No Secular Heavens Here

The Three Fates

No Secular Heavens Here

Manilius’ Astronomica and the Poetics of 4. 1-11, by Darrell Sutton

Lucretius (99BC-55BC) penned an atheistic poem entitled De Rerum Natura (DRN). Its Latin text contains poetry of a high order. In the world of DRN, natural solutions seem more acceptable than any scheme of divine causation. Manilius’ Astronomica is a rival text to the DRN and may have been composed in order to offer a stylistic answer to the dilemma ancient Romans faced about human autonomy. Such as it is, Manilius’ poem is a focus of growing investigation. Students are drawn to it for a variety of reasons. Its poetry preserves evidence of common Graeco-Roman trends in the conception of celestial objects during the first century of the Common Era. Indeed, the text consists of several statements with eastern origins.

This essay is arranged in three sections. First, there is a brief conspectus of the context in which the poem was written and of what is known of Manilius. Second, a few comments are supplied on select verses regarding Manilius’ belief about the divine descent of wisdom and its dissemination through the display of celestial bodies. And third, a thorough study of the poetics of the text at 4.1-11.

Astronomica: its Astral Ambit and its Influences. During the earliest periods of Graeco-Roman history, astronomy and astrology were not recondite fields of study. Generally, they were recognized as joint sciences. In the East and West persons of all strata of societies accepted astral phenomena as exact and authoritative. There were numerous writers on this subject. Ancient Greek astrology shared complex connections with Greek philosophy. During the Seleucid era, Babylonian seeds of horoscopy germinated in Hellenistic fields. Their growth culminated in astrological verses composed by poets during Augustus’ reign. It is unclear if this was a broad movement. The resurgence of texts does not provide a clear indication. Of Latin texts from that era, Manilius’ Astronomica stands out for its clear-cut descriptions and its formidable themes.[i]

Virtually nothing is known of the author. Introductory discussions are all founded on speculation. The poem’s existence is not attested in Late Antiquity or in the subsequent Middle Ages. Its rediscovery proved pivotal to the improvement of astronomical studies in the medieval Renaissance, and to the production of the first printed edition, Manilius, Astronomicon (Nuremberg: 1473-1474), prepared by J. Müller (1436-1476). In his day, he was famous for scholarship of a high order. Due to him core tenets of ancient Roman stoicism, including archaic meanings of the movements of celestial objects, were made accessible.

In the late Renaissance era, Manilius was believed to have been associated with Antioch or the continent of Africa. Corroborating the facts of his life was problematic. J. Scaliger’s (1540-1609) and R. Bentley’s (1662-1742) researches did not settle the matter, nor have modern editors been able to resolve issues of his biography. Linguistic studies provide better clues to the poem’s derivation, even its structure. Evidence regarding the place of its original composition is lacking and is not entirely discernible. Manilius was an avid reader, viz., of cosmological theories: 1.122-172; of war: 1.908-911, 3.13-26, 3.632-634, 4.35-68, 4.658f; of Achaean lore: 2.1-27, 3.1-13, 5.299-303; of New Comedy: 5.475f; of geography: 4.596-641, 4.658-695, etc.

Manilius’ claims to uniqueness in the inventory of ideas he discusses are not wide of the mark. Technical aspects of the poem have been treated fully, if not exhaustively by several scholars. Innovative explorations were carried out or are in progress. Manilius believed that mankind was ensconced in ignorance prior to the efforts of his eastern predecessors (some of whom were of the priestly caste) to interpret and dispose of the truths of astral science:

Nam rudis ante illos nullo discrimine vita
Before their times man lived in ignorance: [G.P. Goold, Loeb]

Manilius read ancient astrology directly from Greek and Latin texts of his day. His first-hand inscription of features taken from neighboring papyri or texts forms the basis of common, modern opinions on a few historical elements in the Astronomica. Recovering every aspect of his linguistic ability is not possible. However, through close readings of the Latin text, critical opinions can be formulated which differ from conventional interpretations.

