Ancient Astronomy-Astrology

Most modern astronomers would prefer not to admit it, but astronomy and astrology share a common ancestry. When the ancients were carefully recording the positions of the stars, the time and appearance of eclipses, and the sudden new occurrence of comets, they weren’t doing these things to put a man on the Moon and communication satellites into orbit or to receive yet another grant from a funding body, but to improve their astrological predictions. Astrology is as woven into the fabric of the history of astronomy as alchemy is into the history of chemistry, and we do a great disservice to the hard work and expertise of ancient astronomers when we refuse to accept that fact.

While there is a growing acknowledgement that archaeoastronomy is a valid field of research, there is not yet the same support for another form of cultural astronomy – astrology. In this post I’m going to list a number of academic resources covering astronomy-astrology as it was practised in the Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman world.

Note that I am an affiliate so if you purchase anything after clicking from the following links I may receive remuneration, but if at all possible I recommend you read these texts via your local academic library.

Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology

Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology is a monograph based on David Brown’s PhD thesis. Brown argues that astronomy began as astrology-astronomy in the 8th and 7th centuries BC Babylon and Nineveh. (Don’t tell anyone I said this, but the thesis itself is currently downloadable from so you can read it for free if you wish.)

Ancient Astrology

Ancient Astrology is part of the Sciences in Antiquity series from Routledge and, after an introduction to the Mesopotamian origins of astrology and the additions from Egyptian star-lore, discusses how astrology was practised in the Classical world (i.e. by the Greeks and Romans).

Timaeus. Critias. Cleitophon. Menexenus. Epistles (Loeb Classical Library 234)

We learn of Plato’s cosmology in his book, the Timaeus. Here Plato explains the creation of the world (what we would call the Universe, in other words everything material) by the demiurge, who then goes on to create the world-soul. In effect, according to Plato, the whole Universe has a soul. This idea of a world-soul crops up again and again in the thinking of practising astrologers throughout the classical period as an explanation for how distant stars could have any relationship with humans.

Constellation Myths with Aratus’s Phaenomena

By at least 700 BC much of the the recognisable zodiac was identified and named by the Mesopotamians – although they had slightly different names, e.g. Goatfish was our Capricorn. Constellation Myths brings together Eratosthenes, Hyginus and Aratus’s summaries of the myths associated with each constellation known to the Greeks.

On Old Age. On Friendship. On Divination.

Lest you think that astrology was widely accepted in the classical world, Cicero wrote one of the earliest criticisms of astrology in his On Divination. His arguments are much the same as those you’ll see today including among others: how can such far away objects affect people; people born at the same instant do not have same characters and life chronologies; and do the people who die in a catastrophe all have the same horoscope?

Ptolemy’s Almagest

Toomer’s translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest is considered the best and most authoritative. Translated from a Greek version with some amendments based on the Arabic versions available. This is yet another obscenely expensive book. Borrow – don’t buy.

A Survey of the Almagest

The Almagest is incredibly technical and therefore usually pretty much impenetrable on first encounter. Throughout the centuries people have written companion books guiding readers on how to actually use the Almagest. A Survey of the Almagest is just the latest version. Yet another expensive text.


Tetrabiblos literally means ‘four books’ and specifically mentions in the first page of the first book that it was written by Ptolemy to serve as the second volume of his astronomical series. The first (what we call the Almagest, but he called the Mathematical Syntaxis) was on astronomy as we would view it, with the second (the Tetrabiblos) concerned with explaining applied astronomy (what we call astrology).

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