Signa and Portentia

Dumézil, G. 1970. “Signa and Portenta.” In Archaic Roman Religion With an Appendix on The Religion of the Etruscans: Volume Two. 594-610. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Presenter: Abigail Rosensen
Ross Adler;
Vasiliki Barakos;
Jenna Bittenbender;
Morgan Fitzgerald;

13 thoughts on “Signa and Portentia

  1. To start off, answer as many of the following questions as you would like. Be sure to explain and support all your responses.

    -What was the author’s main argument and how did he support it?
    – Was the evidence and background information provided helpful for understanding the context of the argument and the author’s main points?
    – Were there multiple levels in the argument? Could you give a general outline of the chapter? If yes, briefly explain.
    – What questions do you have after reading this chapter? Did it make you think differently about the relationship between certain Roman and Etruscan religious practices?
    – What else would you like to address regarding the chapter? Why is it important?

  2. I am also interested in a related question, to what degree should we use Roman sources to elicit Etruscan practices? What cautions should we employ when doing so?

  3. In this article the author examines the history of religion in Rome, specifically its roles within society through different periods and its place of origin, pointing to both Etruscan and Greek antecedents. The author supported his various points through the employment of classical texts by illustrious author’s Cicero and most often Livy. There were certainly many levels to the author’s argument including the difference between Auspicium, “the observation of the flight of birds,” and Augurium, which was concerned with the intent and result of such signs, not the methods of reaching such conclusions (596). Another level which I found particularly interesting was Dumézil’s exploration of the possible Greek and Etruscan roots of the Roman religious rites and ceremonies. I believe the author puts it well when he states some men of Etruria in essence became soothsayers to the Roman people who were, “of foreign nationality but serving an exclusively Roman Clientele, both official and private” who were “led to develop their science and to adapt it to civil, political, and religious questions which it had not anticipated” and that this was the birth of an “Etrusco-Roman science of haruspication” (607). I also appreciate the way the author is careful about clarifying what this means, that the methods, principles, models survived but the details were adapted to suit the new Roman purpose.

    In answering the question to what degree we should use Roman sources to elicit Etruscan practices, I believe that we can certainly learn a lot about Etruscan religious practices from later Roman models, but with the caveat that we must realize that the Romans did not necessarily go through a process of whole-sale adoption, rather they adapted Etruscan practices to suit their own needs. Therefore, I believe that we as scholars must keep it in our minds that they certainly do not mirror earlier Etruscan practices and that we must check evidence left behind by the Etruscans with what we know of Roman practices to decipher where the breaks are located. My question regarding this is, what do you think this would look like in practice rather than in theory?

    • In regards to the author’s argument – What do you think he is ultimately saying about the many aspects of divination which the author mentions. You’ve brought up a lot of good examples, but do you think the author intends for readers to take away anything aside from mere facts?

      As far as learning about Etruscan practices through an ancient Roman lens – how does this fit into the fact that Romans often actually brought Etruscans into the city to take the auspices themselves? The idea you’ve mentioned here about practice vs. theory is an excellent concept. We certainly have to take many factors into account when considering the relationship between Roman divination and Etruscan divination because, in theory, it’s easy to say that one lead cleanly into the other (even with slight adaptations), but in practice, it’s important to recognize how they also mixed together. So after thinking about what you know from class regarding relationships between Rome and Etruria, what is interesting about the Romans referring to Etruscans for guidance in areas of divination? Why is it important to take all of this into account when thinking about theory vs. practice?

      • I think the author means to distinguish the development of various religious practices and their sources, but honestly, after re-reading the article I’m still having a hard time finding a definitive thesis and argument for the chapter, maybe this is something he addresses as a theme throughout the book?

        In regards to the Romans bringing Etruscans into the city to take auspices, I believe we can learn much about Etruscan religious practices from that fact, but we can’t overlook the ways in which the Etruscans had to have adapted their traditions to cater to their Roman clientele and the differing political situation. What I find to be most interesting about the Romans referring to the Etruscans for religious guidance is that it is a great illustration of what each society has in common, but also highlights cultural differences.

        I am still trying to mentally tease out what theory vs. practice looks like, but clearly it is important to take all of this in account to grasp a clear understanding of the nature of relations between the Etruscans and Romans, and to also learn more about Etruscan religious practices. The point I’m trying to drive home in this consideration is to acknowledge that while the truth resists simplicity, we can certainly get closer to it by consider what we can learn from about each culture from the practices taking place under similar situations.

        • This is definitely a difficult article. I would agree that he does have a single, clear thesis, but I think his main argument applies more to the nature of these practices and the fact that they were so incredibly complicated. There were many aspects involved and, as a result, they were easy to manipulate. The fact that he is essentially missing a conclusion also doesn’t help in defining a thesis.

          It’s definitely good that you understand the fact that Etruscans may have altered their practices when brought into Rome. The interesting part here though (in my own opinion, anyway) is WHY the Etruscans made adaptions as opposed to the simple fact that they did.

          Figuring out theory vs. practice is definitely a difficult concept and there are a ton of factors involved. I think the best way to attack this question is to look at specific case studies. While the article itself is not devoted to this effort, it brings up at least a couple of examples (such as the Aulus Gellius account). Looking at those again might help you sort things out. This is actually partially what my colloquium paper is about!

        • To be real honest, I have no idea what the author is trying to argue. I read the the paper and then the intro and conclusion again to try and find his point, but it escaped me. The article is about Roman adoption of Etruscan augural and divinatory practice, but I don’t understand how he was arguing and wether or not he was successful.

  4. This article delved into the world of augury though we have learned a great deal about such practices in class the most interesting part of this article to me was the section on the Roman adopting of such Etruscan practices. For in the reading it was said that Romans referenced such religious rituals as “such an important art” that they even helped maintain it. I think that we need to view sources with concentrations on Rome because the two did indeed share so much, yet this mus done with a high level of awareness concerning the intentions of the writer and presumed audience.

    • What aspects in particular interested you about the way in which Romans adopted the practice of augury? Given what we’ve learned in class about the relationship between Romans and Etruscans, what do you think about the Romans referring the the Etruscans as experts in these practices? I’m also interested in your comment about the importance of viewing sources with Roman concentration. How does looking at the practices described in the chapter through Roman viewpoints change your thoughts about Etruscans or the nature of divination? What are you better able to understand about this topic after reading Roman accounts? Or, since this chapter might not have been ideal for clarifications, what else did it make you think about (as a result of having a new viewpoint)?

      • I found it very interesting how Rome adopted augury with a very practical eye using it to achieve political ends. It also shows how reverent the Etruscans must have been to avoid the abuses of augury’s place in society.

        • Why would the Romans have consulted the Etruscans in matters of augury? Why didn’t the take up the practice themselves so they would not have to rely on Etruscans?

  5. One aspect I found particularly interesting was the Roman senate adopting this Etruscan augury practice directly with the mandating of “each of the peoples of Etruria six (?) sons of noble families should be chosen and consecrated to this study…[for] such an important art should not be abandoned to men of no account” (609). The fact that Romans hold Etruscan’s to high account in knowing such practices is still somewhat surprising to me due to their elite power and vast education. Mindful of this I do think that with Roman growth and conquering of other cultures maybe brought a respect upon contact with Etruscan culture to their practice of augury. I am now interested a bit more also in your opinion on why they so highly respected Etruria augury practice?

  6. I also found it interesting that the article referred to augury as an art. Did the romans see this as a legitimate ritual or a tradition that was practiced more for its art and ties to other cultures?

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