It was not his intention to provide an exact structure for casting horoscopes but to outline in poetic form the way humans are manipulated by fate (fata) or fortune (fortuna). Eastern and African adages grew in his heart, but emerged in full bloom in his text. Scarcely a district on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf lacked persons who were unfamiliar with the basic precepts of astrology and astronomy. The crux of these matters was annunciated by G.R. Driver (1892-1975), a well-respected Cuneiformist and distinguished Semitist of unbounded genius. The description below of his, is I believe exact (cf. p.6 of Two Astronomical Passages in The Old Testament, JTS, Vol. 7, No. 1, Apr. 1956, 1-11):

“The zodiacal circle is a belt of the sky extending 8˚ on each side of the ecliptic and comprising the apparent paths of the sun and the moon and the principal planets. That of the sun is divided into twelve signs or constellations, which played a great part in ancient astronomy and astrology, that of the moon into twenty-four or twenty-eight, representing the moon’s daily motion.”

The orbit of Zodiac sciences was directed by a pursuit of knowledge. Of larger influential cultures, i.e., Egyptian, Levantine, Anatolian, Mesopotamian, and Indian, this pursuit reached various summits: within sub-sects of each of these regions some citizens were prone to suppose that various deities presided over planetary movements.

The sayings and activities of divine beings and their holy characteristics were studied in detail. Ideas, too, were translated, retranslated and paraphrased in a range of ancient systems of writings. Some truisms took on a more popular form. Proverbial statements did not need to be simply pithy, they also could be taken to represent literary images; but the commonness of the conveyed data required that it be memorable in whatever form it took. For example, it was well known that bees display attachment to their queen. The interest in apiculture, viz., to know of bees’ honey-making activities, led to the formation of various analogies. Writers made good uses of these kinds of recognized truths. Civilizations that were divided by thousands of miles later harboured aphorisms whose subject matter integrated societies that spoke different languages.

The Astronomica shows evidence of such exchanges and transmissions. Manilius often redirected readers toward customs of the East with his mention of specific gods, zodiacal signs and his use of select phrases. His wording is important. Aside from the metrical felicities there are numerous citations from and allusions to other writings. Serving as a nexus for the dispersal of wide-ranging ideas, each page of his Latin text is constellated with his personal annotations of zodiacal and sidereal astrological facts. Altogether, they represent commonly held beliefs which were unexceptional around the Mediterranean basin.

Much of this is corroborated by published materials that are now extant within the corpus of cuneiform documents. Solar, lunar and astral theologies are omnipresent in Manilius’ text. Accurate accounts of these theologies still need to be given. Indeed, the formal elements of his scheme were philosophical: e.g., aspects of ‘emanationism,’ viz., the radiation of stimuli from a source which is not diminished by the dispersion of its powers, are carefully formulated in the poem (e.g., 3.86-92); the astrophysical influences do represent an immanent omnipresence.

The context in which the poem was composed was diverse. Explorations of this diversity are indispensable to comprehending its subject matter; but the actual spread of traditional wisdom from the east was not unknown in larger metropolitan cites. For example, Plato’s Phaedrus 274c refers to his knowledge of the Egyptian god Thoth. Western Asia was of singular importance in the confluence of certain Greek and Hittite linguistic features. Trends and tendencies are detectable. Below I note places where a few conjunctions of Near Eastern truth prominently display themselves.

The Origin and Descent of Wisdom. The transmission of knowledge is based on several factors, namely: (1) the ardor of the recipient in assembling factual information, (2) the state of the data to be received; (3) were they judiciously preserved? – (4) can they be grasped and trusted? Moreover, conveyance depends on the eagerness of the ‘knower’ to transmit said data. In ancient times, concerted efforts were made to conserve and advertise vast quantities of tradition, sometimes through translation. So Manilius wrote:

Quem primum interius licuit cognoscere terris munere caelestum.
Deeper knowledge of heaven was first granted to earth by the gift of the gods. [G.P. Goold]

The phrase licuit… terris points the way to truth. Such as it was understood, ‘knowledge descends to earth’ from above. More than a mantic characteristic, Manilius does not distort his source. This transaction is granted by permission of the heavens. Otherwise astrological wisdom could be concealed by deity. In accordance with Manilius’ impression, the secrets of the starry skies deserve notice, and can be ascertained.

Et quoniam caelo descendit carmen ab alto
And since from the heights of heaven my song descends… [Goold]

Manilius sings because he is inspired. He regards himself as a conduit of heavenly Muses, with a song descending ab alto (from on high). This concept concurs with widespread ancient belief. Bereft of its life-giving inspiration, the diffusion of astral lore would have had merely stultifying effects.

Anyone who is loath to learn ancient theories of astrology will not progress far in his or her researches of the Astronomica. The planetary arrangements are intricate. Moon-shifts invariably control the balance of nature, or so the ancients believed. Lunar movements inside of and outside of constellations create conditions from which mankind is unable to be freed without a little external help. Such is fate.

There are twelve zodiacal signs, each of whose formation was/is believed to inculcate certain traits in living beings born under them (4.122-293). The narratives of individual destiny, of defeat and victory, presumably, may be understood by reading lines from those prophetic chronicles inscribed in the firmament above. As for technicalities, these prearranged affairs may seem to be versions resembling modern stagecraft, but Manilius’ assumptions a propos zodiacal features were conventional. His poem is built on the idea that man’s conduct is enthused by a divine impetus, literally, by ‘all the above.’ This widespread view is promoted yet again at:

hic igitur deus et ratio, quae cuncta gubernat
Ducit ab aetheriis terrena animalia signis,
quae, quamquam longo, cogit, summota recessu, sentiri tamen, ut vitas ac fata ministrent
gentibus ac proprios per singular corpora mores.

This God and all-controlling reason, then derives earthly beings from the signs of heaven; though the stars are remote at a far distance, he compels recognition of their influences, in that they give to the peoples of the world their lives destinies and to each man his own character. [Goold]

Signs in the heavens far above earth were given to serve all human beings. Accordingly, one’s individual moral basis is distributed equally, if not by different measures, through ethereal sources. As stated in line 82, God is in control and governs all that is presaged in the skies. Manilius’ views here were consistent with the attitudes of several communities within Anatolia and in the Fertile Crescent.

Sometime later Manilius is able to conclude:

5.746-7 [30][ii]
Hac stellis proprias  vires et tempora rerum
Constituit magni quondam fabricator Olympi.

Such are the special powers and times of influence which in ages past the creator of the mighty firmament appointed for the planets. [Goold]

All of this entailed the creation of special powers and interval events on behalf of the stars, i.e., under the stars’ hegemony. The creator, supposedly, forged the destiny of mankind amid the pathway of the stars. In Manilius’ estimation, the astral fable of human life is clear: one’s life is a predictable affair. And the heavens are no less deserving of attention or hardly less readable than other genres of writing. Repeatedly, he asserts that those creative tales written in skies above were arranged in eons past to broadcast wisdom. Occasionally these divine criteria are adapted for moralizing effect.

The Futility of a Misguided Life. It is common knowledge that behavior corresponds with belief. Those philosophies whose systems of thought stood in the way of sensible, traditional views of life were thought to be erroneous. The application of wisdom was deemed the only valid basis of correct living. Near Eastern scribes composed literary models in order to instill in their readers the intelligent thoughts of the living and of the dead.

The accumulated insights of older men and women, which were sifted and compiled from miscellaneous experiences, provided frames of reference for the whole community. Manilius’ collection of ideas introducing book 4 represented customary folk customs and embodied a profundity and morality not unusual even for his day. It is an anthology of precepts nearly all parental guides and public officials would have wanted instilled in their children. Below I provide its newly punctuated texts.

Quid tam sollicitis vitam consumimus annis,
torquemurque metu caecaque cupidine rerum
aeternisque senes curis, dum quaerimus? aevum
perdimus et nullo votorum fine beati.
victuros agimus semper; nec vivimus umquam,
pauperiorque bonis quisque est, quia plura requirit.
nec quod habet numerat, tantum quod non habet optat.
cumque sibi parvos usus natura reposcat;
materiam struimus magnae per vota ruinae.
luxuriamque lucris emimus luxuque rapinas, 10
et summum census pretium est effundere censum.


[1] Why do we use up life’s troubled years so,
[2] twisted by fear and by blind desire;
[3] and you grow old through endless pains, even as we are questing (for things)?
[4] We squander time and in no way have sworn [to god] within the limit of fortune.
[5] We engage in living always; we do not live at any time.
[6] Whoever he be, is the poorer because he searches for much.
[7] None takes account of what he has so much as he prefers what he does not possess.
[8] Always nature lays claim to small use of itself;
[9] we pile up great, harmful substance through vows.
[10] We buy advantages and position, plunder and displacement,
[11] and the utmost price is the cost to spread abroad [or dispense with] the wealth.


Manilius was a metrician of the highest class. His hexameter rewards close attention, indeed, his poetic style may be more exciting than is much of the Astronomica’s content. In the above passage, on average he composed 14 syllable lines in normal 6-feet rhythm: in which each line does not of course end with an adjective, or always with an inserted noun in the fifth foot. The vocalized ‘c’ is stressed in lines 1-2; but in four passages above the conjunction que has especial uses for literary emphasis (ln. 2-3, 6,10).

In lines 1, 3, and 5, the verb is in the penultimate position. The use of prohibitive thought is visible in the contrasting conditions of lines 3-6. Three times the verbal syllable-suffix at utters its voice in 7-8. Twenty-six times he employs the sonorant ‘m’, that is to say, it is in every line but at 5. It is brilliantly applied at 9: materiam struimus magnaeruinae.

Manilius presents parallels on (a) the expenditure of life: see line 1 -‘use up’, 3 – ‘grow old’, 4 –‘squander’, 5 – ‘engage’ in, 9 – ‘pile up’, and 10 – ‘we buy’; (b) on an insatiable appetite: 3 – ‘questing’, 6 – ‘searches’, and 7 – ‘prefers’; (c) on the effect of this urge: 1 – ‘troubled years’, 3 –‘endless pains’, and 9 – ‘harmful substance’; but violation of the bounds of fortune (line 4) spur on poverty’s intrusion (line 6). Ancient Latin compositions infrequently contain poeticisms whose forms prevent their use as an indicator of normal, oral speech-patterns. The first five sentences contain a dazzling display of long-by-position vowels; but the triplex usage of the diphthong ‘ae’ in line 3 is unusual in Manilius’ style of writing. And there are no complex textual problems.

In the whole of the Astronomica there is no comparable passage equivalent to these moral principles. In my translation, precise punctuation-marks provide additional adversative effect. There are other ways to analyze this passage.

Comparative Exegesis:

The tone points up several analogous Near Eastern qualities (see below); Babylonians in general did not decry the pursuit of wealth; but readers are not obligated by the texts to believe the passages to be autobiographical, that Manilius himself foundered in his ability to live in strict accordance with those principles of abnegation or pursuit of wealth. He is posing questions and emphasising the lack of awareness of specific ethical ideals. Though some Greek and Roman texts may display similar tenor, the tapestry of ideas contained in lines 4.1-11 are rooted in schools of thought that are much older than those systems pioneered in ancient Greece and Rome.

In theory, Manilius’ religion is polytheistic. There is an emphasis on temporal frames of thought –  ‘fear’ and ‘desire’ wring life from those whose mode of living tends toward calamitous effects (see DRN 2.14-16). Ignorance or neglect of individual destiny is the root cause; nonetheless fate supplies the anchor of the soul. Emotions, when uncontrolled, mislead.

Since fata regunt orbem (fate governs the world), the un-ruled man requires management. Manilius’ readership eventually will consist of people who may not submit to predetermined norms. Consequently trepidation and unrestrained passions act as inflexible sovereigns over all their private circumstances. All of the Astronomica in general, but book 4 specifically, defines one main ingredient that should be substituted in place of fear and desire: fate. In this way book 4 leads to fate’s function as an alternative monarch, enriching and bringing good fortune; except that this divine concept bears overarching control over all human emotion.

What’s more, Manilius perceives that the reader needs the tutelage of the signs of the zodiac to deter him or her from vain quests. The direct effect on someone in adolescence, prime of life or old age is unending because vainness contains an inwardly coercive element driving its captive toward boundless futility. This image is not of a ‘righteous sufferer’, a literary type known in ancient near eastern texts, but of one whose foolishness is overt. The introductory lines above are stylistic, preparatory to the private tuition now given the reader through Manilius’ text. Although zodiacal signs indeed are manipulative, enslaving the adherent to such phenomena, adherence to these constellations frees the enthusiast from a pointless life. And the promulgation of this sort of advice, encouraging the avoidance of squandering one’s life, was a lifelong vocation of certain ancient sages.

Roman horoscopy has its antecedent in facets of Babylonian astrological method, so it is odd that persons inhabiting Mesopotamia thought that wealth was a good thing. The Sumerians maintained several proverbs which, state (1) ‘the poor sleep well at night because they are not worried about their wealth.’ Doubtless a poverty-stricken person fated to be so would not have transmitted that piece of advice. (2) ‘He who has silver is happy, he who has grain feels comfortable, but he who has livestock cannot sleep.’[iv] And one other Sumerian proverb in circulation professed (3) ‘t0 be wealthy and demand more is an abomination to a god.’[v]

In the ancient Levant, texts were preserved which contained similar assertions and conclusions about principled everyday living: e.g., texts of Judaism, Ecclesiastes 5.10: ‘the man who loves money can never have enough, and the man who is in love with great wealth enjoys no return from it’ (NEB); and Sirach 14.9 ‘the eye of the greedy person is not satisfied with his share’ (NRSV); Sirach 18.30: ‘Do not let passions be your guide’ (NEB), views which were in sympathy with Theognis (c.6th century BC) who bade his fellow townsmen to beware because ‘for most of the human race the only virtue [is] to be wealthy’ (El. I. 699).

The unhappiness of those who aspired to affluence and privilege was evident. If excerpts of the Astronomica had been publicized by mid-1st century of the Common Era, one might speculate also that the Paul of Tarsus found occasion to adapt this proverbial material of Manilius[vi] or something based on it, for his cautioning views on the snares of avarice at I Tim. 6:9-10.

I aver, therefore, that Manilius not only had definite acquaintance with cuneiform astrological content; but also with Near Eastern wisdom-texts. Beyond question there is correspondence in meaning between the Sumerian proverbs, east Mediterranean wisdom texts and Manilius’ Roman ideals at 4.1-11. Each of them is based on the sagacity of persons who pronounced sound judgment. The entire poem is a tapestry of ideas not entirely familiar to Roman citizens of previous days. It is arduous to read the Astronomica in Latin, lacking the resources necessary to identify inferences of especially near eastern character. Its exegesis is problematic without the use of those tools.

The Astronomica’s place in the front rank of Augustan era poetry is assured. Manilius’ assembly of select adagia at 4.1-11 adorns the poem. One fundamental argument pervades the whole poem, to wit, that ‘the stars do rule!’

