Roman Astrology

Extract taken from "An Introduction to the History of Astrology" © Nick Campion
An Introduction to the History of Astrology


Astrology in the Roman World 200 B.C. - 500 A.D. Divination had long been a part of the Italian life and religion before the importation of astrology to Rome in the 2nd century B.C. When the Romans discovered astrology some 1,400 years after the Venus Tablet of Amisaduqa, they took to it wholeheartedly and incorporated it into every aspect of their lives from religion to politics to day to day affairs. Astrology appealed to the masses on the level of fortune telling, and it is perhaps in Rome that astrology first developed its ‘fair-ground fortune teller’ side, as distinct from its religious and mystical uses. Astrology appealed to the priests as the perfect addition to the worship of planetary deities, and it accorded well with the philosophy of the intellectuals, already impressed by the fatalist Stoicism with its belief in ever recurrent cycles.

The Romans took astrology and incorporated it into their religion, but astrologers were never too popular with the authorities. Of the philosophical exponents of astrology the Pythagoreans were banned from Rome, although the Stoics were acceptable on account of their less subversive appearance.

Tradition relates that astrology was first introduced to Rome by a slave, Antiochus, in the second century B.C., and that its spread was encouraged by the arrival of more slaves from the east. The association of astrology with the east was indicated by the Romans in the common name for astrologers: Chaldeans. Astrology took an instant hold on the masses, and the influence of astrologers over public opinion was such that several times the government expelled them from Rome. The first such expulsion took place in 139 B.C., a sign of how fast the astrologers’ influence had grown.

The first Latin writer to mention astrology was Ennius (239-169 B.C.), and his attitude was quite clearly sceptical: “They note the astrologic signs of heaven whenever the Goats or Scorpions of great Jove or other monstrous names of brutish forms rise in the Zodiac. But not one regards the sensible facts of Earth on which we tread while gazing on starry prodigies.

Cato, the great orator and upholder of Republican virtue, mentioned astrology in 149 B.C. when he issued a warning against consulting ‘Chaldeans’, whom he regarded as a dangerous foreign influence. The fact that he bothered to make his feelings public is an indication that astrologers were already well known at Rome.

For the intellectual Romans Posidonius the Stoic (135 - 51 B.C.), was the main inspiration. Posidonius taught at his school on the Island of Rhodes where among his pupils was the first major Roman astrologer, Nigidius Figulus. Later, when Posidonius moved to Rome, he became teacher to many other great Romans, including Cicero, who was himself a member of the College of Augurs, specialising in divination from animal entrails. It was Posidonius, more than any other teacher, who brought together the differing strands of religion and philosophy in Greece and Mesopotamia and then passed them on to Rome.

The first work of importance in Roman astrology was the Astronomica of Manilius (c 48 B.C.- c 20 A.D.), inspired by Posidonius and composed around 14 A.D. in poetic form, but, from such artistic heights the Romans discovered the practical uses of astrology in a way unknown to its previous initiates.

The potential of astrology was immediately seen by many of the leading figures in Rome, and Pompey, Mark Anthony and Octavian all used astrologers in the civil war which brought Republican Rome to an end around 30 B.C.. Octavian, when he became Emperor as Augustus in 27 B.C., had coins printed with the symbol of his Moon sign, Capricorn, on the reverse. In spite of his support of astrology, Augustus still was forced to curb the activities of the astrologers in Rome, like so many Emperors after him, lest they caused public opinion to go against him. Julius Caesar himself was a non-believer, and it is an interesting correction of popular myth that the famous warning that he should beware of the Ides of March was made not by an astrologer, but by an augur. Subsequent Emperors, following the lead of Tiberius (14 - 37 A.D.) reduced astrology to its basest level by using it to get the better of their rivals and subjects, sometimes murdering the astrologers who had given them advice.

