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ISAW Papers 12 (2017)

P.Berl. 9825: An elaborate horoscope for 319 CE and its significance for Greek astronomical and astrological practice

Dorian Greenbaum and Alexander Jones

Abstract: The discovery of this elaborate horoscope in the Berlin papyrus collection is a milestone in the history of ancient horoscopes. The papyrus takes its place among very few such detailed horoscopes well preserved from antiquity. This paper discusses both the astronomical and astrological details of P.Berl. 9825, enumerating its contents and situating it within the broader historical and cultural context of astrological material from western antiquity. The first section outlines the physical details of the papyrus, its paleography, and the layout of the material among the different sections of the papyrus. It consists of seventeen columns spread among four framed sections. The beginning of the papyrus is lost, but enough remains to allow reconstruction of the date and time of the horoscope, in addition to the positions of the missing luminaries and planet (Saturn). A transcription and translation with apparatus and textual notes follow. A commentary in three parts follows the first section. Part 1 contains restorations, confirmations and corrections. This includes both a tabular summary of the data given in the horoscope, and a diagrammatic representation of the data. Part 2 consists of an astronomical commentary, comparing the astronomical data in the papyrus with Ptolemy’s Almagest and modern theory, to demonstrate that the horoscope was constructed using tables distinct from Ptolemy's, though of comparable quality. The commentary also includes analysis of solar and lunar data, planetary latitudes, and fixed stars “co-rising” with the longitudes of the relevant heavenly body. Part 3 is an astrological commentary. Comparisons with other elaborate horoscopes are made, in addition to analysis of the astrological techniques based on the data provided. Because this is the only extant example of a documentary horoscope containing all seven of the “planetary” lots of Paulus Alexandrinus, there is a more extensive discussion of the lots used here within their historical and cultural context.

Library of Congress Subjects: Astronomy--History, Astrology--History, Horoscopes, Zodiac.


Elaborate horoscopes

The surviving corpus of about 350 currently known Greek horoscopes, comprising roughly equal numbers of original documents from antiquity and exemplary horoscopes preserved through the medieval manuscript tradition, is collectively an invaluable source of data relating to the practices of personal astrology and astronomical calculation in the Greco-Roman world.1 Considered singly, on the other hand, few of these horoscopes stand out as especially informative documents for the historian. Most are what we might call “minimal” horoscopes, recording no more than the individual’s name, birthdate, and birthtime and the zodiacal signs occupied by the Sun, Moon, planets, and ascendant at that date and time. A horoscope of this type frequently called for only a small ticket-like piece of papyrus.

The remaining minority of horoscopes go beyond the minimal format by providing greater precision in the data, or more kinds of data, or both. Greater precision typically means specifying longitudes of heavenly bodies and astrologically significant points in degrees (with or without fractions) rather than just by zodiacal signs. Additional data may be strictly astronomical, such as latitudes of heavenly bodies, cardines other than the ascendant, or dates and longitudes of syzygies close to the birthdate, or astrological, such as lots and dignities.2 A few types of additional data, for example cardines or house rulers, may appear in horoscopes that specify only zodiacal signs without degrees, but most depended on knowledge of precise longitudes in degrees, and hence only appear in horoscopes that also give that additional precision in the longitudes.

Four papyrus horoscopes in Neugebauer and Van Hoesen’s Greek Horoscopes, all for birthdates within a span of about a half century from the late first century CE to the mid second, exemplify a loose genre that can be characterized as “elaborate” or “deluxe” horoscopes (years cited in this paper are CE unless otherwise indicated):3

(P.Lond. 1.110 and P.Paris 19 are two copies of the same text, whereas P.Paris 19bis is a different horoscope with respect to both the wording and the data though computed for the same individual’s birthdate.) In comparison to the general run of papyrus horoscopes, these elaborate horoscopes stand out in the first instance on account of their scale, since they are composed as prose texts—not mere lists of data—that take up more than one column of a length of papyrus roll, while giving precise longitudes in degrees as well as an abundance of astrological data. A hard-and-fast definition of what constitutes an elaborate horoscope is not a straightforward matter, because each example differs in details of expression and in the range of data. A reasonable working criterion, however, would be the inclusion of the planetary rulers of the terms (ὅρια) occupied by the heavenly bodies and astrologically significant points, since these are provided in all four roll-format horoscopes cited above and, when they appeared at all in a horoscope, they would have been frequent enough to be likely to occur even in a comparatively small surviving fragment. Defining them in this way, we can currently identify 26 elaborate papyrus horoscopes, roughly half of which have a preserved or deducible birthdate while the rest are only roughly datable, usually by paleography:4

Exact birthdate known

Roughly dated

Making due allowance for the uncertainties of paleographical dating—an uncertainty of ±50 years is a reasonable assumption—the chronological distribution of the elaborate horoscopes is surprisingly uniform from the mid first through the mid fourth century (Fig. 1), and such horoscopes were still being produced well into the fifth.

Fig. 1. Chronological distribution of elaborate horoscopes on papyrus, ordered by known or estimated date. Bars indicate suggested uncertainties of date.

P.Berl. 9825.

An elaborate horoscope, if well preserved, provides a kind of snapshot of the astronomical resources available to the astrologer who produced it, as well as the range and methods of derivation of the elements considered to be relevant for a detailed astrological prognostication. Its historical value is enhanced if its contents can be brought into relation with other evidence for astronomical and astrological methods available at the time. The papyrus horoscope discussed in the present article, P.Berl. inv. 9825, meets these conditions to an exceptional degree.7

At present P.Berl. 9825 is mounted in four glass frames designated A through D (Figs. 2-5). The parts in A (42.5 x 27.0 cm), B (38.6 x 27.4 cm), and C (40.5 x 27.6 cm) were originally continuous, in that order from left to right, and their joining edges are mostly preserved, forming an aggregate stretch of roll of dimensions 119.3 x 27.6 cm. The part in D (25.7 x 26.6 cm) was certainly to the right of that in C, but their edges do not join, though it is doubtful whether much is missing between them. Assuming that the lost column pertaining to the Sun and the incomplete one for the Moon (i) were the same width as the columns for the planets and nodes (ii-vii), the complete horoscope was at least 164 cm wide, not counting margins—more if there was an introductory section to the left of the Sun’s column. The upper and lower margins are intermittently preserved to respectively about 4 cm and 3 cm from the top and bottom rulings containing the horoscope.

Fig. 2. P.Berl. 9825 frame A, cols. i-iv. ©Sandra Steiß – SMB Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.
Fig. 3. P.Berl. 9825 frame B, cols. v-vii. ©Sandra Steiß – SMB Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.
Fig. 4. P.Berl. 9825 frame C, cols. viii-xvii. ©Sandra Steiß – SMB Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung.