Alexander the Great was born, history tells us, the son of King Philip II of Macedon. Legend has it, however, that the boy's real father was a King of Egypt, Nectanebus, among whose accomplishments was the art of summoning immense armies out of thin air. In 356 BC, the planets informed him that his enemies would triumph over him, however efficient his aerial forces, so he packed his bags and made off, heavily disguised, to Macedon, where he set up as an astrologer and ingratiated himself at court. While the king was away, Nectanebus, with the aid of wax dolls and other magical means, transported himself into the queen's bedroom disguised as the god Ammon, to whose blandishments Olympias naturally felt bound to accede. She became pregnant.
When her term came, Nectanebus came to her room and set up at her bedside a tablet made of gold, silver and acacia wood, which stood on a tripod and consisted of three belts - one with Zeus on it, surrounded by the thirty-six decans; then one bearing the twelve signs of the zodiac; and on the innermost the Sun and Moon. To these he fitted eight precious stones showing the positions of the planets. He begged her not to give birth until these were propitious - and when they were, with a flash of lightning and a thump of thunder, Alexander was born. We are not told of King Philip's reaction on returning to discover the fait accompli; and indeed other accounts suggest that he and the queen merely employed an astrologer to tell the new-born child's fortune. But of Alexander's later successes, history tells us at length.
Nectanebus is said to have become Alexander's tutor, using as text-book The Secret of Secrets, a book by Aristotle, later lost. This, among other things, circulated a knowledge of and respect for astrology. It did Nectanebus no good, however, for when the child was 12 years old he tipped the astrologer over a cliff to prove that he could not foretell the time of his own death. But at least it apparently provide tips for the future world general - such as that he should never take a laxative except when the Moon was in Scorpio, Libra or Pisces, and that severe constipation would result were he to be unwise enough to take one while the Moon was in Capricorn.
It has always been understood that Alexander made use of astrology throughout his campaigns, though whether because he believed in it, or knew that others believed, and took advantage of the fact, is far from clear. It seems unlikely that he almost alone among educated people of his time placed the influence of the planets at naught - although one or two philosophers did so: Eudoxus (c 408-355 BC), for instance, the inventor of the geometrical theory of proportion, who demanded that 'no credence should be given to the Chaldeans, who predict and mark out the life of every man according to the day of his nativity'. And the Greek Academy under Carneades and Clitomachus, in the 1st century BC, was to set itself firmly against divination, magic and astrology.
But they were in a tiny minority. In general, as the historian Gilbert Murray was to put it, 'astrology fell upon the Hellenistic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote island people'. Through such outposts as Daphnae, a Greek settlement in Egypt between 610 and 560 BC, and especially through the ports of Egypt opened to Greek ships after 640 BC, travelling Chaldean astrologers descended on Greece in considerable numbers, bringing with them the apparently age-old wisdom they had hoarded, which was received warmly by Greeks already better practised in mathematics and astronomy than they.
If any evidence was needed of the fact that much astronomical and astrological lore came directly from Babylonia to Greece, we have only to look at the names of the planets. When the Greeks first recognised these, they called them Herald of the Dawn (Venus, noted even by Homer for its brightness, although sometimes it was called Vespertine, as the star of the evening), the Twinkling Star (Mercury), the Fiery Star (Mars), the Luminous Star (Jupiter), and the Brilliant Star (Saturn). But after the 4th century, these names begin to disappear, and others take their place - Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, Zeus and Cronos.
It seems almost certain that the reason is that by then the Chaldeans had arrived with their barbaric names for the planets - Nebo, Ishtar, Nergal, Marduk and Ninib. The Greeks simply substituted their own deities' names for the foreign ones - so today we call the planets by names that are English renderings of Latin translations of Greek translations of the original Babylonian ones!
One of the reasons for astrology's success in the Greek world may well have been the atmosphere during the period after Alexander's death, when the ancient ideal of the Greek republic was being replaced by the concept of universal monarchy. Religion was in a sense internationalized, and the worship of the planets and stars as deities became stronger as the cities lost their individual powers and personalities. The planets spread their influences indiscriminately, and such philosophers as Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, believing that nothing was determined by chance (indeed, that there was no such thing as chance) emphasized in the 4th century BC the idea that earthly happenings were rigidly determined by natural laws. What then was more obvious than that the planets, coolly moving in their predetermined courses, were the governors of events?
There is also, of course, the Greek expertise at astronomy and mathematics, and ingenuity in constructing machines to match that expertise: Ptolemy describes the construction of an astrolabe, an instrument for measuring the positions of the stars; and a little machine with geared wheels, discovered in the sunken wreck of a vessel of the 1st century BC, seems to have been devised to work out the motions of the planets. If some Greek ideas about the constitution of the solar system were distinctly eccentric (Ptolemy's not least so) their grasp of mechanics and mathematics was brilliant - much more so than many historians of the 18th century believed.
If we can safely ignore Philostratus' claim (made in the 3rd century AD) that astrology was known and practised in Greece as early as 1184 BC, it is certainly the case that Hesiod, a poet who lived in the 8th century BC, paid attention to the positions of the planets and stars in his Works and Days. In this long poem he suggested among other things that they should be used to predict good times at which to start certain tasks.
The Greeks pioneered enormous developments in astronomical theory. Aristotle disproved Anaximander's theory that the Earth floats freely and without support; Pythagoras was probably the first man to 'know' (if without proof) that the world was one of the planets, and round. This theory, first put forward it seems by Philolaus of Thebes at the end of the 5th century BC, was based on intuition rather than on reason, but the guess was an important one. It was clear by this time, too - at least to some astronomers - that the Sun was much larger than the Earth, and therefore probably the latter was not the centre of the universe. And by 230 BC, Aristarchus of Samos, centuries before Copernicus, argued that the Earth and all the planets revolved in circles round the Sun, the Earth turning on its axis once in twenty-four hours. But the time was against him, and only his colleague Seleucus accepted his theory, which otherwise sank like a stone - although Copernicus was heartened, pursuing it in his own age, to find evidence of an ancient conviction of the hypothesis.
The Greeks seem to have adopted the zodiac as early as the 6th century BC; it may have been Democritus, round about 420, who popularized it and the idea that the planets influenced man as they travelled through the signs. It is said that he spent much time in Egypt and the east; certainly he visited Persia, and he may have been more decided in advancing his view that the planets governed men's lives than any Greek before him. He agreed with Zeno that nothing could happen in the world by chance. It has been claimed that he gave the zodiac signs their Greek names, although other historians have suggested that Anaxagoras, born in lonia about 500 BC, may have had a hand in that - he was an adventurous astronomer, the first to explain that the Moon shone because of the reflected light of the Sun. He was thrown out of Athens, where he lived for thirty years, for attempting to rationalize astronomy, and teaching rationalist theories about 'the things on high'. The Greeks, who sacrificed to the Sun and Moon, were outraged at his suggestion that they were paying court to a 'fiery star' and a lump of earth.
Many reports of early astronomical/astrological feats by the Greeks must be regarded with suspicion. It has often been suggested, for instance, that Thales predicted a solar eclipse that occurred in 585BC, thus ending a battle between the Lydians and Medes, who stopped fighting in sheer surprise. This seems unlikely. The knowledge simply did not exist by which it could have been done, although it is possible Thales might simply have made a spectacularly successful guess. There is a little more substance, perhaps, in Pliny's report that Cleostratus of Tenedos observed the zodiacal constellations as they appeared behind Mount Ida towards the end of the 6th century. But it is only on looking at the calendars devised by Eudoxos of Cnidus (c 408-355 BC), a Greek scientist and astronomer, that we definitely find use being made of the Greek zodiac (it was he who, in the Phainomena, divided the ecliptic into twelve equal signs).
Between the 5th century BC and the birth of Christ, astrology appealed to various sections of Greek society, among them not only philosophers and scientists, but such men as Hippocrates, the physician and 'father of medicine', who taught astrology to his students so that they could discover the 'critical days' in an illness. He is said to have remarked that 'any man who does not understand astrology is a fool rather than a physician'. And the young intelligentsia often took an intense interest in the subject; when Plato visited Dionysus' school, he saw two pupils arguing with great vigour about the theories of Anaxagoras, illustrating their argument by imitating the sweep of the ecliptic with their arms. Aristophanes in The Clouds ridicules the study of astrology as one of the cults of the Athens upper classes.
It was, as might be expected, a Chaldean - Berosus, a priest of Bel Marduk at Babylon - who in about 260 BC came to the island of Cos, where there was a medical school at which Hipparchus had taught, and set up there a formal school of astrology which was perhaps the earliest such establishment. He seems to have used for his textbook a treatise called The Eye of Bel, which existed in the form of seventy tablets in the library of Assurbanipal, but was compiled much earlier, in the 3rd millenium BC, for Sargon I - or so it was said. Berosus also wrote an enormous history of his homeland, Babylonica, covering some five hundred thousand years from the creation of the world to the death of Alexander the Great, setting out in it a considerable amount of astronomical/astrological lore: about the Great Year, for instance, and the theory that earthquakes were caused by planets being in conjunction with the Sun. He also predicted a cataclysmic world disaster when all the planets were in conjunction in Cancer: the earth would become mud during an inordinate flood, and the world would eventually be covered with water, sweeping away all human life.
Berosus was famous in his own time, and it is said that Athens raised a statue of him with a golden tongue, to pay tribute to his oratorical skills. He was succeeded on Cos by Antipatrus and Achinapolus, who taught medical astrology, and seem to have been the first non-Babylonian astrologers to experiment with the idea of drawing up a horoscope for the moment of conception rather than birth. They worked a good deal on the ancient aphorism, preserved in Hermetic literature, to the effect that the sign occupied by the Moon at the moment of conception would be in the ascendant at the time of birth. Interestingly Dr Eugen Jonas, a Czechoslovak psychiatrist, did a great deal of work on the same theory in the 1960s, claiming to be able to predict by the tropical position of the Moon at the time of conception the sex of a child, before birth. The Communist government banned his work in 1970, before his full evidence could be published.
Dimly, we hear of other visiting Chaldean travellers to Greece: Soudines, for instance, a visitor to the court of Attalus I, King of Pergamum, who compiled lunar tables which were used for centuries, and one of the earliest lapidaries, associating various precious stones with certain planets and signs. By now, many Greeks were quick to adopt the new celestial theory: Epigenes of Byzantium, Apollonius of Myndus and Artemidorus of Parium all boasted of having been instructed by Babylonia priest-astrologers. Kidenas, who probably lived in the second half of the 3rd century BC, seems to have been responsible for some Babylonian astronomical discoveries, and perhaps was a tutor of Berosus himself (though one of the problems is that the dates of many of these early astrologers are extremely uncertain). Then there was Aratus, a contemporary of Berosus, who in about 276 BC versified the Phainomena of Eudoxos, producing a poem which became required reading for generations of Greeks, with its account of the planets, the zodiac and the other constellations, and its concluding advice to meteorologists:
Study the Signs together through the year,
Then never of the weather shall a guess
Make random nonsense, but assured forecast.
Innumerable Greek and Roman commentators published their own editions of Aratus.
A misty figure with the name Critodemus appears briefly in a list of the founders of the Greek astrological tradition given by Firmicus Maternus a Latin writer of about AD 356, in his De erroribus profanorum religionum, among purely imaginary personages such as Hermes, Orpheus and Nechepso. This kind of thing plagues anyone attempting to trace astrological history. Was Critodemus imaginary too? Or did he indeed construct the horoscopes he is said to have drawn up? There is a treatise ascribed to him, Horasis, from which later astrologers learned: one, Hephaistion, relied utterly on his astrological formula for determining whether a child would be still-born.
Gradually, astrological lore was being drawn together into a more or less coherent body of knowledge. This did not mean, however, that it was free of contradictions, or that it developed with any more coherence than other theories about the nature of the universe. In the three centuries before the birth of Christ, splits occurred between astrologers which continue to this day. Perhaps the chief one concerned free will. On school of 'scientific' astrologers took a severely empirical view: everything was predetermined, and the movements of the planets were, so to speak, geared to coming events. Another, the 'catharchic' school, believed that some things were predetermined, but by no means all. If you studied the planets' movements sufficiently minutely you could, by seizing a propitious moment bring about success when to act at another might provoke disaster. Free choice meant the right to chose the moment at which to start a project, conceive a child, be born.
There was, by now, a very strong association between certain planets and certain terrestrial events and characteristics. The strongest, of course, was between the Sun and life itself. As one astrologer put it:
The Sun, which nourishes the seeds of all plants, is the first also to gather from them the first fruits as soon as he rises; for this gathering of his uses his rays, if one may employ the term, like immense hands. What indeed are hands for him but those rays that gather in the first place the suavest emanations of plants?
The different quality of sunlight at different times of the day is now a matter of scientific record, here stated with imagery that is specifically Egyptian. Mars is associated by the same ancient astrologer with war, Venus with love, Mercury with speed and messages, and so on. These associations were not only regarded as traditional, but as matters of scientific fact, although the mythical associations between the planets and ancient legend were still preserved, so that Saturn was also Cronos, Jupiter was still Zeus (there is a horoscope dated AD 8, in which Cronos is in the sign of the Bull, Zeus in that of the Crab, Ares (Mars) in that of the Virgin, and so on).
The consensus was that two planets, Jupiter and Venus, were on the whole benevolent, and two were antagonistic, with Mercury neutral. The degree of their influence was geared to their position relative to Earth and the Sun, which was in the middle of the planetary family with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn above, and Venus, Mercury and the Moon below. The lower planets were humid, and colder the further they stood from the Sun. Humidity was thought to be a female element, so the upper planets were believed to be masculine, while Venus and the Moon were feminine, with Mercury a hermaphrodite.
As the astrological theory grew more complex, so it became more difficult to resolve anomalies and confusions; and as astronomy developed it became difficult always to fit the known facts to the mythical characteristics. The zodiac signs, too, caused some confusion; the Greeks saw Aries, for instance, as a character in the legend of the Golden Fleece, while astrologers who had learned from the Chaldeans had to accept it as the Ram of Ammon. Aries naturally tended to preside over the fortunes of wool merchants; but since the Golden Ram lost its fleece, it also tended to provoke sudden disasters in the wool trade!
Despite the fact that there were innumerable difficulties in the way of a practical valuation of the interpretations offered by the astrologers, some people continued to take the subject very seriously indeed - not only the Seleucids, Lagids and Attalids, but smaller states such as Commagene, under King Antiochus I (c 8o BC). A former antagonist of Pompey, then his ally in the civil war, who repelled an attack on Samosata by Mark Antony (and Antony, incidentally, is said to have been spied on by an astrologer employed by Cleopatra), Antiochus is interred in a giant tomb on the summit of Nimrud Dagh, 7000 feet above sea level, covered with carvings in relief which provide a fascinating anthology of astrological beliefs of the time. Here Greek and Iranian gods became one: Mithra is Apollo, Ares is Hercules, Zeus is Oromazdes. On the western terrace outside the tomb is a great relief of a lion covered with stars, and with the Moon and three planets: Jupiter near the head, Mercury in the middle and Mars at the tail - the planets associated with Zeus, Apollo and Hercules. This is believed to be a visual interpretation of a horoscope for 6 July 62 BC - the day on which Antiochus was crowned after his reinstatement by Pompey.
As we turn from Greece towards Rome, where astrology really took its place at the very centre of political events, it is to the city of Alexandria that we must look for a sight of the man who drew together all the skeins of astrological thought of his day and did his best to rationalize them in one book. After the death of Alexander, who founded the city, King Ptolemy Soter - Ptolemy 1 (323-285 BC) - had founded a sort of university at Alexandria, at which the scholars of the city could meet to further their studies. Four hundred years later, the most famous astrologer of ancient times, Claudius Ptolemaeus - Ptolemy - arrived to teach there.
Ptolemy is of course known chiefly as a mathematician, astronomer and geographer, who despite his conviction that the Earth was the centre of the universe around which all other heavenly bodies revolved, devised an astronomical system that was to be adopted by the whole of Europe for centuries. His Syntaxis made a great point of insisting on simplicity - no point in inventing complex systems to explain a phenomenon when a simple one would do - and on verification of observation. Astoundingly, without the aid of a telescope, he catalogued 1022 separate stars (compared with the 840 or so catalogued by Hipparchus).
The Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy's lengthy astrological textbook, the first really substantial textbook to come down to us complete, is a compilation of the astrological lore of previous centuries, and was written sometime between AD 161 and 139, when he was working in Alexandria. It is in four books, and begins with a rational enough argument: since it is clear that the Sun and Moon have an effect upon terrestrial life (through the seasons, the movements of the tides, and so on), it is surely well to consider the effects the other heavenly bodies may have. Then, in what is admittedly a giant leap, he proposes that
since it is clearly practicable, by an accurate knowledge of the points above enumerated, to make predictions concerning the proper quality of the seasons, there also seems no impediment to the formation of similar prognostications concerning the destiny and disposition of every human being, for ... even at the time of any individual's primary conformation, the general quality of that individual's temperament may be perceived; and the corporeal shape and mental capacity with which the person will be endowed at birth may be pronounced; as well as the favourable and unfavourable events indicated ...
Ptolemy takes what is an extremely realistic view of the subject, despite his obvious partisanship; he admits, for instance, that the science is imperfect, not only because some astrologers are simply bad astrologers, but because there are other influences than astrological ones to be considered. However,
since no weakness is imputed to a physician because he enquires into the individual habit of his patient, as well as into the nature of the disease, no imputation can justly attach to the professor of prognostication because he combines the consideration of species, nurture, education and country with that of the motion of the heavens; for as the physician acts but reasonably in thus considering the proper constitution of the sick person as well as his disease, so, in forming predictions, it must surely be justifiably allowable to comprehend in that consideration every other thing connected with the subject, in addition to the motion of the heavens, and to collect and compare with that motion all other co-operating circumstances arising elsewhere.
Completing Book One of the Tetrabiblos, Ptolemy then begins to summarize the workings not only of the Sun, Moon and planets, but of certain fixed stars, going into technical detail. In Book Two, he sets out to 'confine the whole doctrine within the limits of natural reason', delineating two chief areas in which astrology can be of use to man - the general (concerned with entire nations, countries or cities) and the particular (concerning individuals). He relates the dispositions of nations to astrology by pointing out that their people seem to have different temperaments, which can be related to the climate of their countries; such climates being, of course, a matter of the heat of the Sun. The people of the extreme north, for instance, who live 'under the Bears', or close to the arctic circle,
have their zenith far distant from the Zodiac and the Sun's heat. Their constitutions, therefore, abound in cold, and are also highly imbued with moisture, which is in itself a most nutritive quality, and in these latitudes is not exhausted by heat; hence, they are fair in complexion, with straight hair, of large bodies and full stature. They are cold in disposition, and wild in manners, owing to the constant cold ...
Book Two concludes with a passage on how to interpret eclipses, and on the significance of meteors (which is wholly meteorological). In Book Three, Ptolemy turns to personal astrology. He is clear about the difficulty of obtaining an accurate birth time let alone the possibility of noting down the correct time of conception. Both depended on astronomical observation, using an astrolabe, or on having a water clock (and even these, he says, have been known to be leaky and therefore inaccurate!). He is not manic about the choice to be made between working from the time of conception or of birth; ideally, both should be noted. But after all,
the conception may in fact be said to be the generation of mere human seed, but the birth that of man himself, since the infant at its birth acquires numerous qualities which it could not possess while in the womb, which are proper to human nature alone.
There are detailed instructions about the interpretation of a birth chart or horoscope, and accounts of just what the good astrologer can expect to be able to discover. The physical appearance is certainly one ingredient. The baby born when Saturn is 'oriental' (or in the eastern half of the birth chart) would be of a yellowish complexion and a good constitution, with black and curled hair, a broad and stout chest, eyes of ordinary quality, and a proportionate size of body, the temperament of which is compounded principally of moisture and cold. Should he [Saturn] be occidental [in the west of the chart], he makes the personal figure black or dark, thin and small, with scanty hair on the head, the body without hair but well-shaped, the eyes black or dark, and the bodily temperament consisting chiefly of dryness and cold.
Illnesses could be foreseen, and therefore guarded against, by studying the birth chart; so could the qualities of mind of the growing individual. A heavy emphasis on the 'tropical' or 'cardinal' signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra or Capricorn) would
generally dispose the mind to enter much into political matters, rendering it eager to engage in public and turbulent affairs, fond of distinction, and busy in theology; at the same time ingenious, acute, inquisitive, inventive, speculative and studious of astrology and divination.
The 'fixed' signs (Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius), if stressed,
make the mind just, uncompromising, constant, firm of purpose, prudent, patient, industrious, strict, chaste, mindful of injuries, steady in pursuing its object, contentious, desirous of honour, seditious, avaricious and pertinacious.
Those born with an emphasis on the 'bicorporeal' or 'mutable' signs, (Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius or Pisces) would have minds that were
variable, versatile, not easy to be understood, volatile and unsteady, inclined to duplicity, amorous, wily, fond of music, careless, full of expedients, and regretful.
But the planets also play their part in shaping the character. Saturn, for instance, in a certain relationship with Venus in the birth chart, and if 'exalted' (well-placed within a sympathetic sign), made men
averse to women, and renders them fond of governing, prone to solitude, highly reserved, regardless of rank, indifferent to beauty, envious, austere, unsociable, singular in opinion, addicted to divination and to religious services and mysteries, solicitous of the priesthood, fanatical and subservient to religion, solemn, reverential, sedate, studious of wisdom, faithful in friendship, continent, reflective, circumspect, and scrupulous in regard to female friendship.
On the other hand if not in association with Venus, and ill-placed, Saturn could make men
licentious and libidinous, practisers of lewdness, careless, and impure in sexual intercourse; obscene, treacherous to women, especially to those of their own families; wanton, quarrelsome, sordid, hating elegance, slanderous, drunken, superstitious, adulterous and impious; blasphemers of the gods and scoffers at holy rites.
Book Four continues the interpretation of various aspects of the birth chart - how to discern a baby's future wealth, rank and employment; the probable nature of his or her marriage, and attitude to sex. For instance Mars placed distantly from Venus and Saturn but in proximity to Jupiter would make men 'pure and decorous in sexual intercourse, and incline them to natural usages only', while if Mars was supported by Venus, they 'will become highly licentious and attempt to gratify their desires in every mode'.
The Tetrabiblos was enormously influential in its time, and for centuries after. Other astrologers, such as Hephaestion of Thebes, Paul of Alexandria and Julius Firmicus, used it, and saw it as a seminal work. Even today it is read by astrologers, not merely because some of its precepts are part of astrological heritage, but because it offers cogent arguments to support its theory. For instance, Ptolemy grasped the nettle of the Precession of the Equinoxes, pointing out that 'the beginnings of the signs are to be taken from the equinoctial and tropical points. This rule is not only stated very clearly by writers on the subject, but it is also evident by the demonstrations constantly afforded, that their natures, influences and familiarities have no other origin than from the tropics and equinoxes ...' In other words, it is the 30 degree section of the ecliptic within which planets may be placed that matters, and not the fact that certain constellations may or may not be behind them. Yet that hoary old argument is still raked up, despite the fact that Ptolemy settled it firmly two thousand years ago.
Some astrologers, who like to view the subject mystically rather than practically, have found Ptolemy somewhat dry and uninspiring. Yet he could be intoxicated, like so many of the astronomers of his time, by the sheer romance of the universe:
'Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day; but when I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth; I ascend to Zeus himself to feast me on ambrosia, the food of the gods.'
