Firmicus Maternus

views updated

Firmicus Maternus

(b. Sicily, fl. A.D. 330-354)


Our only information about Firmicus’ life comes from his two extant works, the Mathesis, a popular handbook on astrology, and the De errore profanarum religion um, an attact upon pagan cults. Nearly all scholars accept his authorship of both works, but doubts still remain about the date of composition of the mathesis. The author of the De errore was a Christian, and the seeming pagan character of the Mathesis suggests that Firmicus was converted to Christan, before he composed the De errore (ca. 346). It is, however, quite possible to reconcile the two works from a religious standpoint, particularly since they were written at a time when pagan and Christian doctrines were being freely intermingled in philosophical and religious literature. Firmicus dedicated the Mathesis to Lollianus Mavortius as ordinary consul elect, an office that we know Lollian held in 355. Book I was composed in Constantine’ lifetime (d. 337); and since Firmicus informs us that he was engaged for a long time in writing the work, it is reasonable to suppose that it was composed intermittently over a period of nearly twenty years before 354.

The Mathesis has been called “the most comprehensive handbook of astrology to come down to us from antiquity” (Franz Boll). Compiled as a handy guide for practitioners of the art, it best represents popular traditions of the previous four centuries and bears little resemblance to Ptolemy’s quasi-scientific manual of astrology, the Quadripartitum. Sources for such compilations cannot be assigned with any assurance; citations are traditional and wholly unreliable. Firmicus’ citations include the legendary Hermes, Orpheus, Abraham, Petosiris, Nechepso, and Aesculapius.

Book I presents a defense of astrology and book II a preliminary conspectus of the elements. Book II deals with the thema mundi (the aspect of the heavens at the beginning of the present cosmos) and with the effects of each of the seven planets in the twelve loci; book IV, with the relations of the moon with the other planets; book V, with houses and decans; and book VI, with planets in trine and quartile aspect and in opposition and conjunction, with the horoscopes of such notables as Paris, Oedipus, Homer, and Archimedes, and with more precise definitions of loci. Book VII takes up the horoscopes of individual types and occupations and is marked by undue attention to sexual and moral deviates. Book VIII presents a composite of the traditional Mesopotamian and Egyptian “barbaric” spheres. Prepared by an admitted amateur, the Mathesis contains many gross errors in astronomical knowledge, such as a nocturnal culmination of Mercury and an elongation of 90° for Venus.

Firmicus’ injunctions to astrologers to pronounce their responses in public in a loud voice indicate the effectiveness of the measures of Christian emperors to curb divinatory activities. Firmicus is mentioned only once, by Sidonius Apollinaris, before the eleventh century, at which time his book appears to have begun to enjoy a vogue.


I. Orginal Works. The standard editions of Firmicus are Matheseos libri VIII, W. Kroll and F. Skutsch, eds., 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1897-1913); and De errore profanarum religionum: Tradution nouvelle avec texte et commentaire, G. Heuten, ed. (Brussels, 1938).

II. Secondary Literature. For the best general introduction, see Franz Boll, “Firmicus Maternus,” in PaulyWissowa, Real-Encyclopädie, VI (Stuttgart, 1909), cols. 2365-2379. For a detailed account of Latin astrological literature, including the “barbaric” spheres, and for comparisons between the Mathesis and Manilius’ Astronomica, see Boll’s Sphaera (Leipzig, 1903). The most complete account in English of Latin astrology and its Hellenistic backgrounds is in F.H. Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (Philadelphia, 1954). The article on Firmicus in Schanz-Hosius, Geschichte der romischen Literatur, IV, pt. 1 (Munich, 1914), 129-137, is valuable for bibliography and documentation. L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, I (New York, 1923), 525-538, argues cogently for a single authorship of both works and a long period of composition for the Mathesis.

William H. Stahl