When the twins, Romulus and Remus, decided to found a city along the banks of the Tiber, according to ancient Roman legend, they disagreed upon the hill on which the city should be laid out.
Romulus preferred the hill later called the Palatine, Remus the Aventine. They agreed, however, to leave the decision to the gods, and each passed the night upon the hill of his choice to learn their will.
Remus, it was said, saw six vultures as the day began. This was thought to be highly propitious. But just as Romulus received the information, twelve vultures flew over his head. The omens, therefore, appeared to favor him. Remus was unwilling to yield the decision, however, and in the struggle that followed, he was killed.
Accordingly Romulus was the sole founder of Rome.
In those days and for many centuries thereafter, no important matter was undertaken by the Roman people until it was learned whether the gods favored the enterprise.
This was often determined by watching the birds, for it was believed that they were the messengers of the gods. Certain men, wise and highly devout, were given the responsibility handed down to them by Romulus, and were thought to be able to read those messages.
These were interpreted from various signs, the kinds of birds, their numbers, their appearance in certain quarters of the sky, the direction of flight, their songs in flight, and so on. A man able to make such interpretations was called an augur, a word partly derived from the Latin avis, bird, and garrio, to talk, or chatter.
The interpretation that he made was called augurium, from which our word augury was derived. The verb inauguro meant, at first, “to consult the birds before undertaking an enterprise”; later it carried the meaning, “to consecrate (an official) by the ceremony of consulting the birds.”
Our word inaugurate comes from this verb; hence, when we use it we imply an accompaniment of special ceremony. (See also AUSPICE.)