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date: 22 May 2018

Astrology in Ancient Greek and Roman Culture

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

This article deals with astrology in Greek and Roman culture. It considers astrology’s theoretical background, technical basis, interpretative conventions, social functions, religious and political uses, and theory of fate, as well as critiques of it. Astrology is the name given to a series of diverse practices based in the idea that the stars, planets, and other celestial phenomena possess significance and meaning for events on Earth. It assumes a link between Earth and sky in which all existence—spiritual, psychological, and physical—is interconnected. Most premodern cultures practiced a form of astrology. A particularly complex variety of it evolved in Mesopotamia in the first and second millennia BCE from where it was imported into the Hellenistic world from the early 4th century BCE onward. There it became attached to three philosophical schools: those pioneered by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, all of which shared the assumption that the cosmos is a single, living, integrated whole. Hellenistic astrology also drew on Egyptian temple culture, especially the belief that the soul could ascend to the stars. By the 1st century CE the belief in the close link between humanity and the stars had become democratized and diversified into a series of practices and schools of thought that ranged across Greek and Roman culture. It was practiced at the imperial court and in the street. It could be used to predict individual destiny, avert undesirable events, and arrange auspicious moments to launch new enterprises. It could advise on financial fortunes or the condition of one’s soul. It was conceived of as natural science and justified by physical influences, or considered to be divination, concerned with communication with the gods and goddesses. In some versions the planets were neither influences nor causes of events on Earth, but timing devices, which indicated the ebb and flow of human affairs, like the hands on a modern clock. Astrology had a radical view of time in which the future already existed, at least in potential, and the astrologers’ task was to intercede in time, altering the future to human advantage. In this sense, astrology was a form of “participation mystique,” in which time and space were conceived of as a single entity, and individual and social benefits were to be derived from engaging with it. There was no one single version of astrology; and there were disputes about what it was and what it could do, for example, whether it could make precise predictions about individual affairs or merely general statements. From the early 4th century it went into a progressive decline, facing challenges from Christianity and the fragmentation of classical culture, especially in Western Europe. It survived in Persia, exerted a powerful influence on Indian astrology, and was transmitted to the Islamic world, from where it was re-imported into the Latin West in the 12th century. A knowledge of astrology’s place in Greek and Roman culture is essential for a full understanding of religion, politics, and science in the Greek and Roman worlds, as well as the history of Western science.