BMCR 2008.07.14

Giovanni Lido. Sui segni celesti. Translated by Erika Maderna

, , Sui segni celesti. Le porpore ; 29. Milan: Medusa, 2007. 158 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9788876981159 €18.00 (pb).

Resurgence of interest in the antiquarian works of Late Antique and Byzantine authors will be well rewarded by the Etruscan (and other) treasures that lie embedded in such texts. The beautiful cover of this small volume, reproducing Rafael’s L’Astronomia from the Vatican Stanze, is a good omen of the jewel of a text that lies within, a very accessible and useful Italian translation of one of Lydus’ treatises on pagan religion, Περὶ διοσημείων, usually cited by the Latin title De ostentis (“On signs in the heavens”).

Johannes Lydus (“John the Lydian”) was one of the few civil servants in 6th-century Constantinople who qualified as a Latin secretary, and many Classical texts must have crossed his desk that are lost today. The treatise De ostentis, like his others written in then-contemporary Greek, made otherwise obscure works by Latin writers available once again for the scholars of his day. It seems to have been published without any of the difficulties that accrued to some other experts on pagan topics (e.g. accusations of heresy), for Lydus was honored with the chair of Latin Philology at the palace school. As Domenici points out (11-12), his conviction that what one learns from the past is valid for the present could have been seen as confirmed when such events as the solar eclipse of 512 and the comet of 540 AD seemed to presage, respectively, the revolt of Vitalianus and the destruction of Antioch by Khosru of Persia. Born in Lydia under Byzantine rule, he saw himself as Italian and saw the power of Constantinople as the logical development of Roman culture that had itself grown from Etruscan roots.

The text of Lydus’ De ostentis, in Italian translation, is just 88 pages (47-135); explanatory material and notes comprise the introduction and final section of this book. Lydus claimed to have translated classic divinatory manuscripts word-for-word, and there is no reason to question the authenticity of his selection. For Etruscan Studies, De ostentis 27-38 (81-98) is the most important, for embedded here is Lydus’ Greek translation of a lost document, the Brontoscopic Calendar that had been translated from Etruscan into Latin by Cicero’s friend P. Nigidius Figulus, in the mid-1st century BC. Obviously, the Etruscan original no longer survives, nor does the Latin, so this third-hand document is particularly precious.

Central to the authority of the once-Etruscan text of Figulus is its reference to Tages, the puer senex who appeared from a furrow in the earth, prophesied or dictated the etrusca disciplina and then disappeared. The authors reproduce (157-158) and discuss (20-27) the Greek text of the relevant sections. This reference to divine authority through a supernaturally transmitted text, at the core of Roman religion yet mocked by Cicero ( De divinatione 2.23.50-51; 2.38.80), would become crucial to the debates between Christianity and paganism. (See D. Briquel, Chrétiens et haruspices. La religion étrusque, dernier rampart du paganisme romain [Paris 1997], cited by Domenici.)

De ostentis also holds, in addition to analytical comments by Lydus, the only preserved texts of several other works, all by later authors, and introduced by Lydus:

– “Campestrio’s treatise on comets” (63-68: Campester was a Roman astrologer of the 3rd or 4th c. AD)

– observations on thunder from the works of Fonteius (99-101: presumed by most to be the same as C. Fonteius Capito who supported Antony in 37 BC)

– observations on omens of the moon from the works of Labeo (102-103: probably the 3rd-c. AD author Cornelius[?] Labeo denounced by Augustine and Arnobius)

– a book on lightning-strikes from Labeo (107-110)

– a book on earthquakes by Vigellius (113-116: otherwise unknown)

– a zodiacal weather calendar by Claudius Tuscus (117-134: Augustan[?] author of a Latin calendar-poem on weather).1

The post-Figulan treatises all derive from the milieu of astrological and philosophical scholarship that began with the Persian occupation of Egypt; personal astrology soon became part of Hellenistic pop culture and was developed in Ptolemaic and Roman learned society. The information was culled in part from much older works in the corpora of Mesopotamian divination, coupled with Egyptian astronomical/astrological lore, so in the texts quoted by Lydus (apart from that of Figulus) we see the signs of the zodiac and exotic references to such places as Trogloditica or Garamantia (clarified in Domenici’s index, 36). These and related documents preserved in other Byzantine MSS have yet to be thoroughly mined for data relating to ancient beliefs and sciences.2

Maderna’s translation is very clear and allows one to follow the flow of the original: one can pick it up and read it through; notes link to related ancient literature and give background on authors and topics. Breaks or problems in the MS, as at July 16, sect. 28, p. 83, are not noted here — for most readers, this is not a problem and the omission creates a smooth text. For an intensive study of the text, you will of course need to consult the original Greek, since modern phrasing cannot reproduce all the grammatical details of the inflected and erudite original. For instance, the Brontoscopic Calendar of Figulus actually begins μηνι ιουνιῶin the month of June” (here, it is simply “Giugno”). More importantly, the Greek uses two different modes of protasis, the “if”-clause that begins omens: the verb “thunder,” βροντήσῃ, is preceded by ἐάν for the first months (June to mid-September) and the rest of the year instead has εἰ to render “if,” thus “if in any way it should thunder” as opposed to “if it thunders.” Presumably the Etruscan original differentiated these periods for some as-yet undiscerned purpose.

Byzantine Greek seems simpler than Classical only until one tries to render it into clear English: there is no complete translation of De ostentis in English yet, and when I did my translation of only the Brontoscopic Calendar of Figulus (in N.T. de Grummond and E. Simon, eds., The Religion of the Etruscans, Austin, TX, 2006: 182-190), I encountered many cases of slightly mutated vocabulary. Italian, like Latin, does not always reflect the nuances of Byzantine terminology: for example, Greek θεράπουσιν is rendered servi — “slaves” in Latin, but generic “servants” in Italian — in Greek it is literally “caretakers.” The original Etruscan probably reflected a very specific category of Etruscan society, still poorly understood by us, and likened by Classical authors to the class of penestai of Thessaly. At June 29 (sect. 27, p. 82), τῆς βασιλίδος πόλεως is rendered with nella città regia, “in the ruling city,” which was a Byzantine reference to Constantinople, and might in the Latin version have meant Rome — but what did it mean in the original Etruscan?

For genuine reading, though, the clear, unassuming prose of this Italian translation is a delight: now one can read the entire work for sense and think about it as did Lydus’ contemporaries, the heirs of classical religious scholarship. What other gems are yet to be detected in this time-capsule from Justinian’s day?


1. For earlier, especially Greek, works with calendrical formats and divinatory or environmental phenomena, see D. Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather and Calendars in the Ancient World. Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near Eastern Societies (Cambridge 2008). For discussions of related topics and authors, see the series of La divination dans le monde étrusco-italique I-IX, a set of Tables-Rondes (1985-2005) published as Caesarodunum Suppl. Vols. 52, 54, 56, 61, 65-67 by the École Normale Supérieure, Paris. For additional background on the Near Eastern sources, see J.M. Steele, ed., Calendars and Years. Astronomy and Time in the Ancient Near East (Oxbow, 2007).

2.Transcriptions were published in a series edited by F. Cumont, F. Boll et al., from 1889 to 1953, as Catalogus codicum astrologorum graecorum (Brussels: Lamertin, etc.). See Bezold, C. and F. Boll, 1911. Reflexe astrologischer Keilschriften bei griechischen Schriftstellern = Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse 1911, Abhandlung 7. Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung.