BMCR 2001.04.15

Sesto Empirico. Contro Gli Astrologi. Centro Di Studio Del Pensiero Antico (Rome), Elenchus XXXII

, , Contro gli astrologi. Elenchos ; 32. Naples: Bibliopolis, 2000. 222 pages, 6 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 8870883965 L 70,000.

After years of relative disregard, Sextus Empiricus’ polemics against the liberal arts ( Against the Professors ι commonly abbreviated MI-VI) have recently received the attention they deserve.1 However, the treatise Against the Astrologers (hereafter abbreviated M V) was unduly neglected: Emidio Spinelli’s new translation and commentary is thus a welcome addition to scholarship. But S.’s book won’t be of interest only for students and scholars of ancient scepticism: our evidence on Greek polemics against astrology is in the end rather tenuous, and M V is a privileged testimony—as S. observes, citing A. E. Housman, it is “the best introduction to Greek astrology” (15).

The book is divided into three parts. In a substantial introduction (13-51), S. sets out Against the Astrologers’ overall structure, underlining the main articulations of Sextus’ arguments, identifying the sources and the ways in which they are used (sometimes perhaps with originality). S. can then account for the specific place of the treatise in the Greek anti-astrological literature. Then follows the Greek text (with critical apparatus), based on Mau’s edition2 (the rare points of disagreement are always mentioned and explained in notes), with a precise and readable Italian translation (53-97). Finally, in a detailed commentary, written as a series of notes (99-180), S. studies technical questions of astrology, the peculiarities of Sextus’ argumentation, and pays much attention to Sextus’ usus scribendi, particularly the numerous hapax legomena —a specific index is even devoted to them (195-98). The book ends with a full bibliography, complete indexes, and few tables on the ancient horoscopes.

This work manifests all the virtues contained in S.’s preceding commentary on Against the Ethicists (M XI), ]3 that is to say: an up-to-date knowledge of secondary literature, impressive erudition, philological rigour, sensitivity to the subtleties of Sextus’ writing. S.’s approach is thus more heavily weighted towards historical and philological questions than philosophical ones. That doesn’t mean S. has nothing to say on Sextus’ philosophy: on the contrary, he writes some fine remarks about it, for example when he links Sextus’ insistence on τήρησις and memory with his medical empiricism (49-51).4 However, it is true that S. is generally more interested in Sextus’ sources than in a discussion of the validity of his arguments. This hermeneutic bias always runs the risk of making Sextus’ prose less forceful than it really is. In fact, this is not in this case a serious defect: M V often speaks for itself, and doesn’t lend itself to a groundbreaking study of Sextus’ scepticism.

The main lines of thought of Sextus’ treatise have long been well-known: the sceptical-academic origin of many of its arguments, the polemics against “stoicizing” styles of thought, its critique of a rather archaic (pre-ptolemaic) astrology, its place in the larger debate between partisans and opponents of astrology.5 S. is of course aware of all this, but the most stimulating aspect of his book doesn’t lie in its general interpretation of M V (even if, to my mind, it is in the essentials perfectly sound): it lies, apart from the numerous explanations and references on ancient astrology that will be useful to every student of the subject, in the way S. elucidates points of detail and draws the reader’s attention to subtle nuances. Instead of summarising the contents of the book, I prefer therefore to mention some salient points that seem to me worthy of attention.

1) One must always read with great attention the beginnings of Sextus’ works, where he sets out the precise scope of his discussion. Apart from some remarks in the introduction, S. devotes seven pages (99-106) to the commentary of M V, 1-3, and his discussion is very helpful: he manages to show the exact nature of Sextus’ critique, namely the uselessness and absurdity of the so-called “art of the horoscopes”. He rightly sides against Bury, Russo and Bergua Cavero in translating βίος (M V, 2) by “vita ordinaria”, and not, for example, by “comune umanita”.

