SIGNS AND WONDERS

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Tiberius: “It is fate that rules us, Little boots, not any god.”

Caligula: “You are a god!”

Tiberius: “No, I`m NOT! Not even when I`m dead.”

Caligula: “Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.”

Tiberius: “So says the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useless.”

~~ I Claudius, Robert Graves ~~

agora_ver5_xlgIntending to have the astrologer Thrasyllus thrown off a cliff if he was exposed as a charlatan, the emperor Tiberius devised a cunning plan.

“Tiberius asked him to read his own horoscope. Thrasyllus hesitated at first, then he began to tremble and to shake with shock and terror the more he looked at the horoscope, and finally he shouted out that a dreadful danger was looming over him. Tiberius embraced him and congratulated him on foreseeing the peril and assured him that he would be safe. Whatever Thrasyllus said thereafter he regarded as oracular, and he kept him in his intimate circle of friends.”

~~ Tacitus, Annals 6.21 ~~

Whether Thrasyllus was a clever old cove who knew the lie of the land regarding Tiberius`s twisted sense of humour, or he really could foresee the future, we shall never know, but one thing is certain; astrology was an important element in understanding ancient psychology. Like all great ancient civilisations, Rome had sprung from agrarian origins and was still psychologically very close to the world of water sprites and spirits of place (Spiritus Loci), and so it was a small step up to believing that the movements of the heavens could control human destiny.

pitagoras-parmenides-hypatiaEven so, ancient astrology was much different to the modern common or garden variety: it was more learned and respectable with a substantial overlap between astrology and philosophy; there was nothing intellectually demeaning about practicing, or having a deep interest in astrology.

Astrologers would be consulted on everything: people`s concerns covered the rules and rituals, the worries, and the whys and wherefores of daily life: who would win the afternoon`s big chariot race; when was the rich relative going to die so that the money could be collected; will next year be a better one than this year.

Astrology boomed under the Caesars: here we had a severely autocratic regime which considered it worthwhile to be seen as “one with the gods”, and so it greatly benefited the emperors to have the legitimacy of their sovereignty literally “written in the stars.”

Tiberius was no exception: having become self proficient in divination, after a dream which told him to give a large sum of money to a certain person, he decided he was the victim of enchantment, and had the man put to death. So even if you have no connection with someone (even an emperor), you could find your life terminated simply on the arbitrary say-so of interpretation of dreams. Freud no doubt would have been in his heaven among the Romans.

Astrology had an important place in the ancient world; you cannot begin to understand the psyche of the place and time without understanding something about astrology, and why it had such a massive influence upon people`s thoughts and actions. Would Constantine have responded in the way he did after his victory at the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312, by seeing the play of light across the skies as portents of favour from the Christian god, if he had not been inculcated from birth in the astrological power of dreams and signs?

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As a result of the patronage of Tiberius, Thrasyllus became a Roman citizen. None of his astrological or philosophical writings have survived, although we can form a vague opinion of his intellectual leanings, interests and activities: he was a Platonist, but one heavily influenced by Pythagoreanism, and was responsible for dividing the works of Plato into the four groups we still know today. So he was no mug: anyone who rubbed intellectual shoulders with Plato and Pythagoras and kept one of the Roman Imperium`s less salubrious emperors sweet in his interpretation of dreams, signs and wonders, was obviously remarkably clever.

Astrology runs through human history from the earliest days and still retains it`s grip, even in an age of rationalism and science: to understand everything about humanity, where we came from, what we are, and perhaps (perish the thought) even where we may be going, the influence of astrology needs to be understood. Read Shakespeare and we find a world which revolves around, and is explained by astrology as a driving force which feeds the engine of human endeavour and ambition. Where would Macbeth or Prospero had ended up without it?

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“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp`d tow`rs, the gorgeous palaces.

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”

~~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest ~~”

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