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The Astrology Podcast

Ep. 401 Transcript: Firmicus Maternus’ Mathesis, with Benjamin Dykes

The Astrology Podcast

Transcript of Episode 401, titled:

Firmicus Maternus’ Mathesis, with Benjamin Dykes

With Chris Brennan  and guest Benjamin Dykes

Episode originally released on May 17, 2023


Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: theastrologypodcast@gmail.com

Transcribed by Andrea Johnson

Transcription released May 26, 2023

Copyright © 2023 TheAstrologyPodcast.com

CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode I’m gonna be talking with Benjamin Dykes about his new translation of the astrological texts of the 4th century astrology Firmicus Maternus. So, hey, Ben, welcome to the show.

BENJAMIN DYKES: Thanks for having me back.

CB: Yeah, it’s good to have you. I actually just recorded my 400th episode yesterday, and it reminded me that you were actually my first guest on The Astrology Podcast on Episode 2, way back in 2012.

BD: Wow, that was long ago.

CB: Yeah, I think I was interviewing you about a much earlier book. I think it was Choices and Inceptions, your book on electional astrology.

BD: Well, congratulations.

CB: Thank you. Well, speaking of big, huge feats of accomplishment, you have just translated what I believe is often referred to as the longest astrological text that survives from antiquity. And I think there’s some debate about whether Valens is longer or whether Firmicus is longer, but in terms of delineation material and length, it seems like this is probably the longest-surviving astrological text from ancient times—or at least prior to the Medieval period, I would think.

BD: Yeah, I mean, as for completeness, it’s hard to beat too. I mean, as we’ll talk about today, there’s lots of special features to it. And by his name-dropping we also know that we’re getting some of the texts from the original founders—maybe as far back as Nechepso-Petosiris.

CB: Right. So here is the book, Julius Firmicus Maternus: Mathesis, Translated by Benjamin Dykes, and it just came out about a month ago. When did you start working on this translation? I was encouraging you to do this one for years, to tackle this, ‘cause I thought it could use a new translation. But do you know when you actually started?

BD: No, I don’t. It was maybe four years ago. And I felt bad ‘cause you wanted me to work on it, and at that time I was finishing my course and I just couldn’t spare the time, but I knew that I wanted. And as I started working on it more and more, I got more excited, so this took up a lot more of my time in the last year.

CB: Got it, okay. And there were two prior translations of Firmicus Maternus, one by Jean Rhys Bram in the 1970s, and then another about a decade ago by James Holden that was published I think in 2011 or so. What was the motivation? Or why did we need a third translation of Firmicus Maternus, and what does this offer to the reader?

BD: Well, there were a few things that had bothered me for a long time, and some of them were cosmetic or very obvious, in my opinion, flaws in the earlier versions—and one simple one is none of them had a complete table of contents. So the book has all sorts of untitled chapters, but it’s very well-organized if you understand the book. So students will pick this up, have all these untitled chapters, not a complete table of contents, not even a good index. So that was one thing that I had always found very frustrating. It’s also why I had undervalued it for many years ‘cause I was frustrated not understanding how this book was arranged. Then another one—well, it makes it more student-friendly—and that is Firmicus has all of these interesting chart combinations he talks about, but there’s no pictures, and as astrologers, we like pictures.

CB: Right. There’s no diagrams.

BD: Right. So I added over a hundred chart diagrams and tables to help students see visually some very detailed delineations that he goes through. So on the surface that’s some of it. For other things, I didn’t like how it was translated. I didn’t think it was accurately translated.

CB: Yeah, I think that’s huge, and that was one of my motivations for encouraging you. We had that first translation by Bram in the ‘70s, but then it turns out that they omitted a lot of sections. Like when Firmicus was going on and on in delineations, they would sometimes just leave large sections out, right?

BD: Yep, they would leave sections out. So, first of all, it was just incomplete.

CB: Mm-hmm.

BD: And then in Holden’s—and I have great respect for Holden—but in Holden’s version, he would sometimes write down words or key terms that he thought Firmicus meant. So, for example, Firmicus might write the word ‘place’, like the ‘12 places’, but Holden would write, ‘12 houses’, and those are technical terms that can lead to controversy.

CB: Right, ‘cause Holden worked on that on his own starting in the 1950s, slowly, all the way until it was published eventually in 2011 or 2010 by the AFA. But he was a modern astrologer, and he was kind of off doing his own thing for many decades as a historian of astrology, and doing all this amazing work and research and translations in Greek and Latin that he just circulated privately for many years. But he was as engaged in some of the dialogues that started happening—especially in the late ‘80s and 1990s and 2000s—about the revival of Hellenistic and Medieval astrology and some of the terminological changes that were taking place. So his translation—he tended to just opt for straight, 20 century translation conventions, but sometimes those were very out-of-place when he was applying it to the text of a 4th century astrologer.

BD: Yeah. And so, he had his reasons for doing that, but looking at, overall, all of these problems that I felt there were, I wanted to make a very careful, accurate translation with numbered sentences. The old version had numbered paragraphs, which made it hard to find things, ‘cause Firmicus’ language is—well, it is quirky. And another thing that I found is that Firmicus sometimes uses wordplay. He was a lawyer. And so, he loved speech, and in a way it’s almost as though he loved the sound of his own speech. Sometimes in his sentences he just said too much or more than he needed to, but he does wordplay which sometimes illuminates or adds an extra dimension to things that he’s talking about.

CB: Yeah. And that was why I wanted you to translate it because I knew you would do a much more careful job with the subtleties and the nuances of the language and some of the philosophical and other underlying things. While the previous translations picked up on these in different ways, I think you were successful in really drawing out some of the underlying things that Firmicus was trying to convey with his language, in a way that was much more careful and nuanced, I think.

BD: Well, thanks. And thanks for mentioning the philosophy too because in Book 1 of the Mathesis is where he’s defending astrology. And I had always skimmed over this, looking at previous versions; I thought it seemed probably the least interesting part. But it so happens that recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Roman Republic and its downfall, and, in Book 1, he has a lot of examples from the Roman Republic when he’s talking about things like fate and fortune and how astrology fits into his worldview. And so, as I was forced to translate it, I realized there were a lot of philosophically-interesting things that he was saying about fate and fortune and the ‘Divine Mind’, and it suddenly made the book a lot more interesting just in that part than I thought before.

CB: Yeah. Yeah, I’d love to do a whole philosophical—let’s talk about the philosophy of Firmicus. Let’s do some quick stuff and get some of the basics out of the way about his biography and about the dating and different things that are debated like that. So, first off, who was Firmicus Maternus? So he was a lawyer originally who lived in the earlier part of the 4th century. And there’s actually some debates about his dating and his timeframe.

BD: Yeah, I’m following the standard timeframe ‘cause I understand the arguments about it. I’m not trying to break convention on that. So he would have been born around the end of what was called the ‘3rd century crisis’. In the 200s, there was a great crisis in the Roman Empire; it actually broke up into three parts at one time. There were at least 27 or so generals who claimed to be emperors. Runaway inflation. It was a mess, and then Diocletian and then Constantine came along and they set things back in order.

So he was of the senatorial class, born and raised in Italy. It seems he wasn’t an actual senator, but he was from an illustrious family. Born and raised in Sicily, and the book is dedicated to a friend of his, a very powerful, well-connected friend. Firmicus was visiting this friend once and they started talking about nature and the stars and astrology, and Firmicus promised that he would translate a whole bunch of old books from Greek for his friend—and this is the result. And he seems to have written it—the latest probably that he could have written it—is 337 AD because that’s when Constantine died. He refers several times in the book to Constantine still being alive.

CB: Right. And with Mavortius, Firmicus gives this story about traveling and being through a winter storm or something and being in bad shape physically and health-wise, and Mavortius nursed him back to health. And then at some point Mavortius shared this story with him that he had interests in astronomy and maybe in the planetary spheres or some level of astrology, but then Firmicus says that he impetuously offered to write a big textbook on astrology for him. And since what Firmicus ended up doing was translating a lot of texts from Greek into Latin, I wonder if that’s because Firmicus had that training in Greek, so, therefore, he was acting as a translator, for his friend, of these texts.

BD: I think so. And he mentions in the book that he’s already written two other books on astrology, on specific topics. We don’t know anything about them besides the titles; one of them is on the length-of-life. But he must have had a library of these Greek books that he had used himself. And so, he was translating them and putting them in order for his friend Mavortius.

CB: Right, so that’s interesting in and of itself. And his previous career up to that point had been a lawyer and like a public defender in some sense—or analogous to a public defender today. But he says at one point, in one of the later books, that he gave that up, and that then gave him more time to do astrology or to write this compilation for Mavortius.

BD: Yeah, so we don’t know. Did he retire early and he was in his 50’s at this time? Was he maybe in his 70’s? We’re not sure exactly. But, yeah, he retired from the law. He said he couldn’t stand it anymore; the whole purpose was to get money out of people. And so, in a way, retiring and studying astrology was a way of repairing and improving his soul. And he takes it very seriously that if you study astrology and have the right attitude, you are improving your soul because you are coming more into an agreement with the Divine Mind.

CB: Right. And with Mavortius, he keeps calling him ‘a friend’, but it’s not clear if he’s like a friend or if he’s a patron. Because there’s some undertones that Mavortius—as he started rising in rank—reminded Firmicus at one point that he’d made a promise to do this book. And so, Firmicus describes it as if he was kind of ‘under the gun’ to start working on this, and he starts working on it by the late 220s or early 230s, and he mentions an eclipse in the year 334 that happened recently. But then in Book 1, he dedicates it to Constantine, Constantine I, as if he’s still alive. But since Constantine died in 337, we know that he must have been writing that or finishing that before then.

BD: Yeah, so it was maybe 334 to 337 that he was writing this. And, yeah, he mentions several times about how he didn’t know if his ‘weak and trembling ability’—he uses the word for trembling—or his ‘shaking ability’ would be able to fulfill this task for his friend Mavortius. There was clearly a difference in rank there, but we’re not exactly sure what. And maybe that’s all that you need to know to explain his sort of subservient, bowing-and-scraping every time when he seems to apologize for not being faster.

CB: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely the political thing ‘cause it was prominent that Mavortius was about to become consul, which is like one of the highest positions that somebody could get in Roman society. But then also I was listening to another podcast, The SHWEP Podcast, and an interview with a scholar named Clair Hall, and she mentioned that Mavortius—that that name actually means ‘Mars’ or is connected to the Roman word for Mars. Have you heard that?

BD: Marvors. That sounds really familiar.

CB: Yeah.

BD: It sounds familiar. That could be.

CB: I wonder about that because there’s a lot of paganism or a connection with paganism. And that’s something that we’ll get to when we get to Firmicus’ philosophy and religion and about Firmicus potentially still being a pagan during the writing of the Mathesis in the 330s. But then later in his life, about a decade later, we know that he wrote another work where it seems like he had converted to Christianity, and he wrote this really harsh attack on the pagan mystery religions basically. It seems like he converted to Christianity and then became very militant about it.

BD: Yeah. Yeah, so it seems that his—should we just talk about that now?

CB: I guess we can close up the last section by just saying his friend Mavortius is documented in other histories. So consul—is there an analogy for that in terms of the level that Mavortius got to? I mean, there’s no higher position necessarily besides—

BD: Apart from the emperor, the two highest offices were always consuls, and there were always two of them. At the same time they were one-year positions, but some of that changed over time. They didn’t have the same powers that they had once you were in the empire that they had when it was the republic.

