Amid the grand houses on the Palatine Hill was an open square planted with grass and surrounded by a low stone wall, known as the Auguratorium. On this very spot, almost eight hundred years before, Romulus performed the augury that established the site of the city. Romulus saw twelve vultures; over on the Aventine Hill, his twin brother Remus spotted only six vultures. Thus the gods made known their preference that the new city should be founded on the Palatine, not the Aventine. In time, the city grew to contain the Aventine and all the Seven Hills along the Tiber, but this was the spot where it began. According to family legend, a Pinarius had been present with Romulus on that sacred occasion, and so the induction of a new Pinarius into the college of augurs was always an event that resounded with significance.

As Lucius and his father emerged from a narrow street and approached the Auguratorium, a sea of saffron and purple enveloped them; every man in the crowd was wearing a trabea and clutching a lituus. A tall young man abruptly appeared before them, holding his arms open to give Lucius an embrace.

“L-L-Lucius!” he said. “I thought you’d never get here. The idea of going through the examination all by myself was making me break into a c-cold sweat.”

“Surely you jest, cousin Claudius,” said Lucius. “Your skills at augury are far greater than mine, and you know it.”

“Seeking signs from the gods is one thing. D-doing it in front of an audience is another matter!”

“You’ll both do very well, I’m sure,” said Lucius’s father, beaming proudly at the two of them. Lucius and Claudius were to be the only inductees into the college on this day. Claudius was the grandson of Livia, the emperor’s wife, and thus the stepgrandson of Augustus – but was not the emperor’s grandson officially by either blood or law, since Augustus had never adopted Claudius’s late father, Drusus Germanicus. Nonetheless, Claudius was a blood relative to Augustus. He was the grandson of Marcus Antonius and Octavia, Augustus’s sister, and thus the emperor’s great-nephew, and also a distant cousin to Lucius.

Claudius and Lucius had been born the same year. In recent months the cousins had been studying the science of augury together. They had become close friends, though to Lucius’s father it seemed that their differences were greater than their similarities. Lucius was strikingly handsome, well built, and graceful – that was a plain fact, and not the prejudice of a doting father – while Claudius, though tall and not bad-looking, had a cowed manner, often spoke with a stammer, and suffered from nervous facial tics and jerks of the head. The stammer and the jerking were more pronounced at some times than at others. Some people assumed that the young man was mentally incompetent. In fact, despite his youth, Claudius was an antiquarian scholar more deeply versed in the minutiae of Roma’s history than anyone the elder Pinarius had ever met. Of the friendship between his son and Claudius he entirely approved; the danger he had just warned Lucius about – of drawing too near the emperor and his inner circle – seemed hardly to apply to Claudius, whom the emperor, embarrassed by the young man’s defects, kept at a distance.

A gong was struck. The augurs stopped their milling and assembled along the four sides of the Auguratorium in order of their age and rank. In the centre of the square, the magister of the college called on Lucius and Claudius to stand beside him, then asked, “Who nominates these new members?”

Lucius’s father stepped forward and placed his hand on Lucius’s shoulder. “I, Lucius Pinarius, an augur, nominate my son, Lucius Pinarius.”

Another figure emerged from the crowd, an old man who seemed quite careless of his appearance. His grey hair needed barbering and his threadbare trabea had seen better days. But when he placed his hand on Claudius’s shoulder and spoke, his voice carried an undeniable ring of authority. “I, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus, an augur, nominate my nephew, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus.”

The magister nodded. “Then I shall begin the examination.” A rumble of distant thunder caused him to glance skyward. “Divination is the means by which humankind may determine the will of the gods. The gods make their will known by signs, which we call auspices. Those who know the way may determine whether these auspices are favourable or unfavourable. By augury, the site of Roma was decided. As Ennius began one of his poems, ‘After by augury august Roma had been founded…’

“As the empire of Roma has grown, we have encountered other peoples with other means of divination. The Etruscans studied the entrails of sacrificial animals; the Babylonians observed the stars; the Greeks listened to blind prophets; the Jews received instruction from a burning bush. But these ways are not Roman ways; these are inferior means of divination, as is made evident by the inferior fortunes of their adherents. The Roman way of divination, handed down to us from our most ancient ancestors, is augury, which was and is and always shall be the best and truest means of divining the will of the gods.”

