Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.21

Steven J. Green, Disclosure and Discretion in Roman Astrology: Manilius and his Augustan Contemporaries.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. ix, 225.  ISBN 9780199646807.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Barnaby Taylor, New College, Oxford (


Steven Green’s account of Roman astrological discourse under Augustus focuses on a contradictory (and arguably hypocritical) pattern of behavior, in which the emperor both celebrated horoscopic astrology—insofar as it pertained to himself—and restricted its practice—insofar as it pertained to others. Green’s thesis is that this contradictory complex between what he calls astrological “disclosure” and “discretion” finds widespread and varied expression in Augustan literature.

Part 1 of the book consists of a long chapter on Manilius’ Astronomica, a text that provides an illuminating case study for Green’s methodology. Green works sequentially through each of Manilius’ five books in order to track what he sees as a progressive breakdown in the relationship between teacher and student. This breakdown is then explained with reference to the poet’s conflicting impulses toward disclosure and discretion: Manilius’ “discretion”—that is, his unwillingness, in the face of political pressure, to offer a complete astrological lesson—results in the failure of the work as an act of didactic disclosure, a failure given forceful expression by the student’s frustrated “outbursts” at 4.387–9 and 4.869–72.1 It has to be said that Green’s reading of Manilius produces a rather dispiriting image of the poet: a teacher who deliberately vitiates his own lesson in response to censorious political pressure, enabling him to better “[serve] the interests’ of the emperor” (p. 59). “Discretion” may seem an odd word with which to describe such self-censorship. Nevertheless, Green’s reading has the notable benefit of explaining a famously difficult problem of the poem, the apparent incompleteness of its teaching, as a deliberate feature of Manilius’ technique, and without doubt constitutes a valuable contribution to the expanding field of Manilian studies.

Part 2 contains chapters 3 and 4, the first dealing with the rise of private intellectual interest in astrology at Rome leading up to the appearance of Caesar's comet in July of 44 BC, and the second exploring the varying attitudes to astrology expressed in Cicero's treatises De Divinatione and De Fato. Chapter 3 contains a number of enlightening passages, chief among them an argument for the publication of Augustus’ horoscope well before AD 11, the date implied by Cassius Dio (pp. 72–74).2 In chapter 4, Green contrasts the treatment of astrology in De Divinatione 2 and De Fato, emphasizing the apparent softening of Cicero’s attitude to astrology between the two works. So, while the character of Marcus in De Divinatione 2 (whose views, Green forcefully argues, should be understood as overlapping with those of Cicero himself) expresses vociferous criticism of astrology as a foreign practice whose claims cannot stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny (pp.85–86), in De Fato Cicero adopts a softer position according to which “the stars may exert some influence on mortals” (p. 88). Green identifies the new political significance of astrology following the appearance of Caesar’s comet as a possible explanation for what caused the change in Cicero’s attitudes between De Divinatione and De Fato and suggests accordingly that De Fato was still being written in the aftermath of the comet of July 44 BC (p. 87).

Part 3 opens, in chapter 5, with a discussion of Augustus’ own attitudes to and use of astrology, and it is here that Green sets about making his case for the development under Augustus of the disclosure/discretion complex that underpins his analyses elsewhere in the book. While Augustus willingly published his own horoscope and did not hesitate to incorporate astrological symbolism, particularly that of Capricorn, into his personal iconography, the political threat posed by an unregulated astrological trade to which any Roman had potential access led, argues Green, to the crackdowns of 33 BC and AD 11. Falling between these crackdowns was the mass book-burning of prophetic texts in 12 BC (Suet. Aug. 31.1; only the Sibylline books were exempt), an event described by Green, rather oddly, as a “detailed scrutiny” on the part of Augustus (p. 103). Some of the evidence appealed to in this chapter is rather weak, and the conclusions drawn from it necessarily speculative: the discussion of the astrological significance of the Pantheon, for example, is (as Green admits) significantly undercut by our ignorance of the building's original form, and so we are left with speculation: “it would seem to be a logical step,” says Green, for Augustus to have advertised his astrological interests in his large built structures (p. 101). Green’s account of the nature and details of imperial anxieties concerning astrology and astrologers would have benefited from more direct engagement with the important revisionist arguments of Pauline Ripat.3

The remaining chapters of part 3 apply Green's methodology to diverse Augustan texts, including Vitruvius, the Aeneid, Odes 1.11, Ovid's Fasti and Metamorphoses, and Propertius 4.1B. While some of these treatments are very brief (the Aeneid is granted only a couple of pages), these chapters contain a number of valuable insights and challenges, as Green shows the varied ways in which Augustan writers negotiated the limits of acceptable astrological discourse. Highlights include chapter 8, on the development of Roman astrometeorology (drawing on Cicero, Germanicus, and the particularly interesting testimonia to Caesar’s lost De Astris), and chapter 9, an in-depth account of disputes concerning the mechanics of apotheosis, discussed once again in the context of Caesar’s comet.

Those who are interested in the interface between politics and intellectual history in late first century BC Rome will find that this book has much to offer them.


1.   It may be noted here that despite Green’s characterization of 4.869–72 as “an outburst from the student” (p. 43), there is in fact no explicit indication in the text he prints (accepting Bentley’s inquit at 4.869) that the speech in question is to be attributed to the student (as opposed, say, to an anonymous critic).
2.   At p. 73 n.38 Green suggests, as a solution to the apparent discrepancy between Suetonius Aug. 94.12 and Cassius Dio 56.25.5, that the publication, by edict, of Augustus’ horoscope in AD 11 may have been a re-affirmation of an earlier, and perhaps less official publication (cf. Suetonius’ vulgaverit). This solution, which to me seems not implausible, is maintained in chapter 5, in which Green refers both to an early publication date (p. 103) and to a later publication in AD 11 (pp. 102, 104).
3.   P. Ripat, 2011. “Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers at Rome” CP 106: 115–54; cited five times by Green.

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