous” vision of augural divination, that of Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy is guided by four general principles (p. 24):

a. The purpose of augury was to obtain information from Jupiter about how and when to act.
b. Augury included some consistent rules and sign-interpretations, with which most of its users were familiar.
c. Augury worked by consensus […]. This consensus compelled elite compliance with the divinatory system and acceptance of its results.
d. Religion at Rome was ‘embedded’, but also meaningful in its own right.

In the first chapter (p. 51-126), Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy denounces two supposed augural principles (p. 52):

a. “The validity of a divinatory sign depended on whether it was accepted or rejected by the individual to whom it was offered.”
b. “The report that an individual had received a divinatory sign, or even the report that an individual was looking for one, was considered equal to the actual occurrence of a sign.”

While working to demonstrate (p. 56-119) that the eight texts usually cited to demonstrate the operation of these principles do not in fact do so,[3] the author proposes two new augural principles (p. 55 and 120-126, with an analysis of the controversial auspices before the Battle of Aquilonia[4]):

a. “The validity of a divinatory sign depended on the individual’s awareness of that sign.”
b. “The report that an individual had received a divinatory sign was thought to convey awareness of it to the report’s recipient, but was not considered a sign in itself. The report was also supposed to be truthful.”

In the second chapter (p. 127-160), Driediger-Murphy opposes “the modern assumption that it was only the announcement of an unfavourable sign itself which could prevent the transaction of public business” (p. 130). Based on a close discussion of the main texts invoked in the discussion,[5] her alternative proposal is “that the process of sky-watching itself was technically sufficient to prohibit public business, not de facto but de jure […] because the magistrate was thought to be in the process of asking Jupiter to communicate, and of waiting for the god to answer” (p. 130 and 132).

In the third and final chapter (p. 161-201), through the analysis of several famous cases of non-alignment between human will and divinatory signs received,[6] Driediger-Murphy argues that augury, in providing religious motives for behaviour even to the detriment of self-interest, did not always cohere with the will of the elite or even with the will of the individual magistrate (p. 188): the latter’s actions remained continually open to question and challenge by others (the senate, other magistrates, priestly bodies, ritual assistants, ordinary citizens: p. 189 and 193) and “every use of augury left some Roman politicians delighted and others disappointed” (p. 193). Even if augural divination rarely hindered magistrates, it nevertheless played an important role in delaying public action, as when the meeting of the senate to discuss Plancus’ letter, in 43 BC, was postponed the next day, because the urban praetor had not been careful enough in taking the auspices (p. 196-200).

In her conclusion, Driediger-Murphy underlines that the new way of thinking about augury she proposes can aid us in understanding how Romans conceived of their gods. Questioning “whether the Roman gods are really best understood as equanimous ‘co-citizens’ who were not to be feared and who were benevolent by default towards the Roman state”, she insists on the incapacity of human beings to control and to predict them (p. 204). Opposing among others John Scheid and his “influential view”, she suggests to reintroduce within Roman religion “faith”—not in a Christian sense, she claims—and emotions, fear and anxiety above all (p. 204-207). It is difficult not to perceive in this move the Lutheran concept of Religiosität, which U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff was already blaming G. Wissowa for neglecting in his study of the Roman religion.[7]

Despite Driediger-Murphy’s undeniable philological skills and ability to analyze literary sources precisely (see, for example, her discussion of Dion Hal. Ant. 2.6.1-3, p. 102-104, even if this text remains a stumbling block to her thesis), her investigation is skewed by a somewhat simplified presentation of previous historiography (too frequently grouped under the convenient but undifferentiated label “the traditional modern interpretation”) and weakened by an absence of demonstration on some fundamental points.

