At the End of Times: Human Civilization and a Roman Astrologer (Firmicus Maternus, Math. 3.2)

Joanna Komorowska


Not necessarily the focus of standard Classical scholarship, the astrological literature is of necessity concerned with changes governed and inflicted by time, and, equally importantly, may be perceived as a mirror of certain intellectual tendencies dominating the contemporary world. Yet, it remains rare for an ancient work of this particular type to provide a reader with a comprehensive vision of world history understood in terms of civilizational development and/or deterioration (in fact, most of the works are manuals): yet, in the fourth century opus magnum of the Roman senator, Julius Firmicus Maternus, we do find a chapter (III 2) dedicated precisely to that precise issue. In this single chapter, focused as it is with the interpretation of the Hermetic thema mundi, the universal horoscope, Firmicus presents his reader with an astrological insight into the history of mankind, its development and present condition, at the same time he provides a fascinating glimpse of astrologers’ understanding of chronology and time: as the sublunary world passes through periods dominated by different planetary rule, the sequence of planets following the order of descent and even more strikingly order of decreasing aspect power, the realm of human acquires differing features – from the emergence of law and social intercourse during the rule of Jupiter, through the combative period of Mars’ dominance and the development of arts during the rule of Venus, to the current era of unstable and weak Mercury. The time described by the thema is as a result finite, closed, divided into clearly defined periods, marked equally by completeness, unity and manifest fragmentation; meanwhile, due to the original conditions, the steady positive development of the past(s) inevitably declines into its mere caricature in the present.

It is precisely because of the above described content that the chapter merits particular attention – while the thema and the subject of its questionable authenticity as such have been object of some scholarly attention, it seems advisable to reconsider the intellectual undercurrents detectable in the passage, including the concept of the end of times, the striking image of Saturnian era as time of primeval wildness, and finally, the possible consequences of the astrological transit theory for the understanding of time.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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