Astrology in Ancient Rome: Poetry, Prophecy and Power
By David Wray
Paper given at the University of Chicago Humanities Open House, October 27, 2001
Introduction: My main focus will be on an ancient Roman long poem and a set of questions surrounding it. The poem is a didactic (instructional) work on astrology. Its title is Astronomica, and it was written in the first and second decades of the first century of our era by a poet named Marcus Manilius, of whose life we know nothing whatsoever. Greatly admired by such modern figures as Goethe and Leibniz, the Astronomica is a poem that literally almost no one reads today, not even specialists in Latin literature. There are several reasons for this, but certainly one reason lies in the nineteenth and twentieth century view of astrology as “pseudo-science” and an embarrassing blemish on the faces of our classical forebears, whose images were to be kept as shiny and clean as possible. There has been some good European scholarship on Manilius in recent years, especially by Italian scholars, but in English there is still no book-length study.
Unknown as Manilius is, I suspect that many of you have heard his name recently, in the Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love, about the life of A. E. Housman. Manilius’ Astronomica is the text that Housman edited over a period of many years and dedicated to Moses Jackson, a friend from school that Housman never got over. Housman’s edition did not win new readers for Manilius’ poem, to say the least. Housman liked to say that Manilius’ great talent was “doing sums in verse”–meaning that Manilius seemed to take a virtuosic pride in the fact that he could describe complicated astrological diagrams in Latin verse meter, and this is true. Housman also liked to point out that you cannot cast an astrological chart by using Manilius’ poem as a textbook. This is true as well. But then, it’s also true that Virgil, writing in the generation before Manilius, had written a didactic poem on farming, called the Georgics, and certainly nobody could ever have thought that Virgil’s elegant and complex poetic masterpiece was supposed to be a manual for real farmers on real farms. In fact, the Georgics was almost certainly the chief model Manilius had in mind in writing his own didactic poem, so there is at least that much reason to think that Manilius’ aim, like Virgil’s was not so much instructional as artistic.