First of all, Driediger-Murphy too often gives the impression that her predecessors saw in the actions of Roman aristocrats only a cynical and hypocritical use of augural divination, whereas this stereotype has in fact long since been denounced, as she herself allows (p. 42, n. 160). Paradoxically, her insistence on the need to reassess the place of emotions into Roman divination risks reinforcing the “cynical interpretation” of augury: indeed, the opposite emphasis of some moderns on the “cold rationality” and the “formalism” of Romans before their gods underlines the fact that the sources reveal to us an elite that, far from cynically manipulating people’s emotions, portrays itself as fighting against the irrational terror of the gods (superstitio). Secondly, that a religion was ritualist does not mean that it lacked fundamental commitments concerning the system of things and the respective status of mortals and immortals, although these often went unarticulated.[8] Thirdly, by insisting that the Roman gods are too frightening, uncontrollable and unpredictable to be simply presented “as equanimous ‘co-citizens’ who were not to be feared” (p. 204), Driediger-Murphy simplifies her predecessors’ studies, ignoring their insistence on the double life of Roman gods, not only “equanimous ‘co-citizens’”, but also terribly superior to men and capable of terrorizing their mortal fellow citizens with the prodigies and other unfavourable signs they sent them.[9] Her arguments would also have benefited from integrating recent research on people’s reprehendendi potestas in the event that Jupiter disapproved, at the time of magistrate’s auspices for coming into office, the choice made a few months earlier by the comitia centuriata or tributa.[10] Fourthly, some key points for the demonstration are stated rather than proven: the highly problematic attribution of auspices (that some modern historians would call “impetrative”) to the tribunes of the plebe (p. 135, n. 38). [11] the assimilation of the seruatio de caelo to “one way of exercising spectio, the right to take impetrative auspices” (p. 135),[12] and the broad definition of obnuntiatio as “an announcement of the act of sky-watching itself” (p. 137 and 147, following Chr. Schäublin, “Ementita Auspicia”, WS, n.s. 20, 1986, p. 173).[13]

I hope that these remarks are sufficient to show the great interest of this book. It is well informed, well written and pays scrupulous attention to the sources, even if the desire to offer new perspectives on Roman augural divination has sometimes led the author to oppose her views too systematically, and sometimes a little artificially, to those of her predecessors.

Table of Contents

0.1. Of Gods and Men
0.2. Why Now?
0.3. What Is Needed?
0.4. How? Four Guiding Principles
1. Do As I Say, Not As I Do? Report versus Reality in Augury
1.1. Introduction
1.2. Principle 1 in the High and Late Empire: Comments on Signification
1.3. Principle 1 in the High and Late Empire: Claims that Augural Rules Gave Humans the Freedom to Accept or Reject Signs
1.4. Principle 1 in the Middle (and Late) Republic: Claims that Human Awareness of Signs Determined their Validity
1.5. Principle 2 in the Early Principate: The Claim that Augural Rules Gave Humans Freedom to ‘Create’ Signs by Reporting Them
1.6. Principle 2 in the Late Republic: The Claim that Humans Contrived Auspication so as to Receive Favourable Signs and Avoid Receiving Unfavourable Ones
1.7. Conclusions
2. Convenience or Conversation? Why ‘Watching the Sky’ was More than Wishful Thinking
2.1. Introduction
2.2. What Was Sky-Watching?
2.3. Did Sky-Watching Invariably Produce Signs?
2.4. Was Sky-Watching Technically Sufficient to Prohibit Assemblies?
2.5. Possible Objections: The Timing ofServare de Caelo
2.6. But Would It Actually Work?
Appendix: Ancient References to the Bibulus Affair
3. Out of Control? The Effects of Augury on Roman Public Life
3.1. Introduction
3.2. Motives, Part 1: Cicero, theAugurium Salutis, and the Limits of our Knowledge
3.3. Motives, Part 2: Two Methodological Problems and Two Abdicating Consuls
3.4. Motives, Part 3: The Consul, his Colleague, a Tribune, and Roman Respect for Augury
3.5. The Dynamics of State Divination
3.6. But Did It Really Matter?
3.7. Conclusion: When Signs Said No
4. Conclusion


[1] I would like to thank Clifford Ando for checking my English.

