Introduction to the
de Divinatione

1. Date of composition

This treatise was intended by Cicero to supplement his earlier work, De natura deorum, which was finished probably in August 45 B.C. The greater part of the first book of the De divinatione was written (in part at least) before the assassination of Caesar, but the work was not completed and published until after that event.1

2. The Interlocutors

The dialogue is represented as taking place between Cicero and his only brother Quintus, at Cicero's country home at Tusculum, about ten miles from Rome.

[p. 215] QUINTUS CICERO was born about 102 B.C.; received instruction in the best schools at Rome and in Greece; was aedile in 65; praetor in 62; governor of Asia from March 61 to April 58; and served as legatus under Pompey in Sardinia in 56, under Caesar in Gaul in 54 and 53, and under Marcus, his brother, in Cilicia, from July 51 to July 50. In the Civil War he first joined Pompey, but, after the latter's defeat, offered his services to Caesar. Quintus was fond of reading and study and devoted much of his leisure to writing. During his stay in Gaul he wrote four tragedies, which are lost. The authorship of the Commentariolum Petitionis is generally conceded to him. He (like his brother) died in December 43, in the proscription of the Second Triumvirate.

3. Plan and sources of the dialogue

In this treatise, as in his other philosophic works, Cicero draws his arguments chiefly from Greek sources, but develops them in his own inimitable way and illustrates them with examples from his varied experiences and from his vast stores of learning. As an adherent of the New Academy he was free to question the views of the other philosophic schools, to compare argument with argument, and to adopt that theory which seemed to him most consistent with reason. After a thorough and impartial study of all the extant literature on the subject, from the time of Xenophanes of Colophon, a philosopher of the Eleatic school of the sixth century B.C., to that of Cratippus of his own day, and including the teachings of the Pyth- [p. 216] agoreans, the Socratics, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans and the Stoics, he became convinced that the commonly accepted belief in divination was a superstition which “should be torn up by the roots.” He was himself an augur, and in his book On the Republic had written in favour of maintenance of the rites of augury and of auspices. But these practices were engrafted on the Roman constitution and he advocated their observance because of his belief in obedience to law and because, as a member of the aristocratic party, he thought augury and auspices the best means of controlling the excesses of democracy.

4. The argument in favour of divination

In treating the subject he proceeded, not as a special pleader, but in a truly philosophic spirit. As the chief apologists for divination he selected the Stoics, who defended it with great force and plausibility, accepted it as a part of their philosophic system, and sought to bring the world into conformity with their views. They endeavoured to unite religion with philosophy to prove that the nature of the gods is adapted to reveal the divine will through divine prophecy. The belief in a superintending care of the gods seemed to them to imply a means of communication between God and man, whereby the latter might know the divine will in advance and obey it. This means they called Divination, the vis divinandi of the Romans, the μαντική of the Greeks.

The arguments in the first book in favour of divination are based chiefly on the writings of [p. 217] Posidonius the Stoic. While many of the arguments in the second book go back to Carneades, the founder of the New Academy, the immediate source of the material is not Carneades himself (for he left no writings) but one of his disciples, probably Clitomachus, who was his successor in the New Academy and expounded his doctrines. The discussion of the Chaldean monstra in the second book, from sections 87 to 97, is derived from the Stoic Panaetius. The entire discussion is divided into two main parts. In the first Quintus, taking the affirmative side, sets out the reasons for his belief in divination, and in the second Marcus proceeds to overwhelm his adversary with merciless logic and, with a rare display of abounding humour and sarcasm, laughs him out of court.

Quintus defines divination as “the foreknowledge and foretelling of events that happen by chance.” He divides it into two classes: the first, Artificial, which depends partly on conjecture and partly on long-continued observation, and includes astrology, auspices, augury, divining by portents, prodigies, thunder, lightning, and other natural phenomena; the second, Natural, embraces divination by means of dreams and prophecies, made by persons inspired, as seers and prophets like Calchas, Cassandra, and others, and by those in a state of ecstasy or rapture, like the Pythian priestess of Apollo, whose prophetic powers were induced by exhalations from the earth. In defence of these various kinds of divination he urged the fact of their acceptance from the earliest times by every nation, and by the greatest philosophers including Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. He was not troubled by his inability to explain the [p. 218] causes of divination. Those who denied the existence of what they could not explain and were not convinced by results and by the evidence of their own senses, for the same reason should deny the power of the magnet to attract iron, or the efficacy of drugs to effect certain cures. Divination, he urges, was established by many infallible proofs: by augury, the city of Rome had been founded and the kingdom given to Romulus; by the flight of an eagle, King Deiotarus had been warned to discontinue a journey and thereby was saved from certain death; the entrails foretold Caesar's approaching fate; in a dream the Rhodian sailor had a vision of Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus. He also does not disdain the argumentum ad hominem, but quotes freely from his brother's poetry to show that he, too, accepts divination.2

Following the method of Posidonius, Quintus sought to bring divination into conformity with the principles of philosophy in three ways; by tracing its source to God, to nature, and to fate. The reasoning for its origin from God was borrowed from Cratippus. The human soul is an emanation from the Divine Soul which pervades and governs all things. Between the Divine Soul and the human soul, both of which are divine and eternal, there is a sympathy and a connexion which permit of communication from one to the other. The human soul when divorced from bodily influences, as in sleep and in ecstasy, is most responsive to the divine will and most endowed with divine foresight.

