Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Katharina Volk, Manilius and his Intellectual Background. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 314. ISBN 9780199265220. $125.00.

Reviewed by D. Mark Possanza, University of Pittsburgh (possanza@pitt.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[The reviewer apologizes to the author and the editors for the lateness of the review.]

A major turning point in the demystification of the Astronomica came with the publication of George Goold's outstanding Loeb edition in 1977 (19922), a book that greatly enlarged Manilius's readership, transformed the experience of reading the poem and stimulated scholarly reconsideration of the poet's achievement. The Astronomica, long regarded as the province of specialists, primarily textual critics and adepts in astrology, entered the mainstream of the study of Latin poetry. In recent decades Manilian scholars, in France, Germany and Italy especially, have devoted considerable effort to elucidating the dazzling mundus of this complex poem and have advanced our understanding of Manilius's unique fusion of astronomy, astrology, philosophy, myth, Roman history and didactic poetics. Facile literary judgments about the bizarreness of Manilius's Latin, his aptitude for doing sums in verse and the aridity of his subject, laughable to some, repellent to others, no longer serve to justify the benign neglect of a major didactic poem belonging to the end of Augustus's principate. The Astronomica, like Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and Vergil's Georgics, offers readers a vision of how the world works and the place of human beings in the grand scheme of things, a panoramic astral perspective that reveals how terrestrial goings-on are determined by the stars. Readers won't learn how to cast horoscopes from reading the poem but they will discover that there is much more to astrological influence than the aspects of stars and planets.

Katharina Volk's book now marks another major turning point in the reading and interpretation of the Astronomica. In it the author provides both a comprehensive guide to the subject matter of the whole poem and an illuminating study of Manilius as an Augustan didactic poet, together with an investigation of the intellectual and literary traditions that formed his conception of how to compose a carmen that reveals the ultimate science, the power of the stars to control the fates of human beings. Following Manilius in his dual vocation as poet and astrologer writing under an imperial system sensitive to the ideological value and seditious potential of celestial divination is no easy task. But whether the subject is astronomy, cosmology, astrology, poetics, Augustus's horoscope, or the vitalistic notion of the world as a living organism, Volk's presentation is clear and methodically organized. One of the book's many virtues is that the chapters build from the ground up; Manilius's description of the celestial sphere, for instance, is preceded by a survey of Greek astronomy and likewise a survey of ancient astrology introduces his exposition of how the stars influence human lives. As a result, the reader is given a detailed picture of the framework of ideas upon which Manilius is constructing his poem. This aspect of the book, together with the translation of all Latin and Greek quotations in the main body of the text, makes it essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in understanding the poem.

In Chapter 1, "The Mystery of Manilius", the author reviews what little evidence there is about the poet's life and the early history of the Astronomica and sets forth her aims and methods in analyzing the various intellectual traditions that went into the making of the poem. Volk's view is that "the Astronomica can be dated roughly to the second decade of the first century AD" (p. 4). We are, then, dealing with an astrological poet who was writing under an emperor or emperors whose interest in astrology is well documented and whose presence in the poem directly relates the power and prestige of the imperium Romanum and its ruling dynasty to the eternal order of the heavens and the laws of fate. The question of date is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4.

Book 1 of the Astronomica, which describes the celestial sphere and gives the reader a basic map of the heavens, is the subject of Volk's second chapter, "Portrait of the Universe". To situate Manilius's description she discusses the Greek concept of kosmos, the world as a carefully designed and well ordered structure, and traces the history of Greek astronomy, outlining its outstanding achievement, the geometrical model of the heavens as a system of spheres and circles with the earth at the center. Volk rightly points out that labeling Manilius's cosmology specifically "Stoic" is misleading since Stoic doctrines in this area had become so widely accepted that their appearance in the Astronomica cannot be taken to indicate a close adherence to the physical doctrines of the school (p. 30); more on Manilius's Stoicism at pp. 226–234. His description of the cosmos, the author concludes, represents overall the "mainstream" view of the celestial blueprint as it was understood in the early first century AD (p. 31). Aratus's Phaenomena is identified as a major influence though it cannot be assumed that the influence is always direct since by Manilius's time, through translation and adaptation by Latin poets, the Phaenomena had become a thesaurus for the description of the constellations and the structure of celestial sphere in Latin poetry (pp. 34–40).

