Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 45.

Roger Beck, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology. Brief Histories of the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xiii + 159, incl. 10 figures, 4 tables, notes, bibliography and index. ISBN 1-4051-1074-0. UK£21.95.

Robert Hannah
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

This book is a welcome addition to the series of ‘Brief Histories of the Ancient World’ produced by Blackwell. David Young’s A Brief History of the Olympic Games (2004) is at present the only other horse in the stable, but two more are in preparation, on Roman Law and on Ancient Greek. There is also from Blackwell the longer- established ‘Brief Histories of Religion’ and several stand-alone titles with the same ‘Brief History’ remit. The ‘Ancient World’ series as projected seems somewhat eclectic in its choice of topics -- all valuable, but hardly unified -- and one may wonder whether they could have been published as stand-alone titles also, but this impression may change over time as the series develops. Volumes in this series aim to offer ‘concise, accessible and lively accounts of central aspects of the ancient world. Each book is written by an acknowledged expert in the field and provides a compelling overview, for readers new to the subject and specialists alike’ (p. ii). For me, this new book fulfils this broad aim admirably.

Beck defines the parameters of his study early on in the preface (pp. xi-xiii). Brief certainly the book is, in comparison with Bouché-Leclerq’s dated but still indispensable tome,[[1]] although Beck’s treatment comes with a good deal of ‘meat’ on its spare frame. ‘Ancient’ is limited to the Graeco-Roman world between the first century BCE and the fourth century CE. Pre-Hellenistic Babylonian and Egyptian material of relevance is dealt with in Chapter 2 (pp. 9-19), along with the ‘pseudo- histories’ of antiquity that sought to sire astrological doctrines and practices on to much older figures from the East, as in the Hermetic tradition. This limitation is as it should be, since earlier Babylonian ‘ominological’ astrology was a very different creature from the later Hellenistic version which we live with still.[[2]] The recent studies by Alexander Jones on Egyptian papyri are deservedly given prominent notice.[[3]]

Of particular concern to Beck, though, is the question of what constitutes the ‘history’ part of the book’s title. Constrained by the need to be brief, he decides to deliver ‘an account of various aspects of the subject, treated synchronically except where there is a tale to be told diachronically’ (p. xii). This ‘account’ is then centred ‘on the system itself, how horoscopes were constructed and interpreted’ (ibid.). He promises to return at the end of the book to the issue of why he thinks ‘“just a pseudo-science” is a wholly inadequate characterization of ancient astrology’ (p. xiii).

Given the very specific focus of the book, its contents are readily summarised as themes. Chapter 1 (pp. 1-8) sets out the differences -- or more properly, the philosophical similarities -- between ancient astrology and ancient astronomy in the period under discussion. Good use is made by Beck of Ptolemy’s definitions of astronomy in his Almagest, the outstanding surviving work of ancient mathematical astronomy, and of astrology in his Tetrabiblos, his own contribution to the theory of astrology.[[4]] Beck is at pains in this chapter and elsewhere to point out where astrological theories stand in comparison with modern science, using the standard tests of verifiability or falsifiability.

Chapter 2’s contents have already been mentioned, except that we should note the chapter begins (pp. 9-12) with a summary of the types of astrological forecasts available in antiquity (genethlialogical, catarchic, interrogatory, ominological), and an indication that the book will deal largely with the first type; the second features as well later in the book, notably in the horoscope of Islam (pp. 111-18).

In Chapter 3 (pp.20-37), the reader is taken through the process of constructing a horoscopal chart, while in the next three chapters, on ‘Structure and Meaning in the Horoscope’ -- Chapters 4 (pp. 38-49), 5 (pp. 50-69) and 6 (pp. 70-90) -- we are provided with definitions and interpretations of the significant structural elements of a horoscope: the geometrical ‘aspects’ (opposition, trine, quartile, sextile), and the ‘places’ (loci) of the dodekat(r)opos; the zodiac and its twelve signs (with sections on orientation, the four seasons,[[5]] groupings according to oppositions and aspects, and human occupations vis-à-vis the signs);[[6]] and the planets (identities and characters of the seven planets, the special roles of the sun and moon, gendering, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the planets in various placements, and the ‘Lots’).

