Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Augury in Rome and in Dante

From an interesting article on divination among the ancient Romans:

Thus, the Romans looked upon astrology and the whole prophetic art of the Chaldaeans as a dangerous innovation; they paid little attention to dreams, and hardly any to inspired prophets and seers. They had on the contrary learnt from the Etruscans to attach much importance to extraordinary appearances in nature — Prodigia; in common with other neighbouring nations they endeavoured to learn the future, especially in war, by consulting the entrails of victims; they laid great stress upon favourable or unfavourable omina, and in times of danger and difficulty were accustomed to consult the Sibylline books, which they had received from the Greeks; but the mode of divination, which was peculiar to them, and essentially national, consisted in those signs included under the name of auspicia.
The whole piece (from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities) is worth reading, and it's likely that the Italian middle ages was still steeped in this tradition. Dante's rich and patterned use of bird imagery throughout the Commedia, but especially in his use of the images of the falcon and the eagle, suggests that he found in the Christian iconography a means of alluding to the ancient Roman arts of the auspices, but informed by a further dimension deriving from revealed truth.

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