Wahrsagung und Divination

Divination in ancient Rome - Interview with Dr. Rudolph Kremer

Rudoplh, Your book is ideal as an introduction for students and specialist reading for those interested in history. With the topic of divination in ancient Rome you close a publication gap. How did you come across this need for publication?

As part of my dissertation on “Faith and Superstition”, I took a closer look at Roman divination practices for the first time. The focus of this work was on the development history of the word pair religio and superstitio. During my research I noticed two things: Firstly, that forms of divination play a large role in both areas. Secondly, a comprehensive, systematic examination of the many different types of divination has not yet been available.

Specialist literature on religion in ancient Rome

How diverse was the practice of divination in ancient Rome?

In religion, sign oracles had the highest status: the best known are the auspicium (the bird's eye view) and the haruspicina (the viscera view). Divine messages are derived from the behavior of the birds and the nature of the innards of a sacrificial animal. The cultic experts for this collection of signs were very important and respected figures in public life, because they had the official task of blessing all state-planned undertakings by obtaining divine approval.

But even beyond religion, signs from the gods could be expected practically always and everywhere. There could be extraordinary processes and phenomena in the sky or on earth, in nature or in people's immediate living environment, which is why the business of sign interpretation flourished. In addition, there were numerous sign-based everyday oracles for home use. Other categories of divination common in Rome include lottery oracles, scriptural oracles, ecstatic prophecy, sacred oracle sites, death oracles, dream oracles and astrology.

To what extent did the Romans allow the cultures of the conquered provinces to influence their own forms of divination? Was there such a thing as Etruscan or Greek primacy?

The fund of divinatory forms described as Roman is in reality a hodgepodge, a conglomerate of different cultural influences. The example of the Etruscans, who were the dominant power in Italy before the Romans, clearly shows how naturally Etruscan views and cult practices were cast into Roman molds or simply absorbed and relabeled by the empire. From today's perspective, the Etruscan culture is difficult to reconstruct, which is not because the Romans destroyed everything Etruscan, but because a large part of the Etruscan culture was absorbed into the new Roman culture in a natural, organic process .

In the area of ​​divination, there are also clear connections to the Greek-Hellenistic and Oriental cultural areas. The Roman people were fascinated by the divination and magical practices of the Orient.

Away from rule and politics, how strongly were people's everyday habits influenced by divination?

The Roman citizen was used to being approached by all kinds of fortune tellers in the market places, to drawing a fate for the day as they passed by, or to consulting a quick and practical everyday oracle in their own four walls. Divine signs were always to be expected. For example, if you opened the front door in the morning and there was a snake on the doorstep, you thought carefully about what this event might be trying to tell you and how best to deal with it. The majority of Romans believed in divination. Public figures demonstrated it to the people. For example, Caesar and Augustus are famous for their strong belief in symbols.

What connection to the present do you intend to evoke in the reader with your book?

My aim is to encourage the reader to think about obvious parallels and continuities between “superstitious” ideas of the past and present. I put the term “superstitious” in quotation marks because it is itself a polemical expression, a negative phrase that describes a certain belief as “false”. From the perspective of the Roman ruling elite, religion and the Enlightenment, it is easy to label ideas that do not fit one's own concept as wrong. But ultimately, every so-called “superstition” is nothing more and nothing less than a human belief.

I find it remarkable that thought patterns and beliefs that are over 2,000 years old still have an effect in people's minds today, sometimes without having changed. This points to a basic nature of the human mind that does not seem to have changed in two millennia.

The interview was conducted by Christian Leeck. Machine translated.
Wuppertal, June 2023

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