Chapter 6: The Latin Vocabulary of Signs and Omens


Latin is remarkable for the abundance of terms which in literary usage are employed indifferently to denote the divine sign, the omen. But etymology enables us to restore the preliterary distinctions between
omen ‘a veracious presage’.
monstrum ‘a creature whose abnormality constitutes a warning’ (moneo ‘to warn’).
ostentum ‘a phenomenon which extends (*ten-) opposite (obs-) the observer in his field of vision’.
portentum ‘a vast perspective presented (por-) to one’s gaze which reveals the future’
prodigium ‘an utterance invested with divine authority (aio, cf. Aius) pronounced in public (prod-) which functions as a presage’


Our examination of the terms referring to signs and presages [1] will be confined to Latin for a very good reason: this is the relative abundance of these terms in Latin. In this respect Latin contrasts with Greek and still more with the other Indo-European languages. In Greek we find only téras ‘divine sign, prodigy, miracle’, which has no clear etymology. The other languages have no specific term at all.
In Latin we have at our disposal a whole series of terms each with a precise sense and of clear formation. The chief ones are: miraculum, omen, monstrum, ostentum, portentum, prodigium. To match these six terms Greek can muster only téras and this has to cover the whole of the field divided up between the six Latin terms. We take no account of sēmeîon, sêma, the meaning of which is simply “sign” in general, corresponding to Latin signum, even when it is applied to a natural phenomenon.
The first task will be to delimit each of these terms in Latin itself, according to their precise sense. In general use they can admittedly be interchanged. On this subject Servius ad Aen. III, 366 writes: confusa plerumque ponuntur ‘they are for the most part used without distinction’. Modern historians follow the same practice: in their works the terms are used haphazardly with reference to one and the same phenomenon. We leave it to philologists to pass judgment.
Our own purpose will be to assign to each its etymological meaning and to see what can be learned from it, even if the Romans themselves had no very clear idea what the differences were. They are all of Latin morphology, and that means of secondary lexical creation, except for ōmen.
The formation of ōmen presents the difficulty that if the suffix –men is stripped off, this leaves us with the vowel ō- as the root. This naturally leaves open a number of possible etymological connections, and these have in fact been explored by etymologists without any certain proof being established. There is however a connection which enables us to explain both the sense and the formation of ōmen. The Latin root ō- can be directly compared with the Hittite verbal stem - ‘to believe, to regard as true’. Consequently ōmen will be interpreted as ‘declaration of truth’. A chance word, pronounced in a decisive circumstance, may be accepted as an ōmen, as a true presage, as a sign of destiny. This will be a word of good “augury,” one that announces fate. [2] Several examples are quoted by Cicero, De divinatione I, ch. 46.
The neuter monstrum clearly connects up with the present monstrare, but there is a marked difference of sense. We cannot decide a priori which sense comes first. However, it is probable that monstrare is the denominative of monstrum, for a morphological reason, namely the nominal formation in -strum. But from the time of the earliest texts, the two terms have nothing in common: monstrare means more or less “to show”; monstrum denotes “something which is out of the ordinary” and sometimes “something hideous, which violates in a repulsive way the order of nature, a monster”: e.g. Virgil’s monstrum horrendum.
The Romans were aware of the formation of the word: monstrum, they said, stands for monestrum from moneo. Whether monestrum ever existed or not, it is certain that monstrum and monstrare are connected with moneo. If we start with moneo, what would monstrum mean? To find the connection we could have recourse to the denominative monstrare which has not been diverted from its proper sense by religious considerations. It is generally translated as “to show,” but that is only a rough equivalent. Moreover, there is another verb which is commoner in the sense “to show”: ostendo. The difference is this: monstrare means not so much “to show” an object as “to teach a way of behaving, to prescribe the way to be followed” as a preceptor does: qui tibi nequiquam saepe monstravi bene ‘I who have often, to no purpose, given you good lessons’ (Plautus Bacch. 133); quotiens monstravi tibi… ‘how often have I advised you to …’ (Men. 788); non periclumst ne quid recte monstres … ‘there is no danger of your not giving good advice’ (Pseud. 289). If then we may work back from monstrare to monstrum, to find the original sense, we see that monstrum must be understood as “a piece of advice,” “a warning” given by the gods. Now the gods express themselves by prodigies, signs which confuse human understanding. A divine “warning” may take the aspect of a supernatural object or being; as Festus says “the term monstra is applied to what goes beyond the natural world, a serpent with feet, a bird with four wings, a man with two heads.” It is only the divine power which can manifest its “warning” in this way. This is why monstrum ceased to have its original meaning. There was nothing in the form of monstrum which suggested anything “monstrous” except the fact that in the doctrine of presages a “monster” represented a divine instruction, a “warning.”