2) S.’s discussions are especially illuminating when he draws attention to what is not, but could or should be, in Sextus’ text (112, 153, 165). This is a good way of bringing to the fore Sextus’ sources—and why such and such text can’t be his source. S. is also led to a discussion of Sextus’ relation to Ptolemy. Sextus didn’t read Ptolemy’s tetrabiblos, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was writing earlier than Ptolemy: the restricted circulation of philosophical and scientific works at the time is another plausible explanation (165, 174).6 Anyway, S.’s work shows that a close examination of the relations between Sextus and Ptolemy should be pursued further.

3) S. must be praised for his cautious and often penetrating Quellenforschungen. For example, there has been some disagreement about the identity of those who “try to argue that terrestrial things do not “sympathize” altogether with celestial things” (M V, 43). S. convincingly dismisses the hypothesis of Favorinus or Boethius of Sidon, and notices that we could be here in a dead-end, but the possibility he then mentions (the (pseudo-Lucian?) treatise de astrologia, 27) is an original and interesting suggestion (129-31).

4) S. devotes much attention to the examination of Sextus’ vocabulary, notably the hapax legomena, aiming at a more precise identification of the sources and a better comprehension of the sceptical attitude. He thus notices the ironical nuance of κατηχέω (111), shows the possible Epicurean origin of ἀγροίκως (131-32) and links κόλπος, στόμιον, τὴν ἔμμενον κάθαρσιν and κίσσα to Soranos (150-51). He also links παραπλάσομαι (M V, 70) to Against the Grammarians, 208, where it refers to the pyrrhonian observance of ordinary usage (156), and argues for the pyrrhonian origin of M V, 81, citing for evidence (among other things) the use of παραλλαγή (159). However, an excessive and systematic use of this method may produce some unsound results. For example, M V, 74 begins with φαμὲν. S. doesn’t think it is the sign of an original argument: according to him, the presence of δυσδιόριστος in the same paragraph is evidence for an academic source, because the context of the sole other occurrence of this word in Sextus’ corpus (M VII, 416) is clearly academic (157). S. may be right, but I doubt this argument is enough to make his case.

5) The translation is more accurate than the earlier Italian translation of A. Russo.7 I just mention one example: 5, one should not translate the seven stars “sono in correlazione con le cause efficienti” (Russo), but “stand in the relation of efficient causes” (Bury) or “intrattengono una relazione di cause efficienti” (S.). Even if, to my mind, Bury’s translation has many virtues (in any case, it doesn’t deserve, at least in this treatise, the contempt in which it has become fashionable to hold it), S.’s translation should be used first and foremost, not only for its intrinsic qualities, but also because S. mentions and explains in the commentary his disagreements with other translators: the reader can thus make up his mind easily. Ibid. for the emendations: they are indicated and explained in notes, with precise references to secondary literature. S.’s choices seem to me generally cogent, but I would be tempted to part company with him on one point: 49, l.26, S. follows the manuscripts κατὰ τὸν ὅμοιον τῆς ἐπιχερήσεως τρόπον and translates accordingly “secondo (nostra) immutata modalita di attacco”. This is perfectly justified, but I have a weakness for Bury’s correction (cf. Xen. Cyr. VIII 8, 22) κατὰ τὸν ὁμόθεντρόπον (“a method of attack at close quarter”), which seizes ideally the sceptical method.