Tiberius learnt to interpret horoscopes himself but regularly sought advice from other astrologers whom he would have hurled from a cliff near his villa if he was in any way dissatisfied with their skill, advice or ability to keep the consultation confidential. The most successful astrologer of the reign was a certain Thrasyllus whom Tiberius had first encountered on the Island of Rhodes. Eventually Thrasyllus was invited to Tiberius’s villa to advise the Emperor.

Thrasyllus’s reading impressed Tiberius, but he still decided to put the astrologer to the test and asked him to consider his own future. Thrasyllus drew up a chart, perhaps a horary, and in alarm cried that a great danger lay ahead. Either impressed by the astrologer’s skill, or amused by his cheek, Tiberius spared Thrasyllus the journey down the cliff and employed him as his permanent astrologer for the rest of the reign. Thrasyllus’s son, Balbillus, was astrologer to Tiberius’s successors Claudius (41 - 54), the conqueror of Britain, Nero (54 - 68) and Vespasian (69 - 79). Unlike Thrasyllus who, according to Suetonius restrained the bloodthirsty tendencies of Tiberius, Balbillus encouraged those of Nero, and on one particular occasion inspired his master to murder a great number of Roman nobles in order to appease a comet which he feared was a bad omen. Titus, (79 - 81), the destroyer of the Temple at Jerusalem, and his brother Domitian, were both accomplished astrologers, as was the Emperor Hadrian (117 - 138), the builder of the great wall in northern Britain which bears his name. Domitian was in the habit of casting the nativities of his rivals and executing those whom. he judged posed a threat to his rule, but the unsavoury trend of Emperors such as this was reversed briefly in the second century. The principal of these were Antonius Pius (138 - 161), and Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher, (161 - 180), who brought a brief period of humanity to the Roman court.

In the year 193 the use of astrology by the Imperial Court entered a new dimension with the accession of the dynasty of the Seveni. The founder of this dynasty, Septimus Severus (193 - 211) married the daughter of Bassianus, a Syrian priest, and Syrian Sun worship became the official religion of the Empire, eventually displacing the Olympian pantheon. The fifth Emperor of the line, Elagabalus (218 - 222) was even known as Heliogabalus in order to make his link with the Sun explicit. In a situation where the Sun was worshipped, and the Emperor in turn identified with the Sun, astrology and astrological symbolism formed an integral part of the phi1osophy of the state. This acceptance of Sun worship from the east into the Roman Empire marked perhaps the culmination of the process of marriage between east and west which had been initiated by Phthagoras and continued by Posidonius. These oriental ideas, which placed the Emperor above all other people as the link between Heaven and Earth, continued into Medieaval Europe, preserving a climate of opinion officially favourable to astrology. Even today they form the basis for the English coronation ceremony in which the monarch becomes sovereign through the action of the Church.

The greatest figure in astronomy and astrology in the Roman world was Claudius Ptolemy born 70 A.D.), who lived in Alexandria in Egypt, which was by this time a province of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy had available the resources of the vast library at Alexandria, containing all the, written knowledge of the ancient world, and produced two major text books which were to become the mainstay of astronomical and astrological thinking for the next 1500 years. The astrological text was known as the Tetrabiblos (also know as the Quadrapartitium, or Four Books), which summarised all the astrological work produced in the past by Mesopotamians and Greeks, and which is still a useful reference work. Among other things it helped establish the Tropical zodiac as the zodiac of the west on the basis of Ptolemy’s argument that the zodiac should be tied to the Seasons rather than to the constellations. Ptolemy’s astronomical work was known as the Almagest (or Syntaxis in Greek) and the innovatory theory of planetary motion which it propounded was to have long lasting influence, even being the basis of the system proposed by Copernicus in 1543. Ptolemy was concerned to preserve perfect cyclical motion as the basis of planetary orbits, yet, like his Greek predecessors was faced with the problem that the planets quite clearly did not move in perfect circles. He therefore proposed that each planetary sphere contained smaller spheres, known as epicycles. The effect of the epicycles was to make the planets move physically in irregular orbits, while maintaining perfect cyclical motion as the metaphysical basis of the Universe. In later Arab and Medieaval European cosmology the Aristotelian system of regular homocentric spheres and the more complicated Ptolemaic version of epicycles were the two main theories of planetary motion. It is no overstatement to say that Claudius Ptolemy was the most important single figure in the history of astrology, and one of the most important in the history of astronomy.