CB: Right. So what’s interesting about that is Firmicus dedicated it to his friend probably by 337 because he says that Mavortius is about to become consul, that he’s designated for that. But then Constantine, the emperor, died in 337, and there was a bunch of political turmoil, and it seems the majority of scholars think then that Firmicus’ friend Mavortius didn’t become consul until later. Because in the documented history, he’s not consul until the 350s or something like that, right?

BD: Yeah, so one of the ideas—to make sense of the chronology—is that maybe, yeah, he was promised the consulship, Constantine died, his appointment was put on hold until later.

CB: Okay. And something that was interesting—that may have just been due to the political turmoil of the time—I was watching a lecture on Firmicus today. I was watching another lecture on Firmicus by Ivana Lemcool that’s on YouTube, and she mentioned another scholar named Noel Lenski who speculated that perhaps even Firmicus dedicating this astrological text to Mavortius could have been part of what caused some political turmoil for him, or could have gotten things delayed when all of a sudden Constantine’s son takes over. ‘Cause one of the things that’s interesting in this time period is that, with Constantine, the laws start changing really rapidly in the mid-4th century against astrology. Because the other thing that’s going on in the background of all of this is that Christianity is becoming adopted as like the state religion of the Roman Empire, and one of the things that starts to happen is that some of the laws start to turn against astrology during the course of the middle of the century essentially.

BD: Well, Constantine legalized Christianity. It didn’t become the official religion until later. I mean, it’s possible. It’s kind of a confusing period. We know that other emperors were using astrology, so it’s hard to say how that might affect the issue of the chronology. But he definitely, in several parts of the book, knows that Constantine is still alive, so that puts it no later than 337 for some of that book.

CB: Right. That makes sense. Okay, so that’s a relevant thing. And then the other thing is just Firmicus’ conversion to Christianity, and his other book, which is titled, On the Error of Profane Religions, which was written around 346 or so. That gives us around, let’s say, a decade. If the Mathesis was completed by 337, and this other work is written by 346 or thereabouts, we’re talking about a 10-year period. I think most scholars do think that Firmicus did have a conversion to Christianity, that he was a pagan, but then for whatever reason converted to Christianity later on and then wrote this attack on the pagan mystery religions, which I think is the case and there’s different reasons for that. But what are some of the distinctions between the two? Why we think that he converted to Christianity I think is a good question.

BD: Well, in the Mathesis, the earlier book, first of all, he’s a very pious man. So he’s not joking when it comes to religion. This is a very serious topic for him.

CB: Yeah, he has a lot of religious and especially moralizing undertones all throughout the astrological work already at that period even as a pagan.

BD: Yeah, stuff that you don’t see in other authors. I mean, he’s so pious it really stands out against most others—maybe all of the other astrological material I’ve ever translated. In fact, he even composes some hymns. So there’s religious hymns in the pagan style for the work, who he’s calling upon, God. But when you look at it, what is he actually talking about? What’s his metaphysics? What does he think ultimate reality is? What does he think God is? It comes across as a kind of generic, somewhat eclectic, Middle Platonism with some Stoicism thrown in. Like the Platonists, he seems to believe in a number of layers of reality, which the Divine Power flows down through each layer. So from a Divine Mind to what seems to be like a Platonic ‘World Soul’, and then the material world with the planets and then so on. So that is all Neoplatonic, or maybe you can say Middle Platonic. He was living in the time of Neoplatonism. He was living after Plotinus.

CB: Yeah. And he’s not just living after that, he’s like very acutely aware of Plotinus’ school. And he mentions Plotinus in Book 1, not very favorably, I think partially due to Plotinus’ critique of astrology, which Firmicus viewed as an attack.

BD: Yeah.

CB: He’s also aware of Porphyry who he mentions very favorably in the astrological text, and refers to him as ‘our Porphyry’. And there’s some questions about why he refers to him that familiarly, but then later in the Christian work suddenly his views on Porphyry have changed. He attacks Porphyry really viciously, which is one of the major reasons that I personally think that he did have conversion. But at least in the astrological text, his familiarity with the Neoplatonists does sort of put him in that milieu, which would have just been a few decades before the Mathesis.

BD: Yeah. And notice that even though he’s familiar with these Neoplatonists, he doesn’t speak like a philosopher.

CB: No.

BD: He speaks like a religious person. So he’s clearly into the religious side of things in that tradition. But there’s a number of other things that he’ll mention that shows that there’s some Stoicism going on in there, like God is a ‘creative fire’, or nature as a ‘creative fire’. And the determinism too; his universal determinism.

CB: Mm-hmm. Or the ekpyrosis that he mentions at one point.

BD: Yeah, the conflagration. So that would not have been strange for an educated, upper class man of his day for a number of centuries. That kind of—what am I trying to say? Non-dogmatic, general mixture of ideas—that way of looking at the world—wouldn’t have been surprising.

CB: And also, I wanted to mention—‘cause you mentioned the Neoplatonism—I think of Hermeticism when I’m reading some of his text. And I think it’s sometimes very hard to distinguish between what is Neoplatonism and what is Hermeticism.

BD: Yeah.

CB: Especially ‘cause one of the things that’s very distinctive that he does mention is that doctrine of the descent and the ascent of the souls through the planetary spheres, and that’s something that both the Neoplatonists and the Hermeticists shared in common. And as I was reading through your translation, I was constantly trying to tease out where he’s getting this from. But part of the things that’s tricky is that he’s drawing on earlier texts from the technical Hermetica, like, for example, the Nechepso and Petosiris tradition, or the Asclepius text, which was supposed to be revealed to Asclepius by Hermes. So we have to remember when we’re reading some of his philosophical digressions that he may be getting some of this from Hermetic texts, or at least texts that were part of that general Hermetic tradition.

BD: And you’ll notice that when you read the Hermetica, they are also very pious and religious and not highly technical and dogmatic. They aren’t philosophy treatises, but they present this kind of Neoplatonic or Middle Platonic worldview that’s very spiritual, totally compatible with astrology. And if you read those, you can often say, “Wow, this sounds like Neoplatonism.”

CB: As well as Stoicism. ‘Cause some of those texts also have a heavy emphasis on fate and what seems like even the concerns of the ethical Stoics about accepting fate to some extent and things like that.

BD: Mm-hmm. So I think you’re right to point to that connection with the Hermetica too. It makes a lot of sense.

CB: Yeah. And the other piece though—and this is what gets tricky—is Firmicus is writing this for Mavortius, and he makes Mavortius swear an oath to try to keep these things secret or on the down-low a little bit, which is similar to what Valens does. And he says it’s okay if you pass it onto your children or other people that you know that are good, moral people, but there’s this awareness right from the very first book of the Mathesis that he wants to be careful of the authorities to a certain extent. And one of the things that’s funny is he doesn’t just dedicate the book or invoke Constantine, but he also says at one point that you can’t look at the chart of the emperor.

BD: Oh, yeah.

CB: The emperor is like above astrology, the emperor is beyond the command of the stars. But also, he harkens back to some of the laws from Augustus’ reign that you have to make your predictions about astrology with a witness or publicly and that there’s certain things that you can’t predict or talk about.

BD: Yeah. Yeah, he’s very insistent that you need to live a very moral life as an astrology, and part of that life is in public view so that you’re not seen to be prying into state matters where you shouldn’t be, that you’re not looking into things that would be embarrassing if they became public. And he does suggest that even if you wanted to ask about the emperor, it wouldn’t work anyway ‘cause the emperor’s beyond a chart.

CB: Right. But then ironically, later in the book, he gives a bunch of placements that will indicate emperors and kings and things like that. So we have to be aware when we’re reading the book that he’s saying that because the tides were starting to shift against astrology, and you could get in trouble for certain things having to do with astrology increasingly as you go through the 4th century. So the other thing that’s interesting is that sometimes I feel like he writes parts of the Mathesis in a way that—even though he’s writing things that he’s drawing philosophically from Neoplatonism or Hermeticism—there’s some ways that he phrases things that would be almost okay if a Christian was reading the book. They would be like, “That kind of sounds like something that’s okay according to my theology that I might be okay with.” I think Firmicus is doing that politically because the tides are starting to shift and he’s trying to be careful. But I think some scholars have accidentally thought that meant that Firmicus was already Christian, but then in doing so they overlook some of the polytheism in the Mathesis and things like that.

BD: Yeah, there’s definite polytheistic strains in there too. But if you look at the Hermetica, like I said, it’s very moral, very religious, But you can’t really tell whether this is a Christian writing it or some kind of Sun-worshiping Egyptian because of the amalgamation of God and the solar imagery, or Plato using solar imagery for the good. So, in a way, he was already in a tradition that was able to be pious and a lot of people could be a part of without being too dogmatic or running into trouble by being too specific.

CB: Yeah. Yeah, but then we can see with some of his moralizing tendencies and his interest in religious things—he’s not a philosopher; he’s not trained very highly in some of the intellectual schools of philosophy; he’s not a Plotinus or a Porphyry or anyone like that—we can see how maybe he could have had a conversion 10 years later. There could have been some things in Christianity that he was amenable to, including some of the moral components, and we see that happen all the time. The older we get, sometimes we see people over a 10-year period go through a conversion, or have a change in view either in terms of their religious beliefs or in terms of their political beliefs or different things like that—that happens. And that’s not surprising that we would find an astrologer having something like that happen over the course of their lifetime.

BD: Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be a kind of instantaneous, ‘on the road to Damascus’ sort of moment, and maybe he might not have thought that he had changed that much. So we know from the later book, he seems absolutely to be a Christian. He’s constantly quoting the Bible, never mentions astrology.

CB: Right. That’s a big mystery.

BD: Yeah, but he doesn’t talk about the state religion, I don’t think—the state Roman religion—but he talks about the mystery cults a lot and how they were basically bastardized versions of other, more pure symbolism and practices. There’s enough—especially if you want to bring in something like the Hermetica—there are enough ways that you could find overlaps in the ways that the philosophers and the Hermeticists spoke that you could see how a shift to Christianity would be possible. And one of them is in one of his hymns when he talks about God being ‘a Father and a Son to Himself’. Now the ‘fatherhood’ metaphor was used by other philosophers to talk about how one kind of reality could emanate from another kind of reality, so that metaphor had been used by philosophers. But if he’s already kind of surrounded by some Christian symbolism, and that’s being emphasized, maybe, given a little time, a little exploration, it’s not a surprise.

CB: Right. Also, I read a paper by an academic named Dennis Quinn, it was titled, “In the Names of God and His Christ: Evil Daemons, Exorcism, and Conversion in Firmicus Maternus.” His thesis was that there’s a lot of mention of daemons in connection with astrology in the Mathesis, and then he brings them up again in the Christian polemic 10 years later. But the main thing he’s talking about is the power of Christianity to sort of exorcise or get rid of demons just by being a Christian, and just by that view, and that that may have been a partial motivation for Firmicus to convert to Christianity to the extent that he’s often associating evil demons with negative things that are happening to people in astrology. And, therefore, if there was something that was able to rid you of that, it could rid you of some of life’s woes in some sense, so that there could be other justifications for his conversion.

