Emperors And Astrology


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Many of the incidents recorded for Tiberius' reign prefigure those of other emperors portrayed as tyrannical. Domitian, at the end of the century 'had not failed to take note of the days and hours when the foremost men had been born, and in consequence was trying to destroy not a few of those who were not even trying for the attainment of power.' Caracalla (188-217), according to Herodianus, scoured the country for astrologers, magi and soothsayers to find the traitors he feared and to tell him the time and manner of his death.34 In the case of Domitian, an incident where he exiled and had executed a man with an 'imperial horoscope' illustrates this theme. This man, Mettius Pompusianus, had been ostentatiously spared, and even made a consul by Vespasian, Domitian's father, an emperor who receives much more favourable treatment from the sources.35 His son, Domitian's brother Titus, also elicits amazement for his clemency in not only allowing men with imperial nativities to live, but also for warning them that they were in danger from another person. Clearly, Domitian is indicated as that person.

Improbable as the astrological secret police may seem as an imperial institution, the fear of those to whom astrologers had predicted an imperial future was not unjustified, even leaving out of account the fact that emperors, like most Romans, were not inclined to thoroughgoing scepticism about astrology. In two cases, both in 69 CE, the year in which four emperors ruled in a succession of coups, we actually hear of astrologers encouraging their clients to revolt with their predictions: 'the astrologers also urged him to action, predicting from their observation of the heavens revolution and a year of glory for Otho.' Six months later, Vespasian's supporters were reminding him of the astrological backing that he had, as they encouraged him to go for the throne.36 However, though the worry that drove emperors to destroy possible rivals was well founded, encouraging astrologers to denounce their clients could be counterproductive. In Nerva's case, it was because he believed himself in mortal danger thanks to astrologers' betrayals, that he felt impelled to rebel, according to Dio. And Dio also blames Caracalla's search for information about his own death, and his treacherous successors, for driving the Prefect Macrinus to set a coup d'état in motion. When Caracalla's spy discovered from an African seer who the men were who were to succeed him, the spy warned the emperor so that they could be executed. But the letters reached the Prefect before they reached the emperor.37

Variations on the themes found in the case of Tiberius are legion. For instance, there are explanations as to why a future emperor was permitted to live: Domitian only spared Nerva because an astrologer said he would die soon anyway.38 The theme of the astrological councillors, already in Tiberius' case a parody of the official consilium principis (Council of the Emperor), is given an extra twist when it is Nero's wife Poppaea who is using astrologers as her council.39 The idea of a connection between the deaths of others and the emperor's own life recurs, but in an inversion of Thrasyllus' advice that they should be spared to lengthen the emperor's life, the astrologer Balbillus advises Nero that only the deaths of several senators can avert the danger for Nero presaged by a comet.40 Again, the theme of consultations on the succession resurfaces, and again, an apparent mistake on the part of an astrological expert is explained in the case of Hadrian, who chose Aelius Verus, who died before him:

The emperor was acquainted with the horoscope of Verus... and adopted a man whom he did not really think suitable to govern the empire merely to gratify his desires.For Marius Maximus represents Hadrian as so expert in astrology, as even to assert that he knew all about his own future.41

Like Tiberius, Hadrian was an emperor who had himself become an adept astrologer. Septimius Severus was similarly credited with astrological skills such as were possessed by most Africans, according to the source. He noted with surprise that there was nothing imperial in the horoscope of his second son Geta, born on 27 May 189, to whom he left the empire as joint-heir with his first son Caracalla. Again the art is proved infallible, for Geta was murdered by his brother. Septimius Severus knew that he would not come back from Britain, from his horoscope. He also supposedly found his wife by making enquiries to discover a woman whose horoscope predicted that she would marry a king.42

Predictions of future power have been preserved for almost every emperor. But we hear of only one other case of publication in the manner of Augustus: that of Septimius Severus. Like Augustus, he was in much need of legitimation, since the Antonine dynasty had collapsed, and the successor had only lasted three months before being murdered. Septimius knew the value of such backing: Herodianus reports that the emperor published the dreams, oracles, omens and other predictions foretelling his power in his Autobiography, and had them represented in sculpture and painting on his public images. According to Dio, who had himself presented the emperor with an account of these omens, Septimius Severus had his horoscope depicted on the ceiling of the rooms in his palace where he held court, but was careful to ensure that the Ascendant was placed at a different place in each room, so that no one could know the full horoscope and use it as a basis for their own calculations.43 It is possible that Dio, who seems to have been particularly willing to give credence to stories about astrology, which was one way of pleasing Severus, has embroidered on the basis of the existence of a ceiling depicting the night-sky, which may have been common since Nero decorated the domed room of his Golden Palace. However, he must have seen the ceilings concerned. Perhaps, if the state of the sky at a particular moment was represented, it was Severus' coronation-

horoscope. There was Hellenistic precedent for such publication. High up in the Taurus mountains, on the summit of Nimrud Dagh, a relief shows a conjunction of planets in Leo (represented as a lion, with stars in the appropriate places). This is the horoscope for the coronation-date of Antiochus I of Commagene after Pompey had returned him to power: 6 or 7 July 62 BCE (see Plate 6). It is in fact the earliest original Greek horoscope preserved, and backs up the association of astrology with monarchy. Astrologers were often used to check on the appropriate moment for coronation. Tacitus reports that when Claudius died (poisoned by his wife Agrippina, according to him), the Empress blocked every approach with troops, issuing frequent announcements about Claudius' health, to buy time in order to await the auspicious moment forecast by the astrologers.44 As we shall see, this use of astrology to find the right moment for a coronation persists in the fifth century.

