Astrology And The Law Under Christian Emperors

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The legal situation is revealed to us by the codification made under Theodosius in the late fourth century. The anti-pagan legislation of which the laws on divination were part was only sporadically enforced, and it was not until 407 CE that those simply practising pagan religion were pronounced to be breaking the law. However, the laws concerning divination were tougher than any previously in force. In 358 the long-standing connection of magic and divination apparent in earlier trials was formalised. Seen as essentially the same activity, they were one of the five major crimes, and therefore punishable by death.1 Constantius was particularly concerned about those involved in his own entourage, and warned, in 358, that high rank would not save them from due punishment:

If any wizard.soothsayer, diviner.augur, or even astrologer.should be apprehended in My Retinue or in that of the Caesar, he shall not escape punishment or torture by the protection of his high rank. If he should be convicted of his own crime and by denial should oppose those who reveal it, he shall be delivered to the torture house, iron claws shall tear his sides, and he shall suffer punishment worthy of his crime.

There were exceptions made for the traditional public haruspices for a short time before 357. In 409, the emperors Honorius and Theodosius required all astrologers to burn their books in the presence of the bishops, on pain of exile, and in 425 astrologers were included along with various heretics in an expulsion decree.2

In this period, punishments do become more severe. There is a new element in that the repression of divination of all sorts is part of the struggle against paganism. However, what this does is to strengthen the old attitude that enquiring into the future is forbidden. Whereas before, this attitude was implicit in the emperors' efforts to ban the use of astrologers while employing them themselves, now there was a sense that it was right only for the Christian god to see into the future. It was above all the curiositas divinandi, or desire to know through divination, which is presented as reprehensible in the Theodosian Code. Constantius made his orders clear in 357: 'The inquisitiveness of all men for divination shall cease forever.'3

The severity of these laws should not suggest that they were harshly enforced. As one scholar has observed, laws in this period should be seen as licences to take action, like a hunting licence.4 Interested parties could invoke them. In fact there a couple of cases in which it was established that consultation clearly was only about private affairs, and so the guilty were allowed to escape with torture. Bassianus, a man of distinguished family, and a notary of the highest class, was charged with attempting to obtain foreknowledge of matters beyond his sphere. He claimed that he was merely enquiring about the sex of the child his wife was expecting.5

Firmicus Maternus, a senator from Sicily, who wrote an astrological treatise in Latin for a patron high up in the imperial bureaucracy in 334, was careful to be specific about the limits of astrology:

Never reply to anyone who asks about the condition of the State or the life of the Roman emperor. It is both morally wrong and illegal.An astrologer who replies when he is asked about the fate of the emperor is a disgrace and deserves all the punishment he gets, because he can neither say nor discover anything. In fact no astrologer could find anything true about the emperor. The emperor alone is not subject to the course of the stars and in his fate alone the stars have no power of determination. Since he is master of the whole world, his destiny is governed by the judgement of the god most high; since the whole of the earth's surface is subject to the power of the emperor, he himself is also considered among those gods whom the supreme power has set up to create and serve all things.6

However, this is not a radical departure: Firmicus still wants to present the emperor's rule as fated: he offers him as an example of the power of Fate. Constantine, he says, was chosen to free the world from tyrannical government and to crush domestic evils by virtue of his own majesty, so that through him the stain of servitude might be washed away and the rewards of liberty returned.7 Furthermore, the idea that the emperor is not subject to the stars was foreshadowed by Manilius, who remarked that the constellations of the southern hemisphere gave way to Augustus, the star who has touched our world.8

However, there is other evidence of more continuity in imperial policy than would be apparent from the Theodosian Code. In 371, the astrologer Heliodorus turned state's evidence, revealing the plot against the emperor Valens, in which he had been a consultant. Ammianus Marcellinus, the historian who is our source, records the rumour that Valens, apparently a fanatically Christian emperor, not only pardoned the astrologer, but made him his own astrologer and gave him high office.9 This would parallel an incident in 70 CE, in which the astrologer Ptolemy Seleucus, who had encouraged Otho to revolt, was taken on by Vespasian.10 Valens also had tortured and butchered a man when it was discovered that he had a horoscope in his papers labelled 'Valens', though he insisted that it was his brother's.11 Here is a reprise of the theme of the tyrannical emperor, determined to keep his stars to himself.

