Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Celts, and others: The Cicero brothers on the nature and effectiveness of divination (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Celts, and others: The Cicero brothers on the nature and effectiveness of divination (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 11, 2024,

Ancient author: Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Divination / de Divinatione (44 BCE), various sections (link).

Comments: Marcus Cicero’s dialogue On Divination (written ca. 44 BCE), which was written as a follow-up to On the Nature of the Gods (link), pictures an imaginary debate between Marcus Cicero and his brother, Quintus Cicero, over the value and effectiveness of divination. Divination has to do with interpreting messages from the gods in our universe, including interpreting the signs on a sacrificed animals’ intestines, in the flight of birds, in the juxtaposition of the stars and planets, and in dreams. Quintus represents the case for the truth and effectiveness of divination from a Stoic philosophical position. Stoics believed that the divine principle or reason interpenetrated our universe and, therefore, for most Stoics it made sense that god communicated messages or left signs through various means. Marcus represents the case against from an Academic Skeptic philosophical position.

Marcus Cicero had himself been a member of the elite diviners’ (augures’) college in Rome, so we need to take care not to assume that his literary persona in the debate necessarily directly represents his own position. Rather, the dialogue form itself combined with Marcus Cicero’s stance (at the time) as an Academic Sketpic means that he must, in fact, be ambivalent and not make a judgment or necessarily represent his own views using his literary character (see Beard 1986, although her claim that Marcus Cicero invented the category or future discourse of “religion” is highly problematic).

In terms of our ethnographic interests, this dialogue provides an excellent example of how a Roman attempting to integrate Greek philosophy within his own Roman context would engage with ethnographic materials in order to present opposing philosophical positions. Many “barbarian” peoples make their appearance here as examples of groups who engaged in divination, in interpreting the messages of the gods in natural and other phenomena. Quintus Cicero (the brother) who is for divination, provides positive examples of divination among Assyrians or Babylonians (Chaldeans), Celts or Gauls (Druids), Etruscans, Umbrians, and others. The literary persona of Marcus Cicero – who is at least temporarily against – spends a great deal of time trying to unwind the idea that Chaldeans can interpret a person’s life in relation to the configuration of celestial phenomena at the time of birth. Many other “barbarians” make their appearance as well, including Pisidians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians. Marcus CIcero had been proconsul of Cilicia (ca. 51-50 BCE), by the way, and his brother came along as legate. Quintus had also served some time in Gaul between 54 to 51 BCE, as mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic Wars (5.38-53). Previously Quintus had been governor of the Roman province of Asia (61-58 BCE), not extremely far from Cilicians, Pisidians and Pamphylians he is pictured as referencing.

Works consulted: Mary Beard, “Cicero and Divination: The Formation of a Latin Discourse,” Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986): 33–46 (link).


[Marcus Cicero’s introduction to the imagined debate with his brother about divination]

(1.1) There is an ancient belief, handed down to us even from mythical times and firmly established by the general agreement of the Roman people and of all descent groups (gentes), that divination of some kind exists among men. This the Greeks call mantikē – that is, the foresight and knowledge of future events. A really amazing and helpful thing it is – if only such a faculty exists – since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods. Just as we Romans have done many other things better than the Greeks, so have we excelled them in giving to this most extraordinary gift a name, which we have derived from divi, a word meaning “gods,” whereas the Greeks have derived it from furor, a word meaning “frenzy,” according to Plato’s interpretation,

[Assyrians and Chaldeans]

Now I am aware of no descent group, however refined and learned or however savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognize those signs and predict events before they occur. To seek authority from the earliest sources first of all, Assyrians [often interchangeable with Babylonians from a western perspective] took observations of the paths and movements of the stars and, after making note of them, transmitted to posterity what significance they had for each person. They were able to do so because of the vast plains inhabited by them and the open and unobstructed view of the heavens presented to them on every side. Among that same people (natio) , the Chaldeans – a name which they derived not from their skill but their descent group – have, it is thought, by means of long-continued observation of the constellations, perfected a body of knowledge which enables them to predict what any man’s lot will be and for what fate he was born.

[Egyptians, Cilicians, Pisidians, and Pamphylians]

The same skill is believed to have been acquired also by the Egyptians through a remote past extending over almost countless ages. Moreover, the Cilicians, Pisidians, and their neighbours, the Pamphylians – peoples which I once governed – think that the future is declared by the songs and flights of birds, which they regard as most infallible signs. And, in fact, what colony did Greece ever send into Aiolia, Ionia, Asia, Sicily, or Italy without consulting the Pythian or Dodonian oracle, or that of Jupiter [i.e. Zeus] Hammon? Or what war did Greece ever undertake without first seeking the counsel of the gods?


