Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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O: Modern Western Constellations

27: The Carolingian period

A Carolingian celestial map of the northern sky, using Aratean figures, from the codex (manuscript) Vaticanus graecus 1087 (fol. 310v) which is a 15th-century CE (Byzantine) copy of a 9th-century CE prototype. (The size of the original is not known.) A catalogue of the Aratean constellations, given in Codex 83II, can be included among the most important Carolingian achievements in the field of science. The Carolingian star catalogues, as they are commonly called, differ from what modern astronomers and ancient astronomers such as Ptolemy meant by that term; they do not give the position of the stars by any mathematical system of coordinates. Rather they are qualitative descriptions of the constellations, noting the number of stars in each part of the constellation and the general location of the brighter stars. Their goal was not astronomical observation but artistic and mythological edification. From the Carolingian epoch, computistic collections included cosmological excerpta from Pliny and various stellar catalogues, whose illustrations had a decorative as well as a functional role. Stellar catalogues, such as those linked to the Aratea, represented the planets according to their attributes in ancient mythology, and included personifications of the Sun and Moon. The Aratea illustrations were included in medieval monastic computus books and encyclopediae and occasionally accompanied different texts.

Transmission of Aratean Constellation Figures

There are 2 traditions for illustrated astronomical manuscripts: (1) The Aratean poetic tradition, and (2) the Ptolemaic scientific tradition for illustrated astronomical manuscripts (including constellation illustrations).

The Aratean-based illustrative representations of the constellations were established by the end of the Roman Empire. (Artistically, Aratean constellation imagery can be traced to the Atlas Farnese dated to the 2nd-century BCE. On the globe held by Atlas the images of the constellations appear minus their stars.) These were subsequently modified by illustrators in the Byzantine, Islamic, and Carolingian traditions. Because knowledge of Aratean iconography had been lost, Arab scholars arabized the representations of many constellations.

Knowledge of Greek culture and texts was lost to Western Europe by the early middle ages (the start of which is dated from the fall of Rome in 476 CE). The Classic Aratean tradition of constellations and constellation illustration was revived in Western Europe during the Carolingian period (circa 8th-century CE to circa early 11th-century CE). The Carolingian Renaissance peaked with the rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious in the 8th- and 9th-centuries. (There was an increase in the arts, literature, liturgical, and scriptural studies.)

In the Carolingian world, however, the Latin versions of the Phainomena of Aratus were treated primarily as literary sources. They were produced primarily for non-technical general interest. They were treated as catalogues of constellation names and constellation stories. The constellation figures that accompanied Carolingian Aratea manuscripts (1) usually did not accurately reproduce the proper positions of the individual stars in each constellation in accordance with the text; and (2) very often failed to reproduce the correct number of stars in each constellation in accordance with the text.  

Under Charlemagne there was a deliberate classical revival in almost every cultural field (scholarship, literature, art, and architecture). The court of Charlemagne in Aachen systematised astronomical learning (and revived other aspects of classical knowledge). However, the Carolingian efforts to preserve and study the Greco-Roman scientific and literature texts was motivated by Charlemagne's felt duty to ensure the progress of the Christian churches (and establishment of correct practices such as ensuring the celebration of the moveable feasts of the Church year on the correct days). It was not motivated by a humanist fascination with classical antiquity. Also, the impetus was Charlemagne's claims to the imperial status of Roman emperors and his extension of Carolingian power into Italy. The science historian Stephen McCluskey has made the point: "The Carolingian renewal of learning contained no agenda for astronomical research. The impetus behind the Carolingian reforms was primarily religious and a pre-eminent concern was to ensure uniform adherence to authoritative standards. Charlemagne speaks in the Admonitio Generalis [a collection of legislation] of the importance of rituals being conducted properly. These concerns called forth two distinct aspects of his reform that concerned the development of astronomy. First, in the schools he established, clerics were taught computus. Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, complete and authentic texts were carefully collected, copied, and distributed. The most significant of these texts are the astronomical and computistical anthologies that emerged around the year 809. These anthologies reinforced the study of astronomy by adding to the traditional computistical texts reflecting the Carolingian interest in astronomy. The star catalogues, as they are commonly called, are a far cry from what modern astronomers and ancients such as Ptolemy meant by that term; they do not give the position of the stars by any mathematical system of coordinates. Rather they are qualitative descriptions of the constellations, noting the number of stars in each pert of the constellation and the general location of the brighter stars. Their goal was not astronomical observation but artistic and mythological edification; it seems revealing that they are studied today more by art historians  than by historians of science." (Science in Western and Eastern civilization in Carolingian times edited by Paul Butzer and Dietrich Birkhauser (1993; see Stephen McCluskey's article "Astronomies in the Latin West from the fifth to the ninth centuries." (Pages 139-160), specifically page 153.) Charlemagne's quest was to establish a legacy of greatness that connected back to the Holy Roman Empire. As much as anything his efforts to revive the title of Latin Emperor had its basis in the vast realm that he reigned over. With his coronation on Christmas day 800 CE as Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne laid claim to his succession to the Roman emperors of antiquity, and indeed, to the classical past. The Carolingian revival lasted for approximately 100 years, spanning the 9th-century, and largely involved the recovery, mostly from Italy, of as many classical scientific and literature texts as could be found.

