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Omen

(for osmen, ausmen, from the root of audio, “something heard”). The Roman term for a favourable or unfavourable sign, especially a word spoken by chance, so far as it drew the attention of the hearers to itself and appeared to be a prognostic. An omen could be accepted or repudiated, and even taken in an arbitrary sense, except in the case of words which already had in themselves a favourable or unfavourable signification. For example, when Crassus was embarking on his unfortunate expedition against the Parthians, and a man in the harbour was selling dry figs from Caunus with the cry Cauneas, which sounded like cave ne eas, “beware of going,” this was an evil omen (De Div. ii. 84). Men often changed an apparently evil omen into one more favourable. Thus when Caesar landed in Africa, he stumbled and fell, whereupon he embraced the earth, exclaiming, “Thus do I take possession of thee, Africa.” On festal occasions care was taken to protect oneself from evil omens; for example, when sacrifice was being made, by veiling the head, by commanding silence, and by music that drowned any word spoken. People were particularly careful at solemn addresses, Near Year greetings, and the like. On the other hand, for the sake of the good omen, it was usual to open levies and censuses by calling out those names that were of good import, such as Valerius (from valere), Salvius, from salvere, etc. (Pro Scauro, 30). On one occasion the Roman soldiers refused to be led by an officer named Atrius Umber, whose name De Quincey well styles “a pleonasm of darkness.” People also made New Year's presents (strenae) to one another, so that the year might begin with a good omen. The Greeks also paid a good deal of attention to omens; and Socrates criticises this superstition (Xen. Mem. i.).

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