Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.26

Danny Praet, Béatrice​ Bakhouche (ed.), Franz Cumont. Astrologie. Bibliotheca Cumontiana - Scripta Minora (BICUMI), 4.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2015.  Pp. LVII, 416.  ISBN 9789074461795.  €75.00.  

Reviewed by Roger Beck, University of Toronto (

Table of Contents

This volume is one of a series republishing the works of the great Belgian academic Franz Cumont (1868-1947). Cumont’s scholarship was wide-ranging, but his particular focus was the religions of the Roman imperial period and, above all, those cults characterized as “oriental.” His most famous work was the two-volume Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra (1896–99). Comprehending the religions of those times requires a familiarity with astrology, not so much as a technical art but as a dominant world-view, even, in the form of what we term “star-worship” or “astrolatry,” itself a type of religion. Cumont understood this well: hence his many publications on astrology, gathered in the volume under review.

In all, the volume comprises 34 pieces, ranging from substantial articles to reviews and short notes. There are two indices, the first “des noms et termes anciens,” the second “des auteurs modernes.” Of the two primary editors,1 Béatrice Bakhouche, herself an accomplished scholar of astrology,2 contributed the Introduction (XIV–XLI) and Danny Praet the Préface (IX–XIII) and an article of greater import than its title might immediately suggest: “‘Le problème de l’astrologie’ dans le contexte idéologique de l’affaire Cumont : les relations entre religion et sciences dans l’Antiquité et dans les universités d’État belges” (XLIII–LVII).

“Le problème de l’astrologie,” no. 13 (105–107) in the present collection, is a short piece in a student almanac for the year 1912.3 Why should such an apparent piece of ephemera matter? It matters first because it became, with a lengthened ending, the Introduction to Cumont’s own Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans,4 and may thus be read as the author’s programmatic statement about research on the topic, itself inseparable, in Cumont’s view, from the topic of the religions of late antiquity. The book itself consisted of a series of lectures given in different academic venues in the U.S.A. in 1910-11 under the auspices of the American Committee for Lectures on the History of Religions. Significantly, the book was never translated into French—until 2000.

Secondly, “Le problème de l’astrologie” appeared in the immediate aftermath of “L’affaire de Gand,” a national political and academic crisis that led to Cumont’s departure both from the University of Gand (Ghent) and from Belgium. Beyond the crisis’s immediate issue of who should teach Roman history at Gand lay more fundamental questions about the teaching, specifically, of the religions of antiquity: what precisely were these religions, and how did they relate to Christianity? These were questions echoing not just through “les universités d’État belges” but, as Praet certainly recognizes, through the entire Western academy.5 They still resonate.

On the spectrum of researchers on ancient astrology Cumont belonged more with those primarily concerned with the art as an element in the religious mix of the times rather than with those who dwelt mostly on its techniques. For comparison, a good example of the latter would be Auguste Bouché-Leclercq, Cumont’s contemporary and the author of L’astrologie grecque, a work that remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, indispensible today.6 Of course, concentrating on one end of the spectrum does not preclude work on the other, and the massively engaged Cumont did indeed contribute to research on technical astrology, notably in his co-editing of several volumes of the great series Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum (CCAG).7 This contribution served the purpose not simply of advancing our knowledge of the art, but more fundamentally of making the sources and material accessible to research. If Cumont has left an enduring legacy to the study of ancient astrology, it is there in CCAG rather than in his articles on the subject, for all the merit of the latter.

In the present collection the most notable articles having to do with astrology and religion are: no. 7 (49–69) “L’astrologie et la magie dans le paganisme romain” (1906);8 no. 15 (109–31) “Fatalisme astral et religions antiques” (1912); no. 26 (281–332) “La fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux” (1930); no. 30 (347– 76) “Les noms des planètes et l’astrolâtrie chez les Grecs” (1935). It is good to have this impressive quartet assembled in one volume.9 In particular, one should note here Cumont’s abiding interest in the connection between the stars on the one hand and eschatology and the afterlife in the ancient imagination on the other.

These articles are impressive, but of course they are not flawless. Of Cumont’s treatment of ancient astrology and its sources, as represented in the collection under review, Bakhouche is quite critical. Indeed the section of her Introduction on “La méthode de Cumont” (XXII–XXVI) is largely—and justifiably—negative, particularly on Cumont’s tracing of the history and transmission of astrology; as also, in the section entitled “Intérêt scientifique de ces textes aujourd’hui” (XXXIII–XL), on his tracing of the development of astrological geography in the article “La plus ancienne géographie astrologique” (no. 10, 77–86).10

If asked the hard question, of what use are these collected articles today, the answer of this reviewer would be: of great importance for our understanding of the cultural, philosophical, and religious changes of late antiquity; of considerable importance, as we have already seen, in the history of the modern Western academy’s attempts to come to terms with that culture; of minimal importance to current research on ancient technical astrology.

It remains to compliment the editors and press on the high quality of the publication, noting in particular the generously large size of the type and the fineness of the illustrations reproduced. Relative to the volume’s length and amplitude, the price is very reasonable. ​


1.   The volume is edited “avec la collaboration d’Annelies Lannoy et d’Eline Scheerlinck.”
2.   See her admirable L’astrologie à Rome (Louvain, Paris, Sterling VA: Peeters, 2002).
3.   As cited in the Table des matières of the present volume (VI): “Almanach des étudiants libéraux de l’Université de Gand, sous les auspices de la Société Générale des Étudiants Libéraux 28e année, 1912, p. 191-196.”
4.   New York: Putnam, 1912; repr. New York: Dover, 1960.
5.   See notably Corinne Bonnet, “Franz Cumont et les risques du métier d’historien des religions,” Hieros 5 (2000) 12-29.
6.   Paris: Leroux, 1899. Note the fact that it has been twice reprinted (Brussels 1963, Aalen 1979).
7.   12 vols in 20 parts, Brussels: Lamertin.
8.   The article also appeared in the same year as a chapter in Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romaine (Paris: Annales du Musée Guimot) and in the English translation of the same work, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (London: Routledge, 1911). Cumont, as his editors here admit (e.g., XXVI-XXXI), was nothing if not a double-dipper. The editors, incidentally, are refreshingly free of hero-worship, although they properly cut Cumont the slack due a scholar of his times.
9.   I would have welcomed “Le mysticisme astrale dans l’antiquité” (BAB 1909, 256–86) in the present collection, but I recognize the editors’ huge difficulties of thematic taxonomy (XII–XIII).
10.   Stephan Heilen, however, in his recent and definitive treatment of this topic, thinks Cumont was at least “on the right track”: “The Star of Bethlehem and Greco-Roman astrology, especially astrological geography,” The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Experts on the Ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman World, and Modern Astronomy (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 297–357, at 318. ​

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