Friday, May 17, 2013


Jean MacIntosh Turfa, Divining the Etruscan World: the Brontoscopic Calendar and Religious Practice. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 408; 8 p. of figures. ISBN 9781107009073. $99.00.

Reviewed by Alex Nice, Université Libre de Bruxelles (

Version at BMCR home site


During the first century BC Cicero's contemporary, the intellectual and sometime praetor, Nigidius Figulus, transcribed a brontoscopic calendar attributed to the legendary Etruscan prophet Tages.1 The text of the calendar owes its survival to its later transmission and translation into Greek by the Byzantine antiquarian John Lydus (de Ost. 27-38). The calendar is remarkable among Etrusco-Roman divination documents for its completeness. It covers a full 12-month lunar cycle of 30 days beginning in June. Each entry consists of the date followed by a protasis (ἐὰν or εἰ βροντήσῃ) and apodosis returning the meaning of thunder on that day. In this attractively presented volume Jean Macintosh Turfa sets out to contextualise, translate, and analyse the calendar.

The opening chapters: 'The Brontoscopic Calendar and its Transmission' (pp. 3-18); 'Etruscan Religion in the Classical World' (pp. 19-36); and 'An Ominous Time: Thunder, Lightning, Weather, and Divination' (pp. 37-69), establish the historical, social, and cultural contexts for the calendar. The text and translation of the calendar (pp. 71-101) is followed by a general analysis of the calendar's format, contents, and style (pp. 105-135) and three thematic analyses: the weather, fauna, agriculture, animals, and pests (pp. 136-163); health and disease (pp. 164-203); society (women, slaves, rulers) (pp. 204-237). The final chapters consider the calendar's Mesopotamian influences and Near Eastern predecessors (pp. 241-277); its relationship to other brontoscopia in the Classical tradition (pp. 278-303); and a conclusion which assesses Lydus' brontoscopia and its heritage (pp. 304-313). Three appendices offer English translations of the relevant textual material (Appendix A: Texts Relating to the Study of Etruscan Religion [pp. 315-325]; Appendix B: Sample Mesopotamian Documents and Additional Data [pp. 326-338]; Appendix C: Other Brontoscopia in the Classical Tradition: Sample Texts with English Translation [pp. 339-349]).

Turfa's essential conclusions are:

• Nigidius Figulus and Lydus have preserved untampered an authentic and unique Etruscan document (pp. 19-36).

• Diplomatic and trading links between the Near East and Etruria facilitated the transmission of divination literature from East to West. She speculates that this might have been possible via 'a single Assyrian or Levantine diplomat-translator or priest' (p. 4).

• This transmission occurred as early as the 9th to 8th centuries to coincide with the growth of the Etruscan city states in this period. The calendar may have been committed to writing c. 680 BC (p. 43).

• It is not necessary to suppose a large coterie of experts in its creation or multiple sites and parallel evolutionary patterns (p. 308). The brontoscopion may have been crafted by the creative genius of a single anonymous Etruscan priest or scholar (p. 308, 313).

• The text was adapted for the climatic and societal conditions of 9thto 8th century Etruria. There is nothing to suggest that this calendar was derived from a later Hellenistic (Ptolemaic or Seleucid) version of the Mesopotamian divination texts (p. 312).

• The text of the calendar, when compared with the available archaeological evidence, and Etruscan, Roman and Greek sources, reflects the concerns of the founders of the Etruscan cities of the Late Villanovan period who often turned to the Near East to borrow symbols and solutions for their growing urban society rather than the social unrest associated with the 4th or even 1st centuries BC (p. 312-313).

• The tradition conveyed by the Etruscan brontoscopic calendar may have exerted a greater influence on Roman and Western society than previously acknowledged (p. 312).

