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Astrology in Ancient Rome: Poetry, Prophecy and Power

by David Wray

y main focus will be on an ancient Roman long poem and a set of questions surrounding it. The poem is a didactic (instructional) work on astrology. Its title is Astronomica, and it was written in the first and second decades of the first century of our era by a poet named Marcus Manilius, of whose life we know nothing whatsoever. Greatly admired by such modern figures as Goethe and Leibniz, the Astronomica is a poem that literally almost no one reads today, not even specialists in Latin literature. There are several reasons for this, but certainly one reason lies in the nineteenth and twentieth century view of astrology as "pseudo-science" and an embarrassing blemish on the faces of our classical forebears, whose images were to be kept as shiny and clean as possible. There has been some good European scholarship on Manilius in recent years, especially by Italian scholars, but in English there is still no book-length study.

Unknown as Manilius is, I suspect that many of you have heard his name recently, in the Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love, about the life of A. E. Housman. Manilius' Astronomica is the text that Housman edited over a period of many years and dedicated to Moses Jackson, a friend from school that Housman never got over. Housman's edition did not win new readers for Manilius' poem, to say the least. Housman liked to say that Manilius' great talent was "doing sums in verse"--meaning that Manilius seemed to take a virtuosic pride in the fact that he could describe complicated astrological diagrams in Latin verse meter, and this is true. Housman also liked to point out that you cannot cast an astrological chart by using Manilius' poem as a textbook. This is true as well. But then, it's also true that Virgil, writing in the generation before Manilius, had written a didactic poem on farming, called the Georgics, and certainly nobody could ever have thought that Virgil's elegant and complex poetic masterpiece was supposed to be a manual for real farmers on real farms. In fact, the Georgics was almost certainly the chief model Manilius had in mind in writing his own didactic poem, so there is at least that much reason to think that Manilius' aim, like Virgil's was not so much instructional as artistic.

Manilius' poem is in five books, with about eight or nine hundred verses to a book. Book 1 gives an overview of all the visible constellations. Book 2 describes the signs of the zodiac and the different "aspects," or geometric angles, of their relations to each other (and just as in modern astrology, 60 degree angles or "trines" are good, while 90 degree "squares" and 180 degree "oppositions" are generally bad). Book 3 gives a system of what astrologers call "houses": areas of human life governed by the twelve sections of the heavens. In Manilius' system these areas are Home, War, Business, Law, Marriage, Wealth, Dangers, Social Class, Children, Character, Health and Success. The third book also discusses what modern astrologers call "ascendants" or rising signs, and at a certain point this book flirts with the possibility of revealing the great secret that true astrologers were thought in antiquity to possess: namely, the method of predicting a person's fated life span. Book 4 describes the qualities of specific degrees of the 360 degree circle of the zodiac and also explains which regions of the inhabited world are governed by which astrological signs (Italy is governed by Libra, if you're curious, and Greece is under Virgo). Book 5 is concerned with "paranatellonta." These are the constellations outside the zodiac whose rising and setting also exercise influence over human life. This fifth book probably includes some material drawn from systems of astrology much earlier than the one practiced in the Hellenistic Mediterranean. Manilius seems to know quite a bit about non-Greek constellations, and he probably had access to one or more Egyptian sources in Greek translation.

seagoat coinAnd there you have the book, in a summary that doesn't do anything near justice to its richness and complexity. Here are some of the questions I want to ask. First, and most importantly: based on our historical, literary and material evidence, what political role, if any, did astrology play at Rome during the passage from republic to empire? Other questions to be touched on more briefly in the course of our inquiry include these: What was ancient astrology like? From what sources did it come to Rome? How did it work? What social role did astrologers play and what was the range of attitudes people had toward them?