Ptolemy's sheer enthusiasm no less than his certainty has always been infectious to generations that followed him; but it is also true that many passages of the Tetrabiblos read today with a peculiarly modern air, in view of the most recent discoveries of previously unsuspected cosmic rays and gravitational effects between the planets. Its errors of fact are no
more (indeed, no less) than those of any scientific treaties of its time; and it is a model of the best of its kind. We have only to compare it with other astrological books of roughly the same period to see its superiority. Take, for instance, the existing fragment of the Salmeschnaiko, another influential textbook, full of generalizations:
... This period makes many find their livelihood as advocates, others as wizards, many as singers of gods and kings, and many as translators of languages ... Many, however, also consume the substance of others. [The Lord of Flame] makes many passive homosexuals, and many cohabiting with their aunts and stepmothers so as to debauch them.
It is not easy to discover just how far astrology was used by the Greeks at a personal level. Eudoxos, in the 4th century BC, condemned horoscopes used for personal predictions, and Theophrastus, a little later, was surprised to hear from the Chaldeans that they claimed to be able to predict events in the lives of individuals as well as making weather forecasts. Ennius (239-169 BC) is the first Latin writer to mention the people who
write down the signs of heaven
Noting the Goats or Scorpions of great Jove
And other monstrous names of horrid shapes
Climbing the Zodiac ...
and Cato, who died in 149 BC, warned the manager of his farm not to consult travelling Chaldeans. Stoicism, when it became the fashion in Rome, must have been responsible for an early interest in astrology, too. It is perhaps fair to guess that the forecasts made for Romans during the early centuries after Christ were of much the same sort as those devised for the Greeks in the centuries before: it is simply that more of the former have survived.
These Roman examples are extremely various, as Jack Lindsay points out in his exhaustive Origins of Astrology (1971). Few of them, however, attempt to predict the future. Presumably this was done, if at all, in conversation with clients, and on the basis of lengthy files of notes kept by astrologers, showing the positions of the planets at birth and the subsequent career of the subject, as well as of physical characteristics. A man born on 14 December became a deputy-governor but annoyed his superior and ended up working in a quarry with prisoners. Another, born on 23 April 104, had short arms. Yet another was ill and had a close escape at sea, but was saved thanks to the benevolent position of Saturn.
Most astrologers have kept notes of that sort, building up dossiers relating the positions of the planets at the birth of an individual to subsequent events or to physical characteristics. Someone born on 10 November 114 had in his forty-second year 'quarrels and confusion and notoriety through a woman', and two years later 'the violent death of a slave and crisis of his father, and accusation of ignoble descent and rape. But he received help and gifts from friends ... ' Someone else, born on 21 January 116, was effeminate and 'had unmentionable vices, for Capricorn is lascivious and its ruler [Saturn] was in the Bull, the sign [which would indicate the kind of] weakness, and the Scorpion indicates the kind of lewdery.' Not unsurprisingly, he seems to have been drummed out of his high position in the army after some undefined incident.
By AD 188 Vettius Valens of Antioch, the well-known astrologer, had amassed a fine library of horoscopes, and sets out over a hundred of them in his Anthologiae, illustrating the interpretation of birth charts, and stressing that it is as a result of the detailed examination of how the planets have worked in the life of his clients that he has become so practised and accurate an astrologer. His life is the first we have that can be compared to the lives of other professional astrologers throughout the following ages: he continually recorded his findings, occasionally wrote textbooks (his Teacher's Manual is, alas, lost), and had continually to defend himself against attacks both from other astrologers and from lay antagonists.
But if many astrologers, through the latter centuries BC in Greece and in the early years of the Roman empire, practised relatively quietly with lay men and women who had only the lowest rank in society, we find for the first time in Rome detailed accounts of the part they played in influencing the politics of a country through high-placed clients. For the next eighteen hundred years astrology was to be part of the personal and political lives of most rulers and of their people.