[2] We can regret, however, that the name of the Italian co-editor of Yann Berthelet and Alberto Dalla Rosa, “Les auspices : débats autour de deux apories”, CCG, 26, 2015, p. 199-315, has been forgotten and replaced by the name of our colleague and friend Frederik Vervaet, who happens to be the only English-speaking contributor to this collective publication.

[3] Cato the Elder, ORF 8.12 fr. 73; Cic. Diu. 2.71-74 and 2.77-78; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 2.6.1-3; Seneca the Younger, Q. Nat.2.32.6; Pliny the Elder, HN 28.17; Augustine, Doct. Christ. 2.24.37 [2.94-95 CSEL] and Servius ad Aen. 12.260.

[4] Liv. 10.39.8; 10.40.2-5 and 9-14.

[5] Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 2.6; Cic. Diu. 2.74 and Phil. 2.81-83; Varro, Ling.  6.86; Cassius Dio, 38.13.3-6; Gell. 13.15.1; and the texts relating to the Bibulus’ episode in 59 BC, usefully collected in an appendix at the end of the chapter.

[6] Failure of the augurium salutis of 63 BC; the case of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus in 163/162 BC; L. Aemilius Paulus’ unfavourable auspices that forced his colleague C. Terentius Varro to call off the attack against Hannibal in 216 BC; Milo’s use of the technique of ‘watching the sky’ against Clodius.

[7] See Wissowa’s answer to Wilamowitz-Moellendorff in Religion und Kultus der Römer, Munich, Beck, 19122 (1902), page viii of the preface. Cf. Clifford Ando, “Evidence and Orthopraxy”, JRS, 99, 2009, p. 176-178 (“Religion and Religiosity”) ; John Scheid, Les dieux, l’État et l’individu. Réflexions sur la religion civique à Rome, Paris, Seuil, 2013, p. 40-49 ; id.,  La religion romaine en perspective : Leçon de clôture prononcée le 3 mars 2016, Paris, Collège de France, 2018, p. 30-38.

[8] See in particular Marc Linder et John Scheid, “Quand croire c’est faire. Le problème de la croyance dans la Rome ancienne”, Archives de Sciences sociales des religions, 81, 1993, p. 47-61 ; John Scheid, Quand faire, c’est croire. Les rites sacrificiels des Romains, Paris, Aubier, 2005.

[9] John Scheid, La Religion des Romains, Paris, Armand Colin, 20173 (1998), p. 142-150 (“La double vie des dieux romains”).

[10] Fr. Van Haeperen, “Auspices d’investiture, loi curiate et légitimité des magistrats romains”, CCG, 23, 2012, p. 71-112, in particular p. 85-88 ; Y. Berthelet, Gouverner avec les dieux. Autorité, auspices et pouvoir, sous la République romaine et sous Auguste, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2015, p. 127. Cf. Cic. Leg. agr.  2.26-27.

[11] On the auspicial monopoly of the patrician magistracies alone, as opposed to the plebeian magistracies, see lastly Y. Berthelet, op. cit. n. 10, in particular p. 37-101.

[12] Contra, see J. Lindersky, “Römischer Staat und die Götterzeichen: zum Problem der obnuntiatio”, in id., Roman Questions. Selected Papers, I, Stuttgart, Steiner, 1995 (Habes 20), p. 444-457 (parallel of the pullarius in Cic. Diu. 2.71-74, endowed with the right of seruatio de caelo, but not with the right of auspicatio/spectio) ; Y. Berthelet, op. cit. n. 10, p. 94-98 (extension, in late republican sources, of the use of the term auspicium to the field of obnuntiatio).

[13] Concerning the term obnuntiatio, commonly understood as the announcement of dirae in the context of a popular assembly, the majority of texts imply that it must be distinguished from seruatio de caelo (as Cic. Att. 4.3-4, where Milo, after announcing by poster that he would seruare de caeloevery comitial day, had to run to the Campus Martius to make obnuntiatio in praesentia before the beginning of the comitia). In Cic. Phil. 2.81, the perfect seruauit implies that the verb nuntiare can only refer to the obnuntiatio in praesentia that follows the previous seruatio de caelo.