Astronomy and Religion in Late Antiquity

Throughout the Roman world, there were numerous soothsayers and astrologers; auguries and omens were eagerly sought. The requirements of civil governments and com merce, however, continued to respect practical things, such as devices to tell the time.

We discussed sundials and clepsydras in §4, but one construction is especially worthy of further note. Andronicus Cyrrestes [1st century b.c.] is known to have constructed the Tower of Winds in Athens. De Solla Price (1967) suggested a clock mechanism, the moving part of which was a celestial disk representing the equatorial plane, with punched holes representing solar positions along the ecliptic. A peg could be placed in the hole, and the disk could be made to rotate past a fiducial line representing the celestial meridian, thus, giving a uniform set of hours throughout the day or night (if the water held out that long). A fragment of such a disk was found in Vienna in 1902 in Roman ruins in Vienna. The rotation could be accomplished through the actions of a water clock. Clock-like gears were discovered in 1900 by sponge divers in a sunken Greek ship from ~80 b.c. A reconstruction, known as the Antikythera mechanism, after the island near the shipwreck site, is more likely a tallying device to keep track of dates, than a self-propelled time-keeping device, but is none the less intriguing.

As we noted in §4, Greek and republican Roman calendars were luni-solar calendars. The repetition of the phases of the Moon and the return of the Sun to the same place among the stars through its annual path were two nonsyn-chronous intervals of time; their reconciliation appeared to be one of the the main concerns of Greek astronomy.

A curious practice of numbering days in the month backward was carried out in pre-Julian, Roman Republican times. In this calendar, the phases of the Moon were explicitly noted three times during the month: the Kalends, the first day; the Nones, the 5th day in eight months but the 7th in four others; and the Ides, the 13th in most of the months but the 15th in four—Martius, Maius, Quintilis (July), and October—the 31-day months. Days other than these three were counted backward from them. Thus, two days before the Ides of March would be expressed ante diem tertium Idus Martiae, i.e., three days before the Ides. They may have derived originally from the phases of the Moon, but even in antiquity, the origins were lost, and they were instead attached to the "vestigial" luni-solar months (O'Neil 1975, pp. 45, 80).

Astronomers continued to work during the time of Roman dominance, but Ptolemy's syntaxis seemed to have such an overpowering influence that it effectively stifled further astronomical progress. Toomer notes that in Ptolemy's generation, some scholars continued to refer to the books of Hipparchos, but by the 3rd century, these and most older texts were not copied, having been supplanted by Ptolemy's books, for both teaching and research. Despite the changes in society that were going on, it is still curious that the importance of the phenomenon of precession was not widely recognized by post-Ptolemaic astronomers; only two42 are known even to have discussed it. Of course,

42 Theon of Alexandria (4th century) and Proclus (5th century). The latter denied its validity, and the former believed that the precession was periodic with a period of 1600 years, oscillating along an arc 8° wide. In the Middle Ages, this oscillation was called "trepidation." See §7.7 for further discussion of precession to the time of Copernicus.

Ptolemy cannot be blamed for the failure of later generations of astronomers to envisage new models and to develop new methods of observations to test them. The decline of astronomy over the next century paralleled that of Mediterranean society generally. The reasons for the fall of Rome are beyond our scope, but clearly involved such elements as plagues (that carried by the army from Asia in 188 a.d. was particularly devastating); excessive spending on military conquests and maintenance; and finally, ever-more successful invasions by waves of warrior tribes from the east. Rostovtzeff (1927, p. 8) argued that already in the 1st century b.c., a bankruptcy of learning developed as a result of cruel oppression, exhausting wars, and general misery of the times, both in the Roman-dominated west and the Hellenistic east. Of course, if the climate for science in the era of Roman domination was miserable, the fortunes of science during the decline of the Roman empire can only be described as catastrophic, as the astrologers would put it.

