The Renaissance humanist Angelo Poliziano (1454—1494) composed a work called Miscellanies (Miscellaneorum Centuria Prima) that discussed various issues in classical literature, philology, and linguistics. Now while this sort of work may not suitable for every taste, it is certainly congenial to mine. What may be trifles to some, turn out to be treasure to others; and the meandering flow of critique and discussion may, like swift-moving mountain streams gurgling through sand and rock, reveal here and there some flecks of gold ore for our enrichment.
Poliziano was an interesting man, even by the standards of the age in which he lived. He was born in central Tuscany, and violence touched his family at an early age. His father was murdered in one of the factional political quarrels of the time. But he was a bright lad, and showed great ability as a translator; by his twenties he had mastered both Greek and Latin. He had no trouble attracting students from all over Europe. Philology—the serious study of language and texts—remained his passion.
Consider then this. Poliziano reads the Roman historian Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Augustus (Aug. XXXI.4) and notices something that excites his interest. A line in the historian’s biography mentions that Augustus “restored some of the ancient ceremonies that had gradually lapsed, such as the augury of safety.” Poliziano wondered what this “augury of safety” might have been. He made inquiries among his fellow scholars, but no one seemed to have heard of it. An augury, the reader will recall, was one of the rituals of the ancient Roman religion. The behavior of birds was observed by a professional (called an augur), and from these observations, predictions about future events were made. One suspects that this method of divining the future was about as accurate, or as inaccurate, as the popular polls and surveys taken by media organs today. In any case, Poliziano finally discovers what the augury of safety was. He strikes gold when he locates this passage in the historian Dio Cassius (XXXVII.24):
Then after a long interval they performed the “augury of safety,” as they call it. This is, moreover, a type of augury that is for seeing whether the god allows them to beseech safety for the people, as if it were not even the right to ask for safety from the gods unless the gods had previously granted this permission…Hence in the midst of constant dangers, especially civil ones, no augury was performed. For it was especially difficult to keep a day clear of all these things, and it would seem quite absurd for them to inflict incredible damage on themselves through civil wars, since that state of affairs is going to be deadly for both victors and vanquished alike, but then beseech safety from the immortal gods. [Trans. by A. Dyck and A. Cottrell]
So this is the augury of safety. It is an attempt to find out if divine assistance may even be requested. One might think that such assistance could be, or should be, called for at any time. But apparently this was not so. Yet there is a certain logic to it, if we pause to think. How can a society in the midst of self-destructive disorder and conflict ask for divine help in good faith? Or perhaps it is a matter of exerting some effort first. Perhaps it was seen as impudent and insulting for a man to request divine help before he had exhausted all of the remedies available to him first. There is a fable in Aesop that relates the story of a man trying to swim ashore after his ship has been wrecked. He is frantically paddling, and at the same time, calling out for help from the goddess Athena. Someone says to him, “You can appeal to Athena for help, but you should also move your arms!” What he meant by this, of course, was that a man should do all he can to help himself first, and then, when he is out of options, seek the intervention of outside powers.
And I think that this is exactly what the ancient “augury of safety” was meant to instruct through the use of ritual. We should remember that this was a formal rite, invested with all the sanctity of the official religion. People took these things seriously; it was no idle amusement, and no diversionary beguilement. The performance of the ritual took some time, and some expenditure of effort. All of these ritualized safeguards were in place to hammer home this point: a person should only ask for divine help after he has made a maximum effort to deal with his problems himself. The purpose of the augury of safety was to instruct the Roman people with this moral lesson: the gods hate a simpering dawdler. They would only consider rendering assistance to a person or a people who have proven themselves worthy of such assistance.
And this is without doubt an important lesson. The Romans considered it so important that they gave it the full force of religious solemnity: this was the purpose of the augury of safety. In this life, we cannot just throw up our hands and shout to the heavens for help at the slightest discomfort. We cannot quit the race after encountering the first obstacle. Much more is expected, and much more is demanded. Assistance has to be earned, like all else in this world; and it is earned by the exertion of vigorous, sincere, and sustained effort in furtherance of our worthy goals.
Read more in the comprehensive collection, Digest: