History : Sep-Oct 2016
ASTOUNDING ASTROLABE This exquisitely crafted bronze astrolabe dates from the 15th century, and was used to fix the position of the sun and stars. In an age when astronomy and astrology were intertwined, it was used for making both precise, scientific calculations and horoscopes. A collection of horoscopes from the Roman period was compiled by a Hellenist astrologer, Vettius Valens, who wrote around the same time as Ptolemy and traveled in Egypt. These horo- scopes were cast based on past events, concern- ing people already dead. A rather damning one cast for April 1, a.d. 78, summarizes: This person was commanding and dictatorial because the rulers of the triangle [Leo, Sagit- tarius, Aries] were found to be at an angle and in the Ascendant . . . Mars, being unfavorably situated and not in aspect with the [III] Place had the opposite effects, both exile and vio- lentdeath... Valens also suggested that the position of the astral bodies caused serious illness, or even violent death:“The ruler [of Leo], the sun, was with Mars in Cancer, a wet sign.” The conclusion: “This person drowned in the bath.” Future in the Stars After the fall of Rome, the practice of as- trology became so widespread that even the rise of Christianity could not stamp it out. During the European Renaissance, palaces, universities, and even the Vatican itself were decorated with astrological murals, reliefs, and paintings, and many of the best minds in sci- ence held on to astrological beliefs. Only in the early 1600s did attitudes begin to shift, when, turning the newly invented telescope skyward, Galileo made observations that vindicated Co- pernicus’s earlier scientific theory that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. Even so, the death knell for astrology as a respected science was some time in coming, best demonstrated by the fact that Galileo was himself a practicing astrologer. Only when the scientific revolution culminated in the publica- tion of Isaac Newton’s great work Principia in 1687 did astronomy finally supplant astrology as a science. A new world dawned, one in which humans would come to rely on reason and logic, and leave superstition behind. From this mo- ment, they would understand not the intimate involvement of the planets in human affairs— but rather their indifference. Beware the Dog Star DESPITE THE WIDESPREAD appeal of astrol- ogy, rulers in the Roman period often felt threatened by astrological predictions. On numerous occasions astrologers found themselves expelled from Rome—or worse. A particularly shocking story re- lates to Ascletarion, an astrologer who went around openly predicting the death of the first-century a.d. emperor Domitian. Suetonius wrote that the emperor called Ascletarion and challenged him to predict what his own end would be. The astrolo- ger replied he would be eaten by dogs. “Domitian ordered him killed at once; but to prove the fallibility of his art, he ordered his funeral be attended to with great care. While this was being done, it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that dogs mangled the corpse.” FRESCO BY RAPHAEL (1508), DEPICTING ASTRONOMY, IN THE STANZA DELLA SEGNATURA, VATICAN. THE CONFIGURATION OF THE SKY CORRESPONDS TO OCTOBER 31, 1503, THE DAY JULIUS II WAS ELECTED POPE. BRIDGEMAN/ACI SCALA, FLORENCE A SPECIALIST IN CLASSICAL PHILOLOGY, PALOMA ORTIZ GARCÍA HAS PUBLISHED WIDELY ON ARISTOTLE AND OTHER FIGURES IN GREEK THOUGHT AND CULTURE.