It is from the end of Chapter 6 that Beck introduces us to the practice of astrology via horoscopes derived from the ancient sources, in this particular case from the compilation of real and literary horoscopes by Neugebauer and van Hoesen.[[7]] These ‘case studies’ then figure strongly in the succeeding chapters: 7 (pp. 91-118) on ‘Horoscopes and their Interpretation’; and 8 (pp. 119-31) on ‘A Matter of Life and Death: “Starters”, “Destroyers,” and “Length of Life”: Some Sociopolitical Implications of Astrology’. Excellent use is made here especially of Vettius Valens, both from Neugebauer and van Hoesen and from Beck’s own reading of the ancient resource. Most interesting are his treatment of the horoscope of the emperor Hadrian (pp. 123-26), and his tabular rendering of the horoscopes of six survivors of a shipwreck and pirate attack in 154CE, taken from Vettius Valens, Anthologies 7.6 (pp. 101-8). To be honest, I feel that this table needs to be read in conjunction with the original literary versions of the horoscopes, which are not given here, but when put together the two representations of the horoscopes provide a fascinating insight into what Beck refers to as ‘empirical tests’ (p. 102) of the validity of astrology on the part of Valens. Beck’s notion of what Valens was doing here is worth quoting in full, to provide an inkling of the novel conceptual approach that Beck brings to this topic:

'. . . what Valens needs to “discover” in the horoscopes is not a shared configuration which might suggest qualitatively similar crises (for example the malefics Saturn and Mars in, or in a sinister aspect to, a watery sign, which might be said to indicate danger at sea from shipwreck and pirates) but rather a quantitative factor which will bring the natives to crisis in the same year. In sum, Valens must find within the horoscopes an algorithm which in all six will yield a number N such that date of birth + N = date of crisis (154CE)'

where N is the age of the native (i.e. the subject of the horoscope).

In other words, Beck seeks the (in our terms) scientific character of the (for us) unscientific enterprise. For me, he finds it. As he states elsewhere (p. 80):

'The problem is not the logic of the enterprise, which is impeccable, but the “deduction” of facts from a priori physical principles where what is really called for is induction from observed cause-and-effect relationships. Astrology is not the sleep of reason but reason hyperactively spinning its wheels.'

The final, short Chapter 9 (‘Conclusion: Why bother with ancient astrology in the twenty-first century?’, pp. 132- 36) brings us back to the question left hanging at the very start of the book. Roger Beck is best known for his extensive work on the Roman cult of Mithras over the past twenty years. But followers of his thoughts over time on this particular ancient religion will be aware that he has consistently promoted a cosmological interpretation of the Mithraic cult that is based upon astronomy, not only with regard to its well-known icon of Mithras slaying the Bull, but also in the less easily discerned area of the cult’s underlying beliefs. While it is a leap from a mystery cult to astrology,[[8]] Beck has paved the way for his own analytical foray into astrological beliefs and practice through his development of a theory of ‘star-talk’, a ‘language’, or astronomy-based code, through which relationships between this world and the supernatural were signified.[[9]] It is a methodology that has ancient precedent, as Beck points out (pp. 133f.), since:

'the ancients themselves, in particular the great Christian thinkers Origen and Augustine, frequently spoke of the visible heavens as the product of inscription, literally understood as text written and read.'

This, ultimately, is how astrology is read in this book. Astrology, for Beck, tells through the idiom of ‘star- talk’ stories both great and small that are ‘endowed with certain patterns of meaning’ (p. 133). Hence, a good reason why we in the twenty-first century should still seek to understand this ‘pseudo-science’ of astrology is that it provides us with an insight into the ancient world’s understanding of the meaning of the world around them.