Prophecy and Roman politics

Before I turn to this set of questions, I'd like to say something about the reasons why a literary type like me, decidedly not a specialist in the history of science, should have come to the conclusion that astrology, of all things, is important for a full understanding of Roman literature and Roman culture and society during the time when Rome was passing from an aristocratic republic to a monarchical empire. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, his adopted son Octavian (later to be known as Augustus) buried him with something close to royal honors and ultimately raised a temple to him as a god. During the time when Julius Caesar was being publicly mourned, a comet was seen to pass across the Roman sky, and this comet was of course taken as a sign from the heavens. Divination or prophecy through reading the signs and portents of the sky was not merely a folk belief in the ancient Mediterranean; it was also part of the state religion at Rome. There was a group of official priests known as augurs whose functions included reading omens in the sky. Comets were generally read as unfavorable omens, signs of war or other calamities, but our sources tell us that after the death of Julius Caesar, certain people at Rome began to express the belief that this particular comet, so far from being a bad omen, was in fact the soul of Julius Caesar mounting the sky to become a god.

This pious opinion carried the day, and Julius Caesar was deified by the Roman senate. We don't know precisely how instrumental Octavian was in achieving this result, but we do know that he lost no time in turning it to his own political advantage. Not only did Octavian declare war on Brutus, Cassius and the rest of Julius Caesar's assassins, a war that he quickly won at a battle on the plain of Philippi in Greece and commemorated by dedicating a temple at Rome to "Mars the Avenger," Octavian also began to use iconographic images of a cosmic kind to proclaim Julius' godhead and to associate himself closely with his deified father. A great statue of Julius Caesar stood in the forum, and at Octavian's order a star was placed over this statue's head. We also possess a number of coins minted by Octavian during this period that prominently feature images of the sacred comet, now known as the sidus Iulium or "star of Julius." Some of these coins also show the profiles of the two Caesars together, deified father and living (adoptive) son. And the son, Octavian, is also described on these coins as divi filius, "son of the deified one," that is to say, son of a god. None of this is precisely astrological material, but it is certainly an instance of cosmic (and more precisely stellar) imagery being used to give divine legitimacy to a political program by furthering the notion that heavenly forces were signaling their favor toward Julius Caesar and toward Octavian as his son and successor.

Octavian becomes Augustus

cameoTurning back to the Astronomica now, we can see a similar ideological and political use of heavenly influence in its dedication to Octavian, who by the time of Manilius' writing was known as Caesar Augustus and fully established in power. Manilius explicitly portrays the imperial rule of Augustus as cosmically ordained by the same fate that rules the motions of the stars in the heavens and governs every aspect of human life on earth. Here is how Manilius addresses the emperor in his opening lines: "You, Caesar, princeps and father of the fatherland," (this latter title had been officially conferred on Augustus by the Roman senate in 2 BCE) "you who rule the globe that obeys your august laws," (you get the pun on "Augustus"), "you yourself a god, you who merit the universe that was granted to your father, inspire my mind and give me the poetic strength to sing so great a subject, for at this time the universe itself is favorably disposed toward those who peer into its secrets; the universe itself is eager to lay open the inventory of its heavenly riches through the power of poetry."

Manilius, then, states openly and unambiguously what Octavian's iconographic imagery had merely implied. How did historical events come to the point where it was possible for claims of this nature to be made explicitly by a Roman poet, and precisely what kind of power was Augustus himself claiming to possess? Let me work toward an answer by doing a broad historical sweep of how Octavian managed to beat a path to imperial autocracy in the decades immediately following the death of Julius Caesar. Soon after the battle of Philippi, Octavian entered into a kind of power sharing agreement with Mark Antony (and a third member, Lepidus, who later dropped out of the picture). The rivalry between Antony and Octavian seems to have been fought out ideologically and culturally for an entire decade until their opposing military forces finally clashed at Actium in 31 BCE, in a battle that ended with defeat and suicide for Antony and his ally and lover Cleopatra (Plutarch's life of Antony tells the story, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is based largely on that account.)

During the decade of the thirties leading up to this final confrontation, Octavian and Antony seem to have become symbolic of two radically different ways of living as a member of the Roman elite. Octavian represented (or claimed to represent) "good old" Roman values and virtues: gravitas, moral propriety, and so on. Antony, a Roman aristocrat of an older and nobler family than Octavian's (at least that is how Antony portrayed things), stood for another set of values that many elite Romans held dear: sophistication, elegance, and "decadent" excess. Those who opposed Mark Antony, like Cicero, called him an effeminate sensualist and a drunkard (Antony actually delivered a public speech at Rome defending himself against this last charge). His enemies, Octavian chief among them, claimed that Antony had betrayed Rome by submitting himself to Rome's enemy, Cleopatra, the Hellenistic Greek queen of Egypt, at whose palace in Alexandria the two lovers were said to hold unspeakably lavish revels.

