Exegesis Volume 5 Issue #18

From: L: Smerillo ;, X-Mailer: "Mozilla 3.01Gold"
Subject: Ptolemaeus

Exegesis Digest Sat, 25 Mar 2000

Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 03:44:27 -0500
From: L: Smerillo ;, X-Mailer: "Mozilla 3.01Gold"
To: exegesis
Subject: Ptolemaeus


you asked for comments on your essay. Below are some of mine. I hope these 'scholia' clarify some points which I noticed in reading your essay. One point I would suggest in that you include the dates for all the personages you mention.

William Tallman wrote:

 > Claudius Ptolemaeus was a Hellenistic Greek who appears to have lived his
 > entire life in Egypt, much of it in Alexandria. The form of his name
 > indicates he was a Roman citizen, which would be in keeping with the fact
 > that he lived during the latter part of the first century and the first
 > part
 > of the second century of the Common Era (CE). Almost nothing is known of
 > the man himself, though some descriptions have him as a rather presentable
 > individual of moderate build, who was a dedicated horseman, and who was
 > also
 > said to have suffered from halitosis. Apparently, he lived for many years,
 > presumably in later life, in Canopus, some fifteen miles to the east. As a
 > younger man he is said to have been the student of Theron the Elder in
 > Alexandia, who was regarded by some as not having been all that sharp, but
 > good evidence suggests that Ptolemy made up for that at the libraries either
 > there or at Canopus itself: in all of his works he readily acknowledges and
 > makes very good use of the works of the scholars who had preceded him at
 > Alexandria.

Perhaps if we look at Franz Boll, 'Studien u+ber Claudius Ptolema+eus' in _Jahrbu+cher fu+r das klassiche Philologie_ Suppl. XXI 1894, p.53ff., we would see that the testimonies for P. are not reliable. The only things we can say with any certainty is that he lived in the 2nd cent. CE, was born n Pelusius (but even that has been called into question by Boll (p.58-59), as being a corruption of the name Claudius) and lived and worked in Alexandria.

Certainly to say he was a Roman citizen is rather a long shot. The name Claudius was diffuse, and may only indicate tht he was either from an Italian family which had settled in Alexandria, at uncertain date, or from a family which was philo-Roman. We have the same problem with Vettius Valens, who was Syrian.


 > The second is a collection of a hundred astrological aphorisms,
 > called the Centiloquim.[sic] Although there has been some argument about
 > whether
 > these are actually by Ptolemy, we now know that they clearly are, because
 > they are cited by his successors as such in astrological writings that are
 > not generally well known by science or Greek scholars.
 > Until fairly recently, there was no generally available reputable version
 > of
 > either of these books, but now the J. M. Ashmand edition of the Proclus
 > paraphrase is easily obtainable, and it is apparently the only translation
 > of the Proclus paraphrase now extant. Other versions of these works exist
 > in direct translations of the original Greek, and of Arabic translations of
 > the original. None of these are widely and readily available, it appears.
 > The fact that the most readily accepted edition of Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos is
 > a paraphrase is interesting in that it provides us with some insights

I find this passage slightly confusing. There is an adequate translation of the the Tetrabib. in the Loeb series by F.E. Robbins, 1956; others in French, Italian and German.

The Centiloquium is NOT by P., see the edition of the text by Ae. Boer, _Pseudo-Ptolomaei Karps, Fructus siue Centiloquium, editio altera correctior (Cl. Ptolemaei Opera quae extant omnia III/2)_, Lipsiae, 1961. What evidence and sources can you site to the contrary supporting the authenticity? Those Greek scholars who interest themselves in astrologic history know the sources. [See the reference to Richard Lemay's article sent in to the list today by Patrice Guinard which I have not seen.]

J.M. Ashmand's translation is of Proclus' _paraphrase_ of the Tetratbib. This is not the _text_ of Ptolemaeus' 'Tetrabiblios'.


 > Thrasyllus was the astrologer to at least one and probably more
 > Roman emperors, and his son followed in his position. Both of these were
 > known for their work, although they did not (understandably) publish either
 > theoretical or clinical data.

"Clinical data" in Hellenistic and late Antique astrological writers is usually either fudged or highly inaccurate. Actually there is some material attributed to Thrayllus in the _Librorum astrologicorum epitome Parisina_ ed. P. Boudreaux, CCAG VIII,3,99-101, specifically the _Pinax_. Thrayllus was the teacher of astrology to Tiberius during his exile on Rhodes. He was a grammarian from Alexandria (Tacitus, Ann. 6.20). In Diogenes Laertius (3.56-57; 9.38) he is portrayed as a scholar of Pythagoras, Democritos and Plato. Pliny cites him in the first book of his Natural History as a source for information in books 2, 9, 31 and 32. His astrological reputation is given in CCAG VIII.4 f.46 and see E. Riess 'Nechapsonsis et Petosiridis fragmenta magica' in _Philogus_ supp. 6 (1892) n.3 p.354, cf also Juvenal Sat. 6.576. His great grandson became cousul in 109 CE.

