Divination – the art of obtaining knowledge of the future or guidance through supernatural means – was a key part of Roman life, religion, and history. In fact, we are told by Roman writer Cicero that Romulus, one of the legendary founders of Rome, was a skilled augur (a priest responsible for divination). When Romulus watched the sky for a sign and saw the arrival of twelve 'sacred birds from heaven', this was taken as a sign that he should rule.
By the time of Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, the official Roman college of augurs consisted of sixteen of these highly regarded men.
To the Romans, just about everything was a potential omen or prediction – a message from the gods to be read and interpreted by those in the know. There were more well-known forms of divination such as astrology and the prophecies of the famous Sibylline Books, but omens were also seen in sheep’s livers and sneezes or laughter.
Here we look at six of the most unusual methods of divination used by the Ancient Romans.
In 249 BC, Roman commander Claudius Pulcher was preparing to battle the Carthaginians off the coast of Drepana in Sicily. Curious as to how it would play out, he consulted one of the most popular methods of divination in the Roman military – the sacred chickens. Coops of these chickens were taken all over the known world with the Roman armies and navies and were cared for by an official called a pullaris.
The procedure was that a few handfuls of grain were scattered on the ground and the chickens were released. If they rushed out of their cages and greedily gobbled up the grain, this was taken to be a great omen, and the attacking course of action was taken by the warring Romans. However, if the chickens hesitated to come out, or showed a lack of interest in the grain, this was considered a warning that the battle will be lost and should be avoided.
This was just what Pulcher did, and when the sacred chickens didn’t go for the grain he was so angry that he ordered them to be thrown over the side of his boat, declaring: ‘If they will not eat, then let them drink!’
Pulcher and his forces went on to be utterly thrashed by the Carthaginians at Drepana.
The Romans also used a sort of ouija board method with chickens. A circle with letters was drawn on the ground, and grain was placed on each letter. The chickens could then write a message by the order in which they pecked the grain.
2. Human sacrifice
In Ancient Rome, a priest called a haruspex was tasked with carrying out divination by looking at the entrails of sacrificed animals, often a sheep’s liver.
There was, though, reputedly a far more sinister method the Romans used. This has come to be known as anthropomancy, or divination from human beings. It is said that on occasion the Romans sacrificed men, women, and children to this end, although the evidence for this happening is not strong.
The process typically involved the subject having their chest opened while still alive, and their organs were taken out in a particular order and read until they died. Gruesomely, the priest carrying out the sacrifice would, aside from studying the colour and shape of each organ, also note the way the victim screamed, how they bled, and the manner of their death spasms. This information was taken and interpreted for omens and predictions.
The notoriously sadistic 3rd century emperor Elagabalus was said to have been a practitioner of this method. Julian the Apostate, emperor from 332 to 363 AD, allegedly sacrificed a woman with his own hands in a temple, hanging her up in chains and then tearing her liver out.
One of the more unusual methods of Roman fortune-telling was the reading of urine. This was not unique to Rome and its use was widespread in the ancient world. The ways of interpreting the waste liquid varied considerably, with some reading omens into the taste or smell of the secretion and others looking at the flow and colour.
One format the Romans employed was to look at the bubbles. The subject urinated into a chamber pot before the contents were examined. Large bubbles spaced apart signified good luck, in particular incoming wealth, while small and densely packed bubbles were a bad omen and an indicator of approaching sickness or death.
For the Romans, a major part of divination was looking to the skies. Augurs went out and sat on hills, ready to look up and read the sky for messages from the gods. This could be in the form of movements of flocks of birds, lightning, or the shape and motion of clouds. Another form in this category is known as brontomancy. This is fortune-telling by interpreting thunder and thunderstorms.
In Ancient Rome, the augurs interpreted thunder in the left portion of the sky to be good luck, but thunder on the right to be a bad omen. Thunder was also interpreted as a harbinger of death with different meanings depending on the day of the week. Sundays usually signalled the imminent death of a priest or scholar, Mondays a woman, Wednesdays and Thursdays beggars and prostitutes, Fridays statesmen and generals, and thunder on Saturdays was a portent of a more indiscriminate threat such as plague or famine.
The Romans also used eggs for divination, a method known to occultists as oomancy.
Soothsaying by egg took many different forms, but one popular method was to drop an egg white into boiling water and make predictions from the shapes that formed. A nice circular mass indicated that a wedding was on the horizon, but an irregular snake-like shape was taken to be a warning of approaching danger.
According to a Roman chronicler, a pregnant Livia Drusilla used an egg to predict the sex of her unborn baby. She incubated the egg between her breasts and then when it was ready to hatch, she held the egg in her hand. The chick was a boy, and so this indicated that her baby would be a boy, which it was.
Unbroken eggs were also rubbed onto the stomachs of pregnant women and then cracked open. Various meanings were inferred from the raw egg. A double yolk meant twins, for example.
In the Middle Ages and in ancient times, the magical art of ‘scrying’ was widespread. Scryers were seers who looked into a mirror, crystal ball, water, or another reflective surface to predict the future or seek guidance from a mysterious source. In Ancient Rome, scryers were called specularii, which linked to the Latin words for ‘mirror’ and ‘to look’.
Roman Emperor Didius Julianus, who ruled in the spring of 193 AD, famously used a mirror to predict the outcome of a battle. According to the Historia Augusta, a Roman history book, Julianus worked with magicians to perform a rite in front of a mirror and a young boy was brought in with the job of reading the mirror. The boy saw in the mirror the downfall of Julianus and the success of Severus, one of his rivals. This prediction proved correct when Severus defeated Julianus and had him killed in June 193.