In coming to these conclusions, Turfa musters an imposing array of data. Her approach combines modern science (the science of thunder and lightning pp. 37-39; evidence for health and disease – malnutrition, anemia, enteric diseases, parasitic infections, tuberculosis, skin lesions, cutaneous anthrax, smallpox, typhus, chicken pox, the plague, brucellosis, polio or typhoid, malaria, zoonoses [pp.184-200]) with environmental archaeology (the climatic history [pp. 37-43] and the agriculture, diet, crops, and animals of Iron Age Italy [pp. 139 ff.]). This information is supplemented with profiles of specific archaeological sites (the Riserva del Ferrone necropolis [p. 141], Verucchio, Nola-Croce del Papa; Poggiomarino; Sorgenti della Nova [pp. 155-9]). A variety of sites including San Paolo Belsito, Sant'Abbondio, Pithekoussai, Chiusi, and Pontecagnano [pp. 174-180] offer clues to the quality of health and impact of disease; social status and class is elucidated with reference to the sites at Terremare, Palafitte [pp. 206-8], and Tarquinia Pian di Civita [pp. 231-2]).

No less impressive is the range of literary sources deployed. The Calendar's debt and its dissimilarities to Mesopotamia divination texts is ably demonstrated with reference to the Enūma Anu Enlil omen series, the Mul.Apin astronomical text: the Šumma Ālu Ina Mēlȇ Šakin, the Summa Izbu teratological omen series and other relevant texts (pp. 241-77 and Appendix B). The priestly traditions and scholarly exegesis associated with these texts and the tractability of the divination literature allows Turfa to posit that the intellectual ideas from which the Calendar sprung could be easily transmitted beyond the borders of Mesopotamia to Etruria just as easily as the material goods, technology, and regalia which reflected Etruria's Near Eastern ties. Close reference to authors contemporary with Nigidius Figulus: Aulus Caecina, Tarquitius Priscus, Fonteius Capito, Claudius (Clodius?) Tuscus, Cornelius Labeo (pp. 278-92 with Appendix A) and later Classical and Byzantine texts (pp. 292-303) demonstrates how far Figulus' brontoscopion is from adopting a Roman calendrical format or having an astrological and zodiacal inclination, lending weight to its uniqueness and claim to be a genuine Etruscan religious text.

There are occasional frustrations. Although each chapter is subdivided into manageable sound bites (rarely more than a page or two in length) marked by sub-headings, the connections between these sections are not always made explicit, leading at times to a rather fragmented reading experience. A closer look at the Greek and Roman literary sources would have allowed Turfa to strengthen her arguments vis à vis the transmission of knowledge from East to West. Burkert explored the eastern contexts of Greek culture and argued that the Sibyl of Delphi (hence, also, the Sibyl of Cumae) had much in common with the 'raving women' of Babylon and Assyria.2 The interconnected stories of Calchas (a presence in Etruscan divination), Amphiaraus and Mopsus offer another East to West association.3 There was also a Roman tradition for the transmission of augury from Persia to Italy via Cybele's favourite silenus, the Phrygian Marsyas, and his envoy Megales. He taught it to the Sabines and that knowledge was passed on to King Numa. 4 Furthermore, in his Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum, Varro suggested that hydromantia and necromantia were brought to Rome by the Persians, and that hydromantia, taught to Numa by Egeria, was how Numa learnt the secrets contained in the pontifical books.5

Lack of nuance sometimes affects Turfa's understanding of the Roman sources. Romulus is 'historical' (p. 233) and the stories surrounding his reign are regarded as 'evidence' for divination in the 8th century BC. Lucan's Pharsalia, cited for the 'mystique of Etruscan divination', sits uneasily beside the "prophecies of Marcius" preserved by Livy (p. 26- 7). Here Turfa fails to recognise fully the significance of the gens Marcia in Rome's religious history. Its members included pontiffs, augurs, and a rex sacrorumpace Klingshirn—it seems unlikely that Marcius the prophet was a 'shadowy' figure from Rome's past. At all events the tradition is confused, for Cicero says that there were two Marcian vates.6 The possibility that "the production of prophetic texts was actively pursued" in Rome during the 3rd to 2nd centuries BC could have been elucidated with the help of relevant bibliography. 7 A more careful reading of Cicero the New Academician, with the appropriate bibliography, would have avoided statements such as his 'scathing criticism' (p. 8) or his 'scorn' (p. 31) of divination. The search for a definitive authorial voice emerging from the De Divinatione and the extent to which Marcus Cicero's philosophical position in the dialogue is compatible with his political position has vexed modern scholars.8

