BMCR 2007.09.40

Theophrastus of Eresus: On Weather Signs

, , , On weather signs. Philosophia antiqua, v. 104. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 263 pages) : illustrations (some color).. ISBN 9789047411796 €99.00.

According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle wrote a work entitled Signs of Storms ( σημεῖα χειμώνων) (5.26) and Theophrastus wrote one entitled On Signs ( περὶ σημείων) (5.45). There has survived a Peripatetic work on weather signs, usually referred to in modern times as De Signis (hereafter δσ which in the manuscript tradition was sometimes left anonymous, sometimes ascribed to Aristotle, and once ascribed to Theophrastus in a late manuscript—though, since the sixteenth century, Theophrastus has generally been considered its author. Sider and Brunschön’s Theophrastus of Eresus: On Weather Signs includes a Greek text and facing English translation of DS (pp. 57-95), which is preceded by a long introduction (pp. 1-56) and followed by an extensive commentary (pp. 97-219). In addition to indexes and a bibliography (pp. 227-63), there is appended a new edition of the Greek text, with facing English translation, of Pseudo-Aristotle, On the Location and Names of the Winds, by Victor D’Avella (pp. 221-25).

As DS is not that well known, even among scholars of Peripatetic philosophy, let me say something about its nature. It has a Peripatetic (if not typically Aristotelian) opening: “We wrote down the signs of rain, winds, storms, and fair weather as follows to the extent that we were able, some of which we ourselves observed, others of which we took from men of no small repute” (1.4-6). The work can be divided as follows: prologue (sections 1-9), signs of rain (10-25), signs of wind (26-37), signs of storms (38-49), signs of fair weather (50-55), and an addendum on miscellaneous signs (56-57). As Sider and Brunschön (hereafter S & B) note, the prologue seems to promise more than the rest of the text delivers. The signs listed in DS are meteorological warnings of a relatively immediate sort. They are arranged by results, not by signs—e.g. centipedes in large numbers as a sign of rain (19.128-29) occurs in the section on rain, not in a section on animals or animal behavior. It is clear that the author understands that these signs are no guarantee, but are in many cases true (supposedly) for the most part. DS contains virtually no explanations as to why these signs (are supposed to) work. For example, the author writes: “black halos ( ἅλως αἱ μέλαιναι) are a sign of rain, especially those occurring in the afternoon” (22.153-54); but there is no discussion of any connection between black halos and rain. (Compare this to Aristotle’s account of halos at Meteorology 3.3.372b12-33.) As far as I can tell, there is only one exception to this feature of DS: “likewise cattle and birds fighting for food more than usual [are a sign of storm], since [ γάρ ] they are getting prepared in advance” (41.303-304). This is the only γάρ in DS (and S & B comment: “An explanation!” [p. 191]). This general lack of explanation is usually attributed to the abridged nature of DS; but I think one could argue that it is instead a result of DS having had a low-level, data-collecting role in a Peripatetic investigation of weather signs. The actual accuracy of these signs is mixed. Some are clearly false, e.g. “Shooting stars in great number are a sign of rain or wind that will come from the same direction as the shooting stars” (13.83-84). Some are true but banal, e.g. “If lightning occurs all around, it signals rain” (32.223). Some are true without being so obvious, e.g. “Swallows striking the surface of a lake with their bellies signal rain” (15.101-102; see p. 128 for the accuracy of this claim). In some cases, I do not know whether the claim is true, e.g.: “A seal making its loud sound in the harbor while holding an octopus is a sign of storm” (40.292-93; the commentary on this line [pp. 188-89] does not shed light on its accuracy).

