BMCR 2011.08.05

Manilius, Astronomica, Buch V (2 vols.). Sammlung wissenschaftlicher Commentare

, Manilius, Astronomica, Buch V (2 vols.). Sammlung wissenschaftlicher Commentare. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010. x, 303; 4 p. of plates; 450. ISBN 9783110206708. $249.00.

Table of Contents

The second half of the twentieth century may well be considered a lucky period for Manilius’ Astronomica : the renewed interest in it, fueled by the research both in historical poetics and in the history of science, which finally came to encompass the history of non-Sartonian disciplines, resulted in re-evaluation of the work, which came to be recognized not only as the oldest surviving treatise on Greco-Roman astrology, its contents displaying considerable complexity and advanced character of the doctrines involved, but also as a consummate poem, a veritable testimony to the supreme craft of its author and a proof of the descriptive as well as pedagogical capacities of the epic genre. Its structure, language, and metaphorical apparatus aimed to project an image of a continuous and interconnected world, each part linked to the others by ties of sympatheia, the Astronomica aim to provide an exposition of astrology – yet, their contents remain strangely truncated, for Manilius never enters into the discussion of planetary influence. He does, however, incorporate into his work a discussion of the subject of paramount importance in the astral lore: the concept and influence of paranatellonta, the extra-Zodiacal ‘accompanying’ constellations. The last (i.e. fifth) book of his poem remains devoted to this one subject, a subject often disparaged in scholarly research (particularly in the history of science), yet of considerable influence in the history of Western civilization. It is possibly here that the Manilian art reaches its climax – as the author wanders through the celestial realm, he faces several challenges, posed respectively by philosophical implications, astrological (divinatory) content, and the descriptive character of the section. Following in the footsteps of Hesiod, Aratus, Virgil and others, he nonetheless faces complexities of Fachsprache foreign to all these; even if one regards the Astronomica as ‘a coffee-table book’,1 one has to acknowledge its immense innovativeness and appreciate the flawless execution of the task at hand. Yet, to appreciate it, one needs to consult a commentary… And it is to the great credit of Wolfgang Hübner that he provided us with such a tool, a tool improving on the earlier commentaries, including that of Feraboli and Scarcia2 by virtue of its detailedness alone.

Impressive by any standards, the work is divided in two volumes, of which the first contains the introduction, text, bibliography and indexes, the other (notably larger) providing the commentary (a highly practical not to say commendable solution, as the division allows for an easy consultation of the latter part). As for the introduction, it sketches the general tendencies of Manilius’ work (all the while maintaining the focus on Book Five). In this brief and necessarily cursory overview Hübner highlights the more distinctive characteristics of Manilius’ style and poetics, emphasizing the defining features of his metaphors and similes: while this short outline cannot be regarded as an extensive study of the poem as literary work,3 Hübner manages to illuminate the very aspects that ‘make’ the Astronomica, that endow them with the qualities the poem that enchanted Scaliger and others. At the same time, this cursory overview of the poetics of the work in the introduction illuminates its close connection to Manilius’ models, Aratus’ Phaenomena and Virgil’s Georgics, thus positioning the poem in the cultural and literary milieu of the era. As a result, the opening part of the study forms a solid starting point for anyone interested in undertaking an in-depth study of Manilius’ poem.

Following immediately upon the Introduction, Hübner’s translation is lucid and competent, thus providing the reader with a clear view of the contents of the poem. Still, one cannot but notice that it also reflects the complexity and difficulties necessarily present when attempting to convert Manilius’ poem into a modern language while simultaneously retaining its actual content: most of the charm which endeared the work to Scaliger is irretrievably lost, and the learned quality of the text has become almost oppressive for the reader. This, one should emphasize, is hardly the fault of the translator, whose job was, after all, to secure a faithful rendition of the complex and ornate didactic poem: it is the difference of modern taste and aesthetics, as well as the limitations of German when confronted with the semantically loaded Latin vocabulary that brings about the unavoidable conversion of an original masterpiece into a unwieldy load of learned allusions.

