Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.63

Roger Beck, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology. Brief Histories of the Ancient World.   Malden, MA:  Blackwell, 2007.  Pp. xi, 159.  ISBN 10: 1-4051-1087-2.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4051-1074-7.  £50.00.  

Reviewed by Joanna Komorowska, Paedagogical University, Krakow (
Word count: 972 words

Table of Contents

An attempt to write a comprehensive history of ancient astrology may be compared to entering a minefield: indeed, after the late David Pingree had Gundels' Astrologoumena criticized for their failure to avail themselves of the recent findings in the field,1 the scholarly world appears to have resigned itself to be content with Bouche-Leclerq's seminal study (L'Astrologie grecque, Paris 1899):2 as it stands, we do realize that substitution of this massive volume will have to wait. And we are prepared for a long wait. This status quo is bound to reflect on the scholarship: what is more popular are notably shorter, elementary works, destined to introduce a curious, possibly less ambitious reader into the mysteries of ancient astral lore. Nevertheless, these, while free of many demands that positively disable the emergence of any comprehensive treatment, are subject to another imperative, namely the need to choose: their authors have to make their way through a quagmire of methods, dogmas, and explanations which may dampen the spirits of even the most courageous adventurer. After all, such books have to be both lucid and brief, two necessities quite daunting to those dealing, in the most laborious way, with the intricacies of Valens, Paulus, or Ptolemy. Moreover, the choice of the system to be followed is not the only one: a prospective author has also to choose the manner of exposition -- is his account to be chronological? Or should he follow the descriptive, synchronic method? All these questions are bound to influence the final effect.

Considering these rather complex conditions, Roger Beck's book does credit to the author: it is concise, it is clear, and, possibly most importantly, it gives its reader a taste of what the study of ancient astrology may be like. The synchronic method allows the author to portray the most important methods that could be employed in the construction of the thema, while the sequence employed leaves the reader with the overall impression of orderly and systematic science. Beginning with a brief sketch of the history of astrology in Greek and Roman times (pp. 1-19), B. opens the discussion proper with a basic account of astronomical (or should one say cosmological) knowledge necessary to anyone attempting to contemplate horoscopy, such as the 'planet in sign' concept (20-37). This proves particularly useful as his exposition continues with the tenets proper i.e. with a short introduction to the meaning of aspects, solar houses (the topoi, pp. 38-49), Zodiacal signs, their nature and mutual interdependencies (pp. 50-69), and, finally, the planets (pp. 70-90). Only then does B. turn to the actual horoscopes, or, to use a more correct term, themata (after all, Greek horoskopos denotes the Ascendent point alone, while the thema covers all data contained in a chart), referring for his texts to the Neugebauer-van Hoesen study of 1959.3 And one has to admire his choice of examples: a nativity, i.e. standard birth chart, taken from Firmicus, the six-men-in-the-boat problem so important in Valens' discussion of naval catastrophe (Anthologiae VII, 6, the primary focus is on the explanation why the six, born as they were at different times, died at the same moment), a thema of possible theoretical, yet doubtful practical value, and, finally, Stephanus' horoscope of Islam. One has to admit: this does reflect the rather vast panorama of the possibilities allegedly inherent in the astral divinatory lore. Yet, at the same time, it provides a taste of the possible dangers stemming from its practice: indeed, the following chapter is duly devoted to the social and political issues linked to the employment and popularity of the lore (119-131). And finally, at the very end of his work (pp. 132-136), B. returns once more to the crucial dilemma: why bother with something long ago rejected as a faradiddle, as charlatanry more than unworthy in our age of reason. His main preoccupation is with astrology as language in which stories may be told and reshaped. One may feel this is not enough to admire the lore, yet it is certainly enough to be a worthy subject of scholarly interest.

Finally, some points to be noted. First: when talking about lots (or, to be precise, about the lot of Fortune; pp. 89-90) B. forgoes the mention of the additional complication that appears in every source: the method of calculation depends on the additional circumstance of the thema being a diurnal or nocturnal one. Moreover, while only seven lots are considered classical and are duly attested in Paulus (Elementa c. 23), a notably larger number appears in the late commentary of Olympiodorus (In Paulum c. 22-23). Second, for nearly one hundred years the scholars working on history of magic, astrology and related sciences have fought the avalanche of criticism stemming from George Sarton's positivist view of science. For nearly a hundred years many classical scholars strove to have the subject of their research recognized as was the study of ancient medicine, ancient astronomy, or ancient geography. Considering their labours, it comes as somewhat of a disappointment when one reads the sometimes derisive, sometimes self-justificatory remarks made in this book. What we should remember is that investigation of ancient astrology is as a matter of fact no different from the investigation of ancient tragedy.

To summarize: should one look for an introduction to the extremely complex field of study, B.'s book is an excellent choice. Nor will it be devoid of value for those better versed in ancient astrology. Its chief merits lie in the method of exposition, lucidity, and lack of excessive ambition: intended as a brief introduction, it provides the essential data without entering into the more intricate, and necessarily complex details concerning planetary arrangements, Zodiacal characteristics or calculatory methods, yet without appearing to be a comprehensive study of all the important issues. And this is a mark of a true eisagoge.


1.   D. Pingree, rev. W. Gundel & H. G. Gundel Astrologoumena, Gnomon 40: 276-280 (the reviewed work was published as Sudhoffs Archiv Bhft. 6; Wiesbaden 1966).
2.   Still, one may mention some important, though not as impressive, works on the subject, such as B. Bakhouche L'Astrologie à Rome, Bibliothèque d'études classiques vol. 29, Leiden: Peeters 2002, or T. Barton Ancient Astrology, New York 1994.
3.   O. Neugebauer, H. van Hoesen Greek Horoscopes, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society XLVIII, Philadelphia 1959.

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