History, Myths, Religion – Third and Last Chapter. Ptolemy, Rome, Renaissance and decay

Ptolemy, by Giordano Ziletti

In the previous chapters, we covered the History of Astrology up to the Hellenistic period, following the iter that led to the birth of Astrology as it’s nowadays known and practiced. A great deal of this “elaboration” is mostly Claudius Ptolemy’s merit. Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. AD 168), author of the famous opus Tetrabiblos (‘four books’), was a Greco-Egyptian writer of Alexandria, known as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and also astrologer. He lived in the city of Alexandria in the Roman province of Egypt, wrote in Greek, and held Roman citizenship. He viewed Astrology as a theoretical science, by means of which it’s possible to explain the interconnections between celestial and terrestrial phenomena and to trace the cause-effect relationships between the stars and the earth.
Ptolemy’s theoretical approach to astrology was in sharp contrast to the approaches of his Astrologic peers: he wrote about basic physical principles from which all phenomena can be derived, the four humors, heat, cold, moist, dry, the favorable or unfavorable aspects, the angular relationships or aspects like conjunction, sextile, square, trine, opposition. Rather different approaches were used by the other astrological writers of his time, who were mostly concerned with practical matters and far less scientific in their exposition.
At this point, we should take a step back in time. The collision of Rome’s culture with Greek practices and religion already attained core importance at this point. Romans too, like the Greeks, were Polytheists. When the Roman Republic conquered Greece in 146 BC (at which point Roman culture became predominant, in fact we still use Latin names to refer to planets in Astrology), it took much of Greek religion incorporating it into its own. It seemed natural, for the Romans, to equate Greek Gods with ancient Roman deities; Zeus with Jupiter, Hera with Juno, Poseidon with Neptune, Aphrodite with Venus, Ares with Mars, Hermes with Mercury, Hestia with Vesta, Demeter with Ceres, Hades with Pluto, and so on. Some deities such as Apollo and Bacchus, had earlier been adopted by the Romans altoghether. As observed in the previous chapter, with Greeks, the Deities of the Romans were also involved in very fluid processes of fusion and syncretism. Literary and non-literary sources account either for differences in the cult practices dedicated to a single divinity, and the partecipation of a single divinity to separated, virtually unrelated cults in the city of Rome.
The Romans’ take on mythology is summed up in the narrative poem Metamorphoses by Ovid. However, as professor4894-statues Denis Feeney points out, and again as we previously observed discussing Greek culture, among the Romans too were intellectuals and philosopers objecting to the supposed antropomorphism of divinity. Feeney goes as far as to say that the rejection of anthropotheism was the most widespread philosophical thought at the time; Roman philosophers and intellectuals argued that the antropomorphism of the official cults was but a device to keep the lower layers of the population under control. I will never stress this fact enough, as it basically reveals that the belief in deities and planets as energetical principles has strong and ancient roots.
Generally speaking, Religious practices in Rome were far more tied to the civil and contractual sphere of society. The mythical background of Religion tended to be overlooked in comparison to Greek culture.

In the beginning of our era, Astrology was starting to gain popularity in Roman territory. According to Pauline Ripat, “astrology enjoyed exceptional credibility and prominence among the majority of the ancient Roman population because, unlike traditional forms of divination, it appeared to be rooted in immutable natural laws and objective observations”. Stoic philosopher and politician Posidonius (c. 135 BCE – c. 51 BCE) contributed to make Astrology known among the cultured classes of the society of his time, and the first work entirely dedicated to Astrology to be passed on to us, Roman Marcus ManiliusAstronomica, was largely influenced by Posidonius himself. Marcus Manilius is a character we know next to nothing about; he likely died in 22 AD, and he lived under Augustus and Tiberius. Astronomica, a poem spanning five books, provides a concept of Astrology that’s vaguely inspired by stoicism as much as it’s fatalistic and influenced by the Neoegyptian current I mentioned in the previous entry of the serie. Manilius was probably not a practicing Astrologer, and his take on Hermetic and Neoegyptian Astrology, which makes use of Decans and Houses, is  very imaginative and embedded in a stoic outlook on Universe and Astromantic. Prior to his work, Neoegyptians undertones were noticeable in the work of Publius Nigidius Figulus, scholar of the Late Roman Republic and one of the praetors for 58 BC. He was friend with Cicero, according to whom he revived the doctrines of Pythagoreanism in the Roman world, combining both Astrolgy and divinatory techniques of Etruscan origin. Known titles of his works include De Sphaera Graecanica and De Sphaera Barbarica, surviving fragments of which show he treated a blend of Egyptian elements and originary Greek-Babylonian traits of the Astrological discipline. Nonetheless, Astrologers have been frequently banned from Rome: repeated expulsions apparently occured at least eight times, and possibly as many as eleven between 139 BCE. and 175 CE for reasons that are still debated among historians.

With the rise of Christianity, Astrology came to be considered a demonic art: in his autobiographical work Confessions, written in Latin between AD 397 and AD 398, Saint Augustine wrote about Astrology being not only incorrect, but evil. After an era of oblivion coinciding with early Middle Age, Astrology started to flourish again halfway through the 12th century as a consequence of the contacts between the Western and the Islamic world, from which this discipline was taken up enthusiastically. Arabian Astrology developed a multitude of references and predictive procedures, introducing many innovations and making several unknown Greek and Arabian texts available through the intense work of Islamic translators located in the cultural centres of Sicily, Spain and Southern France.

The last period of innovation and elaboration of Astrology occured during Renaissance. The credibility of Astrology as a scholarly discipline eventually collapsed between 16th and 17th century.


Theoretical and Practical Astrology: Ptolemy and His Colleagues. Author: Mark Riley. Source: Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 117 (1987), pp. 235-256Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers At Rome. Author: Pauline Ripat. Source: Classical Philology, Vol. 106, No. 2 (April 2011), pp. 115-154. Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs. Author: Denis Feeney. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Scritto negli Astri. L’Astrologia nella Cultura dell’Occidente. Author: Ornella Pompeo Faracovi. Venice, 1996.

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