sounded as if the god were laughing with delight.

“The auspice is favourable!” shouted the magister. “Is there any augur present who disagrees?”

Lucius turned around and sought his father’s face amid the crowd. His father was smiling, as were those around him.

Augustus, too, seemed to smile, though Lucius found it hard to read the old man’s expression. His eyes looked weary, not joyful, and the baring of his yellow teeth resembled a grimace more than a grin. “I think we are all agreed that the auspice is favourable, are we not?” said the emperor.

There were nods and utterances of agreement from the crowd.

The magister placed his hands on Lucius’s shoulder. “Congratulations, Lucius Pinarius. On this day, you have become an augur. May you always use your skills and the power of your priestly office wisely, for the benefit of Roma and with the greatest respect for the gods.”

The magister turned to Claudius. “And now you, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus. What form of augury will you demonstrate for us today, to determine whether the gods favor your admission into the college?”

Claudius stepped forward. “I choose to watch for…” He came to a complete stop, as he sometimes did when speaking; his stutter was making it difficult for him to say the next word. At last, pressing his lips tightly together, he blurted out, “B-B-birds!”

There were murmurs from the crowd, most of whom, including Lucius, were surprised by the decision. On such a day, with so much lightning about, surely all the birds were in their nests, hiding from the wind and the rain.

Nonetheless, Claudius seemed sure of himself. After carefully scanning the sky, he faced north-east, directly opposite the direction Lucius had chosen. He used his lituus to delineate a segment of sky above the Forum and the Esquiline Hill beyond.

Just as he was finishing the delineation, Claudius dropped his lituus. Lucius groaned, as did several others. Claudius’s clumsiness was one thing, but to drop his lituus was surely a bad omen.

If Augustus was embarrassed, he did not show it. “Pick up that lituus,” he said, “and let’s get to the business at hand, young man, quick as boiled asparagus!”

The tension in the crowd was relieved with laughter. The emperor was known for such homespun metaphors, which from any other speaker would have sounded oafish.

Augustus cleared his throat and spoke. “Back when I first took the auspices, I also chose to watch for birds. I spotted twelve vultures – yes, twelve! The very number Romulus saw when he founded the city. Let us see how Jupiter’s feathered emissaries will augur for my nephew today.” The old man flashed a smile, or a grimace, Lucius could not tell which.

While they watched and waited for a sign, Lucius considered the daunting complexities of avian augury. To take the auspice, one had to consider not only the types of birds that appeared but how many, and whether they flew in a single direction or doubled back, and whether they called or were silent. Every sound and motion of each bird had a different meaning, according to different circumstances and the time of the year when it was observed. An avian augury was far more likely than a lightning augury to yield an auspice susceptible to differing interpretations – if indeed on such a day any bird would appear.

They waited. Lucius began to grow uneasy, feeling almost as anxious for Claudius as he had felt for himself. It had seemed unthinkable that Lucius might disappoint and embarrass his father. How much greater must be the pressure felt by Claudius with the emperor looming behind him?

Just when Lucius could stand the suspense no longer, Claudius raised his lituus and pointed. “Th-th-there!” he cried. “Two vultures above the Esquiline Gate, flying this way!”

To be sure, two flitting specks had appeared, but they were so distant that Lucius, who had excellent eyesight, was not sure what sort of birds they might be. Apparently Claudius’s eyes were even keener than his, for as the birds drew nearer there was general agreement among the squinting augurs that the birds were indeed vultures. The birds wheeled back towards the Esquiline Gate and began to circle above it.

Two more vultures appeared from the same spot, and then two more, and then another, until seven vultures were circling about the Esquiline Gate. Beyond the gate, outside the walls, was the necropolis, the city of the dead, where slaves were buried and the carcasses of executed criminals were left to the birds. It was not surprising that vultures had appeared in that region, but it was surely fortuitous that so many had appeared at once, during Claudius’s augury, and on such an inclement day. The pattern of their flight, first towards the Auguratorium and then away, was a favourable auspice as well.

Augustus declared the augury completed. The magister was impressed.

“Seven vultures! To be sure, considerably fewer than the record set by Romulus – and matched by our emperor – but one more than Remus saw! Does anyone here doubt that the auspice is favorable? No? Very well, then, I declare that on this day, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus has shown himself to be a true augur, accepted by his colleagues and, more importantly, by Jupiter himself. May you always use your skills and the power of your priestly office wisely, young man, for the benefit of Roma and with the greatest respect for the gods.”

The ceremony was concluded. Lucius and Claudius received the congratulations of their fellow augurs, and then the members began to head to the imperial residence. The banquet following the induction of new augurs was usually held in a private home, but on this occasion Augustus was playing host. He had certainly made a point of reminding everyone of his kinship to Claudius. The fact that Lucius Pinarius was a cousin had not even been mentioned.

During the short walk, which took them past some of the finest houses in the city, Lucius walked beside Claudius and told him how impressed he was by the vulture sightings. “That was very bold of you. I would never have dared to choose an avian augury. I did the safe thing and went with lightning. The smart thing as well, or so I thought, since lightning auguries are usually more highly respected. But you outshone me today, Claudius!”

Claudius pursed his lips, nodded, and hummed thoughtfully. His head twitched to one side. “Yes, well, I suppose I did, even though, as you say, lightning augury is the most highly esteemed of all forms. Why do you suppose that is?” With the examination behind them, his stutter had momentarily abated.

“As the magister taught us, lightning and thunder come directly from Jupiter,” said Lucius.

“Ah, but birds are the messengers of Jupiter, so why should avian augury not be as prized? No, I think lightning augury is more impressive because a flash of lightning cannot possibly be fabricated by mortal men, while anyone might arrange to release certain birds from a certain area at a certain time.”

Lucius frowned. “Are you saying those vultures were deliberately released?”

“Oh, not for Romulus, surely, and certainly not for Great-Uncle. But for me – who knows?” Claudius shrugged. “Thanks to my obvious shortcomings, Great-Uncle can foresee no higher station in life for me than to be an augur. I twitch too much to find glory as a warrior. You saw me drop my lituus today; imagine me dropping a sword on the battlefield! I st-stutter too much to make impressive sp-sp-speeches in the Senate.” He flashed a sardonic smile; was he stuttering on purpose? “Since this is as far as I shall go, Great-Uncle is determined that everyone should acknowledge my competence at augury, if at nothing else. Three vultures would have sufficed, don’t you think? Great-Uncle always overdoes these things! When the two vacancies opened in the college, why do you suppose he chose to allow you to enlist, Lucius?”

“I know my father did everything he could to promote me and to win the emperor’s favour. He was surprised he succeeded, considering my youth-”

“Ha! Great-Uncle approved of your admission to the college for only one reason: he wanted to make me an augur, and so be done with me, and he wanted another candidate my age to enter alongside me, so that I shouldn’t stand out so much. You weren’t made an augur despite your age, Lucius, but because of it! But the important thing, cousin Lucius, is that our examinations are over, and now we are augurs. Augurs for life! But what is that you’re wearing?”

Claudius referred to the amulet on Lucius’s necklace. It had slipped outside his trabea and the gold shone brightly against the purple wool.

“It’s a family talisman.”

“Where did it come from? What does it symbolize?”

“I don’t really know,” Lucius confessed, with some chagrin. Claudius was such a scholar and so steeped in his own family’s history that he was never at a loss to explain even the most arcane bits of ancestral lore.

Claudius came to a halt, reached for the amulet, and studied it closely. Lucius had seen such a spark in his friend’s eyes before, during their studies together – the excitement of the devoted antiquarian in the presence of an

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