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Oct 20 Morality, mysticism, magic in late
(and a little astrology)
Roman version of Greek science = compiled summary of
past knowledge, and claimed observations.
Popularizers of science (ancient Carl Sagans) = Not doing
original research, but instead spreading scientific info to
general educated audience that finds it fashionable and
Pliny the Elder (23-79CE):
Natural History
Theories summarized from ancient sources.
Catalogue “observed” marvels, anecdotes from the exotic edges of
 Moralizing
Pliny’s agenda
Wonders of the animal world exist for the benefit of man –
to teach us moral lessons.
 Learn science for the sake of ethical improvement and
imperial strength.
 Writing for young aristocrats.
 Favorite example – the hardworking and cooperative bee.
Philosophical schools
in Roman world
Popular science – for all the people.
Practical ethics – Roman concern in civil war era, excesses of
emperors, life of luxury…
Stoics – resigned to fate
Cicero (106-43BCE)
Epicureans – atomists and hedonists
Lucretius (55BCE), epic poem On the Nature of Things
Main doctrines E & S
Materialist atomism vs. materialist soul
Chance vs. purpose, order, teleology
Free will vs. determinism
Both favor natural causes and dismiss superstition/religion.
Platonist school (Rome 200CE-)
Not materialist.
External teleology.
 Mystical, religious.
Platonist philosophy
“The One” – perfect, transcendent deity.
Chain of being – linked hierarchy.
It created “the other” – everything else.
World-soul to planets to organisms to rocks.
Natural bonds, influences within the universe.
Mystical goal to achieve unity with the One.
Influenced early Christian theology.
Hermetic school
Texts found (and written) in Alexandria about 200CE.
About astrology & magic.
 Believed to be the revealed word of the Egyptian god
Hermes Trismegistus.
Pliny (70CE): The tongue of a live frog, set over the heart
of a woman while she sleeps, will compel her to answer all
questions truthfully.
Hidden powers in natural objects.
Doctrines of natural magic
Connections – sympathies & antipathies – between things.
Correspondences between the macrocosm (universe) &
microcosm (human).
 Hidden (occult) powers within nature.
Controlling nature
Magician (magus) has secret, divine knowledge of the
 Can use them for his own purposes.
 For example the hidden healing powers of certain plants.
Roman uses for astronomy
Improved Julian calendar (46BCE)
Map the Empire and the known world
(Strabo 20CE)
Astrological forecasts
Strabo world map
History of astrology
Ideas of how heavenly bodies might affect life on
Sun’s influences obvious.
Moon said to affect menstruation, “lunatic.”
Plato, Pliny: every soul has its own star.
Stoics, Platonists: sympathetic links between macrocosm
(universe) & microcosm (human).
Ptolemy, astrologer (150CE)
The work of the great scientist?!
 Working for Roman emperor?
 Astronomy used to predict planetary motion, and to predict
the changes they cause: “it is so evident that most events
of a general nature draw their causes from the heavenly
Ptolemy’s theory based on Aristotle’s 4 elements. The sun and
planets cause hot/cold, wet/dry on earth:
“For the Sun is always in some way affecting everything on earth, not only by
the changes that accompany the seasons of the year [growth of plants &
animals], but also by its daily revolutions furnishing heat, moisture, dryness,
and cold in regular order and in correspondence with its positions.”
From this, one could predict weather.
Horoscope at birth
Ptolemy further says, “why can he not, too, with respect to
an individual man, perceive the general quality of his
temperament from the heavenly environment at the time of
his birth…and predict occasional events, by the use of the
fact that such an environment is attuned to such and such
a temperament and is favorable to prosperity, while
another is not so attuned and conduces injury.”
Astrology in ancient world
Babylonian and Egyptian kings had long used it to forecast
events during their rule (judicial astrology).
 Greeks did not practice it.
 Stoic fatalism supported astrology.
 Much evidence of its practice starting with the Roman
leaders (100BCE).
Political destiny in the stars
Augustus Caesar legitimized his rule with a horoscope for
future greatness. But emperors became paranoid that
other astrologers were seeking omens of rivals to the
throne – so they outlawed private astrology.
 Astrologers and diviners could work only for the state
(“beware the Ides of March”).