An augur, a type of priest, had a special official function in ancient Rome. The augur’s main responsibility was to observe natural phenomena and to determine whether the gods approved or disapproved of a planned public action. The Romans generally consulted augurs before taking important steps, such as founding a city, fighting a battle, building a temple, or passing a law. Augurs might even be consulted before a marriage.
Originally, Rome had three official augurs, but this number gradually increased to sixteen. They remained in office for life. After 104 B.C. the augurs were chosen by popular election. Their role in Roman society gave them a great deal of power and prestige. The Roman statesman Cicero called augurs “the highest and most responsible authorities in the state.”
Augurs relied on omens, or signs from the gods. The most important omens were those deliberately looked for, perhaps by observing the behavior of animals or the condition of an animal’s internal organs. For example, an augur looking for a omen before a battle might observe a group of chickens. If the chickens ate in a certain way, this was considered a favorable sign for battle. Augurs also studied the flight patterns of birds and paid attention to lightning and thunder. Omens not deliberately sought, such as a sudden storm or the appearance of animals sacred to the gods, were often considered unfavorable. If the omen was deemed significant, the Senate called in the augurs for interpretation. The augurs might interpret these incidents as signs of an impending terrible event, such as the death of a powerful individual.
Augurs usually looked for omens before every important public activity. People did not have to accept their advice, but most Romans considered it reckless to ignore signs from the gods. The term augury, derived from the word augur, is used today to mean the practice of using omens or happenings to predict the future. (See also Religion, Roman.)