When Parnasius, the prefect of Egypt, was disgraced under Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great, in 358 CE this was probably because of his consultation with an astrologer 'about matters which the law did not allow him to know'.12 This echoes the earlier treason-trials. However, Julian the Apostate introduced a new element into the old theme of the astrological enquiry by the wouldbe usurper about the reigning emperor. He dreamt the astrological answer, that Constantius would die when Jupiter entered Aquarius and Saturn reached the 25th degree of Virgo. Or so runs the versified oracle in the historian Ammianus Marcellinus.13 Constantius certainly died at a convenient moment, in 461, so Julian never had to fight him for the throne.

We have much less evidence for astrology's being used by emperors from the later period, but there is a group of horoscopes from the fifth century which suggests that some old patterns persisted in the Eastern half of the empire, after the split between East and West. They have been re-edited and interpreted by David Pingree.14 Two of them are coronation-horoscopes for emperors who usurped the throne. They seem to have been cast by the astrologer working for the emperor Zeno, whose rule was threatened by these rivals. One tells us that the usurper Leontius had chosen his moment to be crowned in Antioch on 27 June 484, after consulting two astrologers.15 'Our' astrologer, who may well be Maurianus, the astrologer who was consulted about the succession,16 explains how they made mistakes in ignoring certain elements of the horoscope. Another horoscope, which is probably by the same astrologer, analyses the career of a grammarian, Pamprepius of Panopolis, who was involved in Leontius' revolt.17 The horoscope records that he went from Athens to Byzantium, and there became associated with a great man, and pretending to be a 'wizard, or one initiated', became quaestor, consul and patrician before being put to death as a traitor. This was presumably in the wake of the failure of Leontius' bid for the throne, in 488. In the Life of St Severus of Antioch, it is recorded by a contemporary of an acquaintance that he was involved in divination and magic, hoping to ensure that the rebels would succeed. One Paralius, who repented of his pagan past, wrote to his former accomplices, reminding them of the sacrifices they had offered, their examination of the entrails, their consultation of oracles and their prayers to the pagan gods that Leontius, Illus and Pamprepius would triumph. The oracles assured them that victory would be theirs, and that Christianity would be defeated. The accusation that the rebels were pagans may not be substantiated, but the vignette reveals the atmosphere, the need for knowledge of the future, at the time of the rebellion.18

The other coronation-horoscope concerns Basiliscus, who was crowned Emperor of the East at 9 a.m. on 12 January 475, after Zeno had fled Constantinople with his wife, mother and household gods on the ninth day of his consulship.19 Again, another astrologer had cast the horoscope originally, but our astrologer arrives at a different conclusion, arguing that it was an inauspicious coronation. He was perhaps the astrologer of whom we hear in our sources who worked for Illus, who had been a supporter of Leontius and now supported Basiliscus. If he analysed the horoscope to reassure Zeno, our astrologer was right, since Basiliscus was overthrown after two years.

A fourth horoscope seems to have been cast concerning Theodoric Valames, who was elevated by Zeno, and perhaps looked threatening. Another horoscope, cast in 463, may also have been done at Zeno's behest. It shows that the native, the son of the Emperor Leo, would die at the age of 51/6 months.20 Zeno, called Tarasicodissa at this time, had hopes of the succession; indeed he was (probably later) offered the hand of Leo's daughter Ariadne. Pingree suggests that the astrologer may have cast it to reassure Zeno about the succession. However, the precision of the date (though not uncommon in theoretical works) may suggest subsequent doctoring. This is also possible in the case of the horoscope of Theodoric Valames: the astrologer may have been forced to correct his original positive predictions after his fall.

It is hard to trace the history of astrology at court after this, and it is possible that it retreated to less conspicuous arenas. There is the mention of astrologers playing their traditional role in stirring up the people, in the company of other seers, on the occasion of an earthquake in Byzantium in the sixth century.21 There was as good reason as ever for the state to want to control them, and, as we shall see, Justinian made an attempt to do so. But this time the state had the backing of the Church, and a moral mission.

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