(1.2) Nor is it only one single mode of divination that has been employed in public and in private. For, to say nothing of other peoples, how many modes of divination our own people have embraced! In the first place, according to tradition, Romulus, the father of this city [Rome], not only founded it in obedience to interpretations of the flight of birds (auspices), but was himself a most skilful diviner. Next, the other Roman kings employed diviners (augures). Again, after the expulsion of the kings, no public business was ever transacted at home or abroad without first engaging in interpretations of the flight of birds (auspices). Furthermore, since our forefathers believed that the skill of the inspectors of entrails (haruspices) had great effectiveness in seeking for omens and advice,​ as well as in cases where prodigies were to be interpreted and their effects averted, they gradually introduced that skill in its entirety from Etruria, in case it should appear that any kind of divination had been disregarded by them.

Since they thought that the human mind, when in an irrational and unconscious state, and moving by its own free and untrammelled impulse, was inspired in two ways, the one by frenzy and the other by dreams, and since they believed that the divination of frenzy was contained chiefly in the Sibylline verses, they decreed that ten​ men should be chosen from the community to interpret those verses. In this same category also were the frenzied prophecies of seers (harioli), which our ancestors frequently thought worthy of belief, like the prophecies of Cornelius Culleolus during the Octavian war. Nor, in fact, were the more significant dreams, if they seemed to concern the administration of public affairs, disregarded by our supreme Council. Why, even within my own memory, Lucius Julius, who was consul with Publius Rutilius, by a vote of the Senate rebuilt the temple of Juno, the Saviour, in accordance with a dream of Caecilia, daughter of Balearicus.

(1.3) Now my opinion is that, in sanctioning such usages, people in ancient times were influenced more by actual results than convinced by reason.​ However certain very subtle arguments to prove the trustworthiness of divination have been gathered by philosophers. Of these – to mention the most ancient – Xenophanes of Colophon, while asserting the existence of gods, was the only one who repudiated divination in its entirety; however, all the others, with the exception of Epicurus, who babbled about the nature of the gods, approved of divination, though not in the same degree. For example, Socrates and all of the Socratic school and Zeno and his followers continued in the faith of the ancient philosophers and in agreement with the Old Academy and with the Peripatetics. Their predecessor, Pythagoras, who even wished to be considered a diviner (augur) himself, gave the weight of his great name to the same practice. Furthermore, that eminent author, Demokritos, in many passages, strongly affirmed his belief in an intuition of things to come. Moreover, Dikaiarchos, the Peripatetic, though he accepted divination by dreams and frenzy, cast away all other kinds. Also, my intimate friend, Kratippos, whom I consider the peer of the greatest of the Peripatetics, also gave credence to the same kinds of divination but rejected the rest.

The Stoics, on the other hand (for Zeno in his writings had, as it were, scattered certain seed which Cleanthes had fertilized somewhat), defended nearly every sort of divination. Then came Chrysippos, a man of the keenest intellect, who exhaustively discussed the whole theory of divination in two books, and also wrote one book on oracles and another on dreams. And following him, his pupil, Diogenes of Babylon, published one book, Antipater two, and my friend, Poseidonios, five. But Panaitios, the teacher of Poseidonios, a pupil, too, of Antipater, and, even a pillar of the Stoic school, wandered off from the Stoics. Even though he dared not say that there was no efficacy in divination, he still did say that he was in doubt. Then, since the Stoics – much against their will I grant you – permitted this famous Stoic to doubt on one point will they not grant to us Academicians the right to do the same on all other points, especially since that about which Panaitios is not clear is clearer than the light of day to the other members of the Stoic school? At any rate, this praiseworthy tendency of the Academy to doubt has been approved by the solemn judgement of a most eminent philosopher.

(1.4) Accordingly, since I, too, am in doubt as to the proper judgement to be rendered in regard to divination because of the many pointed and exhaustive arguments urged by Karneades against the Stoic view, and since I am afraid of giving a too hasty assent to a proposition which may turn out either false or insufficiently established, I have determined carefully and persistently to compare argument with argument just as I did in my three books On the Nature of the Gods. For a hasty acceptance of an erroneous opinion is discreditable in any case, and especially so in an inquiry as to how much weight should be given to interpretations of the flight of birds (auspices), to sacred rites, and to sacred obligations, because we run the risk of committing a crime against the gods if we disregard them, or of becoming involved in old women’s superstition if we approve them.

[Beginning of the discussion and reflecting back on the work On the Nature of the Gods]

(1.5) This subject has been discussed by me frequently on other occasions, but with somewhat more than ordinary care when my brother Quintus and I were together recently at my Tusculan villa. For the sake of a stroll we had gone to the Lyceum ​which is the name of my upper gymnasium, when Quintus remarked: “I have just finished a careful reading of the third book of your treatise, On the Nature of the Gods, containing Cotta’s discussion. [Cotta was one of the main interlocutors in the debate about the gods, expressing the Academic Skeptic viewpoint of withholding judgment about the gods]. Although it has affected by opinion, it has not overthrown my opinion entirely.” “Very good,” I [Marcus Cicero] said, “for Cotta’s argument is intended rather to refute the arguments of the Stoics than to destroy a sense of obligation to the gods.”

Quintus then replied: “Cotta​ says the very same thing, and says it repeatedly, in order, as I think, not to appear to violate the commonly accepted canons of belief. Yet it seems to me that, in his zeal to confute the Stoics, he utterly demolishes the gods. However, I am really at no loss for a reply to his reasoning, because in the second book Lucilius has made an adequate defence of a sense of obligation to the gods and his argument, as you yourself state at the end of the third book,​ seemed to you nearer to the truth than Cotta’s. But there is a question​ which you passed over in those books because, no doubt, you thought it more expedient to inquire into it in a separate discussion: I refer to divination, which is the foreseeing and predicting of events considered as happening by chance. Now let us see, if you will, what efficacy it has and what its nature is. My own opinion is that, if the kinds of divination which we have inherited from our forefathers and now practise are trustworthy, then there are gods and, conversely, if there are gods then there are men who have the power of divination.”

“Why, my dear Quintus,” said I, “you are defending the very fortress of the Stoics in asserting the interdependence of these two propositions: ‘if there is divination there are gods,’ and, ‘if there are gods there is divination.’ But neither is granted as readily as you think. For it is possible that nature gives signs of future events without the intervention of a god, and it may be that there are gods without their having conferred any power of divination upon men.”

To this Quintus replied, “I, at any rate, find sufficient proof to satisfy me of the existence of the gods and of their concern in human affairs in my conviction that there are some kinds of divination which are clear and manifest. With your permission I will set forth my views on this subject, provided you are at leisure and have nothing else which you think should be preferred to such a discussion.”

“Really, my dear Quintus,” I said, “I always have time for philosophy. Moreover, since there is nothing else at this time that I can do with pleasure, I am all the more eager to hear what you think about divination.”

[Quintus’ position on divination]

“There is, I assure you,” said Quintus, “nothing new or original in my views. Those which I adopt are not only very old, but they are endorsed by the consent of all populations (populi) and descent groups. There are two kinds of divination: the first is dependent on skill, the other on nature. Now – to mention those almost entirely dependent on skill – what people or what state disregards the prophecies of inspectors of entrails, or of interpreters of prodigies and lightnings, or of diviners (augures), or of astrologers, or of oracles, or – to mention the two kinds which are classed as natural means of divination – the forewarnings of dreams, or of frenzy?​ Among these methods of divining it is incumbant on us, I think, to examine the results rather than the causes. For there is a certain natural power, which now, through long-continued observation of signs and now, through some divine excitement and inspiration, makes prophetic announcement of the future”. . . [omitted sections of Quintus’ stance].

[King of the Galatians / Celts in Anatolia as an example]

(1.15) . . . At the present time – please pardon me for saying so – Roman diviners (augures) neglect interpretations of the flight of birds (auspices), although the Cilicians, Pamphylians, Pisidians, and Lycians hold them in high esteem. I need not remind you of that most famous and worthy man, our guest-friend, king Deiotaros [king of the Galatians, reigning ca. 105-40 BCE], who never undertook any enterprise without first having the flight of birds interpreted. On one occasion after he had set out on a journey for which he had made careful plans beforehand, he returned home because of the warning given him by the flight of an eagle. The room in which he would have been staying, had he continued on his road, collapsed the very next night. This is why, as he told me himself, he had time and again abandoned a journey even though he might have been travelling for many days. By the way, that was a very noble utterance of his which he made after Caesar had deprived him of his tetrarchy and kingdom,​ and had forced him to pay an indemnity too. ‘Notwithstanding what has happened,’ he said, ‘I do not regret that interpretations of the flight of birds favoured my joining Pompey. By so doing I enlisted my military power in defence of senatorial authority, Roman freedom, and the supremacy of the empire. The birds, at whose instance I followed the course of duty and of honour, counselled well, for I value my good name more than riches.’ His conception of divination (augury), it seems to me, is the correct one.”

“For with us magistrates make use of interpretations of the flight of birds (auspices), but they are ‘forced interpretations of the flight of birds,’ since the sacred chickens in eating the dough pellets thrown must let some fall from their beaks. But, according to the writings of you diviners, a tripudium results if any of the food should fall to the ground, and what I spoke of as a ‘forced diviner’ your brotherhood calls as tripudium solistimum.​ And so through the indifference of the college, as Cato the Wise laments, many divinations and interpretations of the flights of birds have been entirely abandoned and lost. . . [omitted extensive sections dealing with many instances of divination among Romans and Greeks].

[Barbarians and divination: Celtic Druids, Persian Magians, Assyrian Chaldeans]

(1.41) “Nor is the practice of divination disregarded even among barbarians, if in fact there are Druids​ in Gaul, and there are, for I knew one of them myself, Divitiacus, the Aeduan, your guest and eulogist. He claimed to have that knowledge of nature which the Greeks call “physiologia,” and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means of divination and sometimes by means of conjecture. Among the Persians the seers and diviners are the Magians, who assemble regularly in a sacred place for practice and consultation, just as formerly you [Roman] diviners (augures) used to do on the nones of each month. In fact, no one can become king of the Persians until he has learned the theory and the practice of the Magians.