BD: Yeah, daemons were generally considered a lower type of spirit, but different schools of thought had different ideas. Are they all bad? Are some bad and are some good? What do the good ones do? What do the bad ones do? And he clearly in the Mathesis, and then in his later book, comes down on the side of daemons are bad.

CB: Right.

BD: So that could be another reason that he might want to ally more with the Christian side than with some other Neoplatonist who says, “Well, there’s good daemons too.”

CB: Right. Yeah, that makes sense. And also, like I said, things were shifting politically. Even though astrology wasn’t doing too bad under Constantine—despite Christianity becoming more and more acceptable—I think under Constantine’s sons, that’s when some of the laws against astrology really started coming into effect. And so, Firmicus, in not mentioning astrology in Christian polemic, I think may have been trying not to draw attention to the fact that he had written this earlier, huge textbook on that. And sometimes people speculate that maybe he was going so far over the top in his Christian polemic because he was trying to show that he really had converted, and he really was serious about this conversion—whether it be to the authorities who were in power, or whether it be to his bishop or what have you—in order to show there had been some sort of change, or he had given up that old thing even though he doesn’t mention it.

BD: Yeah, it’s hard to say. The Mathesis is a gift to a friend, so it wouldn’t have been publicly sold in bookstores. I’m not sure how it got so many manuscript copies made. But the book against the pagan religions, or the mystery religions, was meant as a more public statement to the emperor. So it could be that his translation of the Mathesis wasn’t highly known maybe.

CB: Sure.

BD: So might as well just be quiet about it.

CB: Right. Good not to draw attention to it. All right, for our purposes though, let’s focus on the Mathesis itself, and let’s talk about some of the things in it and some of the things that are interesting. One of the things that I think was most striking to me that understood for the first time in a better sense after reading your translation was that Firmicus is to astrology and Latin what William Lilly was to astrology in English in the 17th century, in the sense that William Lilly was widely-held partially because in Europe most textbooks on astrology up to that point, during the course of the late Medieval period and Renaissance, were written in Latin. And then all of a sudden Lilly decides to write his textbook in English, which made it more accessible to an English-speaking audience that didn’t need to know Latin in order to read it. And in the same way, Firmicus plays some kind of similar role where he’s one of the earliest authors to write a complete, comprehensive textbook in Latin for a Roman audience. Up until that point, most of the textbooks had been written in Greek and most of the textbooks Firmicus himself is drawing on are Greek. And that’s like a huge turning point. That’s a huge landmark moment. And, therefore, Firmicus sets a lot of standards in terms of language that would be used in subsequent centuries, even to this day, right?

BD: Some of the language, yes. Although we have to remember that a lot of the Latin books had been translated from the Arabic.

CB: Right.

BD: So they were done separately. But, yeah, he is very conscious and says several times, “I am doing this for the Romans for the first time, and it is a great contribution to Latin literature,” he’s very clear about this. And what’s sad is that he’s translated all of this material from the oldest Hellenistic sources, and they’re almost all sources that are now just gone.

CB: Right.

BD: Or only exist in other versions. So, in a certain way, we could say he rescued a lot of early authors. And the sad thing is that he doesn’t tell us always, throughout the book, who he’s quoting, but we can make some good guesses.

CB: Right. So most of the book—it’s so large—is copying delineation material of interpretations of planetary placements in birth charts from different, earlier Greek sources that he’s copying from. And to bring the Latin piece around, it brings up one of the mysteries in Firmicus, which is that it wasn’t the first Latin work that we know of that survives. There was an earlier one, which was Manilius, which was written somewhere around 14 CE or AD. And there’s this big question about did Firmicus know about Manilius and did he draw on Manilius. If he did, why didn’t he mention him? And that’s something you address and try to investigate in your book, in your translation, in the sections that are connected with Manilius, right?

BD: Yeah, I think that Firmicus did not have a copy of Manilius. What he had was a copy of the original that Manilius had been working with. So other people had copies of Manilius and used it especially when they were talking about fixed stars. And Firmicus is also using that material, but I think he’s working from the earlier Greek edition.

CB: Right. So in Book 8, he has a bunch of material on fixed stars, and a bunch of those sections show very close parallels with what Manilius says when he’s dealing with the same concepts. So the question is whether he had Manilius in front of him, or whether he was drawing on the Greek source. And you think that he was drawing on the same Greek source that Manilius had.

BD: Yeah. And so, it could be that he thought he was doing this for the first time because he had never heard of Manilius. I mean, that’s possible. Or he just thought it was such a marginal work that already had a Greek original that it wasn’t worth mentioning. But at any rate, he’s very aware that in Latin literature—well, actually let me go back for a second. He also knows that Cicero and Julius Caesar had written little pieces on the stars. So he knows that some people have written little things—

CB: Right.

BD: But none of them had written a huge manual of astrology.

CB: I was just reading that section today where he mentions Cicero and this lost work that Caesar supposedly wrote. And what was interesting is he almost says, “But those are astronomical works. They’re not about the judgment of the stars.” And it was interesting that he’s almost drawing a distinction between astronomy and astrology there, which I thought was really important because it’s commonly assumed that there was just absolutely no distinction between astronomy and astrology in ancient times. But I often think that that’s just a linguistic issue ‘cause there wasn’t a standardization about the terms ‘astronomy’ and ‘astrology’. So authors would mix them up, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any distinction between those two concepts in ancient times.

BD: Yeah. And I would say, if anything, for Firmicus, that distinction’s really important. And if you watch how he talks about astrology, he’s always using the word ‘decree’.

CB: Right.

BD: Astrology is about what the gods and the stars are decreeing. This is a divine science. So measurements and watching rising times and that sort of thing for agriculture—that’s one thing. But understanding what this all decrees is a much more splendid and powerful and morally-elevating practice.

CB: Right. So decree. And that’s connected with his frequent use of the word ‘fate’.

BD: Yeah.

CB: He’s constantly invoking fate and saying that astrology is the study of fate. And at one point he also connects fate to fortune, and he seems to use fate and fortune interchangeably at one point. And he also talks about judgments and uses this term ‘judgment’, which I thought was really interesting, ‘cause we see that very commonly in the Medieval period and that eventually leading to that distinction between judgments versus the other categories; but some of this we’re seeing in Firmicus for the first time.

BD: Yeah. And that word ‘fate’ is important too because, in Latin, that word ‘fate’, the Latin word has to do with a divine decree. So he’ll use the word that means ‘decree’, and then he’ll use the word ‘fate’; which, he, and everyone then, would have known that that word ‘fate’ also has to do with divine intention and divine decree.

CB: Yeah. You know what’s cool? At one point in—was it Book 6 or 7, when I was reading your translation the other day—he uses ‘decree’ in place of saying ‘nativity’.

BD: Yeah.

CB: Here’s some example charts where he says, “this decree,” and what he’s talking about is a chart. But he’s actually using the term in that way, which is really cool

BD: Yeah, the chart is the decree. So it’s not just individual things that are decreed by things in the chart, individual outcomes, but the nativity itself is ‘the decree’.

CB: Right. The decree of fate basically.

BD: Mm-hmm.

CB: So another word that’s really important—which actually we need to get to—is a unique term that he uses constantly but is important to explain, which is the title of the book, Mathesis. And that’s something that you leave untranslated both on the cover, as well as throughout the book itself.

BD: Yeah, I struggled with that because, for many years now, I’ve tried really hard to never leave these special foreign words untranslated. I’ve always wanted to try to put them into English somehow, and I didn’t feel I could. So mathesis—the root verb for this in Greek just means ‘learning’, and it’s the basis for our word ‘mathematics’; so mathematician, mathematical. Mathesis really just means ‘learning’, but there’s lot of types of learning. Now I thought I would do what Holden does; he just translates this as ‘astrology’. But Firmicus also uses the word ‘astrology’.

CB: Right. ‘Cause he’s often using it as a placeholder for astrology, but that was a really interesting point. At one point he says, in a sentence you translated, “the mathesis and astrology,” which it’s interesting that there’s maybe some distinction there.

BD: Yeah, so it might mean that in casual conversation, if you’re talking about mathematicians, you’d be talking often about astrologers; maybe common people would understand that, but he might have something special there. And I thought, “Well, he doesn’t use it a lot, so let’s just keep it like it is.”

CB: Yeah. And it ties in with the Greek tradition, in that time period, in like the 1st and 2nd and 3rd centuries. The term mathematikos was often used to refer to astrology, and to astrologers in particular as mathematicians. And this is sometimes mocked by skeptics like Sextus Empiricus who says astrologers use these high-sounding names, like ‘mathematician’, to refer to themselves or to their science. And I was reading some of the laws against astrology from the 4th century and they actually used terms like mathematici to refer to astrologers, or they referred to astrology as mathematica, ‘the teaching of astrology’, when it was banned in 370, for example. So it’s like some of the Roman law codes are also using that to refer to astrology as mathematics or what have you.

BD: Yeah. If you just thought of mathesis as being astrologers—especially in so far as they calculate—it would probably be fine. But because he also uses the word ‘astrology’—and I know that he’s careful about certain words—I thought, “I’m gonna leave it the way it is.”

CB: Yeah. And I’m actually doing an episode with Demetra later this week. Alexander Jones published a paper recently where they discovered what they think is the earliest woman known by name who practiced astrology, a woman named Heliodora, who lived in the 2nd or the 3rd century. And on her gravestone it says that she was a mathematike—so a mathematician—which they think because of the timeframe and the context means that she was an astrologer, which I thought was kind of interesting how that all ties in.

BD: Yeah, yeah.

CB: Okay, so that’s the title. Another term—and I don’t know if you want to go into this—that you did leave untranslated was the word apotelesma.

BD: Yeah. So apotelesma, the plural is apotelesmata. This is a Greek word, but he just transliterates it.

CB: Right.

BD: So he’s not even translating it. And this happens to be the title of a number of famous books on astrology. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos—it’s not actually called the Tetrabiblos. It’s called Apotelesmatika. So there are a number of astrologers who use this word as titles of their books, or they’ll talk about these things called apotelesmata. And obviously apotelesmatics is ‘the study of apotelesmata’, but almost no one uses this word but astrologers and they never define it. So it’s always a question of what in the world does this mean? And I can only speak for Firmicus and how he uses the word, but I think I have an idea that is useful about what all of this really means. So should I just say it?

CB: Yeah, you’re building it up a little bit here.

BD: Okay.

CB: Let’s hear it.

BD: Okay. Apotelesmatics has to do with pattern recognition. So when we learn astrology, we learn individual things like Saturn in the 1st or Mars trine Venus. We learn these little things in isolation. But then there are overall chart patterns, which if you look at several things at once, what they’re telling you is that this nativity is about such-and-such, or this is the nativity of a powerful person. And so, what apotelesmatics is—and he keeps saying throughout the book, “We’re almost there. We’re almost to apotelesmatics.” It is, I think, the next stage that we need to take in astrology education, and that is going beyond principles and rules and just picking out individual things and working on big pattern recognition. So that’s what he does in Books 6 and 7. And if we had that as an aim, I think it would be great for traditional astrology. To add to that body of common patterns that have an overall meaning for a person’s life.