Beck’s positive approach towards the study of astrology in its own cultural context is part of a trend that one sees, thankfully, developing in recent years. Previous good handbooks on ancient astrology from this perspective in the last few years have included Jim Tester’s A History of Western Astrology (Woodbridge 1987),[[10]] and Tamsyn Barton’s now frequently cited volume, Ancient Astrology (London 1994), provocatively placed in Routledge’s ‘Sciences of Antiquity’ series alongside volumes on Mathematics, Meteorology and Medicine. This reviewer recalls being taken to task in the mid-90s by a leading ancient historian for dealing with ancient astrology without explicitly noting that it is ‘morally wrong’. I appreciate that in some modern cultures it is probably not helpful to take a culturally relativist stance -- the late David Hammond-Tooke once introduced me to the issue of dealing with traditional African mythology in a South African socio-political context, where, he said, the scholar had to take a stance on what s/he thought of the mythology of a living, contemporary society.[[11]] Nonetheless, it seems to me that one must initially deal with the ancient world, qua ancient world, from a relativist point of view, rather than from a moralist or scientifically triumphalist one: people in the past believed that the world around them was constructed in such-and-such a way, and our primary task is to understand why they did so. That Augustus and his contemporaries used astrology, and apparently believed in its force in some fashion, is a fact of life, whether one likes it or not.[[12]] That astrology lives still in the popular imagination, in both West and East (albeit in very different forms), leaves us with the task of trying to understand why this is so. At that point, we can rightly say whether we agree with the premises of astrology or not -- as Beck does in this book -- and seek to debunk the system if we so wish. But even a modern social scientist must find it intriguing that in this post-Enlightenment period, people still find room in their heads for a system as fatalistic as astrology.


[[1]] A. Bouché-Leclerq, L’Astrologie grecque (Paris 1899; reprinted Brussels 1963).

[[2]] See U. Koch-Westenholz, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (Copenhagen 1995); F. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture (New York 2004).

[[3]] Notably his monumental Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus (Philadelphia 1999).

[[4]] The ability of the same individual to shift expertly from one discipline to the other was not a feature solely of the ancient world, as students of Galileo, Kepler and Newton will know. We have to wait until Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae in the seventh century for a demarcation between the two disciplines, and hence between the two words used to describe them, which recognises what we regard as the unscientific aspect of astrology.

[[5]] We are presented here with the eventual standard distribution of the zodiacal signs among the seasons, but if we take a diachronic view for once, it is worth recognising that this was not always the astrological division: see R. Hannah, ‘. . . praevolante nescio qua ingenti humana specie . . . A reassessment of the Winged Genius on the base of the Antonine Column,’ Papers of the British School at Rome 57 (1989) 90– 105.

[[6]] Beck ackowledges his omission of some topics of interest: the decans, the dodekatemories, the assignation of the signs to parts of the human body, and chorography (pp. 68-9).

[[7]] O. Neugebauer and H. B. van Hoesen, Greek Horoscopes (Philadelphia 1959).

[[8]] Or not, for those cynics still impressed by Noel Swerdlow’s memorable but misguided dismissal of Mithraism: N. M. Swerdlow, ‘Review Article on the Cosmical Mysteries of Mithras,’ Classical Philology 86 (1991) 48.

[[9]] Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun (Oxford 2006) 164–89.

[[10]] Not included in Beck’s useful bibliography, because -- I assume -- it is not referred to in the notes, and the bibliography is strictly a list of ‘References’, i.e. works mentioned in the notes.

[[11]] One could take the same approach in New Zealand, where, for instance, living Maori mythology may come up against western (absence of) beliefs: in 2002-2003 the North Waikato sub-tribe, Ngati Naho, persuaded the national road builders, Transit New Zealand, to divert State Highway 1 because of the presence of a mythical monster, a taniwha, on the road’s route through their region.

[[12]] Augustus’s own horoscope, so frustratingly hinted at by Suetonius (Augustus 94), remains of perennial interest: cf. R. Hannah, Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World (London 2005) 125-30.