Moreover, you may see whole families and peoples devoted to this skill. For example, Telmessos in Caria is a city noted for its cultivation of the skill of the inspectors of entrails (haruspices), and there is also Elis in Peloponnesos, which has permanently set aside two families as inspectors of entrails, the Iamidai and the Kloutidai, who are distinguished for superior skill. In Syria [i.e. Assyria], the Chaldeans are pre-eminent for their knowledge of astrology and for their quickness of mind.

[Etruscans, Umbrians, and others]

“Furthermore, the Etruscans are very skilful in observing thunderbolts, in interpreting their meaning and that of every sign and portent. That is why, in the days of our forefathers, it was wisely decreed by the Senate, when its power was in full vigour, that, of the sons of the chief men, six should be handed over to each of the Etruscan tribes​ for the study of divination, in order that so important a profession should not, on account of the poverty of its members, be withdrawn from the influence of obligation to the gods and transformed into a means of financial gain. On the other hand the Phrygians, Pisidians, Cilicians, and Arabians rely chiefly on the signs conveyed by the flights of birds, and the Umbrians [in central Italy], according to tradition, used to do the same.

[Types of divination among various peoples and the influence of environment]

(1.42) “Now, for my part, I believe that the character of the country determined the kind of divination which its inhabitants adopted. For example, the Egeans and Babylonians, who live on the level surface of open plains, with no hills to obstruct a view of the sky, have devoted their attention completely to astrology. But the Etruscans, being in their nature of a very ardent sense of duty and accustomed to the frequent sacrifice of victims, have given their chief attention to the study of entrails. On account of the density of the atmosphere, signs from heaven were common among them and, furthermore that atmospheric condition caused many phenomena both of earth and sky and also certain prodigies that occur in the conception and birth of men and cattle. For these reasons, the Etruscans have become very proficient in the interpretation of portents. In fact, the inherent force of these means of divination, as you like to observe, is clearly shown by the very words so aptly chosen by our ancestors to describe them. Because they ‘make manifest’ (ostendunt), ‘portend’ (portendunt), ‘indicate’ (monstrant), ‘predict’ (praedicunt), they are called ‘manifestations,’ ‘portents,’ ‘indications, and ‘prodigies.’

But the Arabians, Phrygians, and Cilicians, being chiefly engaged in the rearing of cattle, are constantly wandering over the plains and mountains in winter and summer and, for that reason, have found it quite easy to study the songs and flight of birds. The same is true of the Pisidians and of our [Italy’s] Umbrians. While the Carians, and especially the Telmessians, already mentioned, because they live in a country with a very rich and fertile soil, whose fertility produces many abnormal growths, have turned their attention to the study of prodigies.

[Divination among foreign peoples in connection with war]

(1.43) “But who fails to observe that interpretations of the flights of birds (auspices) and all other kinds of divination flourish best in the best regulated communities? And what king or people has there ever been who did not employ divination? I do not mean in time of peace only, but much more even in time of war, when the strife and struggle for safety is hardest. Passing by our own countrymen, who do nothing in war without examining entrails and nothing in peace without taking the auspices, let us look at the practice of foreign peoples.


“The Athenians, for instance, in every public assembly always had present certain priestly diviners, whom they call “manteis.” The Spartans assigned a diviner to their kings as a judicial adviser, and they also enacted that an diviner should be present in their Council of Elders, which is the name of their senate. In matters of grave concern they always consulted the oracle at Delphi, or that of Jupiter Hammon or that of Dodona. (96) Lykourgos himself, who once governed the Spartan city, established his laws by authority of Apollo’s Delphic oracle, and Lysander, who wished to repeal them, was prevented from doing so by the scruples of the people. Moreover, the Spartan rulers, not content with their deliberations when awake used to sleep in a shrine of Pasiphae which is situated in a field near the city, in order to dream there, because they believed that oracles received in repose were true.

[Romans and the Sibylline books]

“I now return to instances at home. How many times the Senate has ordered the decemvirs to consult the Sibylline books! How often in matters of grave concern it has obeyed the responses of the inspectors of entrails! Take the following examples: When at one time, two suns and, at another, three moons, were seen; when meteors appeared; when the sun shone at night; when rumblings were heard in the heavens; when the sky seemed to divide, showing balls of fire enclosed within; again, on the occasion of the landslip in Privernum, report of which was made to the Senate; and when Apulia was shaken by a most violent earthquake and the land sank to an incredible depth. In all these cases of portents which warned the Roman people of mighty wars and deadly revolutions, the responses of the inspectors of entrails were in agreement with the Sibylline verses. . . [omitted many other examples of the Romans engaging in divination with respect to war or other conflicts].