Most of the classical Latin works that have survived were preserved through the copying efforts of Carolingian scholars (monastic schools and scriptoria (centres for book copying) throughout Francia (Western Europe). Most of the earliest manuscripts available for ancient texts are Carolingian. (Possibly most of the (surviving) recovered texts came from the city of Ravenna as it had remained a political and cultural power into the 6th-century CE. Charlemagne conquered North Italy and established himself as master of Rome.)

Carolingian illuminators referenced classical styles and mythological meaning and carefully reproduced the classical constellation figures. (Charlemagne's scribes were responsible for copying more than 7,000 manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost.) However, the Carolingian illustrations of the constellations lack accuracy in their relationship to each other and consistency in terms of their projection. Also, very few of the constellation pictures in early medieval manuscripts exactly reproduce star patterns in the sky. Most pictures are only visualizations of the texts they illustrate. Regardless, the earliest completely preserved example of a planispheric map of the sky produced by stereographic projection is a diagram in a Carolingian period copy of an Aratean manuscript, copied in 818 CE.

The Salzburg planisphere, known in Regensburg during the 9th-century. A Carolingian map of the northern sky, using Aratean figures, from the codex (manuscript) Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm. 210, fol. 113v. Thought to be copied circa 818 CE it is the earliest completely preserved example of a planispheric map of the sky produced by stereographic projection. (The size of the original is 31.2 centimetres x 24 centimetres.) The clearly marked circle is not a representation of the ecliptic, but the galaxy, the Milky Way.

A modern reproduction of the Leiden Aratea, an astronomical treatise. The Aratea is a Latin translation of the Greek Phaenomena of Aratus (circa 315-circa 240 BCE); a didactic poem used to describe the constellations and meteorological phenomena to the Macedonian court. Aratus' Phainomena was based on two prose works by 4th-century BCE astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus. The dimensions of the Aratea are usually given as 225mm x 220mm. The Leiden Aratea the earliest (and most stunning) of the surviving texts dealing with the Phaenomena of Aratus. Interdisciplinary studies have suggested that it is likely a copy of a late antique exemplar, demonstrating the both the survival and the 9th-century resurrection of Roman literature. The version also contains some snippets of Avienus' 4th-century CE translation of Aratus. It was also probably the model for two 10th-century copies from St Bertin (Boulogne, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms 188 and Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Ms 88).

The Leiden Aratea, a small squarish parchment manuscript (22.5 centimetres x 20(22) centimetres) comprising 99 leaves, is a 9th-century CE copy of an astronomical and meteorological manuscript based on the Phaenomena written by the Greek poet Aratus (circa 315-240/39 BCE). It is not indicated that Aratus' poem was intended to be considered an accurate description of the night sky. It is considered that both the Aratea and the Phaenomena) were intended more for "entertainment" than for educational use. Aratus' Phaenomena is not a particularly accurate account of the night sky. The main text is written in 'rustic capitals,' a narrow, condensed style of script developed in ancient Rome for inscriptions carved on stone. The script is intended to reflect the antiquity of the exemplar and is only reserved for the finest books. The anachronistic script style later misled Humanist scholars into thinking the Leiden Aratea was much earlier than the 9th-century. As well as majuscule script a rather inelegant and much less decipherable Gothic miniscule script repeats the main text throughout the book to make it accessible to a contemporary Medieval audience. This transcription in Gothic minuscule script in the margins was added in the 13th-century. The core of the Leiden Aratea is the inclusion of 38(39) full-page miniatures, possibly copies of a 4th-century CE work. The Leiden Aratea is one of the earliest and most beautifully illustrated of the surviving manuscripts. It is described as a major work of Carolingian art. The order of the illustrations follow the presentation of the material. It appears certain that the illustrator consulted several sources for the constellation illustrations. Close inspection of the blank sides of the miniatures show faint outlines of the figures, indicating that they were not simply copied by later artists, but traced directly from the source document. It appears that 11 of the 36 constellation illustrations are obviously taken from diagrams derived from a celestial globe (i.e., are oriented looking inwards towards the earth). The remainder are depicted as seen from earth (i.e., looking outward at the sky). The Leiden Aratea is a faithful copy of an earlier manuscript that was probably made in the 4th- or 5th-century CE and offers unique evidence of the form and content of illustrated books in the ancient world. It is also noteworthy with respect to classical text transmission. The existing manuscript was created by an unknown artist during the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) in the second quarter of the 9th-century. (The evidence suggests it was probably produced in the royal scriptorium, possibly in 816 CE.) The ultimate source that formed the basis of the Leiden Aratea was the Latin version of Aratus' Phaenomena written by Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BCE - 19 CE). He was a prominent Roman general and is also known to be the father of Caligula. Many scholars have argued that it is likely a direct copy of a probably 4th-century CE work. The subject matter, format, technique, and style all point to a faithful reproduction of a lost late-antique exemplar. Also, it is considered the impressionistic and painterly quality of the miniatures do not quite reflect the known trademarks of established scriptoria at the time. There are no colophons, notes, or palaeographical features that help identify its origins. Also noteworthy is many miniatures contain instructions to the artist describing which image should be added to the page.

The Leiden Aratea’s 38(39) extant full-page miniatures are stunningly beautiful. However, whoever drew the illuminations was not an astronomer, someone who actually would observe the constellations and draw them once more. He (or they) were illuminators who drew the constellations by looking at other (older) books (with pictures or simply text). The miniaturists who copied the Aratea, and many other manuscripts dedicated to stars, considered the drawing of any similar form of a constellation an adequate copy of that constellation. This helps explain some of the diversity displayed by the pictures of the constellations. That the stars were frequently placed in a rather imprecise manner the stars themselves didn’t matter that much. What mattered in the Aratea was the poem, the iconography, the mythology; not the scientific accuracy. The Aratea was not meant to be taken outside on a starry night, to compare the stars with what was drawn in the book. Even in manuscripts that predominately dealt with the stars themselves, the stars were depicted in an apparently random manner. (Accuracy in astronomical illustrations - when existing - is a late Medieval trend.

Of all the manuscripts on astronomy from the Carolingian Renaissance, the Aratea of Leiden is undoubtedly the most famous. The original existing manuscript was acquired by the University of Leiden in 1690 and is preserved in the Library (Ms. Voss. lat. Q. 79) as the most important manuscript owned by the Netherlands.

See the illustrated booklet: The Leiden Aratea: Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript by Ranee Katzenstein and Emilie Savage-Smith (1988) (Note: This section on the Aratus Latinus also owes heavily to the work of Jenneka Janzen, PhD student, Universiteit Leiden.)

Phaenomena flourished into the Middle Ages where it continued and consolidated the "two-sphere" view of the universe that predominated throughout antiquity. (The earth is fixed at the centre of the universe and surrounded by the cosmos (an enormous celestial sphere) which revolves around it.) No overall detailed study has yet been published on the transmission and reception of the Aratea in the Middle Ages (the role the text of the Aratea played in West European astronomical studies from the 8th-century to the 12th-century; how the entire number of texts that make up the Aratea was read, commented on and copied during this period).

