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The Political Climate
The Religious Climate
The Mathesis
About the Author


Julius Firmicus Maternus: Profile of a Roman Astrologer By David McCann

In the bibliography of Christian Astrology, William Lilly listed over 200 works, but only three were by ancient authors: Marcus Manilius, Claudius Ptolemy, and Julius Firmicus Maternus. Of these, that of Firmicus was the longest and the most representative of ancient practice. But who was Firmicus?

He came, he tells us, from Sicily. At first he pursued a career in law, where he often defended the rights of those oppressed by what sound like the ancient equivalents of mafiosi. Eventually, tired of the confrontations and enmities involved, he retired to devote himself to learning and literature. The manuscripts of his books give him the titles Vir Clarissimus and Vir Consularis, showing him to belong to the upper nobility - the senatorial order. His book on astrology is dedicated to an even more aristocratic friend, the consul Lollianus Mavortius, whom he met when Mavortius was governor of Campania. The two men discussed philosophy and science, Mavortius being particularly interested in astronomy. Of astrology he knew less, and he seems to have felt that an adequate account of the subject in Latin was lacking. Firmicus boldly volunteered to fill the gap and, after some years and a great deal of encouragement, produced the Matheseos Libri Octo - 'Eight Books of Astrology'. From a reference to an eclipse, we can date it to around 330 AD.

Firmicus also wrote two small essays on prediction while he was preparing his main work, but these have been lost. A decade after the MathesisI, he published an attack on the mystery cults, On the Error of Profane Religions, which has survived. To understand more about the work of Firmicus, we need to know something of the political and religious climate of his times.

The Political Climate

Like many arts and sciences, astrology had been introduced to Rome from Greece: legend names a slave called Antiochus as Rome's first astrologer. Although Greek art, engineering, and medicine were welcome, the authorities were less happy about new religious ideas, which might easily prove subversive to an always fragile constitution. Astrology was worse still: if anyone wanted to undermine the state, an astrologer could tell them the most suitable time to make an attempt.

In 139 BC the Senate took alarm and ordered all astrologers to leave Rome. Their distrust of astrology is evident in how that law was re-enacted at least nine times. But such was the popularity of astrology that by the next century it was possible for a senator to be an astrologer. Publius Nigidius Figulus, a friend of Cicero, combined Pythagorean philosophy with astrology and even, some said, magic. As a supporter and friend of Pompey, Nigidius probably offered advice to him in his war with Caesar. It has been suggested that Cicero's later hostility to divination owed much to his having been encouraged to back the losing side by over-optimistic predictions.

When the republic gave way to the empire, the political threat of astrology remained, with would-be emperors seeking advice on when to rebel, and incumbent ones wanting to know which prominent men had 'ambitious' horoscopes (ensuring anyone who did was duly watched or otherwise 'taken care of'). The following report, which relays the fears of the members of the Senate when told of a prophecy of a bald-headed member succeeding the throne, conveys something of the sensitivity of the times:

On hearing this we found ourselves in a terrible position… and although no one was very cheerful, except those with unusually long hair, we all looked around at those not so fortunate … I actually felt with my hand to see if I had any hair on my head... And we were very careful to direct our gaze on those who were more or less bald, as if we'd thus divert our own danger upon them.
(trans. J. Lindsay in The Origins of Astrology)

Not unwisely perhaps, it was declared illegal to predict the death of the emperor or the identity of his successor, though there are numerous reports of astrologers being executed for continuing to do just that. Also to be found are the possibly legendary tales of an emperor seeking to test his astrologer by asking him to predict his own death: "a week before you" was obviously the wisest reply! The satirist Juvenal summed up the situation at the end of the first century when he wrote:

No astrologer's credited who's not been jailed in some far camp, chains clanking on either arm. No one trusts his powers if he's not been condemned and almost done-for, contriving to get deported.
(trans. J. Lindsay in The Origins of Astrology)

Such dangers were still very real when the Mathesis was written and Firmicus, trained in law, sought to avoid them by warning his readers not to meddle in such matters:

… no astrologer is able to find out anything true about the destiny of the Emperor. The Emperor alone is not subject to the stars and concerning his fate alone the stars have no power to decree. Since he is master of the whole world, his destiny is governed by the judgement of the Supreme God.

Such a view is hardly consistent with his frequent declarations in support of determinism but he may have been wise to rate discretion above valour: a generation later, in the purges of the Emperor Valens, a man was tortured and executed for merely possessing a copy of the imperial horoscope.

