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p144 Astrologia

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp144‑145 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ASTROLO′GIA. This word is occasionally employed by the best Latin writers (e.g. Cic. de Divin. II.42) to denote astronomy in general, and indeed is found in that sense more frequently than astronomia, which is of rare occurrence. In the present article, however, we confine ourselves to what is strictly termed judicial astrology, and treat of astronomy under Astronomia.

At a period far beyond the records of authentic history a belief arose, which still prevails unshaken in the East, that a mysterious but close connection subsisted between the relative position and movements of the heavenly bodies and the fate of man. In process of time it was maintained that the fortunes of each individual throughout life depended upon the aspect of the sky at the moment of his birth, and especially upon the sky at the moment of his birth, and especially upon the star which was rising above the horizon at the instant when he saw the light, and upon those which were in its immediate vicinity (conjunctae), or removed from it by a sixth, a fourth, or a third part of a great circle of the sphere, or, finally, upon those which were at the opposite extremity of the same diameter (oppositae). Few doubted that by observation and deep study persons might acquire the power of expounding these appearances, that the destiny of the child might be predicted with certainty by those who were skilled to interpret the language of the stars, and that the result of any undertaking might be foretold from the aspect of the firmament when it was commenced. Hence a numerous and powerful class of men arose who were distinguished by various designations. From the country where astronomy was first studied, and their science was first developed, they were called Chaldaei or Babylonii; from observing the stars, astronomi, astrologi, planetarii; from employing diagrams such as were used by geometricians, mathematici; from determining the lot of man at his natal hour, genethliaci; from prophesying the consummation of his struggles, ἀποτελεσματικοί; while their art was known as ἀστρολογία, μετεωρολογία, γενεθλιαλογία, ἀποτελεσματική, Ars Chaldaeorum, Mathesis, or, from the tables they consulted, πινακική. Their calculations were termed Babylonii numeri, Χαλδαίων μέθοδοι, Χαλδαίων ψηφίδες, Rationes Chaldaicae; their responses when consulted Chaldaeorum monita, Chaldaeorum natalicia praedicta, Astrologorum praedicta.

The stars and constellations to which attention was chiefly directed were the planets and the signs of the zodiac, some of which were supposed to exert uniformly a benign influence (ἀγαθοποιοὶ ἀστέρες), such as Venus, Jupiter, Luna, Virgo, Libra, Taurus; others to be uniformly malign (κακοποιοὶ ἀστέρες), such as Saturnus, Mars, Scorpio, Capricornus; others to be doubtful (ἐπίκοινοι ἀστέρες),a such as Mercurius. By the combination and conjunction (συνδρομή, constellatio) or opposition, however, of those benign with those malign, the power of the latter might be neutralised or even reversed, and a most happy horoscope be produced, as in the case of Augustus who was born under Capricornus (Suet. Aug. 94), and hence that figure frequently appears on his medals. For the sake of expediting calculations, the risings, setting, movements, and relative positions (ortus, occasus, motus, viae, discessiones, coetus, conventus, concursiones, circuitus, transitus, habitus, forma, positura, positus siderum et spatia) were carefully registered in tables (πίνακες, ἐφημερίδες). In so far as the planets were concerned, it was of especial importance to note through what sign of the zodiac they happened to be passing, since each planet had a peculiar sign, called the domus or house of the planet, during its sojourn in which it possessed the superior power. Thus Libra, Capricornus and Scorpius were respectively the houses of Venus, Saturn, and Mars.

The exact period of birth (hora genitalis) being the critical moment, the computations founded upon it were styled γένεσις (genitura), ὡροσκόπος (horoscopus), or simply θέμα, and the star or stars in the ascendant sidus natalicium, sidera natalitia.

