Human beings have always yearned to know the future, and there have always been other human beings who claimed they could predict it. The ancient Greeks consulted the sibyls, female oracles of great age who under divine inspiration uttered verses given them by the gods of the famous shrines they served. All religions of the book have had their millenarian preachers and visionaries who thought they could discern God’s plan for the future in scripture. The Romans, a superstitious lot, would never dream of undertaking an important action without first taking the auspices from the flight of birds or seeking omens in the entrails of animals. They had an enormous vocabulary for the apparatus of prognostication. The joke at my high school’s annual classics bee was that, if you didn’t know the word in Greek, it meant “pain or suffering.” If you didn’t know the word in Latin, it meant “entrails.” We regarded this difference as a deep insight into Greco-Roman culture.
Most of these readings of the future produced intelligence that was limited in value. The responses of the sibyls, famously ambiguous, would tell you how an action you contemplated would turn out, but you had to interpret the sibyl’s words correctly. Croesus, king of Lydia, famously lost his empire to the Persians when he misread a response of the Delphic Oracle. He thought she was going long on Lydia when in fact she was hedging her bets. The Roman haruspex could tell you whether the day and hour you chose for your action was favorable or not, but it was still up to you to take advantage of the moment, and things could still go wrong if your virtue failed. Roman auguries were “soft” predictions in the sense that they admitted only probable futures that could be altered by human agency. End-time prognosticators were equally hard to falsify, since if the predicted disaster failed to materialize, it was because the people had followed the prophet’s call to reformation; if it did materialize, well, there you were. Deadlines for golden ages, second comings, and the end of time could always be extended, like last-chance sales on the Internet.