The Religious Climate

By the time of Firmicus, Italy, and the West in general, was becoming a backwater as Greeks and Romans drifted apart. The Italian aristocrats were often men of vast wealth but few played any part in public affairs outside their own region. Many of the senatorial order occupied themselves with the arts and sciences, at not too demanding a level, and the discussions of Firmicus and Mavortius are typical of such activities.

Although the empire was now officially Christian, many remained pagan, including Firmicus. Most educated pagans were Platonists in their philosophy, but Firmicus was a Stoic. The most obvious difference was that the Stoics were determinists. The view that 'the stars incline, they do not compel' got short shrift from Firmicus and he was resolute in his belief that no man could change his inherent destiny, regardless of his virtue, wisdom or fortitude. His evidence was the nature of life:

Consider the youth at the height of his physical development – rich, innocent, modest. Driven by no private crime, by no anxiety, he has hanged himself... Another man, known to everyone as innocent, fell on a drawn sword... A just man maintains his life as a wretched beggar while another, stained by well known crimes, accumulates the highest honours... To what do we attribute all this?.... Give us your hand for a little while and hold back from arguments. Soon you may agree that all that stumbling and weak mortality must bear are decided by the chance movements of the planets.
(I.vii 2-4)

His fatalism made Firmicus a rather uncomfortable author for a Christian readership and the survival of his work is a tribute to the broad-mindedness of those medieval monks who copied and preserved his manuscripts.

The founder of Stoicism was Zeno (342-270 BC), a Cypriot of Phoenician or Jewish descent. Like us he lived in an age of anxiety. The Greeks, after defeating the Persians, had wasted their freedom in wars and revolutions. Then Alexander the Great had united both the Greek and Persian worlds, yet his empire had disintegrated in even more wars. The philosophical schools of this period – Stoics, Cynics, and Epicureans – concentrated on advising men how to achieve contentment in evil times. Zeno offered two answers. Firstly, there is no point in worrying, because whatever happens is predetermined - there is nothing we can do about it. Secondly, although our bodies may fall into the power of others, no one can touch our minds: we can achieve freedom from external problems by cultivating indifference towards them. It is this attitude which has given us the term 'stoical'.

Zeno was a materialist, but his world did not lack meaning, for he taught that it was permeated by a principle of Reason. This could be thought of as the 'Soul of the Universe' or even called 'God'. The existence of reason in the universe allowed it to be governed by law, which Zeno called Fate or Providence.

Thus everything is organised throughout the whole world and follows a master. This God, and the Reason that controls everything, brings down from the heavenly stars the creatures of the Earth.
Manilius, Astronomica, 2.80

Stoicism was basically an optimistic philosophy: whatever happened in the short term, reason would eventually prevail. The goal of man should be to live in harmony with law: to 'follow God and endure Chance' as Seneca put it.

Zeno's philosophy was introduced to Rome by Panaetius (c. 185-109 BC) who abandoned the original idea of developing indifference to evil and stressed the importance of promoting good; hence bringing Stoicism closer to common-sense morality. His disciple Posidonius (c. 130-45 BC) also visited and admired Rome; like Nigidius he was a friend of Cicero. Posidonius tried to demonstrate the truth of Stoic doctrine by tracing the operation of natural law in all its aspects. His extensive historical writings were intended to show the workings of providence, and his studies in the sciences to demonstrate the orderliness of nature. Posidonius also revived some of Aristotle's theories, such as the idea that the human soul can be seen as having three parts. The rational soul is of divine origin; the sensitive soul (the seat of instinct and emotion) we share with the animals; the vegetative soul (which gives life to the body) is possessed by all living things. His observations on the influence of the body and its environment on the lower souls were the basis for much later thought, and ultimately for St Thomas' reconciliation of astrology and free will: the argument being that astrological influences operate on the lower soul only, but they usually work because so few of us live on the level of the higher one.

Astrology and Stoicism complemented each other in many ways. Most Stoics welcomed all forms of prognostication, for gaining knowledge of the future enabled the soul to accept its destiny, and astrology was especially favoured as demonstrating the harmony of the universe. So the astrologer Vettius Valens could quote the philosopher Cleanthes:

Those who make truth and the forecasting of the future their profession acquire a soul that is free ... They have trained their souls to be brave and are not puffed up by prosperity or depressed by adversity, but accept contentedly what comes their way... Whatever is in store for us will happen, even if we do not pray for it; what is not fated will not happen, despite our prayers.
(Valens: Anthologia, 5.9)

This was a view echoed by Ptolemy, though with the fatalism carefully rejected. As an Aristotelian, Ptolemy contrasted the regularity of the celestial world with the unpredictability of the sublunary one:

