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Dramatizing Ritual Performance

Even the earliest preserved literary texts in Latin contain ritual descriptions. Ennius, for example, in one of the longest extant fragments of his historic epic the Annales, describes an auspicium performed by two augurs, the brothers Romulus and Remus, who were in competition for the leadership of the city yet to be founded:[1]

Curantes magna cum cura tum cupientes

regni dant operam simul auspicio augurioque.

in Murco Remus auspicio sedet atque secundam

solus auem seruat. at Romulus pulcher in alto 75

quaerit Aventino, seruat genus altiuolantum.

certabant urbem Romam Remoramne uocarent. omnibus cura uiris uter esset induperator. expectant ueluti, consul cum mittere signum

uolt, omnes auidi spectant ad carceris oras, 80

quam mox emittat pictis e faucibus currus,

sic expectabat populus atque ore timebat

rebus, utri magni uictoria sit data regni.

interea sol albus recessit in infera noctis.

exin candida se radiis dedit icta foras lux 85

et simul ex alto longe pulcherrima praepes

laeua uolauit auis. simul aureus exoritur sol,

cedunt de caelo ter quattuor corpora sancta

auium, praepetibus sese pulchrisque locis dant.

conspicit inde sibi data Romulus esse priora, 90

auspicio regni stabilita scamna solumque.

With great care, anxious and desirous of kingship, they turn their attention both to the auspicious watching of the birds and to interpretation. Remus sits alone on the Murcus and watches for a favorable bird. But Romulus the splendid observes from the high Aventine and watches for the high-flying ones.

They were competing to name the city—Roma or Remora—and all men were concerned about which of the two would be the leader. They wait, just as when the consul is ready to give the starting signal, all eagerly look to the gates of the starting boxes, [to see] how soon he might send the cars out of the colorful mouths. In such a way the people waited with fear for the outcome on their faces, [wondering] which of the twins would be granted the victory of the great kingship.

Meanwhile the moon [or “morning star”] has receded into the depths of the night. Now, shimmering daylight has appeared, struck by the beams, and at once, from very high, a magnificent and auspicious bird has flown on the left. And when golden sun rises, three times four holy bodies descend from the sky and sit down on promising and splendid places. Thus Romulus sees that kingship’s dais and throne has been given to him, confirmed by the birds’ sign.

(trans. Jorg Rupke and Alice Brigance)

As I have argued elsewhere,[2] the Annales was probably recited in a symposium attended by nobiles. From the perspective of the critical historian, the passage above offers us valuable information for reconstructing the ritual of the auspicium and attests auspication—if not for the year 753, at least for the early second century BC. Here, in one of the oldest transmitted literary texts of Rome, we are struck by the highly artful description: of the allegedly historical performance of a legitimizing ritual, and of a unique auspicium. The twelve vultures is a detail also found in other, less favorable variants of the narrative.24

The passage is one in a long series of Roman attempts to deal with a Greek story, full of discrediting elements, about Rome’s foundation. As Jocelyn has shown,25 Ennius inserted contemporary augural practices in order to render the narrative more palatable to his Roman audience. Jocelyn’s view is that of the literary critic, focusing on the perspective of the text’s producer. What of the perspectives of its recipients? As senators and (ex-) magistrates, they were, presumably, satisfied by this dignified story about their founders. They would also have been gratified by the literary showcasing of one of their central but rather intimate practices: the practice of going out to observe birds before sunrise (infera noctis, 89) was a public, yet hardly prominent, performance.

The political importance of the ritual is confirmed by the central place it holds in the story of the twins’ conflict. Emphasis, however, is placed not on structure but on performance. Personal engagement and intention are stressed: curantes magna cum cura (77), “being careful with great care” opens the passage. Jocelyn has drawn attention to the lingering obscurity of the expression auspicio se deuouet (79), a sort of magical self-sacrifice to the ritual. I use the expression “magical” deliberately: this phrase captures the utter isolation, the asocial vigil of the observer, whose political will is public, as are the technical conditions for a positive outcome of the bird watching formulated in the legum dictio,26 but not the strength of his resolution, which the ritual also tests. It is this feature of the ritual performance that is explicitly open to individual modification. Augury, as it is shown here, is part of the aristocratic competition that informs Roman politics and aristocratic values: certabant (82). For the listeners and readers of the [3] [4] [5]

text, ritual is not only a means of political competition but is also itself a dynamic element of such competition.[6]

Given the fact that augury is, in principle, open to everybody, the text reminds its aristocratic listeners of the loftiness of their individual practice. Without actually asserting the presence of the citizens, all of whom are interested in the outcome (omnibus . . . viris), an audience is introduced by way of the simile: ueluti, consul cum mittere signum / uolt, omnes auidi spectant (84—85). Expecting, looking, and seeing (expectare, spectare, con- spicere) are deliberately conflated as activities of the protagonists as well as the observers, and the reader is granted a simultaneous view of both parties (stressed by the visual ore, 87). Thus the literary depiction enables the nightly auspicial certamen to be observed by a breathless multitude as if they were witnessing a race in the circus.[7] The ritual practiced in solitude is transformed into a highly communicative performance.

No extant sources indicate the influence of the Ennian texts on the practitioners of augury. However, the proliferation of the practice of tripudium, augury by chicken feeding, and its criticism (not least in the very text of Cicero that supplies our Ennius passage) demonstrate that the communicative aspects of the performance were central. It is by stressing the individual’s part in its performance that texts such as the Annales dramatized Roman auspicia and stabilized it against negative evaluations.

  • [1] Ennius, Ann. 72—91. Skutsch 1985 (partly following the conjectures of Jocelyn 1971) = 77—96Vahlen = Cic. Div. 1.108. See the discussion of the text in Wardle 2006 ad loc.
  • [2] Rupke 2012i, 30-35.
  • [3] Livy 1.7.1: Here, Remus observes six vultures, Romulus twelve.
  • [4] Jocelyn 1971.
  • [5] Thus I understand the specifications of what is expected by each.
  • [6] For the eastern Mediterranean, cf. Rizakis 2007.
  • [7] On observing rituals, see Huet 2015.
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