If Dio is correct, Severus had good reason to conceal his Ascendant, since it offered the possibility of calculating his death-date. Our sources are full of incidents where emperors' deaths are predicted. Astrologers asserted that the conjunction of heavenly bodies under which Tiberius left Rome in 26 CE precluded his return, according to Tacitus.45 The historian remarks that the deduction that Tiberius had not long to live (the natural implication) was fatal to many. It is a favourite device in stories about predictions that a second interpretation, not originally apparent, is borne out in the fullness of time. However, the astrologers had reason to avoid directness in this instance. Nero's astrologers were apparently similarly careful not to mention death in warning him that he would one day be removed from the throne. Nero was unworried, he thought he could make a living as a lyre-player!46 Astrologers had to be cautious: such uses of astrology were, of course, high treason, for good cause. If the emperor's death-date were known, he was not much longer for the world, even if one did not believe in the magical powers of such predictions.

Thus astrologers were wise to act as an anonymous group. In the turbulent year of 69 CE, in response to Vitellius' decree banning them from Rome and Italy from 1 October, they posted an announcement with their own edict:

Decreed by all astrologers In blessing on our State Vitellius will be no more On the appointed date.47

In response Vitellius executed any astrologers he came across, according to Suetonius. He did not have long to enjoy the satisfaction of proving them wrong, for he only survived three months afterwards. Despite the obvious risks, there are several accounts in which the astrologers confronted the emperor. When Caligula asked an astrologer called Sulla for his horoscope, he was told that his death was imminent. His response is not recorded. Similarly there is no record of punishment for two other cases concerning emperors' deaths, but good news is mingled with bad. Severus Alexander was told that he would die by the sword of a barbarian; he was delighted to believe that he would die gloriously in battle. Once again, the ambiguity of the prediction is a source of dramatic irony, for Severus was assassinated by a barbarian guard in his own army.48 An astrologer told the incredulous future emperor Gordian, not only the date and manner of his own death, but also those of his son and grandson. But the man first predicted their imperial futures.49 As is often the case, the narrative demands that the prophecy meets disbelief. Gordian might well be sceptical: he did not become emperor till he was 79, in 238 CE.

In the case of Domitian, his attempt to prove that the astrologer was wrong did not exclude his punishment. He hauled up the astrologer Ascletario, having heard that the man had predicted his imminent death. The man confirmed the story:

Domitian at once asked whether he could prophesy the manner of his own end, and upon Ascletario's replying that he would very soon be torn to pieces by dogs, had him executed on the spot, and gave orders for his funeral rites to be conducted with the greatest care, as a further proof that astrology was a fake. But while the funeral was in progress, a sudden gale scattered the pyre and dogs mangled the half-burned corpse.50

Once again, as in the story about Tiberius and Thrasyllus, the seer is questioned about his own death and proved right. Suetonius tells the story as part of the build-up to Domitian's death. The actor Latinus, who happened to witness the scene, mentioned it to Domitian that evening, at dinner, when retailing the day's gossip. Domitian was disturbed. He remarked to his companions on the day before his assassination: 'There will be blood on the Moon as she enters Aquarius, and a deed will be done for everyone to talk about through the whole world':

With the approach of midnight Domitian became so terrified that he jumped out of bed; and at dawn condemned a soothsayer from Germany who was charged with saying that the lightning portended a change of government. Domitian then scratched a festering wart on his forehead and made it bleed, muttering: 'I hope this is all the blood required.' Presently he asked the time. As had been pre-arranged, his ex-slaves answered untruthfully: 'The sixth hour', because they knew it was the fifth he feared. Convinced that the danger had passed, Domitian went off quickly and happily to take a bath; whereupon his head valet, Parthenius, changed his intention by delivering the news that a man had called on very urgent and important business, and would not be put off. So Domitian dismissed his attendants and hurried to the bedroom—where he was killed.51

The all-seeing astrologer was indeed a gift for the ancient writers of imperial history. Though we should be suspicious of the origins of such well-constructed anecdotes—indeed there are cases where we can see that details have been altered by a second author to show the astrologers as more accurate—there is less reason to doubt that the stories do offer some picture of the role of astrologers under the Empire. Clearly, many of the elite resorted to astrologers. Astrologers were consulted when a would-be emperor wanted to know of his chances, and where a favourable prediction was obtained, it was exploited to justify his cause. The role of court astrologers is harder to evaluate. Their use to evaluate prospective heirs, whether adoptive or natural sons, seems authentic enough. They were also used to select the right moment for coronations; we may assume that horary astrology was also used to advise on the viability of other enterprises. As for their part in considering rivals, there is some evidence from the fifth century that we shall be considering in the next chapter, that rivals' horoscopes were suppressed.

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The Art Of Astrology

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