CB: Right. So apotelesma sometimes means ‘end’ or ‘result’ or ‘outcome’ or ‘effect’. And Schmidt had originally noted how Ptolemy uses it—that you have a foundation or a katarche, a beginning, and then you look at the alignment of something and it will tell you the outcome or what the result is from that placement; and so, that’s why astrologers are using that. But what you wrote in the introduction was that Firmicus has a more complex or detailed understanding of apotelesmata that is not just simply a singular, one-to-one correspondence of singular placement and then outcome. But instead it’s something more about the totality of the mixture of the planets in the chart and their placements and combinations and aspects with each other that indicates a total outcome description or what have you.

BD: Yeah, and he’s explicit that it involves all of these bits. So, for example, you might see some complex combination and he might give you a combination like this in the book, and then what the meaning is, is that the native will be born a slave but will later be freed and be happy or something like that. But there’s no way to point to just one or two things in the pattern, it’s the pattern as a whole. And once you look at it this way, I thought, “Wait a minute, this seems real familiar.” I went back to Dorotheus, and I found in Dorotheus that’s exactly what you find. You’ll find little lists of rules and basic principles, and then you’ll suddenly get complicated descriptions of a chart configuration of the sort that you would rarely see; and yet, this pattern is supposed to be telling you something. So this could be something that’s staring us in the face and could act as a kind of goal for us to go beyond simple ‘placement-result, placement-result’ to do more chart synthesis.

CB: Yeah, synthesis, I think that’s the keyword. It gets to the ultimate goal of synthesis in understanding how the chart works together. And in some of those examples it’s talking about like five different placements that ultimately indicate what the outcome is in the person’s life and what their fate ended up being, in something approaching like the totality of their life, or something like that, if you were to try to summarize a person’s life and the major points in just a sentence or, indeed, in a decree, or something like that.

BD: Yeah. Let’s suppose the lord of the 1st is in the 6th. A straightforward, one sentence description of that outcome could be that the native will be a slave.

CB: Right. ‘Cause in the 4th century in the Roman Empire, slavery was really common and was a major part of society. And we have charts of both astrologers consulting with slaves and giving indications for if they would get their freedom and different things like that.

BD: Yeah. Nowadays it could be something similar to a kind of slavery or some sort of subjection. Anyway, what I’m saying is that simple thing—lord of the 1st in the 6th—you could turn into a single sentence that is an outcome. But then you can have this complicated chart configuration that he also turns into a one-sentence outcome, but there’s gotta be a difference between the two of them. It’s gotta be that the synthesis of the bigger pattern has a more complicated decree that you can say more about, and there’s probably more explanation that can go into that.

CB: Yeah. So this brings up something I want to talk about that is super important. Probably the most important piece of Firmicus is that he constantly talks about mitigations and the concept of mitigations. While we have traces of this in other authors—it clearly exists—he’s drawing on a pre-established tradition of ‘if this placement is in the chart, it means this, unless this also happens which can counteract that or counterindicate it, or modify it, for better or worse. Firmicus is constantly telling you both the rules of what certain placements mean, but then he’s also saying, however, if this placement is here, it will mitigate it and make it better, or it’ll make it worse. And that ties in with what you were saying there in terms of the chart synthesis. A major component of chart synthesis—we understand from Firmicus—is paying attention to mitigations and how different planets in the chart can offset things.

BD: Yeah. And I think that in many cases he does that through sect. His material and treatment of sect throughout the book is amazing just because of the literally hundreds of delineations that he gives where you can parse out what sect is doing. So let’s say you have morning star Mercury—so he rises before the Sun—in the 6th. That has one delineation—it might not be that great—but it’s gonna be different, he says, depending on the sect of the chart. So if it’s a diurnal chart, it means one thing. If it’s nocturnal, it means another. And so, he often uses sect to show how something that looks pretty bad could actually be mitigated quite nicely.

CB: Right. And one of the things he does consistently that was really interesting is treating, in terms of sect, the waxing Moon, that’s increasing in light, as diurnal, whereas the waning Moon, that’s decreasing in light, is treated as nocturnal. And therefore, he changes almost every delineation of the Moon being in combination with some other planet based on whether it’s waxing or waning.

BD: That, and planets in all of the 12 places, he gives both night and day interpretations for all of them.

CB: Right.

BD: So if you start lining it up, you could really start to see how he—or really the oldest sources were treating this central concept that we’re still trying to fully understand, which is sect. What exactly does it do to a planet and to a configuration?

CB: Yeah.

BD: So that’s—

CB: Go ahead.

BD: It’s one of the great things about the book.

CB: Yeah. Until I read through this again—the first time I read Firmicus was maybe 2004-2005. So that is—

BD: Wow.

CB: A long time ago now. We’re talking about 15-18 years ago. And I forgot how much I had internalized from reading Firmicus some of those distinctions with things like sect, or overcoming. Another thing that he emphasizes a lot is which planet’s in the superior position and which planet’s in the inferior position, which can also become a type of mitigation. But another mitigation that he constantly refers to—I originally knew about this mitigation from Paulus Alexandrinus who actually is not that far from Firmicus in terms of time periods. But the mitigation is if a planet is in the 6th house, Firmicus constantly reminds you that if there’s a planet in the 10th house, especially a benefic, it will mitigate the 6th house planet because of a sign-based trine between those planets. He’ll provide a much more positive delineation for planets in the 6th house if there are also planets in the 10th house at the same time, or in the 10th whole sign house.

BD: Yeah. And sometimes he gives you the two delineations.

CB: Right.

BD: The one, if there is not a planet there, and the second one if there is a planet there. So he’s even giving you different delineations for something as simple as that. He doesn’t just leave it as, “Oh, but it’ll be better if the planet is in the 10th.” Sometimes he does, but he goes sometimes into great detail.

CB: Yeah, so that’s another example of a mitigation essentially, the concept of mitigation. What’s the word for ‘mitigation’ in Latin?

BD: Well, they do use the verb mitigare.

CB: Okay. And does that mean anything besides ‘mitigate’?

BD: Let me check.

CB: Okay. ‘Cause Manilius I don’t think is using that word. So this has to be the earliest use of that in an astrological context, and that’s the term that became common later on. So I was wondering if this was another term that Firmicus is using or introducing for the first time in an astrological context that’s become standard over the past 1,500 years since that time.

BD: The general meaning is ‘to soften’ or ‘calm down’ or ‘alleviate’ or ‘make something more tolerable’.

CB: Okay, that makes sense. So mitigation, delineations. That brings up a point. So we know that so much of Firmicus is him translating material from Greek into Latin from earlier authors, especially delineation material, but Firmicus is also expanding that material. And Firmicus is very wordy and very—I don’t know if ‘poetic’ is the right word. He’s sometimes very over-the-top. How would you describe his language?

BD: Yeah, I think he’s showing his ‘lawyerly’ background from an age when people might listen to a speech that lasts two hours. So one of the things that’s frustrating about reading him—if you just slow down, it’ll be okay—is that he can’t just say something directly. He has to add in more adjectives and clauses.

CB: Right.

BD: So I think the example I give is he can’t just say that some placement will show that the native will die. It will show ‘the terrible misfortune of the destruction of death’.

CB: Right. That’s what Firmicus would say.

BD: Yeah, that’s what he would say.

CB: Yeah.

BD: He likes loading up his sentence that way, so sometimes it almost gets into a kind of a rhythm.

CB: Yeah, so that’s important ‘cause, on the one hand, he’s expanding the material and explaining it better. The Greek texts probably were more succinct, as we can tell from comparisons with people like Valens or Anubio or whoever when they have delineation material—or Dorotheus for that matter—but Firmicus is expanding it. He’s also always taking things to the extreme it seems. He wants the placement—when he talks about it—to explain the most ideal form of that placement, so it’s either gonna be extremely good or extremely bad. And there can be mitigations somewhere in between that come from the mitigations, but for the most part, his default is going 100% either way it seems.

BD: It almost sounds like courtroom drama.

CB: Right.

BD: He’s making a speech. The other guy can’t just be wrong. He has to be full of the injustice of the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, yeah, I think a little bit of the lawyer is coming out and the rhetoric is coming out.

CB: Yeah, so this is really important. Because I think modern people have to be a little careful with some of the delineations and just understand going into it that Firmicus is a little bit over-the-top, he’s a little bit bombastic, and some of these placements may not be like the worst-case scenario, as bad as he gives them, if you just picked up the book and started reading it and thinking about your own chart.

BD: Yeah. In fact, one way you can think about it is that in some of the examples later in the book—he doesn’t say who they are—but you get the feeling that they might be famous people from, let’s say, the Roman Republic.

CB: Yeah.

BD: So we’re often talking about people whose lives were extremes. And those same placements in an ordinary person’s chart might still be good, but it’s not gonna rise to that level, so we have to be careful about that.

CB: I was noticing that there’s a bunch of possible nativities that are still embedded in Firmicus of famous people that haven’t been identified yet, and that’s actually a really interesting project that I hope somebody picks up. And you note them in your text. There’s several—especially towards the end of the book—where you note that the story of this example is so highly specific that it sounds like it’s a real person that he’s describing and not a hypothetical nativity.

BD: Yeah, there was one woman especially who he describes. And her career is just like this could be a movie, but I have no idea who she is. I came up with a couple of ideas that then didn’t seem to work, but maybe someone will. So, yeah, because of his rhetoric, and maybe because of his examples, some of the delineations are extreme. You will learn all of the different ways that you can be eaten by wild dogs as a way of dying. And maybe he did know a lot of people who’d been eaten by wild dogs, I don’t know.

CB: I mean, what’s funny is we always think about and sometimes joke about that as being like, “Well, that’s dumb.” But then occasionally those news stories still come up in the news every once in a while where it’s like some freak accident happened and some kid or somebody got eaten by a dog, or mauled by dog or something like that.

BD: That is actually a really good point, yeah. At one point he mentions there’s a rule about if you see this in the chart, it means the native will be a juggler. And he says, “And I know this is true ‘cause I’ve seen it.”

CB: Right.

BD: I thought, “This senatorial-class guy—where did you get the nativity of a juggler?” Or rather, “Where did the juggler learn his own birth time and get his own nativity?”

CB: Yeah, that’s a really important point though because reading your translation of Firmicus has led me to a little bit of a reappraisal and greater appreciation for Firmicus, because I always contrasted him with Valens and thought of Firmicus as more of an amateur. And I think that’s still true ‘cause his primary profession was a lawyer and then astrology was something he did out of interest or maybe on the side, and it was something he got more serious about doing after he left that career and when he had to write this text for Mavortius. And so much of Firmicus’ material is just him copying material from earlier sources, which I took to mean that it’s not like Valens, where Valens is showing a hundred example charts of his personal practice, which complements his copying of the material. But Firmicus does have a number of digressions where he does talk about what he’s seen in practice, and things that he has confirmed or not confirmed.

I noticed one note from Book 7 last night where he mentions a lot—I think it was a lot.

BD: Oh, yeah.

CB: And he says, “I’m recording this. Others have said it’s good, but I haven’t tried it yet. So somebody else needs to try it out and see if it works,” so there is an element of personal practice. And Firmicus, while he may be more of an amateur astrologer compared to somebody like Valens—whose entire life and career was dedicated to that and who has a school and is teaching students—or somebody like Ptolemy—who’s like this very high-level scientist and philosopher, who’s treating these things at a very high intellectual level—Firmicus falls somewhere below them or in a different category. But there’s still an element where he is an astrologer from the middle of the 4th century who’s trying to wrestle with and grapple this material and is also paying attention to the charts of people around him and putting these principles into practice.

BD: Yeah. Ptolemy—you can’t really tell if he ever cast a chart. And the philosophical stuff in the Tetrabiblos is pretty light in Book 1. But you can tell in Firmicus—he takes the philosophy a lot more seriously and is actively involved in casting charts.

CB: Right. That’s an important thing, the defenses of astrology—that’s a good parallel. Both Ptolemy and Firmicus open their texts with a defense of astrology, where they try to respond to criticisms of astrology by earlier skeptics. Cicero, for example, may have been one of the people that Ptolemy was responding to in his critique of astrology because of the specific arguments that were outlined. Or maybe, if not Cicero, some of the earlier philosophers from the New Academy or different philosophers like that. So one of the things that’s really funny that your translation draws out is Firmicus sets up the defense of astrology like it’s a court case, and he’s arguing as a lawyer on the side of the defense of astrology. And your translation draws that out so much better in terms of seeing Firmicus use some of those skills in oratory and in legal defense that he spent so much of his life using, but bringing it here as the lawyer who’s trying to defend astrology.

BD: Yeah, the lawyer really comes out because sometimes he’ll signpost ahead of time what he’s going to do. And then sometimes you might lose sense of where his argument is going, and he’ll say, “I know I should have talked about such-and-such. Now let’s do it here.” And so, this is a whole persuasion thing, but there is some deep philosophy that’s going on in there. And I’ve tried to draw out, when his arguments have several steps to them, I’ve tried to put in the footnotes where those steps are ‘cause he doesn’t always tell you ahead of time.

CB: Right. Like he’ll outline his opponent’s position first, and then at some point he’ll outline the response to that. So he’s setting it up like this back-and-forth legal defense.

BD: Yeah, and he does some surprising things. And two things I can think of is, one, he takes a common argument against fate, and in a way he kind of turns it on its head in an unexpected way. There’s another argument about fate where some people want to say, “Well, certain things are fated and certain things are not.” And he uses some examples to show that ultimately, no, you have to be led down his way, to total fate.

CB: Right.

BD: So there’s new stuff in here that I’ve never seen before, and he’s willing to do some daring things to make his case.

CB: Yeah, because he wants to argue for complete determinism and that everything is fated or predetermined to occur, and that his understanding and conceptualization of what astrology is about and what its purpose is, is that astrology shows you a person’s fate, or shows you the decree of a person’s fate. And that’s different than somebody like, for example, Ptolemy who doesn’t think that everything is predetermined, or thinks that there are some things that can be changed. If you just let things go their natural course then, sure, things will be determined in the way that the planets indicate it. However, if you try to offset things once you’re aware, you can avert certain things in terms of a person’s fate or maybe make them better or what have you. But Firmicus is in the full ‘determinism’ camp, which is, again, another reason why it’s harder to view him as a Christian in this original work. Because one of the main sticking points between astrology and Christianity is that Christian theology puts a great deal of emphasis on free will and making the choice to accept Jesus essentially and be saved, and Christians became very uncomfortable with the extent to which astrology was more focused on fate and predetermination and things like that.

BD: In a way it’s hard to say if that is a big distinction or not simply because in a few places, he seems to want to say that internal moral improvement can kind of lift you a little bit out of this ‘determined’ world. He doesn’t really say much and that can be a problem.

CB: Right.

BD: But, yeah, it is something that—depending on how you look at it—could mean what you said. And just to give an example of what he does in this later argument, he argues against something that I’m, for the purpose of the book, calling ‘beginning-and-end’ fate, or ‘limited’ fate. And he says there’s some people—and this is where he defines the word heimarmene. He says, “There’s some people who think that you’re fated to come into the world at a certain time, and you’re fated to go out in a certain way and time.

CB: Right.

BD: Kind of like the Fates cutting the ‘thread of life’, the Greek Fates. And in Arabic astrology, the parts of the chart that show death are called ‘the cutters’, so they’ve got that cutting. So at the end of the life, that’s also fated, but whatever happens in the middle is up to you. Well, he starts posing a couple of scenarios of someone who dies early, someone who dies late under these circumstances, and what he ends up showing is that people’s fates, their ends, are not separate from the other things they’ve done in life. You may die comfortably in your bed, but the whole reason that you’re there is because of a whole other string of things that have all come there—and all of those are implicated in your death.

CB: Right.

BD: So you can’t separate this tiny, little, fated moment from everything that has created it. So kind of step-by-step he shows that even if you accept this limited fate, you have to have the whole package. You have to buy it all.

CB: Right. He says it doesn’t make sense to accept that death is predetermined and to not accept then that other things in life are also predetermined.

BD: Right.

CB: That makes sense. And then at one point very late in the book, he gives the common, Stoic refrain about the purpose of astrology that sounds very similar to what Valens says about not being overjoyed in the case of good things or overly-depressed in the case of bad things. And that was something that most of the astrologers all shared in common about the purpose of astrology being about learning the future, so that you could know what you had to accept about your life and come to terms with it, or adopt a greater sense of tranquility or what have you surrounding that.

BD: Yeah, I feel like he also added his own little unusual perspective on it too.

CB: What? The later one? ‘Cause I also want to go back to your one about resisting at some point, but first I just wanted to establish this.

BD: Don’t overly-rejoice at the good, don’t overly feel bad at the bad. But I feel like at one point he fit in another thing that—I’m sorry, I don’t want to divert us.

CB: No, I mean, I’ll see if I can find it. Because that’s actually something I’d like to do at some point another episode with you about. You and I used to talk a lot about Stoicism, and that was something that you spent a lot of time studying in college. And just the connection between Stoicism and astrology is something that’s a little unexplored in terms of that period. When Stoicism was at its height of popularity in the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, that also happened to coincide with the period of the height of astrology, and there were some interconnections between the two.

BD: Yes. Either that the stars were making things happen, or you could say, I suppose, that they were signs of things that were happening, but the entire world was composed of the Divine Mind, which is a special kind of creative fire; it’s a creative and rational fire. So everything that’s happening is part of the working out of the Divine Mind over time. And this is something that was similar to some Middle Platonism. If you know the Chaldean oracles, the Chaldean oracles talk about how the God-Father sowed love, heavy with the bonds of fire, or sowed fire, heavy with the bonds of love into the universe. So this idea that the whole world is ultimately this kind of rational, divine fire is totally a Stoic idea, and he drops some of those exact phrases in the book.

CB: Right. ‘Cause the idea is fate is the rational ordering principle in the universe that orders things in accordance with a divine plan, so that everything happens for a reason essentially.

BD: Yeah. Yeah, he says at one point, “Nature, the artisan,” and then he talks about the creative fire.

CB: I did find the Stoic part on page 554. That sounds kind of Stoic, if that’s the one you were looking for, where he adds his own thing to it.

BD: Could be. Which is the sentence?

CB: It’s around sentence 11. “We are separating ourselves from all desires of distorted longings.” And then he goes, “It accomplishes these things very greatly, so that having despised all things which are thought to be either bad or prosperous in human affairs, we may return our mind, composed in natural virtue and authority, uncorrupted and intact to its origin. For when we will have learned that troubles are coming, we will despise the fear of imminent evils, which was why we said they were coming, with the courage of an upright mind, nor will we shudder at the dangers of the threatened evils.” And he goes on, “We will not be taken by the troubles of unluckiness, nor will we rise up at the trappings of dignity when we have known the whole of what is promised for us by the pronouncing of the divine decree. Thus, we, being composed of stable reason, can never be oppressed by misfortunes, nor be raised up by the joy of unluckiness.” I mean, I understand he’s also adding in things about the origins and things like that—the celestial origins.

BD: Sentences 13 and 14 are those standard formulas that you see in people like Ptolemy and others.

CB: Right.

BD: But the previous sentences are Stoic. What you’re doing is you’re despising the entire category of things that most people think are good and evil.

CB: Right.

BD: Actually they’re indifferent. And then when he talks about courage—this is very close to one of the definitions of the Stoic virtue of courage. So he’s such an interesting mix of the normal, mainstream kind of generic view of things, and then he’ll suddenly start dropping specifically Stoic or Platonic or whatever things in there.

CB: Let me show that passage from Valens just for comparison. So this is the famous passage from Valens. I think it’s from Book 5. He says, “Those who engage in the prediction of the future and the truth, [having] acquired a soul that is free and not enslaved, do not think highly of fortune, and do not devote themselves to hope, nor are they afraid of death, but instead they live their lives undaunted by disturbance by training their souls to be confident, and neither rejoice excessively in the case of good, nor become depressed in the case of bad, but instead are content with whatever is present. Those who do not desire the impossible are capable of bearing that which is preordained through their own self-mastery; and being estranged from all pleasure [or] praise, they become established as soldiers of fate.

BD: And notice the difference there. That passage, similar to sentences 13 and 14, talks about do not “rejoice excessively in the case of good, nor become depressed in the case of bad.

CB: Right.

BD: Well, that is confirming the accuracy of our normal categories, our normal moral categories, it’s just saying don’t get too excited. But now look at Firmicus and sentence 11. “Having despised all things which are thought to be either bad or prosperous in human affairs.

CB: Right.

BD: That is a Stoic approach because you’re putting into question all of our normal moral categories and rising above them. So he’s doing both in the same paragraph.

CB: So the Stoic distinction is the distinction between what is preferable versus what is unpreferable? What’s that category called again?

BD: It’s called the ‘indifferent’.

CB: Right. Okay.

BD: Indifferent things are actually all around the astrology chart. So most of us would say having relationships is good, death is bad, profession is good, illness is bad, so we can call ‘good/bad-good/bad’ all over the astrology chart. Now if you put your value into those things, you will be tossed about like a little boat throughout life, or you’ll be on a roller-coaster because those things are not in your control even though they’re part of life. The standard view is saying, “Look, we need to not be over-excited about those good things ‘cause they might not be as good as you think. Let’s not get overly-upset at the bad things because we can maybe prepare for them.” That’s the normal view. The Stoic view is those good-and-bad categories are false. All of those things are not truly good and evil, they only have conditional or selective value. They might be useful or ‘unuseful’. Sometimes you go for them, sometimes you don’t. But if you can emotionally detach from calling those things actually good and bad, you’ll be able to be calm and live what they call ‘a smooth flow of life’. But you can only do that if you despise the very categories. ‘Despise’ is a pretty strong word.

CB: Right.

BD: Don’t consider either of those truly good or bad. So he’s doing the orthodox Stoic thing in sentence 11, and then he’s coming down to the kind of normal, everyday advice in 13 and 14.

CB: Got it. Okay, so that’s really important. But then just to circle back, there is this one weird line in Firmicus. Even though most of the text is largely very deterministic and he falls more on the complete determinism side of the spectrum compared to even other Hellenistic astrologers, like Ptolemy—he does have that one reference in Book 1, Chapter 6, where he says something about ‘resisting the decrees of the stars, as well as their powers’ that almost implies—as long as this isn’t an interpolation or something—that perhaps his system is not completely deterministic. But it’s just weird because he never goes back to that, he never returns to that, and there’s sort of some mystery about what that little digression was about.

BD: My sense is—let’s see. “Let us humbly invoke the gods, and let us render religiously the promised vows to the divine powers, so that with the divinity of our mind being strengthened we may to some degree resist the violent decree of the stars, as well as their powers.” This could mean a couple of things. One is if you are totally in line with the Divine Mind then everything is smooth for you. You will never encounter anything that is contrary to what you actually need or desire because what you actually desire is exactly what the Divine Mind is doing.

CB: Mm-hmm.

BD: So, in a sense, you can resist them by being aligned with the Divine Mind. He could also mean—because of his moralism throughout the book—you will be purified of the kind of wretched desires that get most people in trouble.

CB: Right. ‘Cause that brings up a term I was really interested in your translation of, and your attention to the details and nuances of. At one point, very early in Book 2, when he was talking about the houses, he gets to the 12th house and he mentions the 12th house, and you translate the Latin term as ‘vices’, which I thought was very interesting; although you point out at different points that the term can sometimes also mean ‘defects’. And there’s this ambiguity where sometimes Firmicus clearly does use that Latin word to mean ‘defects’ in different parts of the work, but then at other times he uses it to mean ‘vices’.

BD: Mm-hmm.

CB: And you pointed out that part of the connection is that vices are defects of the mind.

BD: Yeah. Right. So anger—the standard Stoic view is that anger is a mental illness. Anger is a defect of the mind. So if you feel anger, not only are you out of whack with God, but your anger is going to lead you right down those paths that your nativity’s probably predicting will end up badly or won’t work out. So the idea of aligning yourself with God, or what the Stoics call ‘living in agreement’, or ‘elevating the mind’, you are healing yourself of defects like anger.

CB: Okay.

BD: Vices like anger.

CB: Later in the tradition, are there other Medieval authors that continue to associate vices with the 12th house?

BD: Well, there are. You do see inklings of mental problems.

CB: Right.

BD: They don’t have a really developed idea about that, and nothing like the modern notions of the 12th house and the unconscious and so on. There’s a little bit of it, I’d say.

CB: Okay. So, yeah, I just thought that was interesting and something to draw attention to. Let’s go back really quickly to Firmicus as a compiler and some of his sources. Firmicus has one of the most extensive discussions of the Thema Mundi that survives—the mythical birth chart for the beginning of the Cosmos, which lays out the foundation for the domicile scheme, or the reason why the planets rule certain signs of the zodiac. And right at the beginning of that he gives this kind of hierarchy of the early founders of Hellenistic astrology and cites some people in particular who he draws on as sources, right?

BD: Yeah, he gives a little bit about how the tradition was handed down and some hints about who was responsible for what.

CB: So this is in Book 3.

BD: Book 3, Chapter 1.

CB: Okay, so Book 3, Chapter 1, and he’s getting ready to introduce the very beginning of this book. Book 1 was largely his defense of astrology. Book 2 is him introducing basic principles and rulerships and just basic concepts in astrology. And then Book 3 is when things start getting serious and he starts giving delineations, starting with introducing the Thema Mundi. And then he immediately goes into just a long book of interpretations of what it means when different planets are in each of the 12 houses.

BD: Yep, and by sect. Yeah, then he jumps right in. So it’s a really interesting, long treatment. I think it’s probably the longest that we have about the Thema Mundi. And then he takes the five non-luminaries and has a little history of humanity, where we start with Saturn, which is people in a state of crudeness and wildness and violence, and then humanity, after it develops things like religion and so on, then it becomes more orderly and good. So he goes through all five planets with a little astrological history of humans.

CB: Right. Yeah, a lot of that’s really important ‘cause he mentions, at the beginning of this treatment, Hermes and then Asclepius and Nechepso and Petosiris as part of this lineage. And then it’s implied that he’s then drawing his treatment of the Thema Mundi from—I think you said from the text of Nechepso and Petosiris, or from Asclepius directly.

BD: Yeah, in the preface, he says Petosiris and Nechepso gave us the Thema Mundi. So he’s directly crediting them so that they could “display and show man as being formed in the nature and likeness of the world.” And he says that they, in turn, had been following previous people like Asclepius and Anubio and Hermes, but he’s saying that Nechepso and Petosiris are giving us the chart of the world.

CB: Right.

BD: And this could be significant because he’s saying that they are giving us this. Now the rest of Book 3 is all about planets and the places, something that we see in Rhetorius, Chapter 57. We see it in material attributed to Anubio. And if you remember—and this will be new for many people—Stephen Heilen did an article some years ago where he doubts that this material goes back to Anubio. Some people thought Anubio wrote all this, and I think he well-proved that it didn’t. They’re all drawing on an older source, and he suggests that it’s Nechepso-Petosiris.

CB: Right.

BD: If that’s right then Book 3 is largely a translation of Nechepso-Petosiris, the Thema Mundi and the planets in the places.

CB: Yeah, that’s what I was trying to figure out. ‘Cause Rhetorius is drawing on the same source and they both have delineations from the same text that they’re clearly drawing on. And, yeah, if it’s Nechepso and Petosiris, or if it’s Asclepius—we know there was also a text ‘cause there’s some parallels in Valens and Firmicus when they both start talking about Asclepius. And one of the things that Heilen said that’s really interesting is that he thought that there were grammatical variations in the different authors that are drawing these delineations from Nechepso and Petosiris. He thought that they may have used symbols to represent the planets or aspects and that’s why later authors were interpreting or phrasing them differently.

BD: Hmm, interesting.

CB: Yeah. So a really important point when we’re reading Firmicus is that oftentimes throughout the book, you cannot always be sure if what we’re reading are Firmicus’ personal views or if what we’re reading are the views of the source that he’s copying at the time. And so, people have to be kind of careful in reading the text and attributing things. ‘Cause even though we’ll cite Firmicus for different doctrines and things like that, there is a trickiness there because that also leads to inconsistencies or ways in which Firmicus does things differently, in different parts of the book, because he’s compiling from a variety of different sources.

BD: Mm-hmm. And it means that—if this is true about Nechepso-Petosiris—we’ve been mainly limited to fragments of them.

CB: Right.

BD: But if this is true, we’ve had an entire portion of a huge book by them staring us in the face, which is pretty exciting. It also actually means that you couldn’t ask for a better pedigree basically for your astrology if you’re getting it from Nechepso-Petosiris. So it makes his work stand out as being taken from the biggest, most important names and authorities.

CB: Right. And preserving delineations from one of the earliest texts in the Western astrological tradition, when the concept of the 12 houses first started being used, and they first started doing interpretations or reading the planets as being placed in the 12 houses and meaning things about different parts of a person’s life. Firmicus then preserves some of the delineations from the very earliest texts that talked about that concept or technique.

BD: Mm-hmm.

CB: Okay, so that’s important. That brings up also in Firmicus the issue of house division and how he seems to be wrestling with this mixed tradition of house division that he’s inheriting and reading in his sources, and it seems to lead him to using whole sign houses and equal houses at the same time it seems.

BD: Yeah, he formally introduces equal houses. But then he also uses language, which shows that in certain parts of the book he is also talking about whole signs. Remember also that he’s translating from many different sources. And so, in some cases, he uses a delineation—I talk about one of them in the introduction—which is not possible if you’re using equal houses. So just because he’s using equal houses and is teaching it doesn’t always mean that you’ll see it everywhere because he might be taking from someone else later in the book who’s doing whole signs. Sometimes he’s gonna combine them. And it’s not obvious that he sees—like we are wrestling with this, right? This could be controversial. In his mind, he might not have seen it that way. He doesn’t seem to indicate that he’s worried about it at all. So he is using some combination of equal houses and whole signs.

CB: Right.

BD: Be careful about making assumptions about what he’s doing in any part of the book.

CB: Right. And I think you showed in your introduction how in the one example chart that Firmicus uses of a contemporary nativity—which is the birth chart of Albinus in Book 2—that he has considerations, where the placements are clearly being interpreted both by equal houses, as well as whole sign.

BD: Yeah, so there’s some ambiguities. There’s some ambiguities there too. And of course this topic flows into many other things; it flows into predictive techniques. And in parts of the book, for example, when he’s talking about planets in the places, when he’s talking about the angles, he almost every time—uh, this is another thing he does—every time he will say that they’re ‘portionally’, which means on the very axial degree. But when they’re in any of the other places—despite the fact there’s supposed to be a cusp, an equal cusp—he almost never says that they’re there portionally, which would mean on the cusp. And he does similar wording when he talks about conjunctions. So that could mean that maybe even as he was using equal divisions, he knew that the signs were also there. And so, unless it was an angle, he wanted to allow it to be broadly in the sign—he doesn’t explain.

CB: Yeah. I mean, a lot of that in Book 3, he’s picking up from his source text ‘cause if you read the parallel passage in Rhetorius, it’s like they’re doing the same thing. I mean, one of the things about reading your translation—and one of the reasons I wanted you to translate it—is I knew you’d be more careful and more attentive to the language that Firmicus is using for things like house division, which kind of got flattened out in some of the previous translations. And in reading your translation, I gained a greater appreciation for that Firmicus is drawing this distinction between placements by signs versus placements by degree and using this special language of broadly versus portionally or degree-wise. And he uses that across the board with aspects; he talks about sign-based versus degree-based aspects. He talks about sign-based houses versus degree-based houses.

And then he even does that with lots, where he first introduces lots by sign, which he says is broadly; but then he says how to calculate them by degree, which is portionally. And in reading your translation, I gained a better appreciation for how Firmicus does want to emphasize degree-based things in all three of those areas or categories. And he does seem to be conscious of and aware that there’s a difference because he’s always quick to say that he wants to emphasize the degree-based or the portional side, which he views as either more precise or more powerful even. And at one point he even draws a distinction between them—like an interpretive distinction that I thought was really interesting—later in the books.

BD: Yeah. He has this pair of terms—portionally, which can also mean ‘exactly’, and broadly. It’s the source of when we talk about aspects as being ‘partile’ and ‘platic’. So, on the one hand, he’s talking about something that’s broadly in a place or in the sign versus on a specific degree. But then he also uses this to describe explanations or types of teachings. So he’ll say, “I’m gonna teach this to you broadly first, and then we’ll talk about it portionally,” and you’re not sure. Are you talking about how the teachings are gonna be more broad and then specific? Or are you telling me that the technique will be first by sign and then by degree? And so, here’s I think where he is not himself or us any favors with this ‘lawyerly’ playing with language about ‘the broad and the specific’ or the ‘broad and the portional’. I understand what you mean in that he draws on the distinction enough in certain areas that you can say, “Ah, I could interpret it this way or that way.” But if we’re getting into fine details about certain things like house division, he’s putting an obstacle in his own way.

CB: Okay. So here’s the passage. I should have looked up where this is. I think it’s later. It’s when he’s treating the Lot of Fortune. I don’t have the parts highlighted, but he’s talking about the Lot of Fortune and then looking at the lord of the Lot of Fortune and seeing how it’s placed in the chart. And he says, “But if there was not a single lord of the sign in which the Place of Fortune and the portions were, that one which has the greater power [blah, blah blah], if it was a benevolent and was found in benevolent signs, or in its height or in its house, and being arranged in the principle pivots of the nativity, it saw the Place of Fortune pivotally. It decrees a great and noble nativity. However, it will do this if at the time it was established portionally in the pivots. Or if it was only broadly found in these places, which we said, it decrees a middling nativity, so that he will not be lucky beyond measure, nor pressed down by the narrow straits of poverty.

