Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of October 13th - October 19th,  2000

The Stars at Dawn

Columns Archive


   Little is known of Marcus Manilius, other than he wrote an extensive astrological treatise under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. In the opening twilight years of contemporary civilization, how was astrology viewed? How did the heavens influence the lives of men? Here is a brief outline from the opening book of Manilius's Astronomica:

The Farnese Atlas

The Farnese Atlas

   "By the magic of song to draw down from heaven god-given skills and fate's confidants, the stars, which by the operation of divine reason diversify the chequered fortunes of mankind..."

   "Now is heaven the readier to favor those who search out its secrets, eager to display through a poet's song the riches of the sky. Only in time of peace is there leisure for this task. It is my delight to traverse the very air and spend my life touring the boundless skies, learning of the constellations and the contrary motions of the planets. But this knowledge alone is not enough. A more fervent delight is it to know thoroughly the very heart of the mighty sky, to mark how it controls the birth of all living beings through its signs, and to tell thereof in verse with Apollo tuning my song..."

   "Deeper knowledge of heaven was first granted to earth by the gift of the gods. For who, if the gods wished to conceal it, would have guilefully stolen the secret of the skies, by which all things are ruled? Who but of human understanding would have essayed so great a task as to wish against heaven's wish to appear a god himself; to reveal paths on high and paths beneath the bottom of the earth and stars obedient to appointed orbits through the void? You (Mercury) are the first founder of this great and holy science; through you man has gained a deeper knowledge of the sky- the constellations, the names and courses of the signs, their importance and influences- that the aspect of the firmament might be enhanced, that awe might be roused not only by the appearance but by the power of things, and that mankind might learn wherein lay God's greatest power. Moreover, nature proffered her aid and of her own accord opened up herself, deigning first to inspire those kings whose minds reached out to heights bordering on heaven, kings who civilized savage peoples beneath the eastern sky, where the stars return to view and soar above the cities of dusky nations. Then priests who all their lives offered sacrifice in temples and were chosen to voice the people's prayer secured by their devotion the sympathy of God; their pure minds were kindled by the very presence of the powerful deity, and the God of heaven brought his servants to a knowledge of heaven and disclosed its secrets to them. These were the men who founded our noble science and were the first by their art to discern the destinies dependent on the wandering stars..."

   "After every aspect of the sky had been observed, as the stars returned to their customary positions, and the unvarying sequences of fate had assigned to each figuration of the planets its peculiar influence, by repeated practice and with examples pointing the way experience built up the science; and from wide observation discovered that by hidden laws the stars wield sovereign power and that all heaven moves to the eternal spirit of reason and by sure tokens distinguishes the vicissitudes of fate."


An Ancient Imaging

The Farnese Atlas

The Farnese Atlas

   The Farnese Atlas, 200 BC from the National Maritime Museum, London. The Museo Nazionale in Naples houses a marble statue of the mythological character, Atlas, who supports the heavens on his shoulders. These two broadsheets from the Farnese Atlas show the celestial globe with some of its constellations. The hands on either side represent the hands of Atlas.

   In the picture at right, most of the body of the Hydra can be seen, with the Cup and Crow resting on it. Centaurius and part of the Scales, Virgo and Leo are also clearly visible. In the image above, the Eagle and Cygnus, the Swan figure most promiently, with Pegasus, Delphinus, the Lyre and Hercules (with his foot on the head of the Dragon), are all being held by the Titan Atlas.


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