This first delimitation of sense may help us in its turn to distinguish monstrum from ostentum and portentum since the notion of “showing” still survives, in a vague way, in the last two terms. There is no clear distinction in the use of ostentum and portentum. The same facts may be designated indifferently by one or the other term, whether they refer to favorable or unfavorable events. Let us consider the two present tenses ostendo and portendo. Their frequency of use is quite different: ostendo is widely used, whereas portendo is restricted to the vocabulary of presages, just like portentum, while the gap between ostendo and ostentum is like that between monstrare and monstrum, though less marked.
The simple verb tendo ‘to stretch’, related to Indo-Iranian tan-, Gr. teínō, goes back to an Indo-European root *ten- ‘to stretch’. Its use in so specific a meaning is given precision by the use of the preverb: ob-/obs- generally indicates that the action is carried out “towards something, in the opposite direction so as to block the way” (cf. obviam). The prefix still has its full force in an ancient example such as that of Cato in his treatise on agriculture: ager qui soli ostentus erit ‘a field which is exposed to the sun’. The literal sense of ostentus here is “stretched out towards.” This provides a good explanation of the literal sense of ostendo and of the religious use which covers only a part of its semantic range: an ostentum, as a presage, will have been something “stretched out towards, offered to the eyes,” not something merely “shown” but “presented to view” (as a sign which must be interpreted). Tacitus in writing of a presage, associates obtendo and ostentum (Hist. 3, 56).
We now consider portendo; what is essential here is the prefix por-, only a few examples of which occur, but they are all instructive: porrigo ‘to stretch out, offer’, polluo ‘pollute’, polliceo(r) ‘promise’; polluceo and porricio, two verbs relating to offerings. Such, with portendo, are the examples of the prefix por-, and remarkably enough, they all belong to the sphere of religion. The only exception, at least in its usual sense, is polliceo(r): liceo means “to be put up for bidding,” liceor ‘to acquire by bidding’. Thus the preverb por- gives to polliceor the etymological meaning of “to make a higher bid at a sale, to offer more than the price asked for” (cf. Plautus Mercator 439), whence the ordinary meaning “to promise.”
In the dictionaries por- is given much the same sense as pro- and prae-, because of their common origin. But these preverbs are not synonymous, since they have distinct Latin forms and they cannot be freely interchanged. We may, therefore, suppose that pro-, prae- and por- each has some distinctive traits of its own which delimit them. The difference between pro- and prae- has already been the subject of a detailed study. [3] It now remains to try and define por- in its turn.
It can already be seen in porrigo, the proper sense of which is “to extend lengthways, to develop, to prolong.” The preverb por- implies the idea of “to draw out, spread out to its whole extent.” If porricio (from *por-iacio) has acquired the sense of a verb of offering, this is because “to throw” (iacio) has been further defined by the preverb por- ‘over the whole width (of the altar)’. This is what was done with the entrails of the victim (exta), which were spread out (porricere) on the altar: si sacruficem summo Iovi atque in manibus exta teneam ut poriciam … ‘Even if I were sacrificing and I held the entrails in my hands to arrange them on the altar …’ (Plautus Pseud. 265); inter caesa et porrecta, a phrase meaning “between the cutting and the arranging on the altar” that is “at the last moment” (Cic. Att. 5, 18, 1). The same idea emerges from polluceo, a verb of the ancient religious language, “to offer a rich feast by way of sacrifice” (with daps, Cato Agr. 132), and also “to serve up at table the remains of the sacrifice.” There is no example of this verb luceo, but the prefix por- clearly indicates that the dishes are placed over the whole width of the altar or the host’s table. This is why pollucere, polluctura always evoke the idea of a sumptuous feast. This is doubtless the same image that we must see in the preverb of polluo (we do not know the verb *luo, but only the derivative lutum ‘mud’), which means more or less “soil completely, to pollute.”