[Skillful and natural types of divination]

(1.49) “But let us bring the discussion back to the point from which it wandered. Assume that I can give no reason for any of the instances of divination which I have mentioned and that I can do no more than show that they did occur, is that not a sufficient answer to Epicurus and to Karneades? And what does it matter if, as between divination based on skill and divination based on Nature, the explanation of the former is easy and of the latter is somewhat hard? For the results of those skillful means of divination, by means of entrails, lightnings, portents, and astrology, have been the subject of observation for a long period of time. But in every field of inquiry great length of time employed in continued observation creates an extraordinary fund of knowledge, which may be acquired even without the intervention or inspiration of the gods, since repeated observation makes it clear what effect follows any given cause, and what sign precedes any given event.”

“The second division of divination, as I said before,​ is the natural. According to the exact teaching of physics, it must be ascribed to divine Nature, from which, as the wisest philosophers maintain, our souls have been drawn and poured forth. Since the universe [from a Stoic perspective] is completely filled with the Eternal Intelligence and the Divine Mind, it must be that human souls are influenced by their contact with divine souls. But when men are awake their souls, as a rule, are subject to the demands of everyday life and are withdrawn from divine association because they are hampered by the chains of the flesh. . . [omitted numerous sections including theories of divination and discussion of dreams and divination].

[Clarification of Stoic perspectives on signs in various types of divination]

(1.52) “But it seems necessary to settle the principle on which these signs depend. For, according to Stoic teaching, the gods are not directly responsible for every fissure in the liver or for every song of a bird; since, manifestly, that would not be seemly or proper in a god and furthermore is impossible. But, in the beginning, the universe was so created that certain results would be preceded by certain signs, which are given sometimes by entrails and by birds, sometimes by lightnings, by portents, and by stars, sometimes by dreams, and sometimes by utterances of persons in a frenzy. And these signs do not often deceive the persons who observe them properly. If prophecies, based on erroneous deductions and interpretations, turn out to be false, the fault is not chargeable to the signs but to the lack of skill in the interpreters.”

“Assuming the proposition to be conceded that there is a divine power which pervades human lives, it is not hard to understand the principle directing those premonitory signs which we see come to pass. For it may be that the choice of a sacrificial victim is guided by an intelligent force, which is diffused throughout the universe. Or, it may be that at the moment when the sacrifice is offered, a change in the entrails occurs and something is added or taken away, for many things are added to, changed, or diminished in an instant of time. . . [omitted sections].

“For these reasons, it seems to me that we must do as Poseidonios does and trace the vital principle of divination in its entirety to three sources: first, to God, whose connexion with the subject has been sufficiently discussed; secondly to Fate; and lastly, to Nature. Reason compels us to admit that all things happen by Fate. Now by Fate I mean the same that the Greeks call “heimarmenē,” that is, an orderly succession of causes wherein cause is linked to cause and each cause of itself produces an effect. That is an immortal truth having its source in all eternity. Therefore nothing has happened which was not bound to happen, and, likewise, nothing is going to happen which will not find in nature every efficient cause of its happening. (126) Consequently, we know that Fate is that which is called, not ignorantly, but by means of knowledge, ‘the eternal cause of things, the cause of things past, of things present, and of things to come.’ So it is that it may be known by observation what effect will in most instances follow any cause, even if it is not known in all, because it would be too much to say that it is known in every case. And it is probable that these causes of coming events are perceived by those who see them during frenzy or in sleep. . .” [omitted sections].

. . . “But for my part, believing as I do that the gods do care for humans, and that they advise and often forewarn them, I approve of divination which is not trivial and is free from falsehood and trickery.”

When Quintus had finished I [Marcus Cicero] remarked, “My dear Quintus, you have come admirably well prepared.”

[Marcus Cicero’s response to his brother]

[Introduction to Marcus’ argument that there is no such thing as divination]

. . . (2.3) After my brother Quintus had delivered his views on divination, as set out in the preceding volume, and we had walked as much as we wished, we took our seats in the library in my “Lyceum,” and I remarked: “Really, my dear Quintus, you have defended the Stoic doctrine with accuracy and like a Stoic. But the thing that delights me most is the fact that you illustrated your argument with many incidents taken from Roman sources, incidents of a distinguished and noble type. I must now reply to what you said, but I must do so with great hesitation and with many misgivings, and in such a way as to affirm nothing and question everything [i.e. illustrating the position of an Academic Skeptic, as opposed to a Stoic].​ For if I should assume anything that I said to be certain I should myself be playing the diviner while saying that no such thing as divination exists! . . . Therefore I am inclined to think that there is no such thing as divination.” . . . [omitted numerous sections].

(2.12) “In discussing separately the various methods of divination [i.e. skillful and natural], I shall begin with the inspection of entrails (haruspicina) which, according to my deliberate judgement, should be cultivated from reasons of usefullness for communal affairs (rei publica) and in order that we may have a communal sense of obligation to the gods (religio). But we are alone and for that reason we may, without causing ill-will, make an earnest inquiry into the truth of the inspection of entrails. Certainly I can do so, since in most things my philosophy is that of doubt [i.e. as an Academic Skeptic]. In the first place, then, if you please, let us make ‘an inspection’ of entrails! Now can anybody be induced to believe that the things said to be predicted by means of entrails were learned by the inspectors through ‘long-continued observation’?

