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Philosophies that influenced Roman Religion


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WHAT DID THE INTRODUCTION OF ASTROLOGY HAVE ON THE TRADITIONAL METHODS OF DIVINATION?
WHAT WAS THE INFLUENCE OF ASTROLOGY ON ROMAN POLITICS?

To what extent was the status of astrology in the Roman period influenced by politics?


by Janice Ladnier (written September 14, 2000)

Astrology was widely accepted in ancient Rome and was easily incorporated into Roman religion, which was an integral component of Roman politics. Roman leaders often consulted astrologers, while many also saw them as a potential threat. As the political climate changed in Rome, the status of astrology also changed. For this reason, the increase in the use of astrology coincides with the end of the Roman Republic. Likewise, the fall of the Roman Empire was closely connected with the fall of astrology.

Astrology in Religion and Politics of the Roman Republic


When astrology was first introduced into the Roman Republic in the second century B.C.E., it was easily accepted by and blended with the existing Roman religion:

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. (1)

In the Roman Republic, there were already several well-established forms of religious divination, including interpretation of the movements and cries of birds (by augurs) and reading of animal entrails (known as extispicy).(2) Within less than a century, astrology had replaced these forms of divination as the most popular method of interpretation and prediction in Rome:

It, like traditional divination, was a learning dependent on books, but it promised to answer better the new demands made of traditional divination, demands for subtlety and precise information.(3)

Divination was not often used on a personal level, but it was widely used in Roman governmental functions:

The keynote of Roman divination remains clear, however: it was a matter of establishing and maintaining the pax deorum (peace of the gods) in relation to the city. Divination, like other religious activity, is closely implicated in political activity; indeed, it is an integral part of it. The auspices were taken by a magistrate at prescribed times in the exercise of his office, such as before assemblies or battle. The power of auspicium (taking the auspices) was a concomitant of imperium (political authority); the magistrate had to carry out the ritual properly in order to guarantee his magisterial action.(4)

  • * *

We may expect political shifts to be mirrored in religious shifts in Rome, since religious activity is so much a part of the political process. Here is surely the crux of the matter: there is a process of mutual reflection between religious and political institutions because they are aspects of the same power relations. … Further, the Senate maintained ultimate control over religious matters and does not seem to have been generally compelled either to request or to act on priestly advice.(5)

Although divination had certainly become an integral part of the early Roman political process,

[T]he records of divinatory activity in the republic do not seem to suggest that its role in decision making was an important one. Something that promised more precise guidance was likely to appeal to the powerful individuals now emerging … [w]hat clearly is important is that the keeping of a personal diviner serves as a sign of the appropriation of power.(6)

Many of these “powerful individuals” were politicians who thoroughly exploited the political advantages to be gained through astrology. In the final decades of the Roman Republic, the use of astrology by politicians for personal advancement increased dramatically:

The first Roman aristocrat we find associated with a belief in astrology was the consul Octavius, killed when Cinna and Marius took Rome in 86 B.C. According to Plutarch, the astrological diagram that lured him to his death was found with his dead body. … By the time of Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar, contemporary evidence shows astrology preparing to play a major political role. … Nigidius Figulus, … who was the first Roman astrologer of eminence, is portrayed as employing astrology as Caesar crosses the Rubicon to prophesy the end of the astral cycle and the beginning of a new era. … What is significant is the nature of the stereotypical role of astrology, whether the cases are well founded or not. Crucially, horoscopic astrology is associated with the struggle for individual power. (emphasis supplied)(7)

  • * *

Mark Antony and Octavian all used astrologers in the civil war which brought Republican Rome to an end around 30 B.C.(8)

  • * *

[I]t is to changes in the political arena in the first instance that one must look in order to make sense of the change in status of the discipline [of astrology]. It is hardly an accident that the rise of astrology coincides with the fall of the Republic.(9)



Astrology in Imperial Politics

When Octavian became Rome’s first emperor as Augustus in 27 B.C., he “had coins printed with the symbol of his Moon sign, Capricorn, on the reverse.”(10) Not only were coins with his birth sign “an important feature of the public presentation of Augustus all over the empire, showing him as destined for his historic role,”(11) they also made other political statements. Along with Augustus’ head, some coins contained the image of the “crocodile of Egypt and the legend of Aegypto capta (Egypt taken), referring to the victory over Antony.”(12) Other coins were later minted containing more symbolism connected with Antony. As explained by Tamsyn S. Barton, author of Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine Under the Roman Empire:

One of the later coins (19-16/5 B.C.) may depict a figure identified as Eileithyia, goddess of birth, with Capricorn. Two years before, the Senate had declared the birthday of Octavia a lucky day, to be celebrated annually, while that of Antony was to become an unlucky day. The gist of the message of the coins Kraft translates as follows. Octavian “was born” (under Capricorn), in a frequently used phrase going back to Cicero, “to save the Roman State” (natus ad reipublicae salutem), born to be the vindex libertatis populi Romani (defender of the freedom of the Roman people).