“Hear, hear!” shouted Augustus, prompting others in the crowd to do the same.

“There are five categories of augury,” the magister continued, “five means by which the auspices may be obtained. The most powerful auspices are delivered by thunder and lightning, which come directly from Jupiter. Auspices may also be obtained by the observation of certain birds: the raven, the crow, the owl, the eagle and the vulture. From this second, avian form of augury derives the third form, which our ancestors originally devised for use on military campaigns, where an auspice might be required at any moment to make a critical decision; this third type of augury is performed by releasing a hen from its cage, scattering grain before it, and observing the way the creature pecks or does not peck at the food. Auspices may also taken from four-footed animals, and this is the fourth form. If a fox, wolf, horse, dog, or any other quadruped should cross a person’s path or appear in some unusual setting, only an augur may interpret the meaning; but it is important to remember that this fourth form of augury is never employed on behalf of the state, only as private divination. The fifth class of augury pertains to all signs which do not fall into the other four categories, and may include all manner of unusual events – the birth of a two-headed animal, a strange object that falls from the sky, flames that appear and disappear, leaving no trace. The fifth form of augury may also be derived from common accidents – a sneeze, a stumble, a misspoken name or word.”

Claudius suddenly jerked his head from side to side. Lucius barely glimpsed the movement from the corner of his eye, but it must have been quite obvious to the crowd before them. Was this spasm such an accident as the magister had just mentioned, a sign from the gods? Lucius thought not; everyone knew that Claudius had been prone to such twitches from childhood. Sometimes a twitch was merely a twitch. Still, there were uneasy murmurs from the crowd.

The magister pretended to take no notice. “Lucius Pinarius, what form of augury will you demonstrate for us today, to determine whether the gods favour your admission into the college?”

Given that the day was stormy, the answer was obvious. “The first form,” said Lucius.

The others stepped back, leaving Lucius alone in the centre of the Auguratorium. He slowly turned about in a circle, surveying the sky. The storm clouds were concentrated most thickly to the south-west. He raised his lituus and pointed in that direction. The augurs gathered behind him. With his lituus he drew an invisible square upon the sky. From left to right the square included everything from the top of the Temple of Diana on the Aventine to the top of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline; from bottom to top it included everything from the horizon to the zenith. Having delineated a segment of sky, Lucius lowered his lituus and proceeded to watch and wait.

Lucius was patient at first, keeping his eyes open, trying not to blink; then he began to grow a bit nervous. The gods, including Jupiter, did not always send signs. What if no lightning appeared? The absence of a sign, in such a circumstance, would be taken as an unfavourable auspice. Behind him Lucius thought he heard the sound of murmurs and shuffling feet, as if the augurs were growing as restless as he was. How long was long enough to await a sign? Only the most senior augur present, in this case the emperor, could determine that. They might stand there for hours, until night fell, awaiting the appearance of a lightning bolt – or Augustus might decide to end the examination the next moment.

Lucius’s heart pounded in his chest. The wait was maddening! If no sign appeared, what would become of him? What would his father say? He realized that he was clutching his lituus with white knuckles. He took a deep breath and relaxed his grip. He slipped the fingers of his other hand inside his trabea and touched the gold amulet he wore around his neck.

He saw a flash. An instant later, he heard the gasps of the others behind him, and then, a few heartbeats later, he heard the thunder. The distant flash was to the left, just above the Temple of Diana but still within the delineated area. Lightning to the left was favourable, and the more to the left, the more favourable. The auspice was good! Jupiter was clearly pleased. And then, as if to quell any doubt about his approval, several blinding flashes of jagged lightning appeared in the same spot, one after another, followed by rolling peals of thunder. To Lucius, it

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