Augur, Hezekiah, 1791-1858, American sculptor. After a business failure he devoted himself to art and was encouraged by Samuel F. B. Morse. His bust of Washington and the statuette group Jephtha and His Daughter (Yale Univ.) are among his best-known works.
augur: see omen.

The Augur was a priest and official in the classical world, especially ancient Rome and Etruria. His main role was to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of the birds (flying in groups/alone, what noises they make as they fly, direction of flight and what kind of birds they are), known as "taking the auspices." The ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society--public or private--including matters of war, commerce, and religion.

Consider the words of the Roman historian Livy, who writes (VI.41): auspiciis hanc urbem conditam esse, auspiciis bello ac pace domi militiaeque omnia geri, quis est qui ignoret? ("Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the divinations, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the divinations?")

Etymology and derivatives

The derivation of the word augur is uncertain; ancient authors believed that it contained the words avi and gero --Latin for "directing the birds"--but historical-linguistic evidence points instead to the root aug-, "to increase, to prosper."

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed.

Augurs in the Republic

Roman augurs are elected to office and are part of a collegium of priests who share the duties and responsibilities of the position. At the foundation of the Republic in 510 BC, the patricians held sole claim to this office; by 300 BC, the office was open to plebeian occupation as well.

In the Regal period tradition holds that there were three augurs at a time; by the time of Sulla, they had reached fifteen in number.

Augurs in Han China

Historian Hans Bielenstein translates the title of one of the subordinate officers of the Ministry of Ceremonies as "Prefect Grand Augur," a post established in 104 BC during the Han Dynasty of China. This officer was in charge of rituals of divination that were used to influence state policy. For example, the Prefect Grand Augur performed a ceremony in 90 BC on whether or not Han forces should assault the northern nomadic Xiongnu Empire. Another example was the ceremony in 3 AD, when the Prefect Grand Augur performed a ritual to determine whether or not it was auspicious for Wang Mang's daughter to become the empress.

See also



  • Beard, Mary, John North, Simon Price, Religions of Rome: A History (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Bielenstein, Hans. (1980). The Bureaucracy of Han Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521225108.
  • Hornblower, Simon and Anthony Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Third Edition) (Oxford: OUP, 1996), s.v. augures

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