[Divination among foreign peoples as superstition]

(2.36) . . . “Now let us examine divination as practised among foreigners, whose methods are not so skillful as they are superstitious. They employ almost all kinds of birds, we only a few. They regard some signs as favourable, we, others. Deiotaros [king of the Galatians] used to question me a great deal about our system of divination, and I him about that of his country. Gods! How much they differed! So much that in some cases they were directly the reverse of each other. He employed interpretations of the flights of birds (auspices) constantly, we never do except when the duty of doing so is imposed by a vote of the people. Our ancestors would not undertake any military enterprise without consulting experts in the flights of birds. But now, for many years, our wars have been conducted by proconsuls and propraetors, who do not have the right to engage in interpretations of the flights of birds. Therefore they have no tripudium and they cross rivers without first engaging in interpretations of the flights of birds. What, then, has become of divining by means of birds? It is not used by those who conduct our wars, for they have not the right to do so. Since it has been withdrawn from use in the field I suppose it is reserved for city use only! . . . [omitted sections].

(2.37) “Your story about Deiotaros is utterly absurd: ‘He did not regret the interpretations of birds given him as he was setting out to join Pompey. They caused him to continue in the path of loyalty and friendship to the Roman people and to perform his duty, because he valued his reputation and glory more than kingdom and riches.’ I dare say, but that has nothing to do with interpretations of the flights of birds. For the crow would not tell Deiotaros that he was doing right in preparing to defend the freedom of the Roman people. He should have realized that of himself, and in fact he did. Birds indicate that results will be unfavourable or favourable. In my view of the case Deiotaros employed the interpretations of the flights of birds of virtue, and virtue calls us not to look to fortune until the claims of honour are discharged. However, if the birds indicated that the issue would be favourable to Deiotaros they certainly deceived him. He fled from the battle with Pompey: a serious situation! He separated from Pompey: an occasion of sorrow! He beheld Caesar at once his enemy and his guest: what could have been more distressing than that? Caesar wrested from him the tetrarchy over the Trocmians [one of the three main Galatian peoples settled in central Anatolia]] and conferred it upon some obscure sycophant of his own from Pergamon. Caesar deprived him of Armenia, a gift from the Senate. Caesar accepted a most lavish hospitality at the hands of his royal host and left him utterly despoiled.

But I wander too far: I must return to the point at issue. If we examine this matter from the standpoint of the results – and that was the question submitted to the determination of the birds – the issue was in no sense favourable to Deiotaros. But if we examine it from the standpoint of duty, he sought information on that score not from the experts in interpretations of the flights of birds, but from his own conscience.

(2.38) “Then dismiss Romulus’s diviner’s staff, which you say the hottest of fires was powerless to burn, and attach slight importance to the whetstone of Attus Navius. Myths would have no place in philosophy. It would have been more in keeping with your role as a philosopher to consider, first, the nature of divination generally, second, its origin, and third, its consistency. What, then, is the nature of a skill which makes prophets out of birds that wander aimlessly about – now here, now there – and makes the action or inaction of men depend upon the song or flight of birds? Why was the power granted to some birds to give a favourable omen when on the left side and to others when on the right? Again, however, when, and by whom, shall we say that the system was invented? The Etruscans, it is true, find the author of their system in the boy who was ploughed up out of the ground, but who do we have? Attus Navius? But Romulus and Remus, both of whom, by tradition, were augurs, lived many years earlier. Are we to say that it was invented by the Pisidians, Cilicians, or Phrygians? It is your judgement, then, that those devoid of human learning are the authors of a divine knowledge!”

(2.39) “‘But,’ you say, ‘all kings, populations, and peoples employ auspices.’ As if there were anything so absolutely common as a lack of sense, or as if you yourself in deciding anything would accept the opinion of the mob! How often will you find a man who will say that pleasure is not a good! Most people actually call it the highest good. Then will the Stoics abandon their views about pleasure because the crowd is against them? Or do you think that the population follows the lead of the Stoics in very many matters? What wonder, then, if in interpretations of the flights of birds and in every kind of divination weak minds should adopt the superstitious practices which you have mentioned and should be unable to discern the truth? Moreover, there is no uniformity, and no consistent and constant agreement between diviners. Ennius [second century BCE poet], speaking with reference to the Roman system of divination, said: “Then on the left, from out a cloudless sky, / Jove’s thunder rolled its goodly omen forth.” But Homer’s Ajax, ​in complaining to Achilles of some terrible action or other of the Trojans, speaks in this way: “For their success Jupiter thunders on the right.”

So we [Romans] regard signs on the left as best, Greeks and barbarians those on the right. And yet I am aware that we call favourable signs sinistra, or ‘left-hand’ signs, even though they may be on the right.​ Undoubtedly our ancestors in choosing the left side and foreigners choosing the right were both influenced by what experience had shown them was the more favourable quarter in most cases. What a conflict this is! In view, then, of the differences in the responses, in the manner in which observations are made and in the kinds of birds and signs employed, need I assert that divination is compounded of a little error, a little superstition (superstitio), and a good deal of fraud? . . .” [omitted numerous sections addressing each of Quintus’ points].