And then he goes on and he says, “But if they both fell well, the lord of that sign in which the Place of Fortune is, and the lord of that portion in which the last portion was found, and were established in good signs, that is, in which they rejoice or in which they are exalted or in their domiciles, and they were arranged portionally in the pivots, it decrees such luckiness that he who was born thusly will be joined to emperors in every way. But if they were found in the signs of the pivots, not portionally but broadly, they decree the increases of middling luckiness.” So he’s actually here—at least in one point in this digression—drawing a distinction between whole sign houses and degree-based houses, presumably equal houses, which is the only degree-based form of house division that he introduces in Book 2, in saying that things are the most powerful in the equal house, degree-based placements portionally, but they still indicate the same thing in the whole sign house placement, but just less so; that it’s less powerful in some way.

BD: Mm-hmm. That’s what it sounds like, yeah.

CB: Yeah, so that’s really interesting, and that could be really useful. And there’s other hints like that throughout the book, but it could be a useful thing for people to look into just in terms of some of these attempts today to try to reconcile whole sign houses and some of the degree-based forms of house division to see if some sort of reconciliation might be possible, thinking of it in terms of things like that.

BD: Mm-hmm. That we preserve the integrity of the signs, that we recognize that there’s something that happens especially in terms of power where these cusps are. Now what something like this does, it won’t fix the question of the astronomical Midheaven because the astronomical Midheaven isn’t going to match the 10th equal cusp. But he, or someone who wrote this passage, seems to be doing something like that.

CB: Right. ‘Cause you write in the introduction that a whole other issue is that Firmicus does occasionally mention the astronomical Midheaven and notes how it can fall in houses other than the 10th house because in equal houses or whole sign houses, the Midheaven floats around the top of the chart and can fall in different houses.

BD: Right.

CB: Okay, so he’s aware of that issue, but he doesn’t seem to fully reconcile it at this stage.

BD: Or address it. Yeah, he may be in ‘translating’ mode and not in ‘commentary’ mode. Hard to say.

CB: Got it. Okay. All right, so let’s move on to other topics in the book. What are some other major topics that the book covers? We’ve talked about all the delineations of planets in houses. He also gives delineations of aspects. And we mentioned how he’ll give two delineations for each aspect, especially for the squares, depending on which planet is in the superior position.

BD: Yeah, another thing is Book 4, which is largely devoted to the Moon. Lots of combinations of the Moon’s applications and separations, not only to each planet and from each planet, but every combination of from each planet to each planet. And he does this because he says that the Moon is so extremely important in the nativity, which we all know. But this is combinations of lunar aspects with advice that is really great, that you rarely find anywhere else.

CB: Yeah, I was really struck by you drawing out how the entirety of Book 4 was focused on the Moon, and it’s there that we find Firmicus’ treatment of the ‘master of the nativity’, or the ‘lord of the nativity’, the ruler of the chart. And you made a really good point that suddenly made me fully understand better why Firmicus goes with that specific method for calculating the master of the nativity, which I always thought was weird. This is the part of Firmicus that’s weird—that doesn’t have documentation in other authors—where he outlines four different methods that people used to find the overall ruler of the chart, and one of them that he gives is the one that seems like the more common method in other authors, which is that you calculate the predominator and then it’s the bound-lord or the domicile lord of the predominator; and that’s the standard technique used in most traditions for the length-of-life treatment probably going back to Nechepso and Petosiris. But then he introduces this other method where Firmicus says that lord of the nativity is the planet that rules the sign that the Moon will move into next, after the natal sign of the zodiac that the Moon is in, in the nativity, right?

BD: Yeah. And even then there the Sun and the Moon are not allowed to be lords of the nativity. So if your natal Moon is in Gemini, the rule would be the lord of the nativity is the lord of the next sign. But since the Moon can’t be it, we have to go with the next sign, Leo. But the Sun can’t be it, so it has to be the next one, the lord of Virgo, which would be Mercury. So you’d think this would be a central topic that he might even put in Book 2. But now we see why it’s embedded in Book 4 because it’s all based on the Moon.

CB: Right. That makes a lot of sense. That makes so much sense. And also, there’s an interesting overlap. Because, in that technique, he excludes the Sun and Moon from being lord or master of the nativity, that’s also true in the other major technique for calculating where it’s based on the bounds. And since the bounds are only assigned to one of the five planets and not to the luminaries, that system is sort of similar in that it has to be one of the five planets.

BD: Yeah.

CB: And with the bounds, that actually brings up that you’re working on something really important right now. I don’t know if you wanted to mention it in passing in terms of that.

BD: I’d just say that we are working on solving the riddle of the Egyptian bounds. And I guess I don’t want to say any more, but when we’re done, which could be any day, based on some things we’ve discovered, we’ll let you know.

CB: Okay, that sounds good.

BD: And there’s some statements in Firmicus that have sometimes kind of made me stop and think when he talks about the Thema Mundi. So we’re thinking about the bounds.

CB: Or even his statement about the exaltations, which is commonly cited, where Firmicus says that the Babylonians wanted to treat the exaltations as if they were the domiciles of the planets.

BD: Mm-hmm.

CB: And so, this is commonly cited to mean that the exaltations came from the Mesopotamian tradition. But there’s some issues with that in terms of how they integrate into the rest of the system, and some questions that if they integrate too closely into it, if that could be true for it to have come from earlier in the tradition.

BD: Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a little project that hopefully there’ll be news on sooner rather than later.

CB: Good. All right, other topics—ethics of an astrologer. I know Firmicus outlines an ethical thing, which is a sort of precursor to Lilly’s ethics for an astrologer. And it’s unique ‘cause I don’t remember seeing this in other astrologers in the Hellenistic period.

BD: Yeah, it is a lot of good advice. It reminds me of another Stoic virtue that has to do with ‘avoiding just blame and practicing neighborliness’. So basically you become a respectable person in your community. You have a family, you have a house. You avoid certain activities that the crowd gets into. You make sure that you’re honest to people about what you do astrologically. Don’t say anything that you couldn’t say publicly. But also things like try to help people when you’re doing your delineations.

CB: Right.

BD: I want to also mention something about Book 7.

CB: Okay.

BD: Books 6 and 7 really affected me a lot long ago when I was working out some of the eminence techniques, and also looking at some specialty topics in prosperity. That also relates to things like marriage and upbringing. You’ll notice in a lot of the books the Thema Mundi, the planets in the houses, applications of the Moon, but you don’t have a book devoted to marriage or children that goes topic-by-topic like we would expect. In these books he starts to do it, and he does them using largely apotelesmata. He doesn’t start out with rules like, “For marriage, look at the triplicity lords of Venus,” he does it through apotelesmata. But the way he does it, you can start to see the important themes come up, and you can see why they would have said, “Ah, this child might not have a good upbringing or might not survive.” “Oh, here are the indications of a good marriage,” but he’s doing it through examples, and it’s a different take on teaching astrology than the rule-based one we normally use, and I’ve gotten some really good material from it.

CB: Nice. Yeah, that was a really good section there; that takes up a lot. And that process of seeing those example charts, some of them are hypothetical charts, but others are real charts that you’ve identified and put diagrams for in the text that really help you to learn the process of doing full life delineation essentially instead of just picking out individual pieces.

BD: Right. So you can see, for example, there’s a whole class of indications of a native being low status or encountering a disaster. There’s a whole class of them, and they’re not all in order. But if you group them altogether you see they all involve both of the luminaries in the 6th and 12th and one of the malefics. Or here’s a group over here that shows they all have this theme, and you can start to see the common patterns in them. So I think people should start looking at those patterns and start getting familiar with them because you won’t see it in every chart, but you’ll see the kinds of things that matter.

CB: Yeah. And one of the things that’s really cool that you draw out through your diagrams is that Firmicus sets up a spectrum and shows all the gradations in between. Like he’ll show indications for some negative thing, but then he’ll show here’s that negative thing, but then there’s a mitigation. So it’s the same thing. It’s like that person will get sick, but then they’ll see a doctor and they’ll be able to overcome the disease or what have you.

BD: Right.

CB: So it’s like he’ll give you, first, the indication for illness and death from that illness, then he’ll give you the indication for that illness but then recovering from it and just every shade of gray in between by just slightly modifying the placements and showing you what that looks like.

BD: Yeah.

CB: Yeah, that’s super helpful and super useful. Another area that Firmicus goes into a lot is the lots, or the so-called Arabic parts. He has a huge treatment of this, and he has some really interesting things to say about lot interpretation and how to use them.

BD: Yeah, he gives a very thorough lot interpretation method. It starts out with the father, so he does lengthy delineations of the Lot of the Father. And then he uses that so that he doesn’t have to repeat himself and he adapts the instructions for other lots. Yeah, it’s a really nice, long collection of lots that also have formulas we haven’t seen before or you don’t see in other sources.

CB: Right. That he preserves from other sources that we’ve lost.

BD: Right.

CB: One of the things that was interesting there is he invokes the language, again, of broadly versus portionally, or degree-wise, but what I thought was interesting that you drew out in your translation is he does it for topics. Like he says, “Broadly speaking, the Sun is the significator of the father, but we should calculate it portionally by using the Lot of the Father.” And I thought that was super interesting and, again, goes back to this conceptual distinction he keeps drawing out throughout the work of broadly versus portionally.

BD: Yeah. And then the ‘broadly’ is what we would call a ‘universal significator’ or a ‘general significator’. So he’s saying that, yeah, that’s true enough about the Sun. But if you want to get it exact/to the degree—‘cause that word means both—if you want to get it exactly and to the degree in the chart, you use the lot.

CB: Right. Yeah, so that’s really interesting. And also, he refers to the lots as ‘places’. And that’s something that’s very distinctive about Firmicus’ language as well, which I’m starting to wonder if he’s getting that from some earlier strata of the tradition. There’s some Demotic horoscopes that were discovered recently where they’re using the lots to calculate the traditional places of Good Spirit, Bad Spirit, Good Fortune, Bad Fortune. Instead of being fixed signs relative to the Ascendant—like they are in most Greek authors—they’re lots that float around the chart, and this has raised some interesting historical questions. But it makes me wonder if Firmicus had access to some texts from earlier in the tradition that were still maintaining that concept, and that’s why Firmicus is somewhat unique in referring to the lots constantly as places.

BD: Yeah, it got me wondering a long time ago when I first started reading this that there might have been not a foreign mission exactly, but kind of an alternate stream in astrology that did lot readings. Instead of doing normal house readings, they would do lot readings.

CB: Yeah.

BD: So that’s possible. And it also brings up another point, which is that in his book, he doesn’t really use the lords of places.

CB: Right.

BD: So he doesn’t start out and say, “Now let us look at the topic of money and the 2nd house and its lord,” that’s how you’d look at it later. Instead there might be something about money, but it might be some complicated apotelesma, or something from the application of the Moon. And then if you really want to know about money, you look at the lot.

CB: Right. Rhetorius does have that approach of looking at the ruler of the places, but it may be because he has access to this other tradition of interpreting the houses differently from this earlier textual source, which I suspect is the one attributed to Hermes, whereas Firmicus has access to this other source, which is either Asclepius or Nechepso and Petosiris that’s approaching things a little bit differently than that.

