Astrology in Ancient Rome: A Brief Overview

By studying the movements of celestial bodies, the Romans believed they gain a deeper understanding of the cosmos, deities, and self.

Sep 12, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

astrology ancient rome


The Romans thought that the position of the celestial bodies could influence human affairs and reveal the will of the gods. They considered the universe and the individual human to be intrinsically linked. They also believed that the specific positions of celestial bodies at the moment of a person’s birth could greatly impact their life and character. Through the study of astrology, they sought to discern the hidden patterns that underlie the universe and human existence. Astrologers played a major role in Roman society, frequently consulted by rulers, generals, and even common people when making consequential decisions. They were particularly held in high regard for their ability to predict the outcomes of momentous events such as wars and natural disasters.


Pre-Roman Astrology

hymn pythagoreans bronnikov
Hymn of the Pythagoreans to the Rising Sun by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, 1878. Source: Sothebys


The Babylonians are credited with creating the first astrological system more than 4,000 years ago. Their early astrologers mapped the positions of celestial bodies and observed their movements to make predictions about future events and understand human behavior.


As astrology spread throughout the ancient world, each culture infused its own unique interpretations and symbolism into the practice. In the Hellenistic era, new systems of astrological interpretation emerged that placed a greater emphasis on the individual’s horoscope. Thus, astrology began to gain a greater significance in people’s everyday lives. The Romans, having conquered Greece in the 2nd century BCE, were exposed to their astrological tradition incorporating it into their own traditions and practices. Roman astrologers established unique ways of interpreting the movements of celestial bodies and generating horoscopes, with their astrological predictions influencing personal and political decisions to a considerable extent.


Personal Astrology

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The Zodiac by Ernest Procter, 1925. Source: The Tate


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The Romans held the firm belief that astrology influenced nearly every aspect of their daily lives. This fascination with the movements of planets and stars was rooted in the conviction that they wielded significant power over human existence. In order to comprehend these celestial movements, astrologers meticulously studied and interpreted the precise positions of celestial bodies.


The twelve zodiac signs were an essential component of interpreting the position of celestial bodies at the time of an individual’s birth. These signs were associated with specific constellations, with each named after a particular animal or mythical creature. The zodiac sign that an individual was born under was believed to influence their personality traits, behavior, and destiny. By using a person’s birth date, time, and location, astrologers constructed a zodiac chart that served as a map of the planetary positions at the moment of their birth. This chart was then interpreted by astrologers, who had the ability to reveal fundamental information regarding a person’s character, strengths, weaknesses, and destiny. Based on these associations, they could then make predictions about the individual’s future.


Religious Astrology

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Saturnalia by Antoine-François Callet, 1783. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Roman society was deeply steeped in religious belief. The fate of each individual was deemed to be at the mercy of divine forces. The gods were even thought to have authority over the natural world, including the movements of the celestial bodies in the sky. Astrology was used as a way of interpreting these movements to understand the will of the gods and how it might impact human affairs. They named each planet after a deity of the Roman pantheon; this allowed astrologers to interpret their movements as specific reflections of their moods, desires, and intentions.


Astrological events held great weight in Roman culture, as they were often interpreted as omens or signs from the gods. For instance, the appearance of a comet was thought to signify impending disaster, while the alignment of certain planets was viewed as an auspicious omen. Furthermore, astrology played a crucial role in determining the dates of important religious rituals, ceremonies, and festivals. For example, the festival of Saturnalia was held during the winter solstice, a time when the stars’ positions indicated the renewal of life and the return of the sun. Many temples employed astrologers, who were responsible for interpreting celestial signs and advising the priests on the appropriate rituals and offerings to be performed.


Political Astrology 

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The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1806. Source: The Times


Most significantly, Roman astrologers were consulted to predict the outcome of wars and military campaigns. Generals sought advice from astrologers before launching military campaigns, considering the alignment of stars and planets to influence the outcome of the battle. The belief was that the position of celestial bodies could impact the fate of the battle and the success or failure of the campaign. Roman astrologers could also predict natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, and droughts, often understood to be divine messages. Aside from substantial events, they were too consulted for their advice on matters such as agriculture, business, and other everyday activities. The ability to read the stars was highly valued in Roman society, with their expertise sought after by rulers, high-ranking officials, and common people alike.


Rulers and politicians would confer with astrologers before making important decisions, believing that astrology could provide insights into the future, guiding them in their decision-making. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an astrologer had repeatedly warned Caesar that he would face great danger on the Ides of March. Despite being warned, Caesar decided to attend the Senate that day, where he was assassinated by a group of conspirators. Emperor Augustus was also a firm advocate of astrology, even possessing his own personal astrologer, Balbillus, whom he regularly consulted. Augustus held the belief that his success as a ruler was partly attributed to the guidance he received from astrology.


Often, the birth horoscope of a prospective ruler would be examined to determine whether they were destined for greatness. In the case of Emperor Tiberius, favorable astrological readings strengthened his position as Augustus’ successor and played a part in the public acceptance of his newly established authority.


Roman Astrologers 


Trasyllus of Mendes


Several notable astrologers rose to prominence throughout the Roman era. Thrasyllus of Mendes gained fame for accurately predicting the accession of Tiberius to the throne, becoming one of the emperor’s most trusted advisors. His astrological expertise was highly regarded by Tiberius, who checked with him regularly on matters of state, the timing of military campaigns, and the selection of officials.


Manilius and His Astronomica

cellarius ptolemaic system
Manilius’ universe consisted of two spheres a solid (Earth) and a hollow (the firmament), and resembled this 17th-century depiction in Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia Macrocosmica.17th-century depiction from Cellarius’s Harmonia Macrocosmica. Source: National Library of Australia


Manilius, living through the reign of Augustus, was widely attributed to be the author of a poem called Astronomica. This highly influential work provided valuable knowledge on the signs of the zodiac, celestial spheres, constellations, and interpretation of astrological charts.


Julius Firmicus Maternus


Another notable astrologer was Julius Firmicus Maternus. Although a devout Christian, he was a strong advocate of astrology, considering it a valuable tool for understanding human nature and the workings of the universe. His work Mathesis extensively discussed the astrology of different nations and cultures, including the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Persians, and Indians. Vettius Valens was known for his particular interest in the practical applications of astrology, such as predicting weather patterns and forecasting the outcomes of battles. He also emphasized the significance of studying individual birth charts to gain a deeper insight into a person’s character and potential.



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Ptolemy with an Armillary Sphere Model by Joos van Ghent and Pedro Berruguete, 1476. Source: The Louvre


Ptolemy, a highly regarded astrologer and astronomer of ancient times, is widely recognized for his invaluable contributions to both fields. Specifically, his geocentric model of the universe remains a significant achievement — although disproved — in the history of astronomy. His work, Tetrabiblos, provided a comprehensive overview of astrology, covering its principles and techniques, while also delving into a detailed discussion of the twelve zodiac signs and their impact on human affairs. Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika offered a more advanced analysis, providing intricate instructions for calculating and interpreting astrological charts, and examining various astrological techniques utilized to forecast future events.


Cicero and Anti-Astrology

Bust of Cicero, 1st century CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0


Despite the widespread popularity of astrology in ancient Rome, many individuals viewed astrology with suspicion, questioning its accuracy and reliability. Cicero, one of the greatest Roman writers, was skeptical of astrology’s ability to predict the future, categorizing it as a pseudoscience that relied on vague and ambiguous predictions. He strongly believed that humans possessed the power to shape their own destinies through their actions, arguing that astrology was incompatible with the idea of free will.


In his famous work, On Divination, Cicero claimed that astrology was also dangerous because it encouraged fatalism, discouraging people from taking responsibility for their lives. He further alleged that astrologers were often motivated by greed for fame, with their predictions often designed to appeal to people’s fears or desires rather than being based on any actual scientific evidence. Having said this, Cicero did not entirely dismiss astrology but recognized that the practice had some value in predicting natural phenomena such as eclipses and the movement of planets.


Modern Astrology 


Astrology has undergone various transformations since its inception in ancient Rome, where it was once considered a respected scientific discipline. During the Middle Ages, astrology became associated with theology being highly esteemed as a crucial aspect of European intellectual life. However, after this period, astrology endured a significant shift in its reputation as it became increasingly associated with mysticism and the occult, slowly becoming discredited within the scientific community.


Nevertheless, astrology has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, with millions of people worldwide regularly checking their horoscopes and seeking guidance from astrologers to gain insights into their lives. While many people still approach astrology with skepticism, it has undeniably become a fixture of modern culture. However, based on the lack of empirical evidence, astrology is widely accepted to be a pseudoscience primarily viewed as a form of entertainment that poses no harm to its followers.

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By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!