It would have strengthened the discussion to stress the differences between the two poems since the differences are of thematic significance. While the Greek poet is careful to guide his reader through the night sky by indicating the shape, location and relative position of the constellations, Manilius presents such details less often and offers the reader more of an inventory than a guide. The Latin poet is less concerned with the species of the constellations than with their potentia; description is secondary to explaining their power to control individual destinies. Manilius also shows a much greater interest in the catasterism myths than Aratus does, as Volk points out. Since Book 1 is framed by references to the impending deification of Augustus, references to catasterisms as an honor and deserved reward seem intended to legitimize and confirm Augustus's astral destiny.1

Chapter 3 takes the reader into the world of Manilius's astrology and provides a systematic exposition, accompanied by helpful diagrams, of the concepts and doctrines upon which books 2–5 of the Astronomica are constructed: the astrologer's circles and the various geometrical relations of the zodiacal signs in books 2 and 3; and the influences of the zodiacal signs and the paranatellons, the constellations that rise simultaneously with the zodiacal signs, that control the lives of individuals born under them. Readers will no longer have an excuse for shying away from the technical matter in the poem and can appreciate how Manilius through his poetry transforms the data of astronomical observations accumulated over the ages into a visionary experience. That vision, as Volk rightly notes, has some serious gaps, chief among them the absence of a treatment of the planets. Her discussion of that omission is well argued and persuasive (pp. 48–57, 116–126): the seemingly erratic behavior of the planets disrupts the divine ratio and order of the heavens and their inclusion in the poem would weaken the illusion of unchanging regularity that is the foundation of astrological prediction.

In chapter 4, "Horoscopes and Emperors", the author provides an historical survey of astrology in Roman society and a detailed analysis of those passages in which the poet mentions an emperor and which are therefore important for dating the poem as well as for understanding the use of astrology by emperor and poet for the projection of imperial power into the heavens. Although the discussion of these passages is beset with numerous difficulties, including textual problems and the poet's frustrating ambiguities of expression, Volk's analysis is well informed and judicious. She concludes "that the Astronomica was composed in the last years of Augustus' reign, that is, between AD 9 and 14 (though Book 5 could conceivably have been written later)" (p. 172). In addition to navigating the controversies of identity and chronology raised by Manilius's references to the princeps and his successor, Volk also provides insightful discussions of Augustus's horoscope, conventions of imperial panegyric, and Manilius's cultural perspective as a writer, which is here described as "a conventional Roman perspective." In the discussion of 1.925–926 (pp. 145–146), which are taken to refer to Augustus, some consideration should be given to the possibility that the deum mentioned in 926 is Augustus rather than Caesar the Dictator and that dederit is the future perfect indicative: "and when Rome will have given [Augustus] as a god to heaven, let it not miss him on earth." The interpretation of the phrase lumen mundi (4.766) as panegyric addressed to Tiberius while Augustus was still princeps requires some justification (pp. 154–156). It is one thing to give due recognition to the heir apparent (see Ovid, Met. 15.836–837); it is another to laud him in terms appropriate to the reigning sovereign.

For students of Latin poetry Chapter 5, "Teaching and Poetry" and Chapter 6 "Making Sense of the World," form the praecordia, "the heart" of the book, to borrow a Manilian term. In Chapter 5 the main topics are the defining characteristics of the didactic genre and Manilius's poetics of self-representation: the poet as astrologer and celestial sojourner, recipient of the mundus's revelation about the power of the stars, is no peddler of horoscopes or of hackneyed poetic themes; not only is his work utterly original, it also partakes of the grandeur of its subject and thus elevates the achievement of its author. Volk, summarizing her findings about the genre of didactic poetry in her monograph, The Poetics of Latin Didactic: Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid, Manilius (Oxford 2002), begins with a profile and definition of the didactic poem (pp. 174–182); she defines it "as a continuous teaching speech uttered by the text's first-person speaker within an imagined dramatic set-up," with the additional observation that "…the speaker is self-consciously composing a poem" (p. 177). From a general consideration of didactic poetry, Volk goes on to discuss the generic and literary traditions, primarily didactic epos, in which Manilius is working; his claim to originality;; the difficulty of his undertaking; his sojourn in the celestial sphere; and the influence of his most important poetic models, Aratus, Lucretius and Vergil. In constructing his claim to originality, most notably in the long proem to Book 2, Manilius deploys Callimachean motifs, e.g., the pure spring and the un-trodden path, to express the uniqueness of his achievement as an astrological poet.

There are occasions when a greater attention to contextual nuance would contribute to the discussion of Manilius's poetics. For example, in the following lines quoted on p. 225, quid caelo dabimus? quantum est, quo ueneat omne? / impendendus homo est, deus esse ut possit in ipso? (4.406–407), one is immediately struck by the language of financial transaction (dabimus, ueneat, impendendus) used in what is obviously a moment of philosophical or even spiritual reflection. Although Volk rightly comments that "…the last line is truly remarkable, envisioning man as transcending his own humanity and achieving a kind of union, or even identity, with the divine…" (p. 225), equally remarkable is the language in which it is expressed. As the context shows (4.387–407), Manilius is making the case that the pursuit of astrological knowledge is worth the cost: it is a commodity more highly desirable than profits from business ventures or booty in warfare or luxury items, which are less valuable than the study of astrology but involve considerably more risk or expense in the acquisition; astrology is the better deal. Again, the conclusion that Manilius endorses magic (pp. 246¬–250) does not seem to me to be supported by the context of 1.91–94 where the poet includes forms of divination, augury, extispicy and necromancy, along with magical practices, among the arts that were developed during the evolution of human civilization. Mention of these particular arts is introduced by the phrase ne uulgata canam (1.91). The motive for their inclusion is poetic; Manilius adds something new to the conventional account of landmarks in the history of human civilization and at the same time is able to add to the list of inventions and artes that are surpassed in importance by his subject, astrology.

In Chapter 6 Volk begins with an overview of Manilius's conception of the universe: chief among its characteristics are its divine nature, the divine reason that permeates and guides it, and the interconnectedness and relatedness of all its parts. This survey of the Manilian cosmos prepares the way for an analysis of the various intellectual traditions that contributed to the formation of the poet's worldview. The discussion covers Stoicism, Hermeticism, Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and Magic and the Occult. As one might have expected, Manilius's intellectual profile reveals an eclectic borrower from these schools of thought and occult arts. If Manilius doesn't teach his reader how to cast a horoscope, that is certainly not to be thought of as a failure on his part because, as Volk's book shows, there is so much more to his poem than describing aspects and influences and mapping the astrological geometry of trigons, squares and hexagons. From these pages Manilius emerges as a poet of intense philosophical ambition, who aims at nothing less than constructing his own vision de rerum natura.

The concluding chapter "The Universe and Us" brings with it a bittersweet parting, an intellectual delight in having experienced such exceptional scholarship directed to the illumination of a demanding poem as well as a feeling of disappointment and regret that our poet's daring astrological song that ultimately identifies itself with the grandeur of its subject, caelestis rationis opus (1.3), now stands revealed by that scholarship as a "teaching speech" that constructs a rather shaky edifice of a universe that is built on a mixed-bag of intellectual traditions, philosophical, scientific, poetic, and occult, which are so imperfectly blended that Manilius is more than once caught in incoherence of thought.

The author's perception of the poet's capacity for self-contradiction runs throughout the book. Briefly, the idea is that Manilius, when writing primarily as a poet whose subject is astrology, may state a view that contradicts what he says when he is writing primarily as an astrologer since he is expressing himself within the inherited conventions of the long established epic tradition; likewise, Manilius the astrologer may contradict Manilius the uates. Clearly this is an issue of some importance for understanding the poetic persona that inhabits the poem, the uates mundi, and requires a full understanding of the poet's intellectual background in order to appreciate how he negotiates his way through these various discourses. The apparent contradictions, in my view, can be resolved or, at least, softened by a fuller consideration of the poet's rhetorical strategy and didactic purpose in a given instance (see blog). This misgiving aside, it is always an exciting moment in our studies when a book is published that makes a significant advance in the understanding of an important work and will itself become a source for further advances. This is one such moment.

The book is equipped with a figure illustrating the system of concentric spheres (p. 26), star charts of the constellations of the northern (p. 36) and southern (p. 38) hemispheres, the celestial circles (p. 41), the four cardines (p.78), a drawing of a papyrus horoscope (p.79), astrological diagrams (pp.80, 83–86), a detailed outline of the whole poem (266–270), a helpful "Glossary of Astronomical and Astrological Terms" (271–274), a full bibliography (275–297), an index of passages cited (299–309), and a general index (310–314).


