Written in the Stars

It may seem strange to modern readers, but one of the great literary sensations of the ancient world was the astronomical poetry of the Hellenistic author Aratus (c 315-before 240). His Phaenomena, a 1154-line poem, describes the constellations and the heavenly spheres, before moving on to the topic of weather signs.

 The poem was hugely popular in Antiquity, being translated by a range of Latin poets, most notably Cicero, Germanicus (grandson-in-law of Augustus), and the late antique poet Avienius. The first-century BC poet Varro of Atax, whose poetry now only survives in fragments, appears to have been influenced by the Aratea when he composed his poem the Ephemeris, but it is hard to tell from the surviving verses whether or not this should be considered a translation or a freer adaptation. Aratus’ work also influenced Vergil when he wrote his Georgics, Ovid in his Fasti, as well as Manilius, author of the long didactic poem the Astronomica.

It is through the translations of Cicero, Germanicus, and Avienius that Aratus’ work became known to the Latin medieval West, and indeed, this was one of the major sources for knowledge of Greek astronomy during the period, at least until Arabic astronomical works (many of which were themselves influenced by Greek authors) began to be translated into Latin in the twelfth century.

While the translations by Varro of Atax and Cicero are now known only in fragments, those of Germanicus and Avienius survive intact. The transmission of astronomical texts in the middle ages, and particularly of the Aratea, is a little unusual, because these texts tended to be quite short, and were often transmitted along with a range of other texts. For instance, in Harley MS 647, a fine ninth-century manuscript, Cicero’s Aratea is to be found alongside a variety of astronomical excerpts from Pliny, Isidore, Macrobius, and Martianus Capella. A little under two centuries later, in Fleury, another copy of Cicero’s Aratea is found in a manuscript that contains a wide range of astronomical texts, both classical and medieval (Harley MS 2506).

But the manuscripts of the Latin Aratus are perhaps most famous for the copious illustrations to be found in them, and indeed, in the case of both Harley manuscripts, there is a good case to be made for the text of Cicero being very much subservient to its accompanying illustration. These illustrations are representations of individual constellations, the stars being marked by red dots in both manuscripts. Here, for instance, is Aries, in Harley MS 647:

The sheer size of the illustration of Aries relegates the description of the constellation to the very bottom of the page. Note that in this manuscript the illustrations are made up of words – these are taken from Hyginus’ De Astronomia, a prose work dating perhaps from the second century, which serves as a form of commentary on the Ciceronian text, providing further information on individual constellations. In this manuscript, however, the primary purpose of Hyginus’ text is artistic, to contribute to the illustration. While the text of Cicero is written in Caroline minuscule, the standard script of the period, Hyginus’ text is in capitals.

The later Harley copy (Harley MS 2506) is not quite so ornate. In this manuscript, the constellations are drawn more simply, but with the red dots to indicate stars remaining. The commentary, in this case not taken from Hyginus but from an early medieval text called De signis caeli, attributed erroneously to the Venerable Bede.Unlike in Harley MS 647, both the commentary and the text of Cicero are written in Caroline minuscule. However, the layout of the page distinguishes the two clearly, the text of the commentary being found only in the outer margins, and written in red ink. Not all of the illustrations have been completed, as is clear from the following page, which contains the drawing of Cygnus, but is missing that of Lyra:

For comparison, here is Lyra in Harley 647:

Perhaps the most spectacular part of both manuscripts is an opening depicting two interconnected constellations:

Here we have lines 145-182 of Cicero’s Aratea in both manuscripts (Harley MS 2506 containing also lines 139-144). In this passage, Cicero describes the constellations of Eridanus (the River) and Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish).In both manuscripts, tThe water from Eridanus flows across the opening and into the mouth of Piscis. These two openings also provide a good opportunity for contrasting the style of decoration in the two manuscripts more generally. The later manuscript, Harley MS 2506, dating from around the turn of the millennium, has been identified as the work of an itinerant English artist, whose hand can also be seen in a number of other Harley manuscripts (Gameson 2010). Certainly, in style, the drawings exemplify typical Anglo-Saxon art of the period.

By contrast, it has long been believed that Harley 647, along with the related manuscript the Leiden Aratea, had as its exemplar a late antique illuminated manuscript (see e.g. Mütherich). This is perhaps clearest in the drawing of faces and limbs, not so very far from the sort of style that can be found in, for instance, the Cotton Genesis:


While astronomical poetry may no longer form the mainstream of the classical curriculum (though in recent years scholars have turned increasing attention to the outputs of Manilius and others), these two manuscripts, selected from a long tradition, attest to the importance placed upon these texts in the medieval era, and to the vibrant afterlife of classical learning in general.

Both manuscripts can be viewed in full along with hundreds of others on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, where you can also find extended bibliographies. To keep up to date with all the news from the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts team at the British Library, read the Medieval Manuscripts blog or follow @BLMedieval on Twitter.

Cillian O'Hogan is Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at The British Library

Select bibliography:

M. D. Reeve, ‘Aratea’ in Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, ed. by L. D. Reynolds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 18-24 (pp. 22-24).

Florentine Mütherlich, 'Book Illumination at the Court of Louis the Pious', in Charlemagne's Heir: New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814-840), ed. by Peter Godman and Roger Collins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 593-604 (pp. 597-98, pl. 30).

William Noel, The Harley Psalter (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), pp. 174-83.

Richard Gameson, ‘An Itinerant English master around the Millennium’, in England and the Continent in the Tenth Century: Studies in Honour of Wilhelm Levison (1876-1947), ed. by D. Rollason, C. Leyser, and H. Williams (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 87-134 (pp. 100-05).