Divination: Greek and Roman Divination

views updated


People tend to think of divination as a process concerned with the future and with such questions as "Will I marry?" and "Will I be rich?" But in ancient Greece and Rome, as in many other cultures, divination was predominantly concerned with discerning the will of the gods and other superhuman entities (e.g., demons, ghosts) and then learning how to bring oneself into harmony with them. Thus, the enquirer might try to find out why famine was harming his city: Had the dead not received the cult that was due them? Was a god being ignored? Alternatively, an enquirer might ask a god's advice: shall we institute a new political system in Athens? In the latter sort of cases, the enquirer typically presented a detailed plan to the god and then asked for his or her approval, rather than giving the god completely free rein to decide what should be done. The knowledge that one sought from divination usually was not all that different in its nature from what one could learn from another person. It differed mainly insofar as the gods, demons, and ghosts might know more because they had a greater range of sources of knowledge; they knew what was going on among the dead, among the gods, and in distant parts of the world that the average enquirer could not reach.

Almost any object, person, statement, or event could convey information; the challenge was to learn how to choose, interpret, and act upon it correctly. Sometimes divinatory information aroused debate among its recipients as to how to interpret it. For example, during the Persian Wars of the early fifth century bce, the Athenians received an oracle from Apollo at Delphi advising them to protect themselves "by wooden walls," but prominent citizens argued for different interpretations. Themistocles (c. 524c. 460 bce) finally convinced the others that this meant they should increase the size of their navy (ships being built of wood) rather than seek refuge on the Acropolis, which had in former times been protected by a "wall" of thorn bushes. Themistocles was proven correct when the fortified navy saved not only Athens but all of Greece (Herodotos, Histories 7.140143).

This story also demonstrates that anyone, not only a specialist, was free to interpret divinatory information; indeed, the Greek chrêsmologoi, or professional interpreters of oracles, had urged the Athenians to abandon their city after they heard the oracle, but their advice was ignored. Professional seers (manteis ) traveled with armies to provide advice, but the general Xenophon (c. 431c. 352 bce) stated that he himself was knowledgeable enough in the arts of divination so that his seer could not deceive him with false information (Anabasis 5.6.29). This statement also reflects the common presumption that, far from being unimpeachable, professional diviners were motivated by the same things as other people and might put their own interests before those of their clients. Moreover, even when the source and interpretation were considered trustworthy, divinatory information might be challenged. The "wooden walls" oracle was the second oracle the Athenians had received from Delphi; they had rejected an earlier one because it offered the city no hope at all, and they asked the god for a more optimistic response. Similarly, in Rome the results of sortition (a method whereby an answer was obtained by shaking or drawing lots out of a jar) might be overturned in the civic and military arena when participants judged them to be "ill-omened." For example, if the results commanded that a man serving in the office of flamen Dialis (a prominent priesthood) should accept a foreign posting, the results were overturned because the flamen was forbidden from sleeping outside his own bed for more than two nights running. Divination, in short, was always as much a process of negotiation as it was of obtaining knowledge.


Although Greek and Roman divinatory methods and the contexts in which they were used were very similar in many regards, there were also distinctions, and it is therefore best to treat the two cultures separately. We begin with Greece.

Institutional oracles

Both of the oracles that Athens received during the Persian Wars came from the Delphic Oracle, one of the oldest (perhaps dating to the late ninth century bce) and most prestigious of Greek institutional oracles, which were situated in a fixed spot and administered by a priesthood. At Delphi, in an inner chamber of Apollo's temple, the Pythia (a woman who had pledged to remain a virgin) sat on a sacred tripod, wore a crown of sacred laurel, and was inspired by the god himself. Through her mouth, Apollo issued statements that were transmitted to enquirers by priests called "prophets"literally, "those who speak for" someone else. The statements might be worded so as to require interpretation, as we have seen, but the truly enigmatic Delphi response, whose meaning proves to be quite different from what it seems (as in the story of Oedipus), is probably only a literary motif.