  • * *

While Augustus was born to save the state, then, Antony was born to destroy it.(13)

Historians may disagree as to the exact meaning of symbols used on these coins, but “[t]he variety of ingenious interpretations possible illustrates the flexibility of astrology as a tool of legitimation and the condensation of meaning possible in one symbol.”(14)


Although Augustus publicly used astrology throughout his rule as emperor,

it was not such a neat solution to legitimating his rule as it might first appear. Such an ally [the macrocosm] was by definition outside his control, for, if controllable, it would forfeit belief, since it had no tradition to sustain it. To put it another way, the pax astrologica was more difficult to maintain than the pax deorum, since astrol legitimation was no imperial monopoly. While the Republican system of government always retained the possibility of being vulnerable to disturbance, it was hardly as pregnant with the seeds of dissension as the new astrological dispensation of imperial power. Augustus had to try to restrict access to this reservoir of power. It was in A.D. 11 that he issued an edict proscribing consultations either about death or without witnesses, an edict that was to see frequent use under his successors.(15)

Indeed, later emperors soon followed Augustus’ lead. Due to the emperors’ fear of the power over them that astrology could give their enemies, astrologers were banished from Rome and Italy six times during the first century C.E.(16) Although astrologers were expelled during this time, astrology itself was not banned:

The attitude of the state was always ambivalent. The emperors, from Augustus on, nearly all had their court astrologers, some of them … of great influence. The theory of astrology was never proscribed and anyone was free to dabble in it or argue about it; the practice, however, was limited. Augustus’ decree of 11 A.D. made illegal the holding of any private or secret consultation with “diviners,” and the predicting of anyone’s death. This decree was invoked at least twenty times in the next hundred years or so to bring charges of treason against individuals suspected of plotting the emperor’s death.(17)

Roman emperors had good reason to fear astrologers:

What perhaps worried emperors even more than the danger of astrologers working for others was astrologers working out when they would die. Fear of magic was of course lurking behind such worries, but from any point of view an emperor whose death date was known was a dead emperor. Predicting an emperor’s death was highest treason …(18)

Quoting Dio Cassius, a third century Roman historian, Tamsyn S. Barton describes how some of the more paranoid emperors became obsessed with using astrology to seek out and eliminate potential political opponents:

Tiberius is portrayed as employing an occult cabinet: the satirist Juvenal represents the old emperor as shut up in Capri cum grege Chaldaeo (with a herd of astrologers). Their job was to locate those marked out for great destinies, so that they could be destroyed. Similar stories are told of Domitian, another bad emperor par excellence:

“Domitian, of course, had not failed to take careful note of the days and hours when the foremost men had been born, and in consequence was destroying in advance not a few of these who were not even hoping for the attainment of power.”(19)

Astrology’s important status in Roman politics reached an all-time high when Emperor Septimus Severus, who reigned from 193-211 C.E., established sun worship as Rome’s official religion, “which employed astrology as a central practice.”(20) However, astrology’s exaltation in Roman politics was short-lived. Finally, in 296 C.E., Emperor Diocletian, who strongly opposed astrology, issued the first edict against astrology altogether: “It is in the public interest that people learn and exercise the art of geometry. But the mathematical art [astrology] is punishable, it is absolutely forbidden.”(21)

Fall of the Roman Empire and of Astrology

In 321 C.E. Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, “issued an edict threatening all Chaldeans [astrologers], Magi, and their followers with death.”(22) The Christian Council at Laodicea in 365 C.E. drafted a canon forbidding Church clergy from being astrologers. In general, “the church was more successful than the emperors in removing astrology from its privileged position …”(23) By 392 C.E., Emperor Theodosius I “had made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and declared the worship of pagan gods illegal.”(24) Once the Christian Church’s political power was established, it escalated its attempts to undermine the use of astrology:

But the attacks of the church Fathers, when they come, show clearly why astrology was a threat. It was a subversive challenge to God’s authority, which was of course vested in the church on earth. It is notable that the argument centers around the doctrine of astral fatalism.(25)

According to James Herschel Holden, author of A History of Horoscopic Astrology, the overthrow of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. had a dramatic effect on astrology:

Astrology in the classical period was a Greek science. The principal books and tables were in Greek. (Educated Romans and other West Europeans knew Greek as well as Latin, so this caused no problem.) But when the Western Roman Empire fizzled out in the 5th century and knowledge of Greek died out in the West [and] would-be astrologers who knew only Latin were deprived of astrological literature and tablets.

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Knowledge of horoscopic astrology virtually died out in Western Europe with the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Public education ceased; libraries vanished because of loss of financial support and public indifference; booksellers closed up shop; knowledge of Greek generally died out; the Latin language of the Western empire broke up into the early forms of the Romance languages; the public became generally illiterate.

  • * *

In the Eastern Roman Empire, astrology survived at a low ebb, despite some opposition from the Church.(26)

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Church opposition to astrology intensified. At the fourth Council of Toledo in 633 C.E., canons were drafted threatening any “clergy consulting astrologers with imprisonment in the monasteries and harsh penitential discipline.” There are stories from the period of astrologers being “publicly humiliated by being flogged and driven on camels through the city.”(27) Along with the Roman Empire, knowledge and practice of astrology began to die out:

With the overthrow of the old Roman Empire and the victory of Christianity, astrology lost its importance in the centers of Christian civilization in the West. The last known astrologer of the old world was Johannes Laurentius (sometimes called Lydus) of Philadelphia in Lydia, who lived A.D. 490-565.(28)



Conclusion

Astrology flourished in Rome because of the faith placed in it by rulers of the late Republic and early Empire. Its use gave leaders a political advantage over their would-be rivals. Once astrologers lost the support of the Roman emperors, the craft lost its important status and was then vulnerable to violent attack by the new political power, the Christian Church. Thus, astrology in ancient Rome changed with the political climate; it was either nurtured or strangled by the powers-that-be. In this way, the status of astrology was not only influenced by, but often controlled by, politics. When astrology was used by individuals to obtain political power and overthrow the existing republican form of government in Rome, the status of astrology rapidly improved. When political support from the Roman emperors literally died out, so did Western astrology.



Endnotes

(1) Nick Campion, Introduction to the History of Astrology, chapter on “Astrology in the Roman World,” p. 1.

(2) Tamsyn S. Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire (The University of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 33-34.

(3) Ibid., p. 40.

(4) Ibid., p. 34.

(5) Ibid., p. 36.

(6) Ibid., p. 37.

(7) Ibid., p. 38.

(8) Campion, p. 2.

(9) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 38.

(10) Campion, p. 2.

(11) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 44.

(12) Ibid., p. 41.

(13) Ibid., p. 42.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Ibid., p. 54.

(16) Jim Tester, A History of Western Astrology (The Boydell Press, 1987), p. 51.

(17) Ibid., pp. 50-51.

(18) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 57.

(19) Ibid., p. 55.

(20) Robert Hand, “Chronology of the Astrology of the Middle East and the West by Period,” Archive for the Retrieval of Historical Astrological Texts, p. 8.

(21) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 59.

(22) Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed., s.v. “Astrology.”

(23) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 67.

(24) Marvin Perry, Western Civilization: A Brief History (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), p. 129.

(25) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 62.

(26) James Herschel Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology (American Federation of Astrologers, Inc., 1996), p. 96.

(27) Barton, Power and Knowledge, p. 62.

(28) Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Astrology.”



Selected Bibliography


Barton, Tamsyn S. Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine Under the Roman Empire. The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Campion, Nick. Introduction to the History of Astrology (www.NickCampion.com/History/history.htm).

Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 ed. S.v. “Astrology.”

Hand, Robert. “Chronology of the Astrology of the Middle East and the West by Period.” Archive for the Retrieval of Historical Astrological Texts.

Holden, James Herschel. A History of Horoscopic Astrology. American Federation of Astrologers, Inc., 1996.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. The Boydell Press, 1987.

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FATE AND FORTUNA
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Augustan Culture:

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The Roman Gods
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