In discussing the origin of divination from the [p. 219] second source, Quintus defines Fate or εἱμαρμένη as “the orderly succession of causes wherein cause is linked to cause and every cause has its effect.” Therefore nothing has happened which was not bound to happen and nothing will happen which will not find its efficient cause in nature. He who knows the links that join cause to cause, knows all the results of causes and can foretell every coming event. While such omniscience is possible only to God, yet since every cause has its sign and there are men who can often read those signs, in the lapse of time a science has been evolved from the recording of signs and the noting of the connexion between them and their results.

The argument from nature is based on the phenomena of dreams and ecstasy. The power of the soul is much enhanced when divorced from bodily sensation. Then it sees things which are invisible to it when shackled by the flesh. During frenzy or inspiration or ecstasy nature seems most to impel the human soul to prophecy.

To the objection that the forecasts of augurs, seers, soothsayers and other diviners are often erroneous, Quintus replies that the same point may be urged against experts in other arts and callings, as, for example, physicians, mariners, and statesmen.

In closing Quintus makes a qualification or partial retractation by stating that he does not countenance fortune-tellers, necromancers, snake-charmers, astrologers, or interpreters of dreams who are not true diviners.

[p. 220]

5. The argument against divination

Marcus, in reply, first directs his attack against divination in general and adopts the reasoning of Carneades. “Divination,” he says, “has no application to things perceived by the senses, which are sufficient of themselves and require no aid from divination. Nor is there any place for it in matters within the domain of science and of art. Likewise divination has no place in resolving questions in philosophy, in dialectic or in politics. And since it is of no use in any of these cases there is no use for it anywhere.” Next, he takes the Stoic definition of divination as “the foreknowledge and foretelling of things that happen by chance,” and shows that since such things may or may not happen, or may happen in one way or another, they cannot be foreseen by any amount of reason or skill. But if it can be known in advance that an event is going to happen, then that event is certain and not subject to chance and, by the definition, is removed from the scope of divination.

Furthermore, even if it was possible to know the future the disadvantages would far outweigh the gain. Cicero then takes up separately the various modes of divination under their proper divisions of Artificial and Natural and shows how utterly unreasonable they are and heaps his ridicule upon them.

6. Manuscripts, editions, and translations

The best Mss. of the De divinatione are: V. Vindob., 10th century, and three Leyden Mss., A, B, and H, Leid., 12th century.

The text of this edition is based chiefly on that of [p. 221] John Davies, Cambridge, 1730, but emended in many places by readings adopted from tile editions of George A. Moser, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1828, Aug. Geise, Leipsig, 1829, and C. F. W. Müller, Leipzig, 1910. Many changes have also been made in Davies' spelling, punctuation and paragraphing.

[In the Teubner series, see the edition by O. Plasberg and W. Ax, Stuttgart, 1969 (1938).]

I have consulted the following translations: C. D. Yonge, London, Bohn's series, 1848, in English; D. Goldbéry, Paris, Garnier Frères, in French; Ralph Kühner, Berlin, Langenscheidt, in German.

Among books that may be mentioned as useful in the study of De divinatione are the following:

C. Wachsmuth, Die Ansichten der Stoiker über Mantik und Dämonen.

Th. Schiche, De fontibus librorum Ciceronis quae sunt de divinatione.

C. Hartfelder, Die Quellen von Cicero's De divinatione.

A. Schmekel, Die Philosophie der Mittleren Stoa.

F. Malchin, De auctoribus quibusdam qui Posidonii libros meteorologicos adhibuerunt.

The best edition of the De divinatione is that of Prof. Pease, University of Illinois Press, 1923.

A. Bouché-Leclercq, Histoire de la divination.

J. Wight Duff, Literary History of Rome.

I am indebted to Dr. Gordon J. Laing of the University of Chicago for a critical reading of this translation and for many helpful suggestions.

Wm. Armistead Falconer. Fort Smith, Arkansas

1 René Durand in “La Date du De divinatione,Mélanges Boissier, takes the view (now generally accepted) that this work was wholly written (except for some interpolations and changes) prior to Caesar's death, and after that event revised and published. The translator, after a careful study of all the evidence bearing on the question, is unable to accept M. Durand's view, and feels convinced that the latter part of Book I. and all of Book II. were written after March 15, 44 B.C.

2 The artifice by which Cicero thus quotes himself is delightfully characteristic.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: