By Courtney Roberts, MA
Astrology Under the Empire
For the first three centuries, before Constantine’s “Romanization” of the Church, Christians held surprisingly diverse views on astrology. There was no centralized authority to enforce dogmas that didn’t yet exist. Some used astrology, some didn’t, but even those who argued with their pagan neighbours over the abuses of horoscopy maintained respect for natural astrology, often in the same documents, for instance, the Recognitions of Clement.13 Christian philosophers like Origin quibbled inconclusively about the extent of man’s ability, or right, to read the signs that God had placed in the heavens, but rarely about the validity of their existence.14
Meanwhile, the philosophical criticisms of judicial astrology, independent of Christianity, such as the work of Carneades and Cicero, reveal that thinking people were already questioning the often exaggerated claims of astrologers. Then, as now, astrology possessed a strange power to bring out the superstitious in people, and many silly things were said and done in its name. Still, the incipient premises of astrology raised important philosophical and metaphysical questions which demanded discussion and debate, and have yet to be satisfactorily resolved.
As Tamsyn Barton has ably and amply demonstrated, in her two important books, astrologers were routinely persecuted in the Roman Empire. Astrology arrived in Rome during the dying days of the Republic and rose to great popularity under the Roman Emperors, starting with Augustus. Augustus not only used astrology lavishly to promote himself and his cause, he also issued the first decree against its use by anyone else. In 11 AD, he banned private consultations and any discussions about death, especially his own.
This decree had far-reaching implications, and was repeatedly expanded and amended throughout the ensuing centuries. It was invoked at least twenty times in the first hundred years of its existence,15 and astrologers were condemned, beaten, driven out of the city, and often executed.
As Jim Tester makes clear, “the theory of astrology was never proscribed and anyone was free to dabble in it or argue about it; the practice, however, was limited.”16 It was limited to the only ones who had the power to enforce such exclusive use, the reigning emperors. The emperors and their counsels used astrology freely, even obsessively, but they were determined that no one would use it against them.
Dio Cassius portrays the emperor Tiberius as employing an occult cabinet. The satirist Juvenal represents the old emperor as shut up in Capri cum grege Chaldaeo (with a herd of astrologers). Their job was to locate those marked out for great destinies, so they could be destroyed. Similar stories are told of Domitian, …(who) of course, had not failed to take careful note of the days and hours when the foremost men had been born, and in consequence was destroying in advance not a few of these who were not even hoping for the attainment of power.”17
Astrologers were by no means the only ones suppressed and tortured in Rome. Domitian expelled all the Stoics in 89 AD, and the Empire’s merciless persecution of early Christians is common knowledge.
While obviously paranoid, these emperors were not exactly boxing shadows, for astrology had also become the favourite consort of rebellion. Just as Augustus had used his birth chart to declare himself saviour of Rome, any political upstart in those uncertain times could and did do the same. Tacitus, in Histories, reports on an uprising brewing in 69 AD in which
“after this speech from Mucianus, the other officers crowded round Vespasian with fresh confidence, reminding him of the responses of the heavenly bodies.”
During this same period, emperor worship had become the official state religion, expanding with the introduction of the Imperial solar cults. Under Septimus Severus, Elagabalus and Aurelian, a state solar monotheism evolved which not only conflated the highest attributes of the old gods onto the Sun, but also exalted the emperor as the divine representative of the Sun on Earth. These developments only intensified the astral mindset in Rome, and coincided with further tightening of state controls over astrology.
Into all this imperial instability, this bizarre mix of 1) solar/emperor worship, 2) the growing influence of Mithraism within the legions, 3) the sizable increase of the Christian population and 4) the exasperating unmanageability of an over-extended empire, comes Constantine, perhaps the greatest religious syncretist of all time.
In 312 AD, in a historic step for human rights, Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration, which granted to “Christians and all others full liberty of following that religion which each may choose.” Constantine’s edict marked the first time Roman Christians, and other persecuted cults, could freely follow their beliefs, but it certainly did not, as has often been claimed, make Christianity the official state religion.
Constantine’s vision was far more eclectic than his later Christian hagiographers report. He consolidated his own power base by successfully merging the Mithraism of his soldiers and the Imperial solar cult, with Christianity. In fusing God/Christ with the Sun/Emperor, he established a schedule of solar worship within Christianity that remains to this day. Christ’s birthday was fixed on December 25, the birthday of Sol Invictus, and other major Christian feasts were arrayed around it on the solstice and equinox points that marked the Sun’s annual journey.18 On March 7, 321, Constantine issued the civil legislation that made Sunday, and not the Sabbath, the official day of worship, proclaiming,
“Let all the judges and town people, and the occupation of all trades rest on the venerable day of the Sun.”19
Constantine’s fusion of these previously disparate branches of society created a large body of believers, but it wasn’t until 380 AD that a later emperor, Theodosis, made Christianity the next in a long line of official state religions. By that time, the political and military might of the Roman Empire was rapidly disintegrating. The political capital had moved east to Constantinople, leaving the Eternal City to its bishop. As its worldly empire fell apart around it, Rome’s future power lay in religion. In the meantime, the Roman Church continued the existing imperial policies towards astrology.