... foreknowledge accustoms and trains the mind to attend to distant events as if they were present, and prepares it to accept whatever may come with tranquillity and firmness. And one need not believe that everything that occurs to men as the result of celestial influence is predestined ... celestial motion is produced in accordance with a divine and immutable fate, but terrestrial changes occur in accordance with a natural and mutable one.
(Tetrabiblos, 1.3)

The Platonists, whose views eventually became the dominant philosophy of antiquity, also rejected determinism because it gave a divine origin to evil. Plotinus complained:

The belief is that the planets in their courses actually produce, not merely such conditions as poverty, wealth, health, and sickness, but ... vices and virtues and the very acts which spring from these qualities ... We are to suppose the stars to be annoyed with men ... distributing what passes for their good gifts, not out of kindness towards the recipients, but as they themselves are affected pleasantly or disagreeably at the various points of their courses, so they must be supposed to change their plans as they stand at their zeniths or are declining.
(Enneads, II.3, trans. S. MacKenna)

His answer was that although the universe originates in a single principle, it consists of parts which must have their own functions and hence some degree of freedom. After demolishing the theory that stars exert an actual influence, he asserts that the planets are not causes but signs, for if the universe is a unity (an idea borrowed from the Stoics), then the study of any one part can give a clue to another. As for the concept of 'malefic influences', if we cannot respond well to the universe, then the blame must lie with our lack of capacity to do so.

The Platonists naturally criticised the Stoics for their materialism, but that was in any case increasingly unacceptable to the spirit of the age: later Stoics, such as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, concerned themselves chiefly with ethics. The Stoic school in Athens seems to have finally closed down in the third century but by then most of its tenets had been assimilated into Christianity. Nevertheless, the concept of fate remained so associated with Stoicism that even a fatalist Christian like Augustine felt a need to avoid the word, declaring that if anyone wished to equate divine providence with fate he could hold that opinion – but should also hold his tongue.

The Mathesis

The contents of the Mathesis are drawn from many sources. Some of these are now lost, but the descriptions of the constellations are clearly based on the text of Manilius and the interpretations of the aspects bear witness to those found in the text of Dorotheus of Sidon. In his fascination with 'ancient lore' Firmicus occasionally includes material which seems to have been as mysterious to him as it is to us; though most of the work is concerned with the basic elements of the horoscope, and things which are assumed by the more philosophic work of Ptolemy are also presented in detail.

In all of this, we can see how the Ancients made use of distinctions that have been largely ignored in modern times. Thus, Jupiter in the tenth house will only deliver the expected worldly goods if the birth is diurnal - when he is in his 'hayz', as they said in the Middle Ages. If Mars should be in square to Mercury, the effect will be largely externalised if Mars is behind Mercury in the zodiac (the 'superior' position) but will affect the character more strongly when the positions are reversed. If Mars squares the Moon, we must consider, not just who holds the superior position, but whether the birth is nocturnal or diurnal, whether the aspect is applying or separating, whether the Moon is waxing or waning, and the Moon's previous and subsequent applications.

Equally alien to both Ptolemy and Margaret Hone is his use of the planetary 'parts' or 'lots', twenty-four of which are described. Some of these are well known from other writers, such as the Part of Fortune and the Parts of the Father and Mother, but many, such as the Part of Accusations, only survive in the Mathesis. The parts are judged according to the aspects that they receive and the dignity of their rulers.

More familiar to the reader of Ptolemy is the frequent reference to violent death and sexual perversion, but then most ancient astrologers tended to delineate in lurid colours. The native is either possessed of 'divine intelligence' and 'immense wealth' or suffers from 'constant illness' before his 'throat is cut by a bandit's sword'! Obviously, they were aware that such experiences were the prerogatives of the few: the explanation is a matter of linguistic style. Even today languages vary in their use of abstractions, German employing them much more freely than English. The Greeks and Romans generally avoided them: rather than describing a man's character by attributing various qualities to him, they preferred to exemplify it by saying the sort of things that he might do. Living in a rhetorical age, they did this with gusto, just as popular speech today may describe a man as one who would 'sell his grandmother for sixpence' and advise you to 'count your fingers after shaking hands with him'.

Despite his lapses into courtroom rhetoric and his occasional chilly determinism, Firmicus is a rather endearing author. Above all, he had enthusiasm and a real love of his subject. For him, as for Ptolemy, astrology was a 'holy doctrine' in which we 'contemplate the most beautiful fabric of divine creation'. His advice on the lifestyle suitable to the astrologer will he familiar to many, since it was adapted by William Lilly in his famous Epistle to the Student of Astrology; both alike surely sought to 'learn all the ornaments of virtue'.

London astrologer David McCann was a classical scholar and well-established expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to The Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared (issue 6, Autumn 1994).