Loss of knowledge of Roman uranography during the early Dark Ages

Mathematical and observational astronomy, being a socially fragile enterprise, did not survive the tumult of the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe. After the breakup of the Western Roman Empire, astronomy did not have as great an importance in Western scholarship as had earlier been the case. Most Greek astronomical texts were lost with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th-century CE. In the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, textbooks of astrology vanished in the West. Hence the absence of any on-going technical astronomical tradition in Western Europe. (People studied astronomy in order to practice astrology.) Some knowledge of the constellations (and astronomy) was maintained in Western Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire in circa 475 CE to the Carolingian revival circa 800 CE. Some astronomical research agendas that did exist, as example, were that of Carolingian scholars who attempted to work with the limited Latin sources to investigate the problems of the orbits of Venus and Mercury. Also, a variety of uses of astronomy in the early Middle Ages included the replacement of pagan solar festivals with Christian festivals and monastic timekeeping. The historian Valerie Flint has argued that the early Middle Ages was characterized by the attempt of the Catholic Church to salvage astrology for its own purpose. The Phaenomena of Aratus was well known in the Latin West through the translations of several Roman authors.

Early medieval Western Europe was a wasteland. Law and order had ceased to exist and numerous local wars were an ongoing occurrence. This was the end result of the hordes of Vandals, Goths, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, and Saxons, that had overwhelmed the Roman Empire in the 6th-century CE. They had been succeeded by roving bands of indigenous brigands, mercenaries, and feudal barons. The social disruption that followed the fall of the Roman Empire - including also epidemic diseases, harvest failures, and successive waves of invasion/migration into Italy (and elsewhere) - confined astronomy to a small number of intellectual pockets. The invasions into Italy and elsewhere effectively wrecked Roman civilization. There was an enormous loss of libraries and ancient texts. The Roman Empire was in tatters. By circa 500 CE the urban world of the Roman Empire was in tatters. By the end of the 7th-century most of Western Europe was in ruins. Whole cities had been destroyed or fell into disrepair and disuse. Roads and bridges fell into disrepair and disuse. Most of the original classical texts comprising the bulk of Greco-Roman learning had been lost. The invasions alone destroyed cities, monasteries, libraries, schools, and institutions such as law and government. Law and order vanished, and education almost disappeared. Monastic enclaves sometimes preserved - but also usually ignored the contents of - remnants of classical thought and culture. Competent/learned scholars were scarce, resources were scarce, and general literacy was minimal. The Greek language was largely forgotten, only simplified Latin remained in use. Overall there was a tremendous decline in cultural sophistication.

The European Middle Ages initially inherited star names and constellations from Roman antiquity, mainly through Latin literary texts. The Roman texts that transmitted astronomical knowledge to medieval Western Europe included: Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by Macrobius Theodosius (5th-century CE), and On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury by Martianus Capella (early 5th-century CE). (Commentary on the Dream of Scipio was one of the most important sources for Platonism in the Latin West during the Middle Ages.)

Rome transmitted very little of what has been called 'Greek thought' to Christian Europe. The very little that was transmitted did not include the astronomical systems of Hipparchus or Ptolemy. But there are reasons for this. Most 'Greek thought' remained in Greek, and was not translated into Latin. As knowledge of Greek declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, so did the knowledge of Greek texts, many of which remained untranslated into Latin. The Greek language was all but forgotten until a group of 12th-century scholars rediscovered and translated the works of Aristotle. The term "Recovery of Aristotle" refers to the copying or re-translating of most of Aristotle's books from Greek or Arabic text into Latin, during the Middle Ages, of the Latin West. The Recovery of Aristotle spanned about 100 years, from the middle 12th century into the 13th century, and involved copying or translating over 42 books, including Arabic texts from Arabic authors. Previously, Latin versions of 2 books were in general circulation in Latin Europe: Categories and On Interpretation (De Interpretatione). These were due to the translation work of Manlius Boethius, a Roman senator, consul, magister officiorum, and philosopher of the early 6th-century. Aristotelian logic, which was to become an integral part of medieval scholasticism, was first transmitted to Latin Christianity through the work of Manlius Boethius. His copy of Categories and its commentary is thought to derive from the school of Proclus (the Greek Neo-Platonist philosopher Proclus Lycaeus (412-485 CE)). Ptolemy's Almagest in the original Greek continued to be copied and studied in the eastern (Byzantine) empire. Latin Europe, had lost the original Greek version of Ptolemy's work until recovered in Byzantine in the 15th-century.