Astrologers seem to have found their way to Italy even before a free communication was opened up with the East by the Roman conquests in Greece and Asia, since they are mentioned contemptuously by Ennius (ap. Cic. De Div. I.58). About a century later the government seem to have become sensible of the inconvenience and danger likely to arise from the presence of such impostors, for in B.C. 139 an edict was promulgated by C. Cornelius Hispallus, at that time praetor, by which the Chaldaeans were banished from the city, and p145ordered to quit Italy within ten days (Val. Max. I.3 §2), and they were again banished from the city in B.C. 33, by M. Agrippa, who was then aedile (Dion Cass. XLIX.1). Another severe ordinance was levelled by Augustus against this class (Dion Cass. LXV.1, LXVI.25), but the frequent occurrence of such phrases as "expulit et mathematicos" (Suet. Tib. 36), "pulsis Italia mathematicis" (Tac. Hist. II.62), in the historians of the empire prove how firm a hold these pretenders must have obtained over the public mind, and how profitable the occupation must have been which could induce them to brave disgrace, and sometimes a cruel death (Tac. Ann. II.32). Notwithstanding the number and stringent character of the penal enactments by which they were denounced, they appear to have kept their ground, and although from time to time crushed or terrified into silence, to have revived with fresh vigour in seasons of confusion and anarchy, when all classes of the community hanging in suspense between hope and fear, were predisposed to yield to every superstitious impulse. It must be remembered also, that the most austere princes did not disdain, when agitated by doubts or excited by ambitious longing, to acquire the principles of the art and to consult its professors, as we may perceive, not to multiply examples, from the well-known story of Tiberius and Thrasyllus (Tac. Ann. VI.20, 21). Hence Tacitus, after recounting the high promises by which the "mathematici" stimulated Otho to assume the purple, adds in a tone of sorrowful resignation, "genus hominum potentibus infidum, sperantibus fallax, quod in civitate nostra et vetabitur semper et retinebitur."

(See Cic. Div. II.42, &c.; Gell. XIV.1; Hor. Carm. II.17.17; Pers. V.46; Juv. III.43, VII.194, XIV.248, VI.553‑581; Tac. Ann.II.27, 32, III.22, IV.58, VI.20, XII.22, 52, 68, XVI.14, Hist. I.22, II.62; Suet. Tib. 14, 36, Vitell. 14, Nero, 40; Gell. I.9; Dion Cass. XLIX.43, LVI.25, LVII.15, LXV.1;b Zonar. II. p142; Lips. Excurs. VII. ad Tac. Ann. II; Jani, Excurs. ad Hor. Carm. II.17.17; Ruperti, Not. ad Tac. Ann. II.27. For the penal enactments, see Rein, Das Criminalrecht der Römer, p901, &c. Leipzig, 1844. Those who would acquire a knowledge of the technical details of astrology, as practised by the ancients,c must peruse the works of Manilius, Julius Firmicus, and Ptolemy.)d


Thayer's Notes:

a Better translations for ἐπίκοινοι ἀστέρες are ambivalent, mixed, or neutral. The influence of the planet is not in doubt, nor uncertain: it is definite, but of a character sometimes good, sometimes not.

b There are serious omissions in this list. The full set of references to astrology and astrologers in Cassius Dio is: XV.22, XLIX.43, LV.11, LVII.15, LXI.2, LXI.33, LXIII.3, LXIV.4, LXV(LXVI).9, LXVII.12, LXVII.15, LXXVII.11.

c Our author does well to specify "as practised by the ancients". Modern astrology, reborn at just about the time Smith's Dictionary was first published, differs significantly from that of the ancients, despite the assertions of some of its practitioners. Here are the principal differences — additions, deletions, changes (sometimes due to errors in reading the sources), and technical improvements:

Planets: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. New planets were discovered in the 18c‑20c, therefore added to the arsenal: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. It was then felt that these new planets in turn required rulerships and exaltations of their own. The sign rulerships of Aquarius, Pisces, and Scorpio were taken from Mercury, Venus, and Mars respectively and assigned to them.

Aspects: conjunction (0°), opposition (180°), trine (120°), square (90°), sextile (60°). Added, the so‑called "minor aspects": quincunx (150°); semisextile (30°), semisquare (45°), sesquare (135°). One occasionally meets with quintiles (72°), as well as the use of declination. Renaissance, 19c, and 20c additions, of which only the quintile accords with ancient theory.