Although Delphi was the most famous oracle in the ancient world, there were others. Most were sponsored by Apollo (including those at Didyma and Claros), but Zeus had one at Dodona, and other gods had oracles, too. Dead heroes might also convey information through oracles: Amphiaraus had one in Oropus and Trophonius had one in Lebadeia. The means by which the information was conveyed varied from place to place; at the oracle of Trophonius, enquirers descended into an underground shrine and apparently encountered the hero himself.

Independent practitioners

Independent experts who went by a variety of titles provided divination as well; ornithomanteis (interpreters of birds' behavior), oneiromanteis (dream interpreters), and teratoskopoi (interpreters of portents) were among them. The word mantis, the most general term of all, might be applied to any of these and many other types. Neither the titles nor the methods of divination that they represented were mutually exclusive, and many practitioners used more than one technique as the situation demanded. Manteis might provide other services as well, such as purification and initiation into private mystery cults. Although myths that made manteis such as Melampus and Amphiaraus members of prominent royal families may reflect the status of manteis during some early period of Greek history, by the classical age manteis were marginalized members of society. For important matters it was preferable, when possible, to consult one of the institutional oracles. Chrêsmologoi (interpreters of oracles) not only interpreted information delivered by institutional oracles, as mentioned in the story of Themistocles, but also oracles that had been collected together and were believed to be very old, such as those of Bacis and the Sibyls. "Belly-talkers" (engastrimuthoi ) had gods or demons in their stomachs that prophesied (see Plato, Sophist 252c, and Plutarch, On the Obsolescence of Oracles 9, 414e).

In later antiquity there were other divinatory techniques that private practitioners might employ. It is likely that many of these were available earlier but simply do not show up in the more meager sources of that time; examples are scrying (gazing at water or some other reflective surface), lychnomancy (gazing at a flame), and "direct vision"that is, a personal encounter with a god. The later sources make it clear that the practitioners often combined and adapted divinatory procedures that we would consider separate from one another. Thus, a practitioner might call a spirit into a child to prophesy at the same time as he asked the child to scry. In short, divination was a collection of practices open to improvisation, even if modern scholars (and already some ancient intellectuals such as Cicero) have attempted to categorize its varieties.

Everyday divination

Divinatory methods were available to ordinary people as well. Typically, these involved a person interpreting some spontaneous occurrence that seemed significant. In the Odyssey (17.541), Telemachus sneezes unexpectedly, and his mother, Penelope, interprets this to mean that she will soon be rid of her troublesome suitors. Dreams were viewed as having hidden meanings (but see Odyssey 19.562567, where Penelope dismisses attempts to find hidden meanings in her dreams). Although one could call in professional help for especially strange ones, the average person usually could manage without such help.

Intellectuals became fascinated with dreams: Aristotle (384322 bce) wrote a short treatise, On Divination in Sleep, in which he denied that dreams were predictive, but the Stoics went on to explore in depth the "scientific" reasons that dreams might be so. In the second century ce, Aelius Aristides kept a "dream diary" that described his nightly visions and proposed interpretations for them. Artemidorus's dream book, also from the second century, includes the dreams of people whom he interviewed, with notations as to what subsequently happenedan early effort at systematizing and testing dream interpretation. He also attempted to catalogue and categorize symbols that might appear in dreams, somewhat in the way that Sigmund Freud later would (and indeed, Freud, in his study of dreams, sometimes quotes Artemidorus). At the shrine of the hero Amphiaraus, people "incubated" (slept) in a special building and waited for the hero to advise them in dreams. Priests might help the dreamers interpret the dreams.

There are many more divinatory methods about which only a little is mentioned in the sources, making it impossible to say how common or respected they were. Aristophanes (c. 450c. 388 bce) shows us a woman asking a statue of Hekate outside her house whether she should go out that day (Lysistrata 63). At dice oracles, which were set up in marketplaces of Greek Asia Minor during the Roman Imperial period, merchants apparently took the initiative, when they pleased, of rolling the dice and then looking up the significance of the roll on a chart engraved on the base of a statue of Hermes (the god of merchants). There were also a few people who were what today would be called "clairvoyant"that is, they could "see" what was happening in distant places (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 8.26; Eunapius, Lives of the Sophists 468).