S & B’s superb introduction is divided into nine parts: (1) Predicting the weather (pp. 1-3); (2) Writing it down (pp. 3-4); (3) Origins of De Signis (preliminary considerations) (pp. 4-5); (4) Survey of ancient weather literature (pp. 5-29); (5) Structure of De Signis (pp. 30-36); (6) The nature of De Signis (pp. 36-38); (7) How accurate are the signs (pp. 38-39); (8) Authorship reconsidered (pp. 40-43); (9) Textual tradition (pp. 43-56). Limitations of space make it impossible to describe every part, so I restrict my comments to (3) and (8). Part 3 sets out the relevant facts concerning the origins of DS, and lays out five possibilities regarding authorship. Aside from what I mentioned in the opening paragraph (about works on weather signs attributed to Aristotle and Theophrastus, and the authorship attributed to DS in the manuscript tradition), the remaining relevant fact is that every manuscript of DS is found in a Peripatetic collection. S & B conclude on the basis of these facts that, setting aside such issues as style and vocabulary, five possibilities suggest themselves: (i) DS is a collection “gathered at Aristotle’s behest for him to mine while composing his own book on weather signs” (p. 4); (ii) DS was written by Aristotle; (iii) DS was written by Theophrastus; (iv) DS is an abridgement of what either Aristotle or Theophrastus wrote; (v) DS is an abridgement of what both Aristotle and Theophrastus wrote. (Perhaps we should consider adding (iiia) ‘DS was written by some other Peripatetic’, also abridging (iv) and (v) to include what this other Peripatetic wrote.) S & B return to the question of authorship (including its history) in Part 8. The Aldine edition (1497) published DS as anonymous; but every editor since—from Grynaeus (1541) to Hort (Loeb, 1926)—has “attributed it to Theophrastos without question” (p. 40). Nevertheless, doubts about Theophrastus as an author of DS reemerged in the nineteenth century. Böhme (1884) argued that Eudoxus was a common source for both DS and Aratos. Heeger (1889) claimed that DS could not be the work of Theophrastus or even a student of Theophrastus; rather, it was the result of “some later person excerpt[ing] a Peripatetic work on the subject” (p. 41). Maas (1893) argued that DS was the work of Democritus, and Rehm (1941) the work of Euktemon. S & B claim that no view on the authorship of DS can be proven, but here is what they consider a reasonable account of its origins:

(i) Aristotle . . . discusses (at least) short-term weather signs and suggests reasons for their validity, as well as discussing the nature of signs. . . . Directly from Aristotle, and not long afterward, both (ii) Eudoxos and (iii) Theophrastos write their own works on weather signs, the latter basing his work very much on Aristotle. . . . (iv) Aratos versifies Eudoxos’ work (or sections) on the constellations and the weather signs. . . . (v) Someone strips Theophrastos’ work of its causes . . . , leaving a carcass that is essentially De Signis as we have it in the mss. . . . Then, under a kind of Gresham’s law, the bad (the abridged version) drives out the good . . . , becoming the only version maintained in the Lyceum’s library. (pp. 42-43)

S & B’s edition of the Greek text of DS is the first to take into account all of the manuscripts (as well as the important thirteenth century Latin translation of Bartholomew of Messina). (For details, see Part 9 of the introduction.) The text is accompanied by a full apparatus criticus and clearly surpasses all earlier editions. The translation is both accurate and readable, and as it is based on a much more authoritative text it is superior to the other English translations (Wood [1894] and Hort [1926]). I noticed one error worthy of comment: “but the winter is dry” etc. at 24.166-67 should have been rendered “but if ( ἐὰν) the winter is dry” etc. (pp. 72-73).

The commentary is excellent. It thoroughly explains key terminology, provides parallel passages, and discusses variant readings and suggested emendations. I found the parallel passages particularly illuminating. For example, 25.175-76 reads: “whenever sheep or goats copulate, this is a sign of a long winter.” In their entry on 25.175 ( ὀχεύωσι), S & B provide interesting parallel passages from Aristotle, Aelian, Aratos and the Geoponica. The commentary contains many (often lengthy) quotes from relevant Greek and Latin texts, though most of these have not been translated. This volume would have been even more useful—and attractive to an even wider audience—had translations been provided, though that does go beyond what one normally expects from a scholarly commentary.

The quality of the production of the book does not match the quality of its content. I counted over forty works cited in the introduction or commentary that were not, but should have been, listed in the bibliography. Further, I spotted nearly fifty typographical and/or other minor errors, for example: p. 32, l. 6, “attention this” should be “attention to this”; p. 81, ll. 10-11, “be” should be cut from “it will be produce rain”; p. 106, ll. 7-8, the line beginning “For whenever the clouds into an obstacle” is missing a verb; p. 121, ll. 14-15: something is wrong with the line containing “if meteors are seen to come from all sides, winds too be many”; p. 199, 4th l. from the bottom, “anscestor” should be “ancestor”. This level of error, though unusual, is more common in books published by presses requiring authors to submit camera-ready copy—which should perhaps not come as a surprise, as a brilliant classicist (for example) is not necessarily a brilliant copy-editor.

Such minor errors aside, this superb volume is an excellent work of scholarship that should be read by anyone interested in Theophrastus and post-Aristotelian Peripatetic thought, and/or in ancient science and particularly ancient meteorology.