Following Ptolemy, studies of the stars and planets were more and more concerned with the nature rather than with the movements of these bodies. Were they material or spiritual beings? Anaxagorus had argued that they were hot, incandescent matter. Were they alive? Most thought so. Were they gods? These were questions considered by the Academy since the days of Socrates, but the answers in late Hellenistic and Roman times were as divergent as the many religions and philosophies that swept the Mediterranean world. For a comprehensive treatment of Hellenistic and Roman philosophical world views, see Scott (1991), and further discussion in the context of the descent of the gods in §15.

Astrology became more important in the Roman period than it had been in the Hellenistic world. Observations of transient phenomena, especially of meteors and comets— signs of the times, so to speak—were widely recorded in the Mediterranean in the early Christian era. Among the better known records is the following excerpt. On describing the conditions and state of mind of Pompey on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus, Plutarch [Chaeronea, Boeotia, 46->120 a.d.] in Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (tr. R. Warner 1954/1972, p. 204), says he was woken up in the night by various panic disturbances which went sweeping through the camp. Then during the morning watch a great light shone out over Caesar's camp, when everyone was fast asleep, and out of it came a flame like a torch which darted down upon the camp of Pompey. Caesar himself says that he saw this while he was inspecting the sentry posts.

The study of transient phenomena that involved observations of comets and other natural phenomena was a respected activity. Lucretius (~96-55 b.c.), a poet and epicurean philosopher, who opposed astrology, and Seneca (~4 b.c.-a.d. 65), a philosopher, man of letters, defender of astrology, and tutor to the emperor Nero, both wrote about comets; Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23-79) compiled a catalog of cometary forms and was killed studying an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In 45 a.d., the emperor Claudius, knowing that a solar eclipse would occur on his birthday, made a public announcement explaining the circumstances of the eclipse in an effort to preclude negative public reaction to what would be regarded as an unfortunate omen (Lindsay 1971, p. 270). The emperor Hadrian (76-138) dedicated statues to the sun and moon gods (Anthony Birley, tr., Plutarch's Lives of the Later Caesars, p. 78). Hadrian was deeply interested in astrology and his great-uncle, an astrologer, was said to have predicted that Hadrian would become emperor. His horoscope for 26 January, 76 a.d., is extant, and begins with the phrase, "He became emperor because... [of highly favorable astrological circumstances]," indicating that the accession was regarded as a matter of astrological causation rather than of influence or mere signification43 (Lindsay 1971, p. 309). Although his dedication to solar and lunar gods was in keeping with his conservative image, on at least two occasions, he spent nights on mountain tops in order to see the sunrise (pp. 71, 72). On Etna, he was interested in seeing multicolored sunrises that had been reported; on the other occasion, it was to make a sacrifice. The importance of omens and signs became paramount.

Eclipses and meteor showers are mentioned in the synoptic Gospels, both in Jesus's prophecy of the disasters to befall Jerusalem44 and at the time of his crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45). The former description is strongly reminiscent of the prophecy of Amos (8:9) and Joel (3:15-16); Bultmann and Kundsin (1934/1962, pp. 98-100) attribute such phrases to the interpolation of "eschatological-apocalyptic views" by the early Christian community into the Gospels. As for the Star of Bethlehem (discussed in §15), the dating of Easter has involved a great deal of scholarly discussion, beyond the question of historical attestation. The traditional date of the celebration of Easter is the first Sunday after the first full Moon following the vernal equinox. Good Friday precedes Easter by two days, so that the time of year is usually assumed to be near the vernal equinox. The descriptions of the crucifixion eclipse in Matthew and Mark are less explicit ["Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land (or earth)

43 There are at least three basic astrological approaches: that the stars in some way dictate the future;that they exercise some kind of influence, not always compelling;or, finally, that they provide warning signs or indications of possible future events.