Les Parques


[i] Book 1: 1.1–121: prelude to astronomical song; 1.122–254: the universe, theorizing its origins; 1.255–560: heavenly signs; 1.561–804: celestial circles described; 1.805-8: the planets; 1.809–926: comets and shooting stars
Book 2: 2.1–149: prelude to continuance of song; 2.150–269: division of signs and demarcation of signs of the zodiac, their influence on the seasons of the year and remarks on each sign’s gender; 2.270–692: interrelations of zodiac signs and their twelve aspects; 2.693–787: elucidation of the meaning and use of the Greek word, dodecatemoria, in the zodiac and explanations for why people born under the same sign display different human characteristics; 2.788–970: the four cardinal points in the heavens above
Book 3: 3.1–42: prelude to continuance of song; 3.43–202: the sequence of the stars and their connection to the fate of men; 3.203–682: calculating the horoscope, human life-spans and tropical signs
Book 4: 4.1–121: prelude to continuance of song; 4.122–293: explanation concerning what each individual sign imparts to earth’s citizens; 4.294–386: Greek system of decans; 4.387–584: the task of discovering God, what one needs to know in order to properly understand the nature of one born under a particular sign; 4.585–817: zodiac signs and their reign over select portions of the earth; 4.818–935: periods of time when zodiac signs lose their power
Book 5: 5.1–29: prelude to final verses of extant song; 5.30–173: effects of the rise of Argo on the development of men’s propensities toward sea worthy ventures; 5.174–485: astral configurations; 5.486-709: constellations
[ii] Goold places these lines in book 5 between vv. 709-710. I believe they should be transposed to the very end of the poem following 5.745, summarizing in succinct form all that had been previously argued
[iii] G. P. Goold translates this passage: “Oh, why do we spend the years of our lives in worry, tormenting ourselves with fears and senseless desires; grown old before our time with anxieties which never end; wasting our lives in the pursuit of gain; setting no limit to our wishes, so that their fulfillment leaves us still unblest, but ever playing the part of men who mean to live yet never do? Everyone is the poorer for his possessions because he looks for more: none counts his blessings, but only lusts for what he lacks. Though nature needs only modest requirements, we build higher and higher the peak from which to fall, and purchase luxury with our gains and with the love of luxury the fear of dispossession, until the greatest boon that wealth can confer is the squandering of itself.” See Manilius Astronomica (Harvard:1997), 223. Goold’s Loeb edition remains a work of genius; his exhaustive introduction is sparing in its treatment of any links between the Astronomica and Near Eastern theories; but his translation of 4.1-.11 offers more than the Latin text submits
[iv] Cf. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature – UET 6/2 265.
[v] Ibid. cf. UET 6/2 261 and UET 6/2 262
[vi] Paul, a Roman citizen of Jewish pedigree, and of Hebraic and Hellenic training, knew well the classical literature of his day. From what material has been preserved, he seems to have made use of the content of mainstream pagan texts – without citing his sources – for discourse on appropriate subjects: e.g., in reply to a query regarding citations of classical Greek texts in Pauline writings, Alan H. Sommerstein, Prof. Em. Of Greek at the University of Nottingham, wrote “I know myself of only one such allusion – the well-known Pauline quotation (1 Cor. 15.33) of the Menander verse “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (or, as it would be better translated, “A good character can be ruined by getting into bad company”).  The Menander verse itself, by the way, is now known to have been borrowed from Euripides.” (personal correspondence on, 2/8/2010): but see J.M. Edmonds, The Fragments of Attic Comedy, Vol. III B, (Brill, 1961), 627. In addition, at Tit. 1:12, Paul cites Epimenides of Knossos’ (c.6th cent.BC) statement “all Cretans are liars” – “Κρῆτες, ἀεὶ ψευδεῖς” (cf. Κρητικά)

Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

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1 Response to No Secular Heavens Here

  1. David Ashton says:

    A personal comment: your Dalbanne illustration is most welcome to someone who appreciates the “blatant” use of colour by artists as different as John Sell Cotman, Tamara de Lempicka, Chesley Bonestell, Gill Baguley and even (at his classroom-wall best) Charles West Cope. More please.

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