The special sense of portendo among the other verbs denoting presages and in particular what distinguished it from ostendo now emerges. Ρortendere, portentum were terms denoting a series of presages which were spread over a period of time. This is what emerges from the following examples all taken from Livy: dii immortalesauguriis auspiciisque et per nocturnes etiam visus omnia laeta ac prospera portendunt ‘the immortal gods, by auguries and auspices and by nocturnal visions announce to us that all will turn out well’ (26,41,18); ominatur, quibus quondam auspiciis patres eorum ad Aegates pugnaverint insulas, ea illis exeuntibus in aciem portendisse deos ‘he prognosticates by way of omen that the gods have portended the same auspices at the moment of battle as they gave to our forefathers when they fought at the Aegatian islands’ (30, 32, 9); di immortales mihi sacrificanti precantique ut hoc bellum mihi, senatui vobisque feliciter eveniret, laeta omnia prosperaque portendere ‘the immortal gods, when I was sacrificing and praying that this war would have a successful outcome for me, for the senate and for you, gave portents that all would be favorable and successful’ (31, 7). Let us note this formula of the augural language: “omnia laeta prosperaque portendere.” The examples of portenta in fact announce what is tantamount to a whole survey; portentum, as distinguished from ostentum, prognosticates not a single event but a whole panorama and a continuous prospect, revealing a large part of the future.
The term prodigium is easier to study in the sense that it can be analyzed in Latin itself, but it is more difficult in that the formal components themselves require interpretation.
The word can be analyzed into the components *prod- (a doublet of pro- before a vowel) and -agium, a nominal derivative from ag-. But which root ag- is concerned here? All are agreed in eliminating the root ag- ‘drive’ and favor ag- which appears in the noun adagio with its doublet adagium ‘adage, proverb’. Its formation in Latin must be of recent date since the internal -a- has been preserved as contrasted with the treatment in prodigium. Thus both prodigium and adagium are connected with the root of the Latin verb aio ‘to say’.
Given this derivation, how are we to interpret literally prodigium? It must be conceded that this root *ag- has no certain representatives outside Latin. Greek ê ‘said he’ is explained as coming from *ēg-t, but the reconstruction of a root which presents itself as a simple vowel leaves room for much uncertainty. One possible congener is the Armenian aṙ-ac ‘a proverbial saying’, but Meillet himself, who proposed it, insists on the phonetic irregularity of -ac as contrasted with the verb asem ‘I say’.
According to the Latin glossators, adagium (adagio) corresponds in sense to the Greek prooímion ‘introduction, prelude, preamble’. This is difficult to check in the absence of literary examples. It is only attested in Varro in the phrase vetus adagio est.
The change of adagio to adagium seems to be due to the analogy of proverbium, which is synonymous with adagium. But this sense does not agree with that of the Greek prooímion ‘prelude’, whether musical or oratorical (exordium); it occurs in the figurative sense in tragedy as “prelude” to an event: phroímia pónōn ‘a prelude to sufferings’ (Aeschylus), what announces them. We should then have to interpret adagio as a proverb which is quoted by way of introduction, to set the tone for the speech. But this remains uncertain.
Let us now consider the relation of prodigium to aio. The dictionaries give only the sense “say” to aio. Our task must be to specify aio and to distinguish it from other verbs meaning “to say.” We may note a curious observation of Donatus: aio is applied to invisa, vana, contemnenda, falsa, to unpleasant, vain, contemptible, and false things.