It is hardly in doubt that it is the commentary that forms the major achievement of Hübner. Much in the manner of his magisterial Die Eigenschaften der Tierkreiszeichen in der Antike (Wiesbaden 1982), it furnishes an extraordinary wealth of astrological data, emphasizing the importance and occasional uniqueness of Manilius’ classification systems. Divided into twelve sections, each of them opened by a discussion of the corresponding Zodiacal sign, it discusses the attribution system, the possible importance of epithets, and the possible links and allusion to the Latin literary tradition, all the while referencing the earlier studies and existing discussions of the subject. Likewise, the essays opening both the Zodiacal sections and the discussion of separate extra-Zodiacal constellations may be regarded as autonomous outlines of astronomical and literary associations linked to the mention of the relevant astral objects: this provides the reader with a welcome insight into astrological and literary traditions on the one hand and into the complexity of Manilian poetics on the other. Some of Hübner’s shorter discussions remain particularly memorable: the brief study of the verb pendere and its cognates (ad V, 52), the subtle interpretation of cernere as applied to the sighting of Libra (ad V, 293), or the insightful reading of the polyvalent heres in V, 325 provide persuasive examples of the commentator’s craft, all the while accentuating the intricacy inherent in the very semantics of the text. At the same time, the extraordinary care displayed in the discussion unravels the complex relationship between Manilius and his predecessors, among whom Aratus and Virgil remain the most prominent. One also notes the commentator’s extreme cautiousness when considering the potential links between Manilius and Germanicus, the issue necessarily related to the chronology of their respective works. To help the reader, numerous tables and schemas were incorporated in the commentary, with a list provided in Volume One; this is particularly fortunate, for many theories of astrology become clearer when illustrated by a diagram. Considerable help is also furnished by the index: in following the fashion more frequent in the concordances, with actual phrases expressly quoted for each entry, and in combining the index of original terms with that of their translations Hübner has not only facilitated the exploration of his own work, but also provided his reader with a valuable exegetical tool where the whole of the Astronomica V is concerned.

The explicit errors I noticed are few and not directly related to the main subject: thus, on p. 17, the author mentions Teukros of Salamis as the brother of the ‘lesser’ Ajax. Occasional misprints are also present but the overall editing quality remains commendable. And certainly, one may take a different view of some issues discussed by Hübner – thus, I am not entirely convinced by the discussion of the opening line of the Book Five ( Hic alius finisset iter signisque relatis, v. II, p. 1): while the commentators use the sentence either in an attempt to recover Manilius’ sources or to support the idea of this particular book was written separately of the original intent, the content and the use of the remote subjunctive may be strictly rhetorical in character and thus may simply refer to the fact that other authors have finished their exposition prior to discussion of the paranatellonta (which does not necessarily mean that those other authors were Manilius’ actual sources).

To conclude: Hübner’s commented edition of Astronomica V, albeit far from being an easy read, provides its reader with a comprehensive and insightful picture of Manilius as poet, astronomer and interpreter of stellar lore, while simultaneously bearing witness to the learned quality of the Astronomica, and confirming its high artistic value as noted by the great scholars of the past. This is a truly rewarding, immensely erudite edition that will, one hopes, have a lasting impact not only on Manilian studies, but also on the studies of late Augustan or early imperial poetry in general.


1. The description repeatedly employed by K. Volk in her recent study Manilius and his intellectual context, Oxford University Press 2010.

2. Manilio Il poema degli astri (Astronomica), testo critico a cura di E. Flores, traduzione di Ricardo Scarcia, commento a cura di S. Feraboli e R. Scarcia, 2 vols, Milano 1996-2001.

3. Manilian metaphors (with particular emphasis on movement and light) were studied by Marek Hermann ( Metaforyka astralna w poezji rzymskiej, Kraków 2007). The epic/didactic quality of the poem was explored by Katharina Volk in her The Poetics of Latin Didactic, Oxford University Press 2002.