He received Roman citizenship under Augustus, his daughter married the knight L. Ennius in c. 15 CE. His granddaughter by this marriage married in turn Naevius Sutorius Macro, a knight who was Tiberius' regent in all but name in the last demented years of his reign. When the Chaldeans were expelled from Rome and Italy after the failed coup of Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus in 16 CE, it seems that Thrayllus remained, probably among the flock of astrologers around Tiberius on Capri (Juvenal, Sat. 10.94, Dio Cassius 57.19.3-4). Thrayllus apparently used his influence over Tiberius to assure him that he had many years of life ahead, thus saving many nobles from death as presumed threats to the monarchy. (Suetonius, Galba 4, Gaius 19, Tiberius 92)


 > In fact, some opinions hold that Ptolemy
 > was not a practicing astrologer at all, and that he merely processed part of
 > the Greek astrological tradition such would conform to his synthesis.

Again we know nothing about P.'s life. Writing a book on astrological technique would seem to indicate some practical knowledge of the subject. But anything else we might say is pure speculation.


 > Over the years, the Greek language, as all living languages do, underwent a
 > continual process of change, and apparently it wasn't too long before
 > Ptolemy's astrological work was devilishly difficult to fathom, even for the
 > educated philosophers themselves.
 > The response to this state of affairs was
 > the rewriting (clarification) of Ptolemy's original work so that it was more
 > accessible to the later readers. It is generally thought that this was done
 > by a Byzantine Greek by the name of Proclus, whose works were apparently
 > highly regarded by his colleagues and remain so today. Proclus lived in the
 > 5th century CE and was a Neoplatonist and a follower of Iamblichus who
 > specialized in, among related things, metaphysical speculation.

Proclus was not a 'Byzantine Greek' (this term might apply to a Greek writer in the 9th or 10th cent. CE, but not to any prior). He was a Greek. There is no difficulty in reading P. His Greek, aside from the technical vocabulary is standard, not very elegant, but clear. Certainly there was no change in the language as great as you seem to imply in the three centuries between P. and Proclus. Proclus also read Plato, who wrote 500 years before P. In terms of education, any Greek who could read, could and did read Homer, a text of archaic dialect (the basis of all education, as Vergil was in Latin), and then much more literature. (see below) We do know that P. was read by other astrologers, not only by Neo-Platonic (or neo-Pythagorean) philosophers and therugists.

The only difficulty in the language is his liking for new adjectives in *dus-* and *eu-* with slight variations of connotation. The Greek of Vettius Valens (fl. c. 154-174 CE) is far more difficult, if not grunting. Why then did Proclus not do a paraphrase of his text? It was after all one of the most popular astrological works in Late Antiquity. I would suggest that Proclus took to P. more for reasons of epistemological congruence than your rather fictious language change.

The Tetrabib. was well enough known in Late Antiquity-- many later astrological writers use it, as any glance at the CCAG will show. But there is more, Lucian the satirist even copies some passages of it, especially in _de astrologia_ and in _Icaromenippus_ 4 he picks up on P. adjectival originality by defining the sun and moon as *duseikasta kai astekmarta* (bad likeness and uncertain). Hence it is untrue and misleading to say that the Greek was difficult to understand: it could even be used for satire!


Although I can not comment in detail on what you say about the validity of P.'s scientific thinking, I do wonder if you are not approaching him with an anchronistic question, that is, one which would not have occured to him, an approach which seems so viable to us, but which was unknown to his times? I wonder if the modern understanding of 'science' is not far from the Aristotlean or Hellenistic one?

To contextualize this question we need to understand several facts. A belief in the influence, or the utility of watching the heavens for agricultural and weather-related reasons was widely held to be valid. The heavens could be used for purposes of divination as well, and astrology as such was a carefully manipulated propaganda tool for the Caesarian monarchy, as well as being diffuse in the East Mediterraean for at least 400 years before Augustus, and further East in Mesopotamia for hundreds of years before that, albeit in a rather primitive form (there is however little change in the form of the earliest Babylonian 'horoscopes' and those of the Hellenistic period-- see Neugebauer and van Hoesen, Greek Horoscopes, Philadelphia, 1959 (1987) passim.). There is an interest in astrology which grows in Rome as the crisis of the Late Republic deepens-- uncertainty of the times and increased exposure to Greek and Eastern Mediterraean societies, specifically the Parthian wars, did bring about a cultural exchange.