Predictive triggers: transits. Added: "progressions" — an entirely artificial system, for which there are no astronomical grounds, of rotating the birth chart uniformly by 1° per year. A 19c invention, designed to make astrology easy for the masses.

Fixed stars; Parts. Both the fixed stars and the Parts (which now tend to be called "Arabic parts") were far more used in Antiquity, but there were far fewer of them. Medieval Arab refinements. The expanded catalogue of stars is due mostly to clearer skies in Arab countries. Not as amenable to system as the astrological core of planets, signs, houses, and aspects; the mass of fixed stars and Parts has become unwieldy, the situation resembling that in particle physics, and for the same general reason.

Terms: for which see Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos I.20‑21. Inherited from the Egyptians and the Babylonians, what — if anything — they correspond to is problematic. Discarded by almost all modern astrologers.

Prorogations: the determination of the length of life; for which see Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos III.10. Discarded. The problem, of course, is that no systematic method of determining the date of death from the date of birth has ever been found, and the failure is immediately verifiable. The system presented by Ptolemy is so complex and shot with loopholes that the astrologer has an "out", but modern astrologers have found it simpler and more expedient to make the whole subject taboo, ostensibly on moral grounds.

The supposed continuity of astrology from Antiquity has also suffered from various transmission errors: astrologers, like everyone else, need to be very careful in reading the works of Antiquity, but have signally failed to do so. Here's an example:

Modern astrology uses a list of "exaltations", or specific degrees of the zodiac in which each planet, thru an intrinsic affinity, is said to be particularly powerful to the good:

The Sun is exalted in the 19th degree of Aries
The Moon is exalted in the 3rd degree of Taurus
Mercury is exalted in the 15th degree of Virgo
Venus is exalted in the 27th degree of Pisces
Mars is exalted in the 28th degree of Capricorn
Jupiter is exalted in the 15th degree of Cancer
Saturn is exalted in the 21st degree of Libra

The same identical list is found in Firmicus Maternus (MathesisII.3.5): solid, continuous tradition — or so it appears until we realize that the ancients, and Firmicus himself, numbered degrees within a sign starting at 1, while modern astrologers start at 0. This is instantly revealed by the most cursory check of Firmicus, who very often speaks of the 30th degree of a given house, constellation or sign, and never of a 0th degree (II.6 will do as an example among very many); the question being firmly clinched in several chapters (e.g.VIII.25) where he enumerates all thirty degrees in sequence, expressly naming them I thru XXX with no room for anything else.

But the modern astrologer, relying on information passed down in a chain from one secondary source to another, — in which one writer was sloppy, failing to read the ancient source carefully — uses 3 Taurus as the degree of the Moon's exaltation, or 15 Virgo for Mercury's etc., and is thus one degree off; yet as we've just seen, when the ancient texts refer to the third degree of Taurus, etc., they uniformly mean the space of a degree after two have passed, or in modern astrological terms 2 Tau, 14 Vir, etc. . . .

Finally, although two properly drawn astrological charts for the same instant in time — the one cast by an ancient Roman, the other cast today — would show the 7 ancient planets, as well as the Ascendant and Midheaven, in identical positions (since after all an astrological chart is merely a geocentric map of the physical heavens at a specific time and place), it's not irrelevant to mention that the actual operation of casting it has been enormously simplified: (a) improvements in the theory of orbital mechanics have established much more accurate and precise planetary positions; (b) timekeeping is much improved and readily available anywhere, and geographical coördinates are much more accurate; (c) the use of modern Arabic numerals makes arithmetic convenient, as opposed to the horrific hoops Romans had to jump thru to perform the slightest calculation; (d) the diffusion of printing has made ephemerides available to all. In the late 20c in turn, computer programs automated the astronomical calculations: the modern astrologer's art is purely one of interpretation.

d Plus Vettius Valens among the ancients; and then the masterly, still unsurpassed work of Auguste Bouché-Leclercq (1842‑1923): L'Astrologie grecque.

Online in any modern language, as of Apr 2012, that I know of: only Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos (onsite).


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