Monsters in the Roman Sky: Heaven and Earth in Manilius' Astronomica

Monsters in the Roman Sky: Heaven and Earth in Manilius’ Astronomica

Dunstan Lowe

Monsters and the Monstrous: Metaphors of Enduring Evil (2004)


Mythical monsters have no place in the physics of an orthodox Stoic universe, but Manilius is a poet as well as didact, and his main concern is astrology, meaning that the signs of the stars must tell stories. Allusions to monsters throughout the poem align them with various earthborn complications which rise to the heavens to interfere with the flawless celestial clockwork. The most obvious example of this is catasterism, the process by which earthly beings become constellations, taking something of their original nature with them. Manilius’ portrait of a messy, monstriferous cosmos culminates in the final book with the extensive retelling of Perseus’ gory battle with his second foe after Medusa, the biohazardous sea-monster Cetus.

The explosion of Latin poetry in the Augustan era (c.30 BCE-14 CE), one of the most influential periods in the history of Western literature, was a struggle against a many-headed opponent. In forging a Roman literature to rival the cultural dominance of Greece, its authors set themselves the challenge of answering to a canon of texts from Homer to the Hellenistic era, and its rich collective legacy of myth. New