Let us now run through the chief uses of the verb. One of the functions of aio is as the opposite of nego, “to say yes” as opposed “to say no.” Also frequent is the use of the expression ut aiunt ‘as they say’, whether to refer to a rumor, a report, or to introduce a colloquial or vulgar saying, or to introduce the actual words used as in ut ait Cicero. Further, ait is inserted in reporting verbatim statement.
In the legal language aio often occurs in the first person in set phrases. According to Gaius, the formula used in making a claim of possession was: hunc ego hominem ex iure Quiritium meum esse aio ‘I declare that this man is mine according to the law of the Quirites’. This formula is reproduced on a number of occasions in Plautus as well as in Cicero (with variants such as fundum instead of hominem) when two men claim possession of the same thing: et ego idem esse aio meum. The subject of aio may be the law itself: uti lex ait ‘as the law says’ or in Ulpian lex Iulia ait or uti mos ait.
Here we have, grouped under a general meaning which seems to be adequate, the main categories of the use of aio. Besides this, we have a derivative from the verb in the shape of a noun Aius, which is used as the name of a god. This god is familiar to us, either under the name Aius or Aius Locutius, as the god who in the silence of the night announced to the Romans the arrival of the Gauls. Varro tells us the reason for so naming him: Aius deus appellatus araque ei statuta quod eo in loco divinitus vox edita est ‘the god Aius was so called and an altar erected to him because on this spot a voice coming from a divinity was heard’ (Cf. Livy 5, 50 and 52).
Now that we have seen the characteristic functions of the verb aio, and taken into account the nominal derivative Aius, which is explained by Locutius, we may say that aio refers primarily to the verbatim quotation of an utterance and that this quotation carries a certain authority.
That aio implies an authoritative enunciation is clear from the most trite uses. This is the reason why aio is necessary in legal, expressions, and not dico; it announces not an opinion, a belief, but an authoritative saying, which has a binding force. Hence the expression lex ait whereas we do not find lex dicit. Similarly the expression Livius ait is used when his actual words are quoted, in a case where the presumption is that they will carry authority.
We have seen that aio is opposed to nego in meaning to “say yes.” It has the value of a categorical and positive affirmation. The speaker who uses aio lays claim to an assertion of truth. The god Aius is so called quod divinitus vox edita est, because a voice of a divine character was heard. His name was not *Dicius, but Aius, that is a voice invested with authority. Everywhere aio refers to an impersonal utterance which gets its authority from the fact that it can be attributed to a supra-personal agency, like a law or a divinity. It will be noted that there is a certain resemblance between the connotations of aio and the Greek phēmi.
Once ag- has been thus defined, what is the meaning of prodigium? It will be useful to refer to the description of a prodigium, which took place in the reign of Tullus, according to Livy (1, 31). After the defeat of the Sabines it was announced to the king and the senators that there had been a rain of stones on the Alban Mount. Men were sent to verify the prodigy (ad id visendum prodigium). They in fact saw a heavy rain of stones resembling hailstones. They also believed that they heard a loud voice (visi etiam audire vocem ingentem) coming from the wood which crowns the summit and prescribing to the Albans sacrifices according to their national rites. Following on this prodigy (ab eodem prodigio), the Romans also celebrated a rite, whether because of the heavenly voice (voce caelesti) from the Alban Mount or on the advice of the haruspices.
This text would appear to contain an etymological explanation of prodigium.
We have seen the connection of Aius with a divine voice; similarly the prodigium is characterized by the emission (prod-) of a divine voice (-agium), if we may judge by the circumstances which accompanied the prodigium just quoted. Thus originally the prodigium would have been the “prodigy” of a divine voice which made itself heard along with other signs. This is the factual justification which could be offered in support of an interpretation founded on the proper sense of aio.


[ back ] 1. For a comprehensive view of the historical and religious problem see Raymond Bloch, Les prodiges dans l’antiquité classique, Paris, 1963, which also touches on (pp. 79-80, 84-5) the Latin terminology.
[ back ] 2. See our book Hittite et indo-européen, 1962, 10ff.
[ back ] 3. “Le système sublogique des prépositions en latin,” Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague, V, 1949, 177-185 = Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris, 1966, 132-139.