Contemporary with Ptolemy was Vettius Valens of Antioch (c 144 - 170 A.D.) who ran his own school and wrote a teachers’ manual, perhaps indicating that the teaching of astrology was a flourishing business in the eastern Mediterranean. Vettius also published the first known collection of horoscopes, again indicating the presence of a demand for this type of literature. It is interesting that it is clear from his collection both that the rising sign was still not regarded as particularly important, and that he does not seem to have been aware of the work of Ptolemy.

Galen (120 - 200 A.D.) produced the next major advance in medical astrology after Hippocrates, and the ‘Galenic’ system persisted up until the time of Paracelsus in the 16th century. Plotinus (b 203 A.D.), perhaps the last major philosopher of the Pagan world, is credited with the foundation of Neo-Platonism, the philosophy which more than any other is the philosophy of astrology. Neo-Platonism is a combination of Platonism and Aristotelianism, and states that the influence of the Ideal, perfect sphere, the residence of the Creative Intelligence which exists beyond the spheres of the fixed stars, filters down through the 7 planetary spheres, gradually becoming more corrupt as it moves farther away from its divine source. The influence finally arrives at the sub-lunary sphere, wherein resides the Earth, the home of change and hence decay. In its more gloomy form, that the Earth is irredeemably corrupted and separated from its divine creator, this philosophy later had a great impact on some Christians, ironically mainly those such as St Augustine who were opposed to astrology.

Porphyry (232-304 A.D.) is perhaps the best known of Roman astrologers after Ptolemy, as he was the originator of one of the earliest house-systems, indicating that the vexed problem of house division was beginning to pre-occupy astrologers. Like so many astrologers, Porphyry was Syrian by birth, but his influence spread throughout the Roman Empire. In the later Roman Empire, particularly after 200 A.D., the influence of astrology on mass belief became very pronounced through the importation into Rome and western Europe of new eastern based religions. Mithraism, Orphism and the Cult, of Sol Invictus (the unvanquished Sun) all used zodiacal symbolism, but ironically the association of astrology with such cults helped discredit it when Christianity became the main religion of the Empire after 313 A.D. Christianity, of course, inherited the basic structure of the astrological religious calendar and Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth of God on Earth was fixed to coincide with the re-birth of Sol Invictus at the winter solstice.

The last major astrologer of the Roman era was Julius Firmicus Maternus, who lived in the first part of the 4th century A.D. He is notable to the history of astrology as a Christian convert, and his work therefore spanned the religious divide between pagan and Christian. His most enduring achievment, apart from publicising the work of Manilius, was his publication of a textbook, the Mathesis. This was one of the first Roman works on astrology to be rediscovered in Mediaeval Europe, being first made available again in 10th century Spain, and reaching England by the end of the 11th century, even before the works of Ptolemy were translated.

Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 A.D., and the last Western Roman Emperor, appropriately named Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in his capital of Ravenna in 476 A.D. With this date comes the symbolic end of the ancient world in western Europe, and the beginning of 500 years of decline in European scholarship. Astrology shared in this decline, but the focus of astrological learning continued where it had always been, in the east and Babylonia, now under the sway of a brilliant new Persian ‘Sassanid’ Empire.

In the Eastern Empire the last vestige of the Roman Empire was not swept away until the sack of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 A.D., but the new Christian climate of opinion was not always favourable to astrology. In 529 A.D. the Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic Academy at Athens, its scholars moved to Mesopotamia or Alexandria, and the pagan culture of Greece and Rome was officially ended.



The Casting of A Child's Horoscope
Roman relief 200 AD