Coming closer to the time of P. one might begin to examine the philosophical reception of this new idea that the heavens could be in some way a means of knowing the future. This idea met with opposition in Rome, as Cicero makes clear. Yet that opposition was not enough to stem the tide, both in the popular imagination (or the manipulation of it by the monarchy) and in philosophic enquiry. Tacitus' statement in Annals 6.22, coming as it does after a discussion of the incident in which Thrayllus predicted and avoided fatal danger to his own life, summarizes various philosophic attitudes toward astrology:

"Many insist that heaven is unconcerned with our births and deaths... others disagree, maintaining that although things happens according to fate, this depends not on astral movements but on the principles and logic of natural causality."

We can see echoes of Epicurean teaching in the first group, who were oposed to astrology and all forms of divination. The second group are perhaps the Stoics. But Tacitus goes on:

"Most men, however, find it natural to believe that their lives are predestined from birth, that the science of prophecy is verified by remarkable testimonials, ancient and modern; and that unfulfilled predictions are due mainly to ignorant imposters who discredit it."

Which is almost the same argument given by Pliny in NH:

"Another set of people banishes fortune also and attributes events to its star and to the laws of birth, holding that for all men that ever are to be God's decree has been enacted once for all, while for the rest of time leisure has been vouchsafed to Him." (Loeb ed & tr by H. Rackham, vol I p. 185 = NH 2.105-106; cf. NH 18.57)

Finally there is the Aristotlean principle (Meteor. I.2) that processes of generation and decay in the sublunary world are caused by changes in the heavens. This is the philosophical principle which validates and makes intellectually possibile for the Hellenistic mind the practice of astrology.

Now turn to P. himself and see what he says at the beginning of the Tetrabib. (I.1.1):

"The first method in order and efficacy (*kai taksei kai dunamei*) is that by which we know the mutual aspects which the Sun and Moon and planets take on in relation to the earth during their movement. The second is an analysis of the natural characteristics (*dia tEs phusikEs*) proper to the aspects and studies the consequent modifications in matter."

Note the use of *dunamis* in this passage. It is one of the three divisions of nature in the science of the Hellenistic times. The first is +physis+ the actual naturae of things, *dunamis* is the innate and essential force of an object, and the third is *sumpatheia* the hidden link between the natural world in itself or with something else (either the heavens or the miraculous). *Physis* is an object's tangible characteristics subject to the regualr workings of the natural world, whilst *dunamis* is a slightly spiritual aspect of an object (and can be applied in medicene, magic and pharmacy or the natural world). *Sumpatheia* is a comprehensive term running from magic through to causation, the whole world 'works' by this, from philosophic specualtion to science and magic, everything is subject to all types of 'sympathetic' actions, everything is touched by its force, as if it were a spreading contageous link. (see G. Luck, _Arcana Mundi: Magic and Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds_, Baltimore, 1985, 19).

P. posits his study not on *sumpatheia* but on *dunamis*. He seems to have several uses of the word.

1) An effective force, or the active power in the environment, the active ability of planets, the atmosphere and nature (I 2,; 3, 12.13.20; 4, 1.3; 9.2; 12.1; 13.2; 19.4; 20.4 etc.) and elsewhere it is distinguished from *to poiEtikov tEs dunameOs* (= the creative or plasmating dunamis) I,.4,5; 11.5)

2) potentiality: I 2.19; 3,1; 6.1. Note the equation *tEi dunamei* = in potential or in reality III 2, 1.3.4; III 4.3.

3) The expression *en dunamei* has, however, a precise technical meaning refering to a planet in a strong position, ie, dignified: III 5,8; 13.18; IV 2,2, whereas many astrologers will use the term *endunamos* (Ps-Ptol. Carp. 38; Albumasar II 3,5).

Finally see also the use, highly indicative I think, in III 4,3 *kata phusin kai dunatOn* (by nature and force).

Now to his second method and the use of *phusis*. What P. is doing here is setting up a scientific criterion which will distinguish his approach to astrology from the circus and market place variety or a wildly esoteric hybrid, such as the Hermetic-Gnostic beliefs. The scientific method uses a rigid observation of nature, of the qualities and effects of its elementals and the rules which govern successive events. P. will indicate this scientific viewpoint with the adjective *phusikos*; a scientific criterion is a *phusikos logos* I 2,7; 21,20; 22,2 (*ou phusikon alla kenodokson* = not scientific but vain); III 1,6; III 2,5; 3,2; 6,1; 7,1; 11,2. *hoi phusikoi* are scientists in that they study nature.

But let us listen to Ptolemaeus again in the very beginning of Tetrabib. (I 1,2):

"Now we come to examine the second method, even if it not autosufficient as is the first, and we will approach it just as one does a philosophic enquiry, whoever is searching for truth thus keeping in mind the friability of such a complex study and the difficulty in gathering up the material, must not confront the second discipline with the absolute rigour and coherence of the first. By the same token, given that the majority of general events derives clearly their cause from the space which surrounds us, it will not be reclusant to all possible research."

Here the regularity and inalternability of phenomena is the guarentor of the scientific appellation: cf. Synt. I.1, *aei kai hOsautOs exein, hoper estin idion epistEmEs* (one eternal and inalterable condition: thus one can speak of science (epistEmE = knowledge of the highest order). In this context see the definition given by Aristotle (Metaph. VIII 1065a,4) *epistEmE men gar pasa tou aei ontos H hOs epi to polu, to de sumbebEkos en oudeterOi toutOn estin* (all science (epistEmE) is concerned with phenomena which are regular and constant and variate slightly, causality does not respond to this prerequisite.

P. in his preface to the Almagest subdivides theOrEtikon, as does Aristotle into 1)*to theoloikon*; 2)*to phusikon*; and 3) *to mathEmatikon* which have as their respective subjects of study 1) the extrasensorial world, 2) the material under the lunar sphere, and 3) quantitative data.

The first two P. says "can be defined conjectual more than properly scientific (*epitEmonikE*). The first for absolute lack of verification and the second "because of the unstable reality and imprenetrability of the subject". Only mathematics is an exact science because its demonstrative instruments, arithmetic and geometry, are secure and infallible. Hence only the study of heavenly matters is turned toward "the examination of phenonmena which repeat with eternal regularity. Astronomy is therefore the paradigmatic theOria. (see Boll, 'Studien' op.cit., p.71)


I wonder, too, whether you have not set up P. as a "philosopher," which we must take a terminus technicus in Late Antiquity. Aritotle was so diffuse, especially his 'physical' theory that it is no help to your case to cite him in any way. By the same token I have never seen P. actually espousing a specific philosophical school in his writings, and especially in the Tetrabib., we cannot tell if he is a Stoic, Epicurean, Academic, or Platonist. Certainly he does not espouse the Empirric school of Sextus Empiricus (which opposed astrology as did the Epicureans). And hence if we can not view his Tetrabib. as a philosophical work, then I think that we should be careful about seeing a subtext of philosophical import under it, beyond the general limits of Aristotlean science.

Of course P. presents one strand of astrological thinking. There are others such as Dorotheus of Sidon (fl. 25-75 CE) and the wild fantasies of the Hermetic tradition which were beginning to be written down in Egypt in the second century. Nonethteless, P. does stand in a very diffuse tradition of thought. For example, in Tetrabib. I.2f. the cosmological aspects of his thought are close, even verbally to that of Cleomedes (II:1.84) which depend on Posidonius, and has close similarity to Cicero Nat. Deor. II 50.119, de Div. II.33 and Philo of Alexandria de prouidentia II.77. So we cannot say that P. has imposed any of his own (and unknown) philosophical agenda on the astrological techniques which are delineated in the Tetrabib. P. posits his astrological method on the very scientific elements available to him, and sees astrology more as signs or indications (I.1.2-3) whereas Vettius Valens relies more on inspiration (pref. 6). The history of astrology through the Arabic, Byzantine and Latin Mediaeval worlds is very complex, and often frought with mistranslations and misunderstandings, but to use this as a stick with which to beat Ptolemaeus himself, seems to be excessively enthusiastic partisanship. One could argue that the others do not represent the 'main development of Greek astrological thought'. Or one could simply say that there are various currents of astrological thought in antiquity.

Further I think it helpful and necessary to place P. in his own social context. The second century, with the Pax Antoniana, was a time of a great reflowering and cultural energy. The Empire has come through the Civil Wars of 150 years previously and through the various disasters of the first century. Hadrian has quieted the Eastern provinces and borders, as well as those in the North facing the German tribes. Throughout the Empire then, peace reigns. The oracles revive and do a thriving business. Writing and scholarship florish in Athens, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. And there is everywwhere in course a codification of various forms of knowledge, Galen in medicene, Ptolemaeus himself in astronomy, Artemidorus on dreams (the father of Freudian philosophizing'),and Polemo on physiognomy. Not to mention Aulus Gellius and work done in historiography, grammar and rhetoric.

with best regards,

Lorenzo Smerillo

Research Lector in Late Antiquity, Biblioteca Nazionale Protocoenobio Sublacense (Roma) (--on leave)

USA email: Lorenzo.Smerillo


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