BD: Yeah, it’s unusual. In his equal house system, he will say that the 4th indicates the family and real estate, but there’s not place where he says, “All right, let’s talk about the father and look at the 4th and its lord, and the Sun is a general significator,” he doesn’t do that.

CB: Yeah.

BD: There might be indications for the father in many other places of the chart, but then you look at the lot, portionally.

CB: No, I think what you’re picking up is right ‘cause that paper by Andreas Winkler on those Demotic horoscopes that were just unearthed in an excavation as recently as 2021 show that paradigm. It calculates the degree of the Ascendant exactly, but then it has these lots to calculate where the traditional house topics fall, especially for the names of the houses, which are like Good Spirit, Bad Spirit, Good Fortune, Bad Fortune, Life, Death, and so on and so forth. And his speculation—which I’m not sure if it’s true—was because this is so highly specific that the exact way of calculating those house topics originally was through lots. He saw the derivation of the house topics through the signs relative to the Ascendant as being a simplification of that model. And I don’t know if that’s true because we know in other authors that they used both at the same time—both lots, as well as house topics derived from the Ascendant, so it could be that these horoscopes are also doing it at the same time. But it was an interesting thing, in terms of the earlier part of the tradition, that things may not always have been the same as how they became later on.

BD: Yeah. Yeah, there could have been a weaving of several different streams of thought and practice that have been obscured.

CB: Yeah. And what’s cool about that conceptually and philosophically is just whoever developed the concept of lots—that draws astrology much more closely into the practice of divination or other forms of divination because it adds that chance-like component much more into nativities by having lots which just move around the chart constantly, in every which way. And then suddenly you freeze the chart or the sky at the moment of birth, and you say, “These are where the topics are,” and it creates an even more chance-like or more fortune-dependent chart than just deriving things from the Ascendant or what have you.

BD: Than if you just focus on the method of projecting from the Ascendant. That’s interesting because you’re right. At all moments, all of the relationships of all of the places and planets are forming lots.

CB: Right.

BD: And they’re constantly moving around in a swarm almost.

CB: Yeah. And also, we have to remember that in all forms of divination, there’s this element of chance.

BD: Yeah.

CB: And the very conceptual or philosophical basis is that you shuffle the cards, or you throw the dice, or you have some random element of chance that’s outside of the control of the person doing the divination, and then you just freeze things at that moment when the question is asked. And then whatever the arrangement is of the random or chance-like thing—even though it appears to be random or chance-like, the assumption is that fate is working through chance and fortune to exactly tell you what the answer is at that moment in time. But with the birth chart, the question that’s being asked is, what is this person’s life going to be like, or what is it gonna be about?

BD: Yeah.

CB: Yeah, so the lots are just the attempt to import that component of chance even more than it already is in the arrangement of the planets. All right, other topics—fixed stars is a major thing that you deal with in this book.

BD: It is. It’s a bit of a troubling topic because he’s dealing in some cases with another kind of zodiac with some different animals in it. It’s not clear always if he’s using the right measurements. He does identify some important fixed stars, and he goes through delineations of every degree of the zodiac when it’s on the Ascendant. I think it’s also related to what he calls the ‘barbarous sphere’. In antiquity, if you said something was barbarous, you meant one of two things. You either meant the Persians—that goes back to Greek; that was a common name for the Persians—or you just meant people outside the empire. So he’s telling us that he’s translated this book, or at least part of a book called The Barbarous Sphere. And it’s got stars that co-rise with certain constellations—that’s the stuff that Manilius also translated—delineations for each rising degree, but it’s probably in some other maybe sidereal zodiac.

CB: Although in mentioning that you point out he uses tropical positions pretty consistently, right?

BD: In some cases it’s hard to say.

CB: Okay.

BD: He doesn’t seem to care about precession. So it doesn’t seem like he precesses any—well, no, he doesn’t. He’s reporting the same values for some star locations as Manilius.

CB: Right. So he hasn’t updated the tables.

BD: Yeah. And he’s writing several centuries later. So he doesn’t pay any attention to precession. And I thought I would try to unify all of the parts of the books where he has all the fixed stars, and I would use an astrology program to get a sky map to see, “If this star was rising with this constellation, what year would it have to be for also this one to rise?” And I thought, “I’m not gonna do it.” It didn’t seem worth it. And since you can’t trust necessarily his numbers, and you don’t know where he’s getting his numbers from, the fixed star part is less rewarding. Except I will say this—he does identify a number of eminent fixed stars which are not on the usual lists. So there’s a usual list of 30 stars that we get from Anonymous of 379, and there’s a Persian version of the list, where if these stars are rising at your birth, or if the Moon is on them—there’s rules—the native will be eminent. He adds some. Some I can’t identify, but some I can, and he adds them. And so, that could add to our lore.

CB: Okay. That’s exciting. So, yeah, lots of fixed stars stuff, lots of delineations like that. I know he associates the beginning of Aries with the spring equinox in Book 2 or something, which I think implies that some of his zodiac might be tropical, but then elsewhere he’s using sidereal considerations. So it’s hard because he’s sometimes just copying things over. I noticed in your footnotes that occasionally Firmicus would make mistakes or would transpose things when he’s copying certain things over it seemed, right?

BD: Yeah, there were some errors. You mean in numbers? Like in the numbers he would use?

CB: Yeah, sometimes in numbers. But I know there’s a delineation where Jupiter and Mars were inverted or something like that, or maybe elsewhere it was in the lot calculations where you noticed that there was a discrepancy about which planet was supposed to be measured from which and just different things like that; although we don’t know if that’s just issues in the manuscript tradition.

BD: Yeah, it depends. I think there probably are a couple places where it’s obvious the text is wrong. I can’t think of one immediately offhand. Or he’s going through permutations of certain planets in combination by day and by night and maybe the text has two of them by day in a row and that’s obviously wrong. But largely it’s amazing for something this big, with language this complicated, has come to us in such an amazing form.

CB: Right. There were a lot of manuscripts of the text that survived.

BD: Yeah.

CB: Okay.

BD: It became very popular in the Middle Ages, at least among some people.

CB: Right.

BD: Not so much among practicing astrologers I think until later. You don’t see references to it by Bonatti.

CB: Right. I think it’s one of the earliest texts that was printed after the printing press was invented in the late 15th century. Firmicus was printed at some point and then proliferated around Europe, and it has a great influence on subsequent Renaissance and early modern astrologers. And I know Firmicus is one of the sources that Lilly cites, for example.

BD: Yeah. So he was always around, the manuscripts somewhere, but didn’t really become really popular until very late.

CB: And part of it is just it’s so striking how it’s one of the last major textbooks in Rome, let’s say, literally as astrology is on the way out. ‘Cause I’ve been researching, like I said, some of the legal codes recently, and like within a decade or a few decades of Firmicus writing this book—not just astrology became illegal, but also consultations and teaching it; and there was even a law that astrologers had to burn their books within a few decades of Firmicus writing this. So it gets to be both the first really major Latin textbook in astrology, but also he’s writing it when astrology is gonna go into a downturn for several centuries, at least in that part of Europe, in Western Europe.

BD: Mm-hmm. And then it kind of disappears for all intents and purposes compared to everything else. It disappears until very late.

CB: Firmicus’ text?

BD: Yeah, yeah.

CB: Yeah, and that’s what’s so striking. And then it’s like we also have a downturn of astrology in Greek sources, even in Egypt. But then eventually we have this great flourishing of astrology in the 8th and 9th centuries with the astrologers who were speaking and writing in Arabic, and they revive some of the earlier traditions from the Greek and Persian authors. But then that’s the system that gets transmitted back to Europe when the Latin translation movement happens in the 12th century, and they sort of become the source of that astrology more so than Firmicus.

BD: Right. Yeah, it would be nice to know—what if his book had become really popular? Well, especially if his source texts hadn’t disappeared too, like all of this stuff about the Moon, for example, and all these special combinations of lunar applications and separations and what that means for the native. That’s a whole body of Moon lore that could have been used and developed for centuries.

CB: Right. Yeah. Well, we have it back now. And I think your translation fills a really needed and necessary thing in order to finally help us understand Firmicus better than he had been understood up to this point. And I think it’s gonna become one of those texts that everybody has to have in their library because of the really important foundational role it plays, and because of all those sources that Firmicus draws on that are just so early in how extensive it goes into the delineations and things like that.

BD: Well, I hope so. Partly I hope so for my sake, but especially for his sake because he deserves it. I really got to appreciate him in a whole new way when I translated this, and his work deserves to be studied and made part of curricula.

CB: Yeah, for sure. Well, thanks a lot for translating it, and thanks especially for my personal request of translating it. Even though I know this was a huge task, maybe even just as huge as Firmicus writing it, but it’s a huge contribution to the tradition, so thanks for doing that. What else are you working on? What do you have coming up in the future now that you’ve gotten this huge tome out of the way?

BD: Well, my natal course is officially underway, and we may have a new cohort starting maybe this fall. I am doing a complete rewrite and re-translation of Bonatti, and I’m also working on some mundane book. There will be, I think, a series of mundane books that I have to do all at once, and I think I might have to release them at once. That’ll be a couple years from now. Some Abu Ma’shar, some Sahl, a guy named Abu Qumash and other things.

CB: Nice. That sounds amazing. Okay, cool. And what’s the website where people can find out more information?

BD: That is bendykes.com. And you can buy all of my books on Amazon.

CB: Awesome. Cool. Well, thanks a lot for joining me today.

BD: All right, thank you so much.

CB: All right, thanks everyone for watching or listening to this episode of The Astrology Podcast, and we’ll see you again next time.


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If you’re looking to get an astrological consultation, we have a list of recommended astrologers at TheAstrologyPodcast.com/Consultations. The astrologers on the list are friends of the podcast that have been featured in different episodes over the years, and they have different specialties such as natal astrology, electional astrology, synastry, rectification, or horary astrology. You can get a 10% discount when you book a consultation with one of the astrologers on our list by using the promo code ‘ASTROLOGYPODCAST’.

The astrology software that we use and recommend here on the podcast is called Solar Fire for Windows, which is available for the PC at Alabe.com. Use the promo code ‘AP15’ to get a 15% discount. For Mac users we recommend a software program called Astro Gold for Mac OS, which is from the creators of Solar Fire for PC, and it includes both modern and traditional techniques. You can find out more information at AstroGold.io, and you can use the promo code ‘ASTROPODCAST15’ to get a 15% discount.

If you’d like to learn more about my approach to astrology then I’d recommend checking out my book titled Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune where I go over the history, philosophy, and techniques of ancient astrology, taking people from beginner up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. You can get a print copy of the book through Amazon or other online retailers, or there’s an ebook version available through Google Books.

If you’re really looking to expand your studies of astrology then I would recommend my Hellenistic astrology course, which is an online course on ancient astrology where I take people through basic concepts up through intermediate and advanced techniques for reading birth charts. There’s over 100 hours of video lectures, as well as guided readings of ancient texts, and by the time you finish the course you will have a strong foundation on how to read birth charts, as well as make predictions. You can find out more information at courses.TheAstrologySchool.com. I also recently launched a new course there called the Birth Time Rectification Course where I teach students how to figure out your birth time using astrology when the birth time is either unknown or uncertain. You can find out more information about that at TheAstrologySchool.com.

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