SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months
COLUMNS

The Secret Lives of Words column: Augury, inauguration, and Caesar Augustus

Rick LaFleur
More Content Now
SPQR: Detail from mosaic floor, Gallery Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan.

Columns share an author's personal perspective.

*****

Regardless of our political persuasion, we Americans are generally an optimistic lot and usually, though less so of late, inclined to hope for the best during presidential elections, inaugurations, and even once the new leadership is in place. We’ve been peacefully inaugurating U.S. presidents on Jan. 20 every four years since 1937, and on March 4 before that. But the tradition of inaugural rituals, with all their pomp and circumstance, dates back to ancient Rome, like so much else in the American political tradition.

Elections and other important public activities were sanctioned by a ceremony Romans called inauguratio/INAUGURATION. The procedure involved secret rites of AUGURy presided over by a college of 16 priests known as augures/AUGURs. Church and state are separate in the U.S., but in Rome they were intimately fused. To qualify for selection to the AUGURal college one must already have held high political office and be a member of the Senate, which, together with the popular assemblies, governed the empire. The abbreviation SPQR (title of a superb recent history of Rome by Cambridge professor Mary Beard) was posted on public buildings throughout the Mediterranean as a reminder of the shared authority of "the SENATe and the ROMAN PEOPLe," Senatus Populusque Romanus (as in SENATorial, POPULace/POPULar, and of course ROMe/ROMAN).

The statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who rose from obscure origins to become Rome’s "president" in 63 B.C. (the Romans actually had "co-presidents," called consules/CONSULs, who served a one-year term and had veto power over each other), was appointed augur late in his career. The priest’s responsibility was to "take the auspices," a form of divination, and thus inAUGURate not only newly elected officials, but also the dedication of public buildings, the commencement of festivals, and other civic functions.

The AUSPICes (from auspicium/bird-watching and source of AUSPICIous) involved observing the flights of birds or weather events and other celestial phenomena that might indicate the gods’ disposition toward the proceeding at hand. If the omens proved inAUSPICIous, the augury might be repeated at a later date or, more conveniently, the procedures could simply be manipulated - some nowadays might say "rigged" - in order to guarantee the outcome. One divinatory practice involved observing the feeding of "sacred" chickens. The desired sign was that the birds should peck at their food voraciously, which was insured by caging and starving them before the ceremony.

By the time of the late Republic, the people had grown increasingly angry over senatorial dysfunction and collusion between public officials and the business and banking class. There had been decades of party turmoil, street rioting, and intermittent military and paramilitary violence leading up to Cicero’s inauguration as consul. During his term he was unsuccessfully targeted for assassination by Lucius Sergius Catilina, an opponent he had defeated in the CONSULar election.

Catiline’s conspiracy was thwarted but factionalism continued and civil strife worsened. In the 20 years following Cicero’s CONSULship, warfare broke out between Julius Caesar and his senatorial nemesis Pompeius Magnus (Pompey "the Great"). Pompey’s forces were destroyed, and a few years later Caesar, after being appointed Dictator for Life, was himself assassinated, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

A temporary alliance between Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, and his nephew and adopted son, Octavian, led to issuance of what the Romans called "proscriptions," a hit-list of political adversaries. The venerable augur, senator, and ex-consul Cicero was hunted down by soldiers who cut off his head and hands and carried them back to Rome for display on the speaker’s stand from which he had delivered a series of vitriolic orations against Antony. Adding insult to injury, Antony’s wife Fulvia pulled the tongue from Cicero’s severed head and repeatedly stabbed it with a hairpin.

Predictably Octavian and Marc Antony ultimately split, Antony began conspiring with his Egyptian consort Cleopatra, and their combined forces were defeated, leaving Octavian to return to Rome unopposed. Having taken his adoptive father’s name "Caesar," Octavian was declared by the Senate Augustus, a term associated with the word augur and meaning "the revered one." Augustus went on to assume countless additional titles, among them Divi Filius, "son of the DIVine (Julius)," Imperator/commander (as in EMPERor/EMPRess/IMPERial), Princeps/first man (our word PRINCe), and Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s highest priest (and to this day title of the Pope); senatorial sycophants even changed the name of the month Sextilis to "Augustus"/AUGUST.

Caesar Augustus reigned for 45 years, in effect governing as a king, though he propagandized throughout the empire his opposition to monarchy and his magnanimous "restoration of the Republic." Augustus’ immediate successor Tiberius set aside the façade. Like governing officials before him, he emblazoned public buildings that he inaugurated with SPQR. But Tiberius hand-picked the members of his Senatus and callously stripped the undereducated Populus, content with their "bread and circuses," of their right to vote.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan (a student of Latin and ancient history himself), Rome’s senators did not heed the call, they stood in the doorway, they blocked up the hall: the times, inauspiciously, were a-changin’. The 700-year-old Roman Republic, irreparably damaged by power-hungry politicians - a monstrous breed all too familiar today - abetted by a cowering Senate, gave way to five centuries of tyranny ended only by barbarian invasions, and the very name "Caesar" inspired the titles of later autocrats like the Russian Czars/Tsars and the German Kaisers.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest books are "The Secret Lives of Words,", a collection of nearly 60 of these essays, expanded with 250 color illustrations, and "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time. His Facebook group, "Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World," numbers about 4,000 members.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Capitoline Museums, Rome.