[Refutation of Chaldeans astrologers’ methods of divination]

(2.41) “Lots and the Chaldean astrologers remain to be discussed before we come to prophets and to dreams. . . . [omitted discussion of lots].  . . . (2.42) “Let us come to Chaldean manifestations. In discussing them Plato’s pupil, Eudoxos, whom the best scholars consider easily the best in astrology, has left the following opinion in writing: ‘No reliance whatever is to be placed in Chaldean astrologers when they profess to forecast a man’s future from the position of the stars on the day of his birth.’

Also, Panaitios, who was the only one of the Stoics to reject the prophecies of astrologers,​ mentions Anchialos and Kassander as the greatest astronomers of his day and states that they did not employ their skill as a means of divining, though they were eminent in all other branches of astrology. Skylax of Halikarnassos, an intimate friend of Panaitios, and an eminent astrologer, besides being the head of the government in his own city, utterly repudiated the Chaldean method of foretelling the future.

“But let us dismiss our witnesses and employ reasoning. Those men who defend the birth-day prophecies of the Chaldeans, argue in this way:

‘In the starry belt which the Greeks call the Zodiac there is a certain force of such a nature that every part of that belt affects and changes the heavens in a different way, according to the stars that are in this or in an adjoining locality at a given time. This force is variously affected by those stars which are called “planets” or “wandering” stars. But when they have come into that sign of the Zodiac under which someone is born, or into a sign having some connection with or accord with the birth sign, they form what is called a “triangle” or “square.’” Now since, through the procession and retrogression of the stars, the great variety and change of the seasons and of temperature take place, and since the power of the sun produces such results as are before our eyes, they believe that it is not merely probable, but certain, that just as the temperature of the air is regulated by this celestial force, so also children at their birth are influenced in soul and body and by this force their minds, manners, disposition, physical condition, career in life and destinies are determined.’”

(2.43) “What inconceivable madness! For it is not enough to call an opinion ‘foolishness’ when it is utterly devoid of reason. However, Diogenes the Stoic makes some concessions to the Chaldeans. He says that they have the power of prophecy to the extent of being able to tell the disposition of any child and the calling for which he is best fitted. All their other claims of prophetic powers he absolutely denies. He says, for example, that twins are alike in appearance, but that they generally unlike in career and in fortune. Prokles and Eurysthenes, kings of the Lakedaimonians [Spartans], were twin brothers. But they did not live the same number of years, for the life of Prokles was shorter by a year than that of his brother and his accomplishments were far more glorious. But for my part I say that even this concession which our excellent friend Diogenes makes to the Chaldeans in a sort of collusive way​ is in itself unintelligible. For the Chaldeans, according to their own statements, believe that a person’s destiny is affected by the condition of the moon at the time of his birth, and hence they make and record their observations of the stars which anything in conjunction with the moon on his birthday. As a result, in forming their judgements, they depend on the sense of sight, which is the least trustworthy of the senses, whereas they should employ reason and intelligence. For the computation of mathematics which the Chaldeans should know teaches us: how close the moon comes to the earth, which indeed it almost touches; how far it is from Mercury, the nearest star; how much further yet it is from Venus; and, what a great interval separates it from the sun, which is supposed to give it light. The three remaining distances are beyond computation: from the Sun to Mars, from Mars to Jupiter, from Jupiter to Saturn. Then there is the distance from Saturn to the limits of heaven, the ultimate bounds of space. Therefore, in view of these almost limitless distances, what influence can the planets exercise upon the moon, or rather, upon the earth?

(2.44) “Again, when the Chaldeans say, as they are bound to do, that all persons born anywhere in the habitable earth under the same horoscope, are alike and must have the same fate, is it not evident that these supposed interpreters of the sky are of a class who are utterly ignorant of the nature of the sky? For the earth is, as it were, divided in half and our view limited by those circles which the Greeks call horizontes (“horizons”) and which we may in all accuracy term finientes (“horizons”). Now these horizons vary without limit according to the position of the spectator. Hence, of necessity, the rising and setting of the stars will not occur at the same time for all persons. But if this stellar force affects the heavens now in one way and now in another, how is it possible for this force to operate alike on all persons who are born at the same time, in view of the fact that they are born under vastly different skies? In those places in which we live the Dog-star rises after the solstice,​ several days later in fact. But among the Troglodytes [near the Red Sea], we read, it sets before the solstice. Hence if we should now admit that some stellar influence affects persons who are born upon the earth, then it must be conceded that all persons born at the same time may have different natures owing to the differences in their horoscopes. This is a conclusion by no means agreeable to the astrologers, because they insist that all persons born at the same time, regardless of the place of birth, are born with the same fate.​”

(2.45) “But what utter madness in these astrologers demonstrate, in considering the effect of the vast movements and changes in the heavens, to assume that wind and rain and weather anywhere have no effect at birth! In neighbouring places conditions in these respects are so different that frequently, for instance, we have one state of weather at Tusculum and another at Rome. This is especially noticeable to mariners who often observe extreme changes of weather take place while they are rounding the capes. Therefore, in view of the fact that the heavens are now serene and now disturbed by storms, is it the part of a reasonable man to say that this fact has no influence on birth – and of course it has not – and then assert that a influence on birth is exerted by some subtle, imperceptible, almost inconceivable force which is due to the condition of the sky, which condition, in turn, is due to the action of the moon and stars?