6) S.’s commentary of M V, 83-85 (a text of cardinal importance) is excellent (159-61). Put in a nutshell, Sextus’ argument is the following: if each twelfth portion of the zodiac appeared at the same time to all those in the world who are observing the celestial objects and was seen in the same straight line, then perhaps the Chaldeans might perceive with certainty the Sign ascending at the horizon. But it is clearly not the case: it is not the same sign which seems to be in a position for making a horoscope. According to S., this could be an authentic pyrrhonian argument. Since the astrological methods criticised by Sextus rest on observation (and not mathematics), one could perhaps conclude that Sextus’ target is rather ancient. But S. suggests another hypothesis: an astrological practice based on this kind of observation was rather common in Sextus’ time, and there is evidence that it is precisely this practice which is attacked here, because Sextus refers to his target as Χαλδαίων παῖδες (M V, 83). The meaning of this very rare expression is obscure: does it refer to later Chaldeans, or is it simply a periphrasis for “the Chaldeans”? Drawing a parallel with M XI, 24, where Sextus uses the expression στωικῶν παῖδες, S. opts for the first hypothesis, and then translates “i seguaci dei Caldei”. Some commentators have indeed argued for such an interpretation of M XI, 24,8 the doctrine in question (about parts and wholes) being explicitly attributed to later Stoics by Stobaeus (Posidonius fr. 96). Sextus elsewhere attributes this doctrine to “the Stoics” without restriction (M IX, 336, PH III, 170), but S.’s proposal seems to be on the right track: most of the other occurrences of the expression “the children of the x’s” can be understood along the same lines (“the disciples of the Pythagoreans” (M X, 270, VI, 30), “the disciples of the Epicureans” (M VI, 19)). However, the two remaining occurrences ( γραμματικῶν παῖδες (M I, 113) and ἰατρῶν παῖδες (M V, 57)) are more obscure. S. translates this last expression by “i medici”, and suggest that the formula could express a proximity in time (144). This is sensible, but the possibility that “the children of the x’s” could simply convey a pejorative note (“grammatical brood”, “Epicurean brood”, and so on) should not be excluded.

The book is very well presented. I noted one misprint (48), where the number of the paragraph (n2) is missing.

In a word, this is a book to read for students and scholars of ancient scepticism, particularly those interested in M I-VI or in Sextus’ method of writing. Its explanations and references on ancient astrology make it also a good reference-tool for all students of the subject.


1. Let us mention, inter alia, J. Barnes, “Scepticism and the Arts” in Hankinson (ed.), Method, Medicine and Metaphysics. Studies in the Philosophy of Ancient Science (“Apeiron” 21, 1988), p.53-77; F. Desbordes, “Le scepticisme et les arts libe/raux: une e/tude de Sextus Empiricus, Adv. Mat. I-VI”, in Voelke (ed.), Le scepticisme antique. Perspectives historiques et syste/matiques (“Cahiers de la Revue de The/ologie et de Philosophie” 15, 1990), p. 167-79; W. Freytag, Mathematische Grundbegriffe bei Sextus Empiricus, Hildesheim, 1995; D. Karadimas, Sextus Empiricus against Aelius Aristides. The Conflict between Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Second Century A.D., Lund, 1996; J. Bergua Cavero (tr.), Sexto Empi/rico, Contra los profesores. Libros I-VI, Madrid, 1997; D. Blank, Sextus Empiricus. Against the Grammarians, tr. with an intr. and comm., Oxford, 1998.

2. Sexti Empirici Opera, vol III, Adversus Mathematicos libros I-VI continens iterum J. Mau, Lipsiae 1961.

3. Sesto Empirico. Contro gli etici, intr., trad. e comm. a c. di E. Spinelli, Napoli, 1995.

4. S. rightly stresses the importance of M. Frede’s “An empiricist view of knowledge: memorism”, in S. Everson (ed.), Epistemology, Cambridge, 1990, p. 225-50.

5. Cf. for example Anthony Long, “Astrology: Arguments pro and contra”, in J. Barnes, J. Brunschwig, M. Burnyeat and M. Schofield (eds), Science and Speculation. Studies in Hellenistic Theory and Practice, Cambridge, 1982, p. 165-92.

6. This ignorance of Ptolemy must nevertheless be taken into account in any discussion of Sextus’ chronology: we should perhaps follow Decleva Caizzi and date his floruit around 150-70 (cf. F. Decleva Caizzi, “L’elogio del cane. Sesto Empirico, Schizzi Pirroniani I.62-68″, Elenchos, p. 328-30).

7. Sesto Empirico. Contro i matematici. Libri I-VI, intr., trad. e note di A. Russo, Roma-Bari, 1972.

8. Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers II, p. 368 (Cambridge, 1987), and S. himself, in his commentary on Against the Ethicists (cf. n. 3), p. 173.