If Octavian was a sober Roman Apollo, so the ideological propaganda went, Antony was a drunken Hellenistic Dionysus. But Antony was also associated with Hercules, partly through a claim of descent by birth and perhaps also because Antony was born under Leo, and Hercules was identified in iconography by his lionskin cloak. And just as Hercules had submitted himself to the nymph Omphale, who forced the hero to wear women's clothes and learn to spin and weave, so likewise (according to Octavian's propaganda), Antony had given up both his Romanness and his manhood by submitting to the domination of Cleopatra. We have some remarkable images from this period showing Omphale wearing Hercules' lion skin and carrying his club while Hercules, for his part, is dressed as a woman. It is almost certain that these images are meant on one level as political cartoons satirizing Antony and Cleopatra.

The military struggle between the two men (if not the ideological battle between the two ways of living they represented) came to an end in 31 BCE when Octavian's admiral Agrippa defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. Octavian, or rather Augustus, is now the unrivaled master of Rome and, not to put too fine a point on it, master of the known world and even, as Manilius says, master of the universe. We have a number of coins from this period showing on one side the face of Augustus and on the other side a winged victory standing on a globe representing the cosmos. Such a coin is delivering, without words but in clear images that everyone would have understood, the message that Augustus, thanks to his victory at Actium, now rules the world. Four years after Actium, the Senate announced (with Augustus' approval) that the Roman republic had been "restored." All the old political institutions were reestablished and the "dignity" of the Senate was restored, but actual power was now in the hands of one man alone.

Capricorn rising

If Augustus' military struggle was over after the defeat of Mark Antony, he would never be finished with his ideological campaign to insert a monarchical principle into the still intact political structure of the Roman republic. One of the ways Augustus had been carrying on this ideological campaign was through the symbolism of images on coins and public monuments. Another way he had asserted his claim to sole power had been, remarkably enough, by publishing his own natal horoscope. We don't know precisely what form this publication took (I suspect it was probably an actual astrological chart), and we don't know the exact date of publication, but it seems to have been long before Augustus came to sole power. Our source is Suetonius' second century biography of Augustus, and Suetonius narrates these events as taking place just after Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE:

In his retirement at Apollonia (a Greek colony in Illyria), Augustus went with his friend Agrippa to visit Theogenes the astrologer in his gallery on the roof. Agrippa, who first consulted the fates, had great and almost incredible things predicted of him. Augustus therefore did not wish to make known his nativity, and persisted for some time in the refusal, from a mixture of shame and fear, lest his own fate should be predicted as inferior to that of Agrippa. When Augustus had been persuaded, however, after much importunity, to declare his nativity, Theogenes started up from his seat and paid him adoration. Not long afterwards, Augustus was so confident of the greatness of his destiny that he published his horoscope, and struck a silver coin bearing the image of Capricorn, the sign under which he was born.

There are a number of very interesting things about this story. The first and most obvious thing to say is that Augustus' visit to the astrologer Theogenes could be a complete fiction. Suetonius' biography includes portents and prophecies of every kind, starting with Augustus' birth in 63 BCE, and all of them pointing to Augustus' destiny as master of the world. Ancient literature is full of such prophecies, and in almost every case the prophecy (in the story) has to come true; that's simply the narrative logic by which stories of this kind work. Think of Sophocles' Oedipus, for example.

Every emperor's biography seems to have featured some omen or prediction of future greatness, so on one level there's no reason to attach any truth value to this story about Augustus and a Greek astrologer. On the other hand, there is nothing impossible or unlikely about an astrologer making a prediction of future greatness and power to Augustus as early as 44 BCE. Astrology was a part of Greek learning and culture, with a high prestige value. And more importantly, individual natal horoscopes tended to be associated in the Hellenistic world with individual power, and specifically with claims to kingship. Publishing your horoscope, in other words, could be read as a way of making a bid for royal power without having to say openly that you were making such a bid. The first "published" horoscope we possess dates from 62 BCE. It is preserved in the form of a relief carved into a rock on the top of Nimrudh Dagh in the Tarsus mountains, and it represents the coronation horoscope of King Antiochus I of Commagene.

