The relationship of astrology with Roman state religion and practices – Kathryn Shaw

Kathryn Shaw studied Drama and Classical Literature and Civilization at the University of Birmingham, and is currently following a masters programme at KU Leuven university in Belgium. She has submitted her thesis on Brussels’ Toone marionette theatre, and has an interest in popular performance.


An astrological clock in Prague. 

The Relationship of Astrology with Roman State Religion and Practices

Astrological practices have transcended cultures and have had a lasting impact over several millennia. In ancient times astrology was considered not only a study of the movement of the stars, but also a belief system interconnected with culture, politics, religion, and philosophical thought. In particular, it was intrinsic to the lives of the majority in the Late Roman Republic and Early Roman Empire. The word ‘astrology’ derives from the Greek astrologia, which means ‘the telling of the stars’.[1] In this essay I address the use of astrology as a predictive tool, both as a form of divination (‘the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means’), and also the structural effect of the stars on time.[2]

The definition of religion is ‘action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances’, but there is no requirement to believe for a person to be considered religious, whilst belief is defined as a completely personal decision.[3] Determining whether the Roman populace believed in their religion or astrology is therefore impossible without the equivalent of a modern day survey. However, for the purpose of this essay, Roman religion will be examined through the rituals practised, and the myths recounted, in order to determine whether astrology had a place in the Roman quotidian, or if it contradicted state-enforced religious ideas. I will argue that astrology enforced the same, or similar structures as Roman state religion, by referring to two of the most influential works of the Early Roman Empire; Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Fasti.

Roman religion was woven into the fabric of the politics of the city. Officially, ‘star-gazing was never included in Roman [Senate controlled] divination’. [4] However, contemporary religious texts and poetry (commissioned by Augustus’ friend, Maecenas) arguably endorse it as a mode of divination relating to Augustus’ preferred religious practices. The Fasti and the Aeneid are quasi-propaganda, but often also reflect the poet’s own political agenda. In Ovid’s Fasti, it is impossible to distinguish which religious festivals were actually practised by the Roman populace prior to its publication, and which were the less popular occasions that Augustus wished to promote through their inclusion in religious texts. The poems examined in this essay may tell the reader more about Roman state politics than the lives of the regular Roman. However, there is a factual, popular base to the religion presented by the poets.

Barton highlights the generally secular nature of astrology, but also reminds the reader that all aspects of Roman life were in some way connected to their state religion.[5] Cicero’s On Divination makes the argument that through astrology and the study of the heavens ‘men may approach very near to the power of the gods’, which was desirable for a pious Roman.[6] There is therefore good reason to contest Herbert-Brown’s statement that the religion of Rome was ‘firmly earth-bound’, and argue that it did heavily involve studying the stars.[7] Ovid’s Fasti and Virgil’s Aeneid suggest that astrology co-existed with, and even complimented Roman state religion.

The Aeneid, which is Rome’s, and by association, Augustus’ foundation myth, defines Roman beliefs through the involvement of the gods, and established mythical heroes. If the Aeneid connects astrological beliefs with the deities, this would bestow it certain legitimacy in the eyes of a pious Roman. Fatum and fortuna are often discussed in the Aeneid. It is believed that fatum was the inevitable outcome of a person’s life, or ‘”that which is to be”’.[8]  Manilius states that: fate’s confidants, the stars, which by the operation of divine reason diversify the chequered fortunes of mankind’, thus connecting fatum, the stars, and the deities.[9] By comparison, fortuna was ‘chance, hap, accident, luck – whether good or bad’, or ‘the incalculable element in nature and human life’.[10] So far, this accords with the principles of astrology, with the ultimate fatum of a person being decreed at birth, but smaller day-to-day occurrences not predicted.

The complexities of fortuna are worth examining. Fortuna is often depicted as a ‘fickle, changeable, inconstant, capricious’ goddess.[11] Canter explains that she controls human affairs, and changes outcomes on a whim.[12] However, Manilius reveals her virtues as a goddess. She shows no preferential treatment when dictating the luck of men: ‘nor does Fortune examine the merits of a case and attend the deserving, but moves capriciously through the lives of all without distinction’.[13] Although she may change her mind, the prayers of individuals do not sway her decisions. Manilius appears to present fatum and fortuna as interchangeable, with the goddess having decided the irreversible truth (fatum) presented in the stars: ‘What Fortune has confirmed, what man would dare call false, gainsaying the casting of so great a vote?’[14] Therefore, astrology may predict the fatum of a person, but cannot foretell the finer, mutable details decided by the goddess, Fortune.

However, the Aeneid is particularly ambiguous about how fatum was decreed, or interpreted despite alluding to it frequently. Traditional ideas about fatum may have been taken from Greek religion. There is evidence of this in Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, which evokes the Parcae (the equivalent of Hesiod’s Moirai) on behalf of Augustus in 17 BC.[15] This is translated simply into ‘Fates’: ‘O Fates, truthful in having sung … do ye now to deeds past join fair fortune’.[16] Augustus appears to have intended the Fates to enter into Roman religion. Moreover, the Fates exist in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which Virgil’s work mimics.[17]

Of the Parcae, Nona spun the thread of a person’s life, Decima measured the thread with her rod, and Parca decided the manner of a person’s death, cutting the thread.[18] However, it is not clear if there were other means of deciding a man’s fatum other than the Fates cutting the thread, and ending life. Interestingly, the Greek counterpart of Decima, Lachesis has been described as ‘pointing with a staff to the horoscope on the globe’, or as the ‘Lot-casting’.[19] It appears that one of the Moirai, and subsequently Parcae, may have used astrology to determine the fatum of a person. Due to the ambiguity of the methods used by the Parcae, it is possible that the Romans took inspiration, as they did in many aspects of their lives, from the Greek Lachesis.

The Aeneid also refers ambiguously to the ‘secret book of Fate that Jupiter possesses.[20] Everything written in it is said to be unalterable, and pre-destined. However, the Aeneid is ambiguous as to whether Jupiter has ‘infallible divine foreknowledge’ or ‘divine providence’.[21]  Jupiter clarifies: ‘I am king to all, and impartial. Fate will settle the issue’.[22] Wilson and Tracy expresses differing opinions that ‘fatum is connected with the gods, undoubtedly, and with the king of the gods most of all’, but also that ‘the gods do not offer any considerable challenge to Fate.[23] Jupiter’s impartiality creates an interesting incongruity where the most important Roman deity is potentially answerable to a higher authority. In the Aeneid, Jupiter appears as a deputy to fatum, but curiously Aratus (who influenced Ovid’s Fasti) explains that it was Zeus ‘who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations’, while Virgil’s fatum appears to be the ultimate authority.[24]

Virgil is ambiguous as to how fatum was decreed prior to being entered into the book of Fate, and it is possible therefore, that the book could have astrological underpinnings. Rochberg-Halton describes how the Babylonians viewed nature and the stars as being ‘inseparable from the divine’.[25] The signs they saw in the stars were direct messages from their gods. Extending that idea, the sky was presented to them like a book, where they could read a person’s horoscope. Virgil’s secret book may also have included astrological tables used for making horoscopic predictions. This would account for the fixity of Aeneas’ fatum, but any link between astrology and the book of Fate is tenuous. If astrology could be used to recall Aeneas’ Fate, it could have been done from earth, without the need for frequent divine intervention.

The Sibyl of Cumae’s prophecy in Aeneid 6, when Aeneas travels to the Underworld, reminds a Roman reader of the Sibylline books, which were kept in the temple of Jupiter (until 12 BC, where they were moved to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine).[26] Jupiter oversees the book of Fate in the Aeneid; just as he oversees the Sibylline books in his temple on the Capitoline. The Sibylline books provide the most plausible explanation as to the book of Fate. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl makes her prophecies by listening to ‘a hundred voices, the Sibyl’s answers’.[27] She goes into an ecstasy-filled trance, and announces the prophecy as ‘Apollo/ Controlled her’.[28] The gods inspire the Sibyls at birth, so that they could practise a frenzy-fed mode of divination.[29] Cicero’s brother, Quintus, says that augurs who examine the stars interpreted the same results as can be read in the Sibylline verses.[30] It is conceivable that the Sibylline prophecies supported astrology as a mode of divination, thus establishing astrology’s connection with Roman religion, since both modes of divination are interconnected through their relationship with the divine.

In Ovid’s Fasti, a general theme throughout is Ovid’s treatment of the gods as ‘celestial beings’, and as living in the ‘heavens’.[31] Ovid’s placement of the gods (‘from his citadel Jupiter looks abroad on the whole globe’) correlates with Babylonian beliefs depicted in the earliest written account of a religious text that connects the gods with the stars.[32] In the Prayer to the Gods of the Night (c. 1800 BC Mesopotamia) the day gods return to the heavens at night, and the gods of the night, the stars, are invoked to ‘come forth’.[33] For the Babylonians, the stars were gods, and it is possible that the Romans embraced a similar religious belief.

For instance, the planets are named after important deities: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Mercury, rather than the star of Jupiter or the house of Jupiter, and in early Roman history it is probable that the stars were perceived as the physical embodiments of the gods. Ovid’s Fasti refers to Romulus’ ‘unsophisticated rustic’ time where he supposedly also renamed the planets: ‘The stars ran their courses free and unmarked throughout the year; yet everybody agreed that they were gods’.[34] Martin agrees that religious significance was placed on the stars: ‘Naturally, the stars themselves provide bases for mythological imagination; even Romulus’ ignorant tribe attributed deity to them’.[35] By including the stars in the mythical compendium, they serve to complement state religion.

However, the stories in Fasti suggest that the gods were not confined to their planets. They appear at one time to have travelled around the earth independently of the movements of the stars, influencing the lives of humans. These movements would have been extremely restricted had they physically been stars or planets. However, Ovid states near the beginning of the Fasti that the gods ‘reigned in days when earth could bear with gods, and divinities moved freely in the abodes of men’, evoking the Golden Age as the setting for his stories.[36] The people of the Early Roman Empire may have believed that the gods’ movements in the sky once had a direct impact on the lives of humans, and still did, in a more regulated fashion. Thus, Roman religion would have worked in harmony with astrological beliefs.

A direct reference to the stars in Aeneid 1 is when Jupiter speaks of Julius Caesar ‘whose fame shall end in the stars’.[37] A parallel exists with Ovid’s Fasti, where Caesar is depicted as being with the gods in the sky: ‘Transported to the sky he saw the halls of Jupiter’, and apotheosis is also described with respect to Romulus: ‘To heaven thy father raised thee: to heaven Caesar raised his sire’, enhancing the importance accorded to rulers who serve the city.[38] The Roman populace was expected to believe that the death of Caesar resulted in his apotheosis, with a place for him as a star in the heavens (catasterism). However, Herbert-Brown says that ‘it was not the Roman elite who were convinced of Caesar’s catasterism, but the majority, the common people’.[39]

This is evident in Manilius’ Astronomica, where he speculates that the stars in the Milky Way are ‘perhaps the souls of heroes, outstanding men deemed worthy of heaven, freed from the body and released from the globe of the earth’.[40] Manilius thought that the gods resided on a higher plane than the Milky Way, which was where Caesar and Romulus also went after their deaths. Aratus presents a more nostalgic notion that the constellations are a ‘memorial’ of the person or animal that the myth presents.[41] Either way, Caesar’s newfound elevation to the stars symbolises a desire for ultimate control. Not only would his movements be seen to regulate the routines of people on earth, but astrological practices would also enhance his control over the characteristics and fatum of the people of Rome. Caesar’s apotheosis links politics, religion, and astrology.

Ovid’s Fasti gives purpose and meaning to constellations by stressing their aetiologies; it was a privilege to be in the stars.  However, a political message could be interpreted, and Caesar could appear less significant due to only being one star, rather than a group, like the constellations, which might reflect a less than wholehearted appreciation by Ovid of Caesar as a ruler.[42] Ptolemy talks of the constellations having been ‘made by our predecessors’, whereas Manilius sees catasterism as a new gift bestowed by the gods: ‘Be not slow to credit man with vision of the divine, for man himself is now creating gods and raising godhead to the stars, and beneath the dominion of Augustus will heaven grow mightier yet’.[43]

Ovid’s religious text supports Ptolemy’s viewpoint: ‘So man may reach the sky … Under these leaders we, too, will plum the sky and give their own days to the wandering stars’.[44] Ovid explains that in the Golden Age, man created the constellations, and that Rome will continue this tradition, thus showing dominance over the sky by creating religious aetiologies that implicitly suggest an integrated control mechanism over the populace by using astrology as a broadcaster of fatum.

The constellations and stars have further political significance in Ovid’s Fasti. Martin writes that Ovid’s ‘calendar, itself a human construct based upon the ordered motion of the heavens’ amidst the confusing aetiologies of festivals, is a microcosm of the constancy of the stars amidst political turmoil.[45] Augustus aims to create an orderly universe, and Lowe argues that ‘Augustus’ authority – like that of the constellations – is divine’.[46] Thus fatum is still maintained even if the order of the calendar is altered, or stars are created.

However, Ovid presents the constellations as uncontrollable, frequently pointing to their absence in the sky, when they should be visible: ‘The Dolphin, which of late thou didst see fretted with the stars, will on the next night escape thy gaze’.[47] This, says Kimpton, challenged the ‘imperial assumptions that the natural world can be tamed’.[48] Ovid’s Fasti therefore highlights an inherent dualism in the stars. Catasterisms suggest their controllability, while the immutable structure of the cosmos suggests their independence. Ultimately, the stars rule the structure of human life, suggesting a role for astrology.