Sometimes the conversation of other people (especially children), when overheard by someone who needed advice, was interpreted as a divine message. The story of the conversion of Saint Augustine (354430 ce) to Christianity plays on this practice: while sitting in his garden he heard a child on the other side of the wall sing out "pick it up and read it," which Augustine took to refer to the Bible that lay on a table next to him; later, after he had converted, Augustine decided that it must have been an angel rather than a child (Confessions 8.12.29).


Much of what was said about Greek methods of divination is also true for Rome; in fact, in many cases, Greek sources explicitly discuss Roman participation as well. The Romans, for example, frequently visited the institutionalized oracles that the Greeks had established, such as Delphi, as well as a few of their own, such as the lot oracle of the Roman goddess Fortuna at Praeneste. But Roman divination differed from that of the Greeks in two important ways. First, the state exerted far greater control over the methods that were used for public mattersand eventually tried to exert control over private divination as well. Second, although Greek intellectuals already had mocked and challenged divinatory procedures, Roman writers provide a much richer picture of debates that swirled around the topic. It must also be noted that the Romans at least believed (and were probably to some extent correct in believing) that their methods of divination had been inherited from the Etruscans, who were viewed as especially sagacious in such matters.

Civic divination

Roman civic divination can be divided into three main types, organized according to whether the information conveyed was sought or unsought, and to the circumstances that surrounded each individual divinatory incident.

Taking the auspices was an act initiated by people seeking a sign from the gods to ensure that an undertaking would be successfulthat is, that the gods approved of it or were at least open-minded about it. A famous form of this type of divination was feeding sacred chickens and watching whether they consumed the food. Obviously, this was open to manipulationa starving chicken will eventually eat. Another form required defining a templum, that is, designating a rectangular section of the sky that was then divided into left, right, front, and back subsections. One then watched for signs to appear within the templum 's subsections (e.g., lightning, particular birds such as [Jupiter's] eagle) and drew meaning from these signs. Such auspices were interpreted by experts known as augures; until they gave the go-ahead, no public business (such as elections, Senate meetings, or initiation of new priests) could be conducted. Their role was strictly interpretative, however; the actual taking of the auspices was carried out by a magistrate. The augures also determined whether ritual faults had been committed during the taking of auspices if so, the act had to be repeated correctly.

Prodigies or portents were unbidden omens sent by the gods to warn humans of imminent disaster. These might take any of myriad forms: the birth of a two-headed calf or a hermaphrodite, sudden strokes of lightning, and eclipses are examples. Before a prodigy was studied, the Senate had to decide that it really was a prodigy; if so, either of two types of experts were called in: haruspices or pontifices. (Haruspices were from Etruria, reflecting the Roman belief that the Etruscans were masters of many religious practices, especially divinatory ones.) The haruspices and pontifices gave advice about how to avert the disaster that the prodigy had portended. Although this implicitly included interpreting the prodigy, emphasis was always on aversion rather than explanation; in this sense, Roman divination was an eminently practical rather than a theoretical art. We also hear of portents in Greece, and of experts (manteis, for example) sometimes being called in to interpret them, but Greek cities had no similarly complex, official system in place for dealing with them.

Entrail reading (also called extispicy or haruspinica ) is a form of divination found throughout the Mediterranean. (Typically, the liver and other internal organs of every sacrificial animal were "read" to determine whether the gods were pleased with the sacrifice, and if the sacrifice occurred at the outset of an important endeavor, the gods' pleasure or displeasure was construed as sending a message about the endeavor itself.) In Rome, extispicy was especially associated with military matters. Before battle, the haruspices looked at the entrails of the sacrificial animal and determined, from the pattern of bumps and other characteristics upon them, whether the gods were pleased. If they were not, that did not necessarily mean that the endeavor had to be abandoned; the sacrifice might be repeated numerous times until the entrails signified that it was all right to go ahead.

None of the three methods just described foretells the future, strictly speaking; at most they indicate what might happen if proper actions are not taken to avert crisis, or what might happen if the gods' advice (e.g., not to go into battle) were ignored. Roman divination, even more than Greek, was an ongoing consultation with the gods in which humans attempted to discover how they must modify their behavior to maintain the pax deorum (peace with the gods) that lay at the center of Roman religion.

