Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.46

Jordi Pàmias i Massana, Arnaud Zucker, Ératosthène de Cyrène. Catastérismes. Collection des universités de France. Série grecque, 497.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2013.  Pp. cxxii, 423.  ISBN 9782251005829.  €75.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pierre Schneider, Université d’Artois, Arras; Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon (

This new edition and translation of Eratosthenes’ Catasterisms results from the collaboration of two leading scholars in this field of expertise. This edition was preceded in 2000 by a translation—without the Greek text—targeting a broad audience. In 2004 Jordi Pàmias i Massana published a new edition of this text with a translation into Catalan, a full critical apparatus, a solid introduction and helpful notes.1 In 2007 the same author gave a translation into German with the cooperation of Klaus Geus, the internationally known specialist of Eratosthenes (non vidi).2 In 1998 Arnaud Zucker and Pascal Charvet offered the French audience a translation accompanied by an introduction, ample notes and beautiful pictures—thanks to the latter, this edition is the most reader-friendly of all I know –, not to mention a excellent astronomical appendix.3 Now we have this version published in the renowned “Collection des universités de France” (also known as the “Budé Collection”): it matches the highest standards which a scholarly audience may expect. This thick book comprises a thorough introduction (pp. vii-cxxii); the two versions of the Greek text one after another (namely the Epitome and the Fragmenta Vaticana)4 translated into French on the opposite side and footnotes (pp. 2-131); a good deal of additional notes (pp. 133-155). An index nominum and detailed bibliography close the book. The budget constraints are a plausible reason why a sky chart is absent—a specialized booklet or some online resources will help the reader follow the text and commentary.

The introduction begins with a short biography of Eratosthenes in which the authors emphasize several points relating to the context in which the Catasterisms were produced. For instance, Eratosthenes is rightly characterized as a φιλόλογος (i.e., “[celui] qui revendique le savoir en général—plutôt que la sagesse du philosophe –”) who tackled various scientific issues (Περὶ ἀναμετρήσεως τῆς γῆς; Περὶ τῆς Ὀκταετηρίδος etc.5). A good part of the introduction, however, focuses on the complicated history of the Catasterisms of which the double Greek version represents the ultimate stage—note that two sections of the introduction (pp. xx-xxiv ; lxxvii-cxxii) deal with this question. After a clear and useful reminder of the theories developed by previous scholars and editors (Carl Robert, Ernst Maass, Jean Martin) the authors methodically examine all the questions raised by this text. In particular and above all, there is no reason to doubt that Eratosthenes wrote the text which survived in the current versions: “Même si l’Épitomé n’est pas l’original ératosthénien, on ne peut souscrire à la formule lapidaire de Germaine Aujac : ‘Rien de son oeuvre ne nous est parvenu.’” That said, the destiny of the original text remains partly obscure. After an independent existence, the Catasterisms seem to have belonged to a Collection astronomique alexandrine until they were incorporated into Aratus’ Phaenomena as an auxiliary document. From then on the text was closely linked to the transmission of Aratus’ works which at some point split into two—i.e., western and Byzantine—manuscript traditions. As Pàmias and Zucker summarize, “la recension dont nous disposons pour les Catastérismes propose donc l’avatar d’une longue évolution dont l’histoire couvre plus de mille ans et de multiples manipulations et qui consiste en une adaptation réduite et réorganisée d’un original remontant pourtant en dernière instance au savant alexandrin.” (p. cvi).

The rest of the introduction is devoted to explaining the subject and content of Eratosthenes’ work. Basically the Καταστερισμοί relate the mythic origins of constellations—or patterns of stars, considering that the five planets do not play a significant part in this book—, i.e., for instance, the story of Andromeda (cat. 17) rescued by Perseus (cat. 22), of the Scorpion (cat. 7) believed to be responsible of the death of the hunter Orion (cat. 32), of the Dragon (Cat. 3) which guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides. As such this work catalogues about 736 stars which had been selected according to their brightness and location, for they enabled to recognize the celestial figures linked to the selected constellations. The description was arranged in a precise spatial order but the original pattern of the Eratosthenian plan occasionally suffered from its incorporation into Arateus’ Phainomena (p. xxx-xxxiii). In terms of astronomical accuracy, however, it is obvious that Eratosthenes did not equal Hipparchus and Ptolemy: in particular he did not position the stars within an ecliptic coordinate system; they were only located on the constellation figures (e.g.,“il n’y a pas pour lui d’autre moyen de positionner β Orionis que de la ‘placer’ sur le pied gauche d’Orion.” [p. xxxviii]). Accordingly, there is little doubt that this work was devised with the support of various image media (plates, planisphere or even a sphere).