Whatever form the so-called publication of his horoscope took, we can be completely certain that Augustus wanted the world to know what sign he was born under. Let me refer you to the three images you've seen in this article. The first one is a coin, one of several Augustan coins featuring Capricorn. You can see the name "Augustus," and the sea-goat holding the globe of the world. Augustus is Capricorn, in other words, and as the cosmocrator (master of the universe), he's got the whole world in his hands. While Augustus' rhetoric in words was putting forward an image of himself as "first among equals," the astrological imagery of this coin is putting forward an unmistakable bid for autocracy and even kingship. The next image is the most famous cameo portrait of Augustus, the so-called "Gemma Augustea." The woman placing the crown on Augustus' head almost certainly represents the oikoumene, a Greek word meaning "the inhabited world" (we know this capricornfrom similar representations on coins where the image bears a caption). Just behind Augustus' head is a round lozenge containing a small image of Capricorn the sea-goat. We have a fair number of other Capricorn artifacts that probably belonged to private individuals, and these have been found throughout the empire. My third image, another cameo, is an example. The young man swimming the waves is both riding on Capricorn and probably also to be identified with Capricorn. His features, shown in profile, are recognizably those of the young Augustus.

Why Capricorn? We don't really know. Augustus' sun sign was Libra. Capricorn was probably either his rising sign or, more likely, his Moon sign. Modern popular astrology, of the newspaper kind, is of course purely sun sign astrology, but the ancients tended to attach more importance to the Moon sign and rising sign. What particular qualities of the sea-goat made this sign especially appropriate for Augustus? Again, we don't know for sure. Possibly because Capricorn, then as now, was associated with stern moral authority. Possibly because Capricorn is the sign in which the sun passes through the winter solstice and is, in a sense, reborn--like the Roman republic, in Augustus' propaganda. Possibly because Capricorn, then as now, was associated with the planet Saturn. According to Roman mythology, Saturn had come to live in Italy when his son Jupiter had kicked him out of heaven, and the age in which Saturn ruled as king over Italy was a "golden age" of paradise on earth. Augustus' reign was portrayed, in the poetry of Virgil and Horace as well as in Augustus' propaganda, as a return to that Saturnian golden age. Perhaps each of these reasons was a factor in Augustus' adoption of Capricorn as his emblem.

We've strayed far from Manilius. A question that may have occurred to you is the extent to which Augustus used Manilius' poem as part of his ideological machine. We have no evidence to suggest that he made any use whatsoever of the Astronomica or its author. The first book of the Astronomica was written no earlier than 9 CE, by which time Augustus was in his 70s. Two years later, in 11 CE, Augustus put a ban on individual consultation of astrologers. He did this, I think, not for the reason that older historians used to suggest--namely that, being an enlightened ruler, he wanted to get all that unscientific nonsense out of Rome. Rather, Augustus banned astrological consultation for the simple reason that he knew that very many people were eagerly awaiting his death, and an astrological prediction of an unwelcome sort could have led to unrest among the citizenry or the soldiery, and indeed could have threatened the smooth transition of power to Augustus' successor Tiberius. Under Tiberius, by the way, astrology enjoyed a kind of golden age of its own, and it was under Tiberius that Manilius finished his poem. By the time Manilius reached Book 4 of the Astronomica, Tiberius was securely on the throne, and here is what Manilius has to say about Tiberius' natal sign of Libra (again probably his Moon sign): "When the claws of autumn are rising, blessed is the man born under Libra the balance. As judge he will set up scales weighted with life and death: he will impose the weight of his authority upon the world and make laws. Cities and kingdoms will tremble before him and be ruled by his command alone, and after his stay on earth, jurisdiction over the sky will await him" (4.548 ff.) In other words, Capricorn is dead; long live Libra.


WrayDavid Wray is an assistant professor in the Department of Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. A graduate of Emory University, he received his PhD from Harvard University. His research focuses on Latin poetry of the late republic and early empire, as well as Hellenistic poetry and literary criticism. Wray is the author of Catullus and the Poetics of Roman Manhood (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

COPYRIGHT | A version of this article was delivered at the University of Chicago Humanities Open House, October 27, 2001. Copyright 2002 the University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu

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