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The Lives and Works of the Hellenistic Astrologers

The Lives and Works of the Hellenistic Astrologers

In episode 62 of the podcast I provide an extensive overview of the lives and works of some of the major astrologers of the Hellenistic astrological tradition, ranging from the 3rd century BCE to the 7th century CE.

During the course of the episode I give an overview of the rise and fall of astrology in the Greco-Roman world, and discuss some of the surviving sources that we have to study from that time period.

This episode is based on research I’ve been doing over the past month for a book I’m writing on Hellenistic astrology. I recently completed a chapter on the major astrologers of that tradition, so I thought it would be good to talk a bit about what I’ve been researching and writing.

In the episode I talk about each of the astrologers, and discuss things like what their approximate time frame was, what techniques were introduced or discussed in their works, what the philosophical foundations of their work was, how they influenced later astrologers, interesting anecdotes that help to humanize them, and more.

Obviously I had quite a bit to cover in this episode and I expected it to be kind of a long one, but it actually turned into a three and a half hour lecture on the topic, making this the longest episode of the podcast so far.

Below you will find a timeline of the astrologers mentioned in the episode, followed by some diagrams and links to resources for further research, and then finally links to stream or download the audio recording of this episode of the podcast.

Timeline of Hellenistic Astrologers

Here is a rough timeline of the astrologers discussed in this episode, which was based on my timeline of ancient astrologers on the Hellenistic Astrology Website.

  • Oldest known Mesopotamian birth charts date to 410 BCE.
  • Alexander the Great launches war against the Persian Empire in 334 BC.
  • City of Alexandria is founded in Egypt by Alexander sometime shortly after 332 BCE.
  • The Ptolemaic dynasty is founded in Egypt. Library of Alexandria.
  • Berossus sets up a school for astrology on Kos in the early 3rd century BCE.
  • Antikythera Mechanism thought to have been constructed around 150 BCE ±.
  • The last Cuneiform and the first Greek birth charts appear around mid-1st century BCE.
  • Early texts written circa 100 BCE.
    • Hermes Trismegistus
    • Asclepius
    • Nechepso and Petosiris
  • Rome annexes Egypt, Ptolemaic dynasty ends with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE.
  • Thrasyllus (died in 36 CE). Serves Emperor Tiberius. Writes The Tablet.
  • Manilius writes Astronomica around 14 CE ±.
  • Balbillus. Mid-1st century. Thrasyllus’ son. Takes over his father’s position in the Roman imperial court. Served the emperors Claudius, Nero and Vespasian.
  • Antiochus of Athens wrote an Introduction to astrology in 1st century CE.
  • Dorotheus of Sidon wrote five book poem in late 1st century. Earliest surviving text on electional astrology.
  • Manetho wrote his Apotelesmatika in the early 2nd century. He was born in May 80 CE.
  • The Greek original of the Yavanajataka was written in Egypt in the early 2nd century.
  • Claudius Ptolemy wrote the Tetrabiblos sometime around the mid-2nd century.
  • Vettius Valens writes the Anthology in mid 2nd century. He was born February 8, 120 CE.
  • Porphyry wrote Introduction to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos during the late 3rd century.
  • Antigonus of Nicea – 2nd century. Wrote a book on famous nativities.
  • The Emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313.
  • Firmicus Maternus wrote the Mathesis towards the middle of the 4th century.
  • Paulus Alexandrinus wrote his Introduction and dedicated it to his son in the year 378.
  • Anonymous of 379 wrote a work on the fixed stars in the year 379.
  • Hephaistio of Thebes wrote his Apotelesmatika sometime in the early 5th century, based largely on Ptolemy and Dorotheus. He was born November 26, 380.
  • In the mid-6th century astrology flourishes in the court of the Persian king Kusro Anushirwan (Forgot to talk about this in the podcast. Will discuss in later episode).
  • Olympiodorus the Younger wrote a commentary on Paulus’s Introduction in the summer 564 CE.
  • Rhetorius of Egypt wrote a large Compendium in the early 6th or 7th century (dating disputed). Last major work on Hellenistic astrology.
  • Egypt is taken over by the Islamic Empire in 639. This essentially marks the end of the Hellenistic astrological tradition.