One of the most valuable insights that we owe to Pàmias and Zucker is their presentation of what a catasterism is. Several decades ago Martin suggested that beside its common sense—“to place, or transfer a hero, animal or object6 among the stars”—the word καταστερίζειν could also mean: “to represent somebody or something in the form of a constellation”. This idea leads the authors to the important conclusion that: “L’essentiel dans le catastérisme n’est donc pas de prolonger physiquement le héros mais de le représenter sous la forme d’un simulacre éclairé—et le régime général de la constellation pourrait être dans la conception alexandrine celui d’un simple dessin.” (p. lxxiv). Here again appears the fundamental role that illustrations must have played in the elaboration of the Catasterisms. Be that as it may a catasterism was not only a list of stars enabling one to recognize the constellation figures. It also contained a mythological narrative in which Eratosthenes reported a particular episode of a hero’s life and told the reader why he was placed among the stars. As such, Eratosthenes’ catasterisms are a scholarly elaboration disconnected from popular belief and traditional mythological conceptions. Pàmias and Zucker rightly stress the fact that, being the Director of the Library of Alexandria, Eratosthenes had access to a huge amount of knowledge. In other words, even if we are aware of some characters being transferred among the stars in the Classical Period, the Catasterisms must be regarded as a typical production of the Alexandrian culture: “De ce point de vue un recueil comme celui des Catastérismes s’inscrit dans la tradition alexandrine des catalogues, inventaires, compilations et la longue série de ‘Listenliteratur’ produite par le célèbre Musée.” (p. lxiii)

The translations of the two Greek versions are absolutely reliable and show a good stylistic quality. The commentary divides into footnotes and endnotes: this organization is less than convenient, but such are the editorial rules of the “Budé Collection”. This inconvenience is really bearable considering the considerable amount of explanations and knowledge supplied by the authors. They concentrate on two major topics, namely patterns of stars (asterisms) and mythography. As for the former subject, Pàmias and Zucker systematically examine the connections linking the Greek constellations with oriental astronomy (e.g., p. 50, n. 246: Cassiopea and the Babylonian constellation LU-LIM; p. 185 n. 38: “L’identification au Lion existe aussi dans l’astrothésie sumérienne (…) et dans la tradition égyptienne sans que l’on sache quelle culture a influencé l’autre.”). They identify the stars listed by Eratosthenes, a task which sometimes turns out to be difficult (see, e.g., p., 201-202, n. 229, about the Hyades). It goes without saying that the Eratosthenian katasterisms are also put in their Greek context, viz. compared with the data provided by Hipparchus and Ptolemy. As for mythography, it suffices to say that Pàmias and Zucker excel in this field. The myths related to each catasterism are thoroughly examined with the support of literary, iconographic, or any other sources.

There are very few typos (e.g., p. 39 “parti”). We wish the authors sometimes wrote in a simpler way (e.g., p.195: “l'enfançon Zeus”). The reader may be skeptical about some interpretations (e.g., p. 183-4: I wonder to what extent the Eratosthenian version of the myth of the Donkeys7 reflects a critic of Ptolemaic propaganda). Some more information about Babylonian and Egyptian astronomy would have been welcome. These are, however, minor critics. Pàmias and Zucker's opus must be praised. This book is needed for scholars dealing with the tradition of Aratea or interested in Greek mythological concepts. This text also unveils the very ancient relationship that existed between ancient societies and the starry sky. Many human activities (navigation, agriculture …) depended on this never-failing celestial clock which also provided landmarks for spatial orientation. For this reason any scholar interested in geography and representation of space will benefit from the reading of this work.


1.   : Eratòstenes de Cirene, Mitologia del cel : Catasterismes; introd., trad. i notes de Jordi Pàmias i Massana, Barcelona, 2000
2.   Both have been reviewed by Markus Asper (BMCR 2008.01.16).
3.   Le ciel : mythes et histoire des constellations: les "Catastérismes" d'Ératosthène, texte traduit, présenté et commenté par Pascal Charvet et Arnaud Zucker; postface et commentaire astronomique par Jean-Pierre Brunet et Robert Nadal; illustrations de Robert Schenck, Paris, 1998.
4.   They are supplemented by many references to Germanicus’Aratea, Hyginus, the Latin Aratus, etc. in the critical apparatus.
5.   For further information see K. Geus, Eratosthenes von Kyrene. Studien zur hellenistischen Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Munich 2002.
6.   For instance, the Crown (cat. 5).
7.   Asellus borealis and Asellus australis in Cancer.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010