Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Are phenomena seen as indicating the future, which are generally believed to be of divine origin. Such signs often occur spontaneously, although they may be sought. Roman theory thus distinguished between the unsolicited and the solicited (see augurs). Some sort of belief in portents was general in antiquity, but scepticism on particulars was widespread; there was much room for disagreement on what counted as a portent and on what it portended, as well as on its importance in relation to other factors.

In Homer we can observe much that is characteristic of portents in the Greek world. Signs from the behaviour of birds (see birds, sacred) are frequent, and are sometimes explicitly said to come from Zeus; they may simply confirm something that has been said or they may use symbolism to convey a more complex message. Typical of the latter kind is the portent in bk. 12 of the Iliad, where an eagle is bitten by a snake it is carrying and forced to drop it. This is interpreted by Polydamas to mean that the Trojans will eventually fail in their attack on the Achaean ships. Scepticism is shown by Hector, who regards such signs as trivial (‘one omen is best, to fight for your country’)—but events will prove him wrong. Other portentous events in Homer include thunder and sneezing. Most of the portents recorded from later periods, Greek and Roman, conform to similar types. They are drawn from meteorological or astronomical phenomena (strange types of rainfall, eclipses—also earthquakes), from the behaviour of animals (birds, swarms of bees), and from the involuntary actions or unknowing words of humans. Other sources include the entrails of sacrificial victims, the unusual appearance of statues, and (esp. in Rome) deformed births, human or animal (See deformity). Wishing to interpret such an event, Greeks might consult a professional diviner (see divination) or even send to an oracle, or they might, like Polydamas, draw their own conclusions. As with other forms of prophecy, much latitude was possible here. Xenophon relates that when a Spartan expedition was demoralized by an earth tremor their leader and king Agesipolis interpreted it to indicate Poseidon's approval, since the expedition was already under way. Once he had achieved part of his aim, however, he was prepared to accept a thunderbolt and a lobeless sacrificial liver as signs that the expedition should be disbanded.

Similar phenomena were regarded as portentous in the Roman world, but were conceived in a different way. Whereas certain signs, as among the Greeks, were simple indicators of the future, in particular of the success or otherwise of an undertaking, the more unusual or sinister‐seeming—rains of blood, monstrous births—were classified as prōdigia and seen as signs of divine anger. Rather than exact interpretation, what was needed therefore was expiation, and the matter was likely to be the concern of the state. Prodigies were reported to the consuls, who prepared a list for the senate; the senate then decided which were authentic and of public concern. It might then take immediate action or more usually refer the matter to the pontifices or haruspices, or arrange a consultation of the Sibylline Books. With this elaborate state mechanism, it is not surprising that more than in Greece portents were closely connected with politics and could be the subject of manipulation, conscious or unconscious. Publica prodigia decline in frequency during the 1st cent. bc, but omens and portents of other types continue to be reported throughout antiquity and beyond.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.