Diagrams and Handouts

Resources for Further Research


A full transcript of this episode is available: Episode 62 transcript

Listen to This Episode

You can either play this episode of the podcast directly from the website or download it as an MP3 to your computer by using the buttons below:

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  • Chris, thanks for this very detailed “Days of Our Lives” of Hellenistic astrologers. It really helped me to stream some light classical music and soundtracks behind your lecture and I recommend it for other listeners. I gotta ask you if you have a clue if any women were astrologers during this period or astrologers helpers, maybe like running the calculators or something, I know classical Greece wasn’t very kind to women’s education in general but Egypt and even Rome was more liberal at certain periods. Thanks for opening up this world of the ancient astrologers. Patricia of Eustis.

    • Yeah, I actually found what I think is probably the earliest reference to female practitioners of astrology recently. I meant to mention it in this episode, but spaced it out. I posted it as a note on Facebook a few weeks ago:

      Probably the earliest evidence for female practitioners of astrology occurs in 1st century Rome, where the satirist Juvenal mocks female clients of astrologers who eventually begin practicing the subject on their own:

      “Be sure to keep out of the way of that type, too; you will see her carrying round in her hands, like a ball of scented amber, a well-thumbed ephemeris. She no longer consults, but rather she herself is consulted. When her husband is leaving for camp or home, she will not go too, if the calculations of Thrasyllus detain her.”

      I came across this while working on a section on Thrasyllus.

      • Thanks, Chris. Juvenal was always good for a laugh. Sounds like he just came back from an astrological convention and none of the women there would give him a free reading.

  • Patricia of Eustis – I was thinking the same thing – it’s about all these men! I like listening to the stories though – it reminds me of learning Bible stories when I was a child and looking at the classical paintings of the ancients and Biblical characters. So to approach this from an astrological perspective is delightful. What a hoot those female astrologers were deemed as something to be wary of. They were witches but the men were scholars. ; – ) god forbid women would have the power of knowledge.

  • Hi Chris,
    At over 3 1/2 hours I guess this podcast separates the history buffs from the rest! As you said yourself people either find this kind of thing fascinating or like watching paint dry. I am definitely in the former camp. I do think a better understanding of the key figures and their texts is very important in grappling with more practical issues in hellenistic astrology. So I found this podcast a very thorough tour de force of all the major figures in the Greco-Roman astrology. I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the major sources but I still found your discussion of the very early sources such as Hermes Trismegistus, Asclepius and Nechepso and Petosiris extremely informative. I actually, think a lot more could still be said on these intriguing but shadowy figures at the very start of the Greco-Roman tradition. I thought your coverage of Ptolemy was very balanced. As you point his rational, causal approach probably allowed the survival of astrology in the medieval period but has left us with an increasingly unsustainable philosophical position today. I suppose the only point I think you could have added was the influence of his Handy Tables on the astrological community. This perhaps explains , in part at least, why later Greco-Roman figures regarded him as ”The Divine Ptolemy” and why the tropical zodiac became almost universally adopted by the later hellenistic period. Your explanation of the textual issues with both Antiochus and Dorotheus was also very clear and clarifies some of the problems with these texts. Overall, an excellent summary!

    I just have one very minor quibble on your reliance on David Pingree’s theory that the Indian astrological text known as the the Yavanajataka was written in Egypt in the early 2nd century. Recent papers by the scholar Bill Mak have heavily critiqued Pingree’s theory that the Yavanajataka was based on Greek text from 2nd century Egypt. Mak’s recent work suggests the text’s numerous Indian astrological signatures (suggesting a later dating) were underemphasized by Pingree. Hence Mak questions Pingree’s dating of the text and thinks the Yavanajataka may not even be the earliest Indian astrological text. Here is Mak’s second paper on the subject:http://www.billmak.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Mak-2014.pdf

  • Thank you for an in depth lecture, very informative and interesting. l look forward to listening to more of your knowlegeable podcasts.
    Please dont stream music as suggested earlier it takes away from the information, a lecture should be a lecture not diluted with background music ;}

  • I don’t know about the rest of your listeners but I stream music behind your podcasts already. I like M2Classic and Radio Riel Reverie for the purpose.

  • On the Hellenistic AStrology Podcast you and Ben Dykes refered to a refeeranc by Holden that you both valued. I can’t find it on the AFA site – can you tell me where I might find it>

  • This was a brutal, dry listen for me, but I am proud to say I got through it. I also realize I will have to come back to this many more times.

    This is vitally important information. The biggest barrier to entry is context: the names, the sense of perspective in politics, technology, agriculture, language, education, etc. relative to other points in time.

    Fortunately Chris is highly trustworthy as a proxy and that, rather than degree of difficulty, is my only requirement.

    • I basically recorded this as I was writing the history chapters of my book, and most of it is laid out much more clearly there, so I would recommend checking that out for a better treatment of a lot of this.