44 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31)

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:24-27)

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world;for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Luke 21:25-28)

until the ninth hour"], but in Luke, the cause is made clear ["It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land (or earth) until the ninth hour, while the sun's light failed (or the sun was eclipsed; or the sun was darkened)"]. The 'hour' (Spa) was measured from dawn during this Roman period (Arndt and Gingrich 1952/1957, p. 904), although some earlier Jewish traditions used this type of reckoning as well (Metzger and Coogan 1993, pp. 743-744); the usage was such that the term referred to the hour just ended. Therefore, "sixth hour" refers to noon, and the "ninth hour" to 3 p.m. So that the darkening phenomenon took place in daylight hours. The Gospels confirm the daytime circumstance by indicating that the body was taken down from the cross because of the preparation of the sabbath to follow the next day. This circumstance would seem to rule out a lunar eclipse, because a full moon would not have been above the horizon during the crucifixion and, of course, would be in direct contradiction with the alternative reading of Luke. Oppolzer (1887/1962, Chart 60) shows a local solar eclipse as occurring in the region on Nov. 24, 29 a.d., but there appears to be no good candidate for a local solar eclipse taking place within the months of March-April for the years 27 to 36 a.d. (the interval when Pontius Pilate was the procurator). Passover must have occurred near full moon. The Synoptic Gospels suggest the crucifixion to have taken place on the date Nisan 15, although the matter is disputed among the churches because the information in the Gospel of John is usually taken to imply that the crucifixion took place on Nisan 14, and that the Last Supper was not the celebration of the Passover (Jeremias 1966, pp. 16-26). The new moon in the year 33 a.d. was on March 19 (this is astronomical new moon, not first visibility of the waxing crescent, which was used in calendrics and was probably March 20 or 21); full moon occured on April 3. Therefore, if an eclipse took place on the latter date, it would have had to be a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington (1983, 1990) argue that the event was meant to describe a lunar eclipse that occurred on Apr. 3, 33 a.d. The traditional date had been Mar. 25, 29 a.d. (at least since the time of Tertul-lian, ~200 a.d.), but this date did not coincide with Nisan 14/15. (The multiple calendars in use in Judaea at this time may, however, have included one in which March 25 did coincide with Nisan 14/15.) In any case, according to modern calculations (Liu and Fiala 1992), March 25, 29 a.d. was not the date of a lunar eclipse. Schove (1984, p. 328) suggested a lunar eclipse on Apr. 7, 30 a.d., which he claimed would have been more spectacular, but Liu and Fiala (1992) show an eclipse on May 6, 30 a.d. of magnitude 0.036, and on June 4, 30, a.d. of magnitude 0.145, neither spectacular; and no lunar eclipses in March or April of that year. These interpretations ignore the references in the Synoptic Gospels to an earthquake, the rending of the temple in two, and the dead rising from their open graves. Taken altogether, the language of the Synoptic Gospels suggests that these descriptions, too, may fall in the category of interpolated statements representing the eschatological beliefs of the early Christians, who would certainly have expected these kinds of events to accompany the self-sacrifice of God. Regarding the eclipse, except for one account, the Synoptic Gospels do not explicitly mention an eclipse, and alterna tive interpretations exist. There are many reports of well-documented instances of profound darkness occurring in daytime, unrelated to eclipses. Humphreys and Waddington (1983) argue that the solar dimming was due to a duststorm, and suggest this (and a lunar eclipse) as the reason for Peter's recitation of Joel's prophecy (especially, Acts 2:19-20),45 seven weeks later. Similar dark skies phenomena, related to volcanism or weather, are listed by Schove (1984, p. 327). Therefore, the darkness reported in Matthew and Mark and the failure of sunlight reported in Luke do not necessarily require an eclipse.

Evidence of associations between religious beliefs and astronomical ideas can be found in the Mithraic mysteries. Mithraism was one of a number of mystery religions that competed to some extent with Christianity in the early years of the Christian era, reaching a peak of popularity in the 3rd century, and dying off in the 4th. Although its belief system was unknown outside the sect, depictions on the walls where the cult held its meetings, images on cups, and the comments of ancient writers provide some clues. There are representations of seven figures on a large mixing cup discovered in Mainz in 1976; another cup, from Cologne, bears among other images seven stars. These representations and other evidence suggest a close association of the grades of Mithraism with the seven classic planets. A strong case has been made also for association of these figures with the four seasons and other key dates in the year. See Beck (1994a,b) for details on both matters. Frescoes typically portray the hero Mithras in the act of stabbing a bull; nearby are a scorpion, a cup, a snake, and a dog. Sun and Moon goddesses (so identified by the symbols on their heads) are also depicted farther removed from the action. Ulansey (1989) has argued that Mithras is in fact Perseus, and the bull, Taurus. The other characters in the drama represent constellations that were on the celestial equator on or below the ecliptic when the spring equinox was in Taurus; the cup, representing not the constellation Crater, however, but Aquarius. The slaying of the bull symbolizes to Ulansey the moving of the vernal equinox from Taurus into Aries, marking the beginning of a new age. The blood flowing from the wound is indeed shown in the form of ears of wheat, and other symbols of Spring (as well as autumn) are shown. Moreover, Mithras was identified by Porphyry [Tyre, 233-304 a.d.] as the "lord of genesis," thus, having an important role in world creation and maintenance; Ulansey's Fig. 7.4 shows Mithras as kosmokrator, supporting the celestial sphere. The interpretation depends on the notion that the constellation Perseus extended into what is now considered Taurus, and included the (then) location of the vernal equinox. A larger Perseus was mentioned by Porphyry and previously by Aratos (who was criticized by Hipparchus for placing the Pleiades on the knee of Perseus instead of on the more conventional location of the bull's shoulder). Webb (1952, Ch. 7), however, had an extensive critique of the view that the

45 "And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day."

bull killed by Mithras was the constellation Taurus, and that this referred to the precession of the equinox into Aries.

Mithraism became popular among the Roman army and was thereby spread through out the empire, but other religions were locally popular as well. The Eleusinian mysteries originated at Eleusis near Athens and centered on the myth of Kore (Demeter). The efforts of Demeter to recover her daughter, Persephone, who was carried off by Hades to the underworld, were ultimately successful, but required Persephone to return once a year to the underworld. Thus, the mystery of the recurrent seasons was embodied in this myth, which later became embodied not only in the Eleusinian mysteries, but incorporated in the Athenian state as well. Thus, the mystery religions and their relationship to astronomy represent important aspects of the ancient world.

An important concern in the ancient as in the modern world, was the nature of the universe. The rise of Christianity did not put to an end classical philosophical and scientific speculation. Origen [Alexandria, 184-254] was a Christian theologian and Neo-Platonist who wrote about the multiplicity of worlds, on all of which he expected the events of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption to occur. Scott (1991, p. 165) argues that Origen stood firmly in a tradition that started with the Ionian Greeks and the importance of which Plato recognized: "Correctly understood, the stars were proof of a higher design in the Cosmos." See §15.1 for a further discussion of Origen's stand on the classical and traditional belief of the descent of the soul through the cosmos to Earth and its subsequent return. St. Augustine (354-430, North Africa; Bishop of Hippo), who distrusted the evidence of the senses, nevertheless speculated about the nature of time and space (Confessions, Book IX).

Macrobius (fl. 395-423; Greece) wrote a dialogue, Saturnalia, in which he argued that all forms of worship ultimately derived from that of the Sun. The Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus (411-485; Constantinople) wrote on astronomy and mathematics. Martianus Capella (fl. 430) wrote an encyclopedia, the Satyricon, in which the liberal arts were classified into seven parts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium), and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium). This usage was widely adopted in the Middle Ages. He also put forward the theory that the Sun is a center about which the solar system revolved. The age of tolerance for pagan philosophy came to an end with the closing by the emperor Justinian of Plato's academy in 529 a.d.

With the end of classical civilization, Islamic astronomy came to ascendancy. We resume the discussion of the Middle Ages through the time of the Reformation after reviewing the main contributions of Islamic and late Indian cultures.

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