A final form of official Roman divination that should be mentioned involved the Sibylline Books, collections of oracular verses in Greek dactylic hexameter, supposedly purchased from the Cumaean Sibyl (one of several sibyls or prophetesses inspired by Apollo) during an early period of Roman history; the collection was occasionally supplemented as time went on and was completely rebuilt after the original books were lost in a fire in 83 bce. The collection was under the care of a priestly group called the quindecemviri sacris faciundis (fifteen men concerned with sacred actions), but only the Senate could decide when the collection would be consulted for advice. In later antiquity, Christians and Jews read their own meanings into these oracles, finding within them, for instance, predictions of Christ's coming.

State control of divination

Of course, Romans needed advice concerning private as well as public matters, and by and large the same methods were available to them as to the Greeks: everything in the world potentially carried meaning, if properly observed and interpreted. Knowledge is power, however, and periodically, particularly during the Imperial period, certain forms of divination were either condemned or kept under strict governmental control. The most important of these was astrology. In the second century bce, catarchic astrology (the reading of star signs at the outset of an endeavor) was introduced into Rome (Pliny, Natural History 35.199), and by 139 bce the Senate had already passed a law expelling all astrologers (Valerius Maximus 1.3.3). The purge was constantly repeated; the first century ce alone saw eleven new attempts to expel astrologers. Other forms of divination came under fire, as well; the emperor Augustus had more than two thousand oracular books burned to prevent unauthorized access to them. In general, these purges fell into line with other attempts by Roman rulers to control religion and thereby access to the divinepurges of Jews, of magicians, of members of mystery cults in honor of Dionysos, and, of course, of Christians.

Response to divination

As mentioned above, Aristotle already had formally critiqued dream divination in the fourth century bce, and many other Greeks had challenged particular operators as being dishonest or inept. But there is more evidence for intellectual engagement with the question of how (or whether) divination worked in sources from the Roman period, perhaps because people of this time were more interested in the topic or perhaps because the sheer luck of survival has left more.

Cicero's treatise, Concerning Divination, is an articulate investigation of arguments for and against divination that takes the form of a dialogue between Cicero and his brother, Quintus. The latter represents those who believe divination works, particularly the Stoics; Cicero himself presents philosophical arguments against it, particularly those of the Platonists and Cynics. No resolution is reached, but in the course of the discussion Cicero not only offers a lengthy résumé of divinatory methods, but also elaborates on a division of divinatory methods that had first been proposed by the Stoics and that still holds considerable sway: that between natural divination (e.g., dreams, inspired prophecy such as that of the Delphi Pythia or the Sibyls) and artificial divination, which required special training or tools (e.g., reading bird flights, astrology, sortition). Another important topic that Cicero takes up from the Stoics is cosmic sympatheia, the idea that everything in the cosmos is connected to other things; thus, movements or changes in the heavenly world should be signaled by changes in the world below. Once one knew how to read and interpret the system, these changes could provide information that was not otherwise available. Sympatheia continued to be debated by philosophers throughout antiquity and into the Middle Ages.


Beard, Mary. "Cicero and Divination." Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986): 3346.

Bouché-Leclercq, Auguste. Histoire de la divination dans l'Antiquité. 4 vols. Paris, 18791882.

Dodds, E. R. "Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity." In The Ancient Concept of Progress. Oxford, 1973.

Graf, Fritz. "Magic and Divination." In The World of Ancient Magic, edited by David Jordan, Hugh Montgomery, and Einar Thomasson. Bergen, Norway, 1999.

Johnston, S. I. "Charming Children: The Use of the Child in Ancient Divination." Arethusa 34, no. 1 (2001): 97117.

MacBain, Bruce. Prodigy and Expiation: A Study of Religion and Politics in Republican Rome. Brussels, 1982.

North, John. "Diviners and Divination at Rome." In Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World, edited by Mary Beard and John North. London, 1990.

Parker, Robert. "Greek States and Greek Oracles." In Crux: Essays Presented to G. E. M. de Ste. Croix on His 75th Birthday, edited by P. A. Cartledge and F. D. Harvey. London, 1985.

Sarah Iles Johnston (2005)

About this article

Divination: Greek and Roman Divination

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article