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 p961  Prodigium

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on p961 of

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

PRODI′GIUM in its widest acceptation denotes any sign by which the gods indicated to men a future event, whether good or evil, and thus includes omens and auguries of every description (Virg. Aen. V.638; Servius, ad loc.; Plin. H. N. XI.37; Cic. in Verr. IV.49). It is, however, generally employed in a more restricted sense to signify some strange incident or wonderful appearance which was supposed to herald the approach of misfortune, and happened under such circumstances as to announce that the calamity was impending over a whole community or nation rather than private individuals. The word may be considered synonymous with ostentum, monstrum, portentum. "Quia enim ostendunt, portendunt, monstrant, praedicunt; ostenta, portenta, monstra, prodigia dicuntur" (Cic. de Div. 1.42). It should be observed, however, that prodigium must be derived from ago, and not from dico, as Cicero would have it.

Since prodigies were viewed as direct manifestations of the wrath of heaven, and warnings of coming vengeance, it was believed that this wrath might be appeased, and consequently this vengeance averted, by prayers and sacrifices duly offered to the offended powers. This being a matter which deeply concerned the public welfare, the necessary rites were in ancient times regularly performed, under the direction of the pontifices, by the consuls before they left the city, the solemnities being called Procuratio prodigiorum. Although from the very nature of the occurrences it was impossible to anticipate and provide for every contingency, we have reason to know that rules for expiation, applicable to a great variety of cases, were laid down in the Ostentaria, the Libri Rituales, and other sacred books of the Etrurians (Cic. de Div. I.33; Müller, Etrusker, vol. I pp33, 36, 343, vol. II pp30, 99, 122, 131, 146, 337), with the contents of which the Roman priests were well acquainted; and when the prodigy was of a very terrible or unprecedented nature it was usual to seek counsel from some renowned Tuscan seer, from the Sibylline books, or even from the Delphic oracle. Prodigies were frequently suffered to pass unheeded when they were considered to have no direct reference to public affairs, as, for example, when the marvel reported had been observed in a private mansion or in some town not closely connected with Rome, and in this case it was said non suscipi, but a regular record of the more important was carefully preserved in the Annals,​a as may be seen from the numerous details dispersed throughout the extant books of Livy (see Liv. II.42, III.10, XXIV.44, XXXVII.3, XLIII.13; Müller, die Etrusker, vol. II p191; Hartung, die Religion der Römer, vol. I p96; and for an interesting essay on the illustrations of Natural History to be derived from the records of ancient prodigies, Heyne, Opusc. Acad. vol. III pp198, 255).

Thayer's Note:

a This official compilation was almost certainly the source for the most famous extant collection of prodigia, the Prodigiorum Libellus of Julius Obsequens.

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Page updated: 10 Feb 08