1.   Three observations: (a) No key is provided for the symbols of the zodiacal signs that are used in the diagrams of aspect on pp. 83–86. (b) Manilius's surprising claim (1.242–245) that when it is day in the northern hemisphere it is night in the southern hemisphere may be due not to ignorance of his own model of the mundus (p. 33) but to philosophical authority, if the comment of Servius auctus on Georgics 1.249, cited by Mynors in his Commentary, is to be believed: the Stoics "say that the sun by turns passes over each hemisphere and causes night in alternation." (c) In the account of the cosmological theory that lies behind Manilius's model of the cosmos, the author uses the phrase "two-sphere universe" (p. 25, with note 24), i.e., the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, which revolves around the earth, and the sphere of the earth, stationary and located at the center of the outermost sphere. There are, however, as the diagram on p. 26 indicates, nine concentric spheres altogether, one for each of the seven planets, including sun and moon, in addition to the sphere of the fixed stars and the sphere of the earth.

1 comment:

  1. Three additional observations. (1) In the discussion of 1.22–23 where the poet represents himself as singing to a fixed measure while the mundus resounds around him (certa cum lege canentem/mundus et immenso uatem circumstrepit orbe), it is suggested that certa cum lege can also be taken with cirumstrepit in an allusion to the music of the spheres (p. 214). Yet (a) circumstrepit is regularly used of loud, harsh sounds; (b) it is by no means clear what the connection is between a reference to the music of the spheres in 1.22–23 and the statement in 24 that the mundus scarcely admits words in prose (soluta uerba) to its figures (I take figuris to mean both the constellations and their various arrangements in aspects; et is coordinating with -que in 23, not adverbial as it is usually understood). It is possible that circumstrepit refers to the characteristic motion of the sphere of the fixed stars, i.e., its incredibly swift revolution on the axis, which at one point in the poem is imagined as producing a sound at its south pole (Arctosque latentis/axem quae mundi stridentem pondere torquent 1.444). In 1.22–23 the firmament “resounds” around the poet as he utters his song because it makes noise as it revolves at amazing speed around the axis. And because the firmament is in constant swift motion, the poet discovers that it “scarcely admits words in prose to its figures”; he imagines that even if he were writing in prose, his speed of composition could barely keep pace with the swift movement of the firmament and its constellations. (2) In the translation (p. 200) of hospita sacra ferens (“bearing sacred offerings from a foreign land” 1.6), hospita, working in conjunction with primus (1.3), novis (1.3) and nulli memorata priorum (1.6) is better understood as “new/novel”, i.e., newcomer, rather than “from a foreign land.” It is the newness of the sacra that is most relevant, not their point of origin. (3) On the topic of self-contradiction, to take an example, at 2.37–38 the poet, after treating a number of catasterism myths in summary fashion, seems to reject the catasterisms as inappropriate to a proper understanding of the heavens: quorum carminibus nihil est nisi fabula caelum/terraque composuit mundum quae pendent ab illo "In their songs is heaven naught but fable and earth the fashioner of the skies on which it depends" (Goold, Loeb 1977). If these lines are understood as a complete rejection of catasterisms because they do not properly belonging to a true knowledge of the ratio of the heavens, then there is a contradiction between what Manilius says here and his practice elsewhere in the poem. If, however, Manilius is faulting these poets for their failure to realize that the catasterisms are more than just stories and that they contribute to an understanding of how the constellations determine the fate of individuals, i.e., the characteristics of the catasterism explain the nature of the influence on the native, then there is no real contradiction. The issue of self-contradiction also comes up in connection with the poet's representation of himself, on the one hand, as the uates mundi who brings knowledge of the heavens to all and, on the other, as an elitist who speaks to the few (pp. 213–214 and 178 n.11). Here too, it seems to me, we have the poet's realistic appraisal of how large an audience he can expect rather than conflicting notions of the poet's role. When at 2.144 he refers to his audiences as "the smallest society on earth" (minima est quae turba per orbem), he is not making an elitist appeal to a restricted audience; instead, as 2.145–148 make clear, he is pragmatically facing the reality that more people are interested in the pursuit of wealth and power and the pleasing diversions of their leisure.