Byzantium’s vital contribution to Astrology

Since my early childhood Byzantium enchanted me with its glorious and mystical aura! I think I have to blame the Sunday church for this kick. Of course as a kid I didn’t like at all the forced awaking on early Sunday mornings (Sunday was the only day off school and I just wanted to sleep long). Not to mention that when in church I couldn’t understand much, because the Christian Orthodox Mass was said (and still is) in ancient Greek! But the chant of the priests and of the chorus coming to me through the mist of inebriating incenses, oh yes that was something! New worlds were opening to me, like the ones depicted in the frescoes I was contemplating on the walls and on the dome of the church over me: austere saints, agonizing martyrs, lavishly dressed emperors, scenes of parables and life situations I could not decipher back then – all in a pure Byzantine esoteric manner. Byzantium had fallen some 5 centuries ago to the Turks, but I was still immersed in it, into its divine melody and fascinating iconography, into the exotic names of long forgotten Byzantine cities and provinces that the priest was occasionally mentioning as he was reading the Gospel. Although irrevocably perished Byzantium was all alive to me, I could experience its mysticism and ecstasy!

The Byzantine empire lasted more than a thousand years (324 – 1453 CE), it was culturally prominet in its times, it enlightened the otherwise plunging into Dark Ages Europe and it comprised the largest, brimming with lofty buildings and monuments, most cosmopolitan city of the western hemisphere: Constantinople (today’s Istanbul)!

But how can it be an empire so great – heir of the Hellenistic empire – not to have impacted Astrology at all? How comes we never see in the usual “Astrology Time lines” any entry on some Byzantine astrologer or any other kind of byzantine contribution? Actually if you take a closer look to these “Timelines” you will  notice a gap: they start by mentioning several ancient astrologers and achievements and then abruptly shift into the late Middle Ages, mentioning Arab and European astrologers of the time, then they move to Renaissance, to Northern European astrologers and so on. But you will not find a single entry on Byzantium!I think the best argument to make you realize how important Byzantium has been astrologically is to stress the fact that even William Lilly was studying books of byzantine astrologers! Specifically, Lilly owned the books: “In centum Ptolomei Aphorismos” by Georgius Trapezuntius, a prominent Greek – Byzantine scholar / astrologer. Plus, the “Paraphrasis in 4 libros Ptolemei” by Leo Allatius, who was Greek – Byzantine too. He mentions both in ηισ “Christian Astrology”.

Lilly mentions as well the book “De mutatione Aeris” by Petrus de Abano. Although Italian by nature, Peter of Abano was byzantine by education (he went to study in Constantinople and stayed there for 20 whole years)! And you would be surprised to know that even Gerolamo Cardano, although a prominent astrologer himself, revered much the aforementioned Greek – Byzantine astrologer Georgius Trapezuntius – insinuating to the fact that he might have been given lessons by Trapezuntius himself or by some other Byzantine scholars who fled to Italy in the 15th century, a little before or after Byzantium’s fall to the Turks.  Lilly acknowledges both Abano and Cardanus in his famous “Christian Astrology” book. So, directly or indirectly Byzantine astrologers influenced enormously William Lilly! And since I mentioned Trapezuntius, it is plausible that the very Regiomontanus was instructed by Georgius Trapezuntius – during the Regiomontanus’ stay in Rome.

How could it be otherwise? Byzantine astrology is the direct heir of the Hellenistic one. Major astrological figures like Paulus Alexandrinus, Olympiodorus and Stephanus Alexandrinus belong – at least chronologically – to the Byzantine Era. Byzantium managed  – in times of darkness, hardships, wars and religious fanatism – to breed even its own astrological schools, like the superb one of Rhetorius (late sixth century), and the innovating one of John Abramius (14th century). A Byzantine astrologer (Theophylus of Edessa) was invited  by the Caliph al-Mansur to Bagdad (around 765 CE) and he introduced to the arabs the much advanced by then Byzantine astrology. And how serepiditious was the fact that among Theophylus’ audience stood the illustrious Masha’ allah, the man that set the paradigm for Arab astrology!

But the Byzantine astrology saga does not end here. Surprisingly – as you will see in my next post – two Byzantine scholars were actually the very first Astrologers in Anglo-Saxon Britain!

Thomas D. Gazis

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