On the whole this volume remains free of factual and typographical error. However, the table on p. 168-9 is unfortunate. Obsequens 1 is given as the year 738. As Turfa remarks on p. 35, n. 63, the text of the liber prodigiorum begins in the year 190. All succeeding references to Obsequens in this table are, therefore, inaccurate. It seems as though there has been confusion and conflation with Lycosthenes 1552 edition of Obsequens which traced Roman prodigies ab urbe condita.

Ultimately, the conclusions regarding the transmission and reception of Near Eastern divination literature in Etruria and Italy or for the dating of this significant document must remain speculative until firmer evidence has been uncovered. Nonetheless this book is an important contribution to our understanding of divination literature in the Etrusco-Roman world. As an academic exercise it is instructive in its use of evidence from a wide variety of disciplines: modern science, environmental archaeology, geography, medicine, literary analysis. The English translation of Lydus' text is long overdue and hopefully it will encourage other scholars to undertake a wholehearted translation and commentary of De Ostentis. However, Turfa's major contribution is that she reveals the Brontoscopic Calendar to be a treasure trove of information regarding the religion, culture and society of early Etruria.


1.   P. Swoboda, (ed.) (1964) P. Nigidii Figuli Opera, Amsterdam fr. 83, pp. 93-106.
2.   W. Burkert (1982) in R. Hägg (ed.) The Greek Renaissance of the 8th Century B.C., 115-19; (1992) The Orientalizing Revolution. Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. Cambridge, Mass.; (2004) Babylon. Memphis. Persepolis. Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, Mass.
3.   R. Stoneman (2011). The Ancient Oracles. Making the Gods Speak, New Haven and London, 77-80.
4.   Sil. Ital. Pun. 8.502-504 for the arrival of Marsyas in Italy; Cn. Gellius apud Pliny, NH 3.12 for Megales imparting augury to the Sabines. In general on Marsyas, his role in augury, and his significance at Rome, see J. P. Small (1982) Cacus and Marsyas in Etrusco-Roman Legend. Princeton; M. Torelli (1982) Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs . Ann Arbor, 99-106; F. Coarelli (1992), Il Foro Romano,. 2 vols. Rome, 91-123; P. Schertz 2005 Seer or Victim? The Figure of Marsyas in Roman Art, Religion, and Politics. Unpublished Ph.D. USC; Los Angeles. .
5.   B. Cardauns (1976) Varro Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum. 2 vols. Mainz, 36 = Varro, 1 app. iv.
6.   For the importance of the Marcii see J. P. Small (1982) Cacus and Marsyas in Etrusco-Roman Legend. Princeton; M. Torelli (1982) Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs . Ann Arbor, 99-106; D. Wardle (2006) Cicero on Divination. De Divinatione Book 1 Oxford, 320. On the tradition of two Marcian prophets (Publius and …) see Cicero De Div. 1.89; 2.113 cf. Serv. Aen. 6.70, 72, Symm. Ep.4.34.3.
7.   Notably J. North (2000) 'Prophet and text in the third century BC' in E. Bispham and C. Smith (eds.) Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy, Edinburgh, 92-107.
8.   On this question see J. Linderski (1982) 'Cicero and Roman divination' La Parola del Passato 37, 12-38 and A. Momigliano (1984) (1984) 'The theological efforts of the Roman upper classes in the first century B.C.' CPh 79, 199-211 M. Beard (1986) 'Cicero and divination: the formation of a Latin discourse' JRS 76, 33-46; M. Schofield (1986) 'Cicero for and against divination' JRS 76, 46-65; D. Wardle (2006) Cicero on Divination. De Divinatione Book 1 Oxford, 10-14.

1 comment:

  1. About the question in note 8. above, see S.TIMPANARO, 'Introduzione' and passim, in his edition (critical) and commentary in italian (not as widely known as it merits!):
    CICERONE, la Divinazione, Milan, Garzanti, 1998(2).