There are certain moments in the Aeneid where the characters’ lives are directly affected by the stars. These relate to Aeneas’ navigation: ‘All the stars he scanned as they slid through the quiet sky’ and ‘Let me but remember the stars I steered by, last time we sailed there’.[49] The constellations are still used in navigation to this day, and the frequent references towards this in Rome’s religious texts demonstrate that the stars had an effect on practical Roman rituals. Fasti itself is a religious text where rituals are actively defined by the movements of the stars, as is the nature of a calendar. The stars inevitably did affect the lives, and rituals (and therefore, in a sense, the religion) of the people of Rome in the Early Roman Empire. Although these are not astrological practices in the traditional sense, the stars are still impacting the lives of characters in religious stories of the Early Roman Empire.

It is unclear from Ovid’s Fasti and Virgil’s Aeneid whether the stars are a central, ‘eternal certainty and order’, and constant part of the Roman religion and daily routine (fatum), or whether they represent changeable politics, and instability (fortuna).[50] From Ovid’s and Virgil’s themes in their religious works, one can deduce how astrology and the stars may have been entwined with the routines of the Roman people in the Early Roman Empire. Importance is given to fatum, the stars as divinities, constellations (and their aetiologies), uses in navigation and timekeeping, which are all interrelated with the practice of astrology.

This essay has addressed how the stars affected the lives of the Romans physically and symbolically through their relationship with religion, and demonstrates that astrology was not necessarily incompatible with religion, having frequently co-existed alongside whatever practice was prominent.  Astrology conveniently enforced the same feeling of structure and ritual that Roman state religion also did. Manilius says that ‘the universe moves in obedience to a divine power’, revealing that religion and astrological beliefs are undoubtedly complementary to one another, both being inherent within the Roman Augustan state.[51]



[1] D. Harper, OEtD, s.v. ‘Astrology’.

[2] OD, s.v. ‘Divination’.

[3] OED, s.v. ‘Religion’.; OED, s.v. ‘Belief’.

[4] Herbert-Brown 2002: 117.

[5] Barton 1994: 31.

[6] Cicero On Divination 1.1.1.

[7] Herbert-Brown 2002: 117.

[8] Tracy 1964: 190.

[9] Manilius Astronomica 1.2-4.

[10] Canter 1922: 78.

[11] Canter 1922: 75.

[12] Canter 1922: 74.

[13] Manilius Astronomica 4.96-98.

[14] Manilius Astronomica 2.135-137.

[15] All English citations and line numbers for Horace’s Carmen Saecvlare are taken from Ambrose 1998.

[16] Horace Carmen Saecvlare 25-30.

[17] All English citations and line numbers for Homer’s Iliad are taken from Fagles 1990; All English citations and line numbers for Homer’s Odyssey are taken from Fagles 1996.

[18] A. Henrichs, BNP, s.v. ‘Parcae’.

[19] W. Smith, DGR, s.v. ‘Moira’; H. Cancik, H. Schnieider, BNP, s.v. ‘Moira’.

[20] Virgil Aeneid 1.262-263.

[21] Zabzebski 2005: 45

[22] Virgil Aeneid 10.112.

[23] Wilson 1979: 362; Tracy 1964: 190.

[24] Kimpton 2014: 29; All English citations and line numbers for Aratus’ Phaenomena are taken from Mair 1921. 10-11.

[25] Rochberg-Halton 1988: 62.

[26] Waszink 1948: 55.

[27] Virgil Aeneid 6.44.

[28] Virgil Aeneid 6.100-101.

[29] H. Cancik, H. Schnieider, BNP, s.v. ‘Sibyl’.

[30] Cicero On Divination 1.43.97.

[31] Ovid Fasti 1.22.; Ovid Fasti 1.47.

[32] Ovid Fasti 1.63-88.

[33] Ferry, Moran 1990: 186.

[34] Herbert-Brown 2002: 104; Ovid Fasti, 3.99-134.

[35] Martin 1985: 269.

[36] Ovid Fasti 1.227-255.

[37] Virgil Aeneid 1.288.

[38] Ovid Fasti 3.697-710; Ovid Fasti 2.129-144.

[39] Herbert-Brown 2002: 113.

[40] Manilius Astronomica 1.749-773.

[41] Aratus Phaenomena 71-73.

[42] Griffin 2005: 306

[43] Ptolemy Tetrabiblos 1.9.47-59; Manilius Astronomica 4.923-935.

[44] Ovid Fasti 1.295-314.

[45] Martin 1985: 262.

[46] Lowe 2014: 50.

[47] Ovid Fasti 2.79-128.

[48] Kimpton 2014: 32.

[49] Virgil Aeneid 3.515; Virgil Aeneid 5.25.

[50] Martin 1985: 268.

[51] Manilius Astronomica 1.476-501.

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