Christian Astrology & Thought Crimes
There exists a kind of cult fantasy among astrologers that their art was blissfully unassailed before the advent of Christianity, and relentlessly persecuted thereafter. Contemporary Christians maintain a similar delusion. This is a gross oversimplification of a complex situation, which, at its worst, verges upon the same kind of provocative bigotry exhibited by the Objectors of 1975.
Many modern historians of astrology, angered by contemporary Christianity’s complete rejection, tend to respond in kind. They are quick to quote Augustine’s objections and reel off a list of official Church condemnations and persecutions, all the while basking in the reflected glory of the leading lights of European astrology and alchemy, claiming as heroes the likes of Alcuin, Adelard of Bath, St. Albertus Magnus, Ficino, Kepler, and Lilly, et al., as if these occult scholars had operated in some cultural vacuum and their repeated professions of faith had been made solely for the sake of political expediency.
Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, not only practiced and promoted astrology, but they contributed significantly to its development, gradually refining through the long centuries the astrology of the classical and Islamic world into what we know today as Western Astrology. They were just as often supported by their local clergy as they were suppressed. Astrology openly flourished in western Christianity from at least 800 AD until approximately1660 AD, and it was hardly absent during the other periods. Christian Astrology has always had its critics, but their attacks were driven as much by jealousy over its influence as by theological objections.
So the problem of suppression, whether of astrology or any other freedom, is neither a uniquely scientistic problem, nor Protestant, nor Catholic, nor even a uniquely Christian problem. It appears to be an all-pervasive socio-political problem. Still nothing unites politics and religion faster than a common enemy. After all, the one thing the imperial Romans and the fractious Judeans could agree on was that Jesus the Nazarene had to be silenced.
The Judeans, unlike Calvin or Luther, actually had the backing of their religion for this murder. While Christianity teaches that the New Testament, turn-the-other-cheek ethics of Christ supercede the Hebrew law, they still include the Old Testament in their Bibles. With a little imagination, within its pages you can find a theological justification for anything: killing, driving out, raping, torturing, maiming, or selling into slavery anyone who disagrees with you, especially if you want their land.
This is not in any way an attack on Judaism, for the Old Testament Jews and their society were fairly typical for their time, and no more violent or acquisitive than the surrounding nations. They were certainly no competition for the Romans in that respect. However, it does seem a bit ironic that the Pentateuch, which commemorates a genocidal land grab as a major religious achievement, has been idealized for almost two millennia as the foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics.
It does make one wonder how many have actually read it through.
Suppression Without Borders: A Truly Human Problem
Lest anyone think this is a particularly western, or monotheistic problem, a brief survey of the bloody history of Buddhism should clear up any of those misconceptions. After the Buddha left this world, his followers fell to fighting amongst themselves and split into different sects and factions, just as would later happen in Christianity and Islam. To quote Bernard Faure, professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, as Buddhism spread throughout the nations of Asia,
‘In whatever countries Buddhism has become official theology… war has often been zealously waged.”20
As in the spread of Christianity, Buddhism was often adopted by political factions and used to their own ends. Some of the more obvious examples are the 14th-century Buddhist fighters who led the uprising that evicted the Mongols from China, and the centuries of bloody monastic wars in Japan. Recently, Zen masters like Sawaki Kodo supported Japan's aggression in WWII, while in present day Sri Lanka, the civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority has taken over 50,000 lives.
This use of religion, or the predominant philosophical paradigm, for that matter, to justify injustice is both primitive and widespread. Again, the problem is not religion, which typically offers alternative ethical systems that should inspire people to transcend their selfish materialism.
The problem is in the way religion is misused to rationalize the violence and thievery people routinely commit in the struggle for wealth and power. On this one point, science, religion, and astrology should unite, for they have all, at one time or another been on both the giving and receiving end of it.
Classic Suppression: Old Habits Die Hard
In an episode that impinged upon the development of classical science, in 311 BC, Epicurus, after embracing Democritean physics, moved to the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos to teach at the Gymnasium. This proved to be a dangerous place to advocate new philosophies, for the publicly funded Lyceum was dominated by Platonists and Aristotelians, who not only benefited from the patronage of their local ‘philosopher-king,’ but jealously defended their role as his favorite advisors. Consequently, they did not welcome teachers from rival schools nor their heterodox philosophies.
They threatened to charge Epicurus with impiety and other such thought-crimes, placing him in great danger. Rather than submit to their ‘justice,’ Epicurus fled for his life, undertaking a dangerous crossing in midwinter to the Ionian coast, where he, and the theory of atomism, almost drowned in the savage storms at sea.
The Greeks, who liked to style themselves the authors of philosophy, were equally creative in its suppression. Inconvenient or unwelcome philosophers were routinely executed or exiled for impiety. In 5th century Athens, the decree of Diopeithes, made it an offense to deny the city’s gods or to teach any new meteorological doctrines. It was invoked against the philosophers Anaxgoras, Protagoras, Diagoras, and ultimately, Socrates.
It should be clear that the real issue was control, not ultimate truth. However, as we close in on our own era, and our own personal brand of philosophical warfare, our perception seems to dim.