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p1051 Sortes

Unsigned article on pp1051‑1052 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SORTES, lots. It was a frequent practice among the Italian nations to ascertain a knowledge of future events by drawing lots (sortes): in many of the ancient Italian temples the will of the gods was consulted in this way, as at Praeneste, Caere, &c. [Oraculum, p843A.] Respecting the meaning of Sors see Cic. de Div. II.41.

These sortes or lots were usually little tablets or counters, made of wood or other materials, and were commonly thrown into a sitella or urn, filled with water, as is explained under Situla. The lots were sometimes thrown like dice (Suet. Tib. 14). p1052The name of Sortes was in fact given to anything used to determine chances (compare Cic. de Div. I.34), and was also applied to any verbal response of an oracle (Cic. de Div. II.56; Virg. Aen. IV.346, 377). Various things were written upon the lots according to circumstances, as for instance the names of the persons using them, &c.: it seems to have been a favourite practice in later times to write the verses of illustrious poets upon little tablets, and to draw them out of the urn like other lots, the verses which a person thus obtained being supposed to be applicable to him: hence we read of Sortes Virgilianae, &c. (Lamprid. Alex. Sever. 14; Spartian. Hadr. 2). It was also the practice to consult the poets in the same way as the Mohammedans do the Koran and Hafiz, and many Christians the Bible, namely, by opening the book at random and applying the first passage that struck the eye to a person's own immediate circumstances (August. Confess. IV.3). This practice was very common among the early Christians, who substituted the Bible and the Psalter for Homer and Virgil: many councils repeatedly condemned these Sortes Sanctorum, as they were called (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, c. XXXVIII note 51). The Sibylline books were probably also consulted in this way [Sibyllini Libri]. Those who foretold future events by lots were called Sortilegi (Lucan, IX.581).

The Sortes Conviviales were tablets sealed up, which were sold at entertainments, and upon being opened or unsealed entitled the purchaser to things of very unequal value; they were therefore a kind of lottery (Suet. Octav. 75; Lamprid. Heliogab. 22).


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