“Again, is it no small error of judgement that the Chaldeans fail to realize the effect of the parental seed which is an essential element of the process of conception? For, surely, no one fails to see that the appearance and habits, and generally, the carriage and gestures of children are derived from their parents. This would not be the case if the characteristics of children were determined, not by the natural power of heredity, but by the phases of the moon and by the condition of the sky. And, again, the fact that men who were born at the very same instant are unlike in character, career, and in destiny, makes it very clear that the time of birth has nothing to do in determining man’s course in life. That is, unless perchance we are to believe that nobody else was conceived and born at the very same time that Africanus was. For was there ever anyone like him?”

(2.46) “Furthermore, is it not a well-known and undoubted fact that many persons who were born with certain natural defects have been restored completely by Nature herself, after she had resumed her sway, or by surgery or by medicine? For example, some, who were so tongue-tied that they could not speak, have had their tongues set free by a cut from the surgeon’s knife. Many more have corrected a natural defect by intelligent exertion. Demosthenes is an instance: according to the account given by Phalereus, Demosthenes was unable to pronounce the Greek letter rho, but by repeated effort he learned to articulate it perfectly. But if such defects had been engendered and implanted by a star nothing could have changed them.

Do not unlike places produce unlike men? It would be an easy matter to sketch rapidly in passing the differences in mind and body which distinguish the Indians from the Persians and the Ethiopians from the Syrians. These are differences so striking and so pronounced as to be incredible. So it is evident that one’s birth is more affected by local environment than by the condition of the moon. Of course, the statement quoted by you that the Babylonians for four hundred and seventy thousand years​ had taken the horoscope of every child and had tested it by the results, is untrue. If this had been their habit, they would not have abandoned it. Moreover we find no writer who says that the practice exists or who knows that it ever did exist.

(2.47) “You observe that I am not repeating the arguments of Karneades, but those of Panaitios, the head of the Stoic school. But now on my own initiative I put the following questions: Did all the Romans who fell at Cannae have the same horoscope? Yet all had one and the same end. Were all the men eminent for intellect and genius born under the same star? Was there ever a day when countless numbers were not born? And yet there never was another Homer. Furthermore, if it matters under what aspect of the sky or combination of the stars every animate being is born, then necessarily the same conditions must affect inanimate beings also. Can any statement be more ridiculous than that?

Be that as it may, our good friend Lucius Tarutius of Firmum, who was steeped in Chaldean calculations, made a calculation, based on the assumption that our city’s birthday was on the Feast of Pales​ (at which time tradition says it was founded by Romulus). From that calculation Tarutius even went so far as to assert that Rome was born when the moon was in the sign of Libra and from that fact unhesitatingly prophesied her destiny.​ What incredible power delusion has! And was the city’s birth day also subject to the influence of the moon and stars? Assume, if you will, that it matters in the case of a child under what arrangement of the heavenly bodies it draws its first breath. Does it also follow that the stars could have had any influence over the bricks and cement of which the city was built?

But why say more against a theory which every-day experience refutes? I recall a multitude of prophecies which the Chaldeans made to Pompey, to Crassus and even to Caesar himself (now lately deceased), to the effect that no one of them would die except in old age, at home and in great glory. So it would seem very strange to me if anyone, especially at this time, believed in men whose predictions are disproved every day by actual results.

(2.48) “There remain the two kinds of divination which we are said to derive from nature and not from skill: prediction and dreams. These, my dear Quintus, if agreeable to you, let us now discuss. . .” [omitted numerous sections].

[Marcus Cicero’s conclusion and the suspension of judgment as an Academic Skeptic]

(2.72) . . . While most of my war of words has been with these men [who support the effectiveness of divination], it is not because I hold them in special contempt, but on the contrary, it is because they seem to me to defend their own views with the greatest acuteness and skill. Moreover, it is characteristic of the Academy to put forward no conclusions of its own, but to approve those which seem to approach closest to the truth, to compare arguments, to draw out all that may be said to support any opinion and to leave the judgement of the inquirer completely free without asserting any authority of its own. That same method, which by the way we inherited from Socrates, I will, if agreeable to you, my dear Quintus, follow as often as possible in our future discussions.”

“Nothing could please me better,” Quintus replied.

When this was said, we got up.


Source of the translation: W.A. Falconer, Cicero: De senectute, De amicitia, De divinatione, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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