Thursday, November 17, 2011


Steven J. Green, Katharina Volk (ed.), Forgotten Stars: Rediscovering Manilius' Astronomica. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xix, 342. ISBN 9780199586462. $150.00.

Reviewed by Emilie-Jade Poliquin, Université Laval and Université Toulouse II – Le Mirail (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume recounts the proceedings of a conference held at Columbia University in October 2008. It contains seventeen articles and is divided into five main sections: I Intellectual and scientific backdrop, II Integrity and consistency, III Metaphors, IV Didactic digressions and V Reception. If some contributors are already well-known for their previous studies on Manilius (K. Volk, W. Hübner, J.-H. Abry, E. Flores), others have elsewhere explored related subjects such as history of science and epistemology (T. Habinek, D. Lehoux, D. F. Kennedy, P. Glauthier) or didacticism (S. Green, M. R. Gale) and they bring here their own views on Manilius.

A quick look at the title and preface at once raises a question: who is the intended audience ? According to the editors, Manilius is an author still unknown and underestimated by modern scholars. Nevertheless, the bibliography given at the end of this volume seems to demonstrate the opposite: an extremely rich bibliography of 529 titles (of which nearly 150 treat Manilius specifically) is provided to the reader. In fact, the emphasis of the papers is elsewhere: Manilius' work, the Astronomica, has so far raised little interest in the Anglo-Saxon world (as opposed to France, Germany, and Italy, respectively represented by scholars such as Josèphe-Henriette Abry, Wolfgang Hübner, and Enrico Flores). The main objective of this volume is therefore to gather the different intellectual traditions and to present them in English to a public who could not easily have access to this information because it is quite often extremely technical and written in foreign languages. The presence of a chapter entirely dedicated to the history of Manilian scholarship tends to confirm this introductionary aspect. Yet, the level of technicality varies a lot among the different articles and, at the end, someone studying Manilius closely will certainly find interesting and new ideas in this book.

The main interest of this book is the numerous echoes it contains between the different speakers of this conference. The gathering of these articles, focusing each on different aspects of the Astronomica (philosophy, literature, epistemology, astrology, etc.), highlights perfectly the diversity of viewpoints and the possible divergences an author such as Manilius can create. Here are some examples of this opinion-network: In the first article, Elaine Fantham wishes to define the intellectual background of Manilius in regard to the relation between philosophy and astrology. Citing particularly Cicero, Seneca and Pliny, she notes a general scepticism toward astrology and links it with the political context of the Augustan era. Unfortunately, she does not explain why Manilius, who wrote a poem on astrology, seems to dissociate himself from this tendency. One hypothesis is later given by Steven J. Green. Studying the conflictual relationship between Manilius and his addressee, S. J. Green concludes by suggesting a voluntary failure of his project: Manilius may have sabotaged his own work in order to keep astrology out of the wrong hands, as Augustus wanted. Another contributor makes the connection between the poet and the first emperor. The late Josèphe-Henriette Abry, in a posthumous article revised by S. J. Green, shows how some digressions of the Astronomica can be related to three major political and architectural projects of Augustus (the forum Augustum, the horologium, and the map of Agrippa). On the other hand, Duncan F. Kennedy strongly criticises this type of sociopolitical approach which "marginalizes the epistemic pretensions of astrology" (168) and prefers to stick to the analysis of strong concepts like ratio to understand the complexities of Manilius.

If Manilius' adherence to Stoicism is no longer contested, some parts of his philosophical thought can still be puzzling. For Thomas Habinek, Manilius' choices in this matter "reveal both the foundations and the limits of his intellectual enterprise" (33). He demonstrates how Manilius' physics is deeply influenced by Stoicism without, however, trying to explain every aspect of his so-called "conflicted" doctrine.1 This approach is taken a bit further by Wolfgang-Rainer Mann in order to explore the sensitive issue of whether or not knowledge is accessible to all. Manilius indeed seems indeed to contradict himself when he depicts a world both eager to reveal itself to everyone and unclear to those unfamiliar with Manilius' teachings. For W.-R. Mann, this apparent contradiction can be easily resolved through Stoicism because "it corresponds to a conception of reason as being, on the one hand, an intrinsic capacity present in any rational being as such, and as being on the other hand, a hard-won and, very likely, a surpassingly rare achievement" (103). This idea is also defended by Duncan F. Kennedy who shows how the power of ratio, comprising for Manilius mathematics and poetry, overcomes the limits of human capacities to understand this world. On the contrary, for S. J. Green, there is no such paradox since Manilius' project is doomed to failure: the accessibility of knowledge is in fact false. Even Patrick Glauthier, in a more literary study of economic metaphors, contributes to this discussion: the tropes that show the universe willingly sharing its riches to Manilius seem on the other hand quickly neutralized by the ones that represent the astrologer in an act of aggression, of imperialism. Finally, it is interesting to see that this question was raised as early as the Renaissance. Caroline Stark presents two Italian astrological poets of the XVth century, Lorenzo Bonincontri and Giovanni Pontano, who used this paradox to develop their own thought about the possible relationship between free will and astrology.

This example of the accessibility of knowledge is representative of the "inconsistencies" of Manilius. Scholars do not agree whether one should try to accept, to explain or to resolve them. All approaches are present in this volume: for Katharina Volk, they are involuntary, but precious for understanding Manilius' mind (therefore, they should be "thematized"2 and analyzed as such) ; for S. J. Green, most of them are voluntary and serve the purpose of the aforementioned failing astrology ; for W.-R. Mann, T. Habinek and John Henderson, Manilius is more coherent and more competent than we usually think and inconsistencies can thus be resolved. The last, for example, in an extremely dense reasoning, refutes the negative judgment of scholars as famous as J.-H. Abry, by reinterpreting the passage 1.215-246 (usually known as the first major mistake of the Astronomica).

J. Henderson, like Wolfgang Hübner, Monica R. Gale, James Uden und Daryn Lehoux, presents Manilius positively in control of his literary project. Each of these writers shows in his or her own way how the adequacy between res and carmen, presupposed in didactic poetry, is attained. J. Henderson gives his attention to the vocabulary related notably to space, time, and cause to show how it mirrors the dynamic system of Manilius' physics. W. Hübner demonstrates how figures and tropes (such as chiasmus, antithesis, polypton, metonymy, metaphor, etc.) can substantially enrich the astrological ideas described by Manilius. M. R. Gale, who considers digression to be a constitutive aspect of didactic poetry, examines how digressions such as the history of civilization, the premonitory functions of comets, and the vignettes of the four seasons contribute to the coherent creation of an ordered and law- bounded cosmos. This idea is followed by J. Uden, who reveals in Manilius' Andromeda -epyllion a logic already astrological, by virtue of its indirect and enigmatic nature. D. Lehoux, explaining that myths and allegories should not be opposed to reason, but should be viewed as another but no less important form of explanation, gives us another example of how res and carmen can work together.

I hope that this somewhat unorthodox summary has highlighted the extremely dynamic and "in-progress" aspect of this volume. It can certainly be used to show (to students, for example) how knowledge should not stay fixed and dogmatic and how the different disciplines in classics, such as philosophy, epistemology, and literature, should always have dialogues with one another. I must stress the open-mindedness not only of the editors (S. J. Green and K. Volk), but also of the seventeen contributors who are often openly (but always respectfully) criticised by their fellow contributors to the same volume. The result may be a little confusing because it is absolutely impossible to agree to every idea expressed in it, but I think that it can positively stimulate scholars toward new research.

Technically, this volume is well constructed and easy to use: copious notes and bibliography, Latin texts almost always given with an English translation, table of contents and index locorum.3

Table of contents

List of figures
1. Introduction : "A Century of Manilian Scholarship" by K. Volk (p. 1-10)
I. Intellectual and scientific backdrop
2. "More sentiment than Science: Roman Stargazing before and after Manilius" by E. Fantham (p. 13-31)
3. "Manilius' Conflicted Stoicism" by T. Habinek (p. 32-44)
4. "Myth and Explanation in Manilius" by D. Lehoux (p. 45-56)
II. Integrity and consistency
5. "Watch this Space (getting round 1.215-46)" by J. Henderson (p. 59-84)
6. "On two Stoic paradoxes in Manilius" by W.-R. Mann (p. 85-103)
7. "Manilian self-contradiction" by K. Volk (p. 104-119)
8. "Arduum ad astra: The Poetics and Politics of Horoscopic Failure in Manilius' Astronomica" by S. J. Green (p. 120-138)
III. Metaphors
9. "Tropes and figures: Manilian Style as a Reflection of Astrological Tradition" by W. Hübner (p. 141-164)
10. "Sums in verse or a Mathematical Aesthetic ?" by D. F. Kennedy (p. 165-187)
11. "Census and Commercium: Two Economic Metaphors in Manilius" by P. Glauthier (p. 188- 201)
IV. Didactic Digressions
12. "Digressions, Intertextuality, and Ideology in Didactic Poetry: the Case of Manilius" by M. R. Gale (p. 205- 221)
13. "Cosmos and Imperium: Politicized Digressions in Manilius' Astronomica by J.-H. Abry (p. 222-234)
14. "A Song from the Universal Chorus: The Perseus and Andromeda epyllion" by J. Uden (p. 235-252)
V. Reception
15. "Augustus, Manilius, and Claudian" by E. Flores (p. 255-260)
16. "Renaissance Receptions of Manilius' Anthropology" by C. Stark (p. 261-277)
17. "Lorenzo Bonincontri's Reception of Manilius' Chapter on Comets (Astr. 1.809-926)" and Appendix by S. Heilen (p. 278-310)
Index Locorum
General Index


1.   Alluding to the title of this article.
2.   The term, used by K. Volk in the volume (p. 105), is taken from J. J. O'Hara's Inconsistency in Roman Epic: Studies in Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid and Lucan (Cambridge 2007)
3.   I do not understand why only the English text is given in W.-R. Mann's article, with selected Latin or transliterated Greek forms written in parentheses. It makes the reading more difficult.

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