Astronomy during the Middle Ages is generally treated in two parts. The 1st part is the Early Middle Ages circa 500-1000 CE. The 2nd part is the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages beginning circa 1000/1100-1500 CE. Circa the middle of the 5th-century, the collapse of the Roman Empire began a dark period in the history of Western quantitative astronomy. The early Dark Ages (circa 500 CE to 700 CE) saw loss of astronomical knowledge and loss of learning in general. This period had little in the way of intellectual culture. Knowledge of astronomy in the Latin West after this time is essentially limited by the contemporary sources. Because a knowledge of Greek was not present, only Latin sources were available. Four sources were particularly popular for astronomy: Calcidius's commentary on Plato's Timaeus, Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella's Marriage of Philology and Mercury, and Pliny's Natural History. These sources contained only qualitative information and did not give an explanation of the methods by which such information had been originally obtained. This lack of explanation limited the potential for Latin scholars to advance the technical science of astronomy.Some astronomical knowledge survived. Astronomical skills and interests were maintained mostly in the largest monastic centres of learning where they were linked to time-keeping (especially through the night) and the construction of the Christian calendar. The main use of astronomy of a more technical nature in this period was on behalf of computus, or the science of determining the correct dates for Christian festivals, especially Easter. (Examples being: St. Gallen in Switzerland, Ravenna in Italy, Rheims in France, Vic/Vich in Spain (near Barcelona), and the monasteries at York in England.) Appropriate times for monastic offices occurring during the night were determined by the identification of constellations in the night sky.

Gregory of Tours work De cursu stellarum (On the Course of the Stars), written circa 575 CE (6th-century), gives instructions for how the stars are to be used for keeping time. It is one of the few well-documented examples of early medieval star viewing relating to the monastic practice of timekeeping after dark. (Interestingly, Gregory of Tours invented and illustrated his own constellations for this purpose. It is unclear whether creating such constellations was common practice at the time or an unprecedented novelty.) (Astrological texts also carried knowledge of the constellations.) Also important for the Christian church was the celebration of the Easter festival. Ensuring the correct date involved astronomical observation, record-keeping, and calculation. Bede's The Reckoning of Time stands out as the great achievement in Latin computus and astronomy in the Early Middle Ages. The English Benedictine monk Bede at Jarrow in Northumbria, circa 700 CE, began to teach and write (in Latin) on classical astronomy (De Temporibus (On the Times), and De Temporum Ratione (On Reckoning Times)). Bede used observable proofs and mathematical calculations in his early 8th-century treatise De temporum ratione to to teach astronomical principles for the calculation of the date of Easter. The constellation knowledge of the collapsed Roman Empire was revived by Charlemagne circa 800 CE. (Possibly most of the (surviving) recovered texts came from the city of Ravenna as it had remained a political and cultural power into the 6th-century CE. Charlemagne conquered North Italy and established himself as master of Rome.) The Latin translations of Aratus' Phaenomena, commonly called Aratea, were also revived in the Carolingian period. Discussions of constellations likely quoted frequently from surviving texts by the Roman writers Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan.

Until the translation of the Almagest into Latin – from the Greek in 1160, from the Arabic in 1175 – Western Europeans readers obtained their knowledge of the world from the encyclopaedists and the poets. They had neither the need for a work as sophisticated as Ptolemy's nor the basis for understanding it. For 3 centuries after the reintroduction of the Almagest into Western Europe it circulated among a quite small number of mathematicians, while simplified versions of its contents – taking the 2 basic forms, Tractatus de spera (= De sphaera, circa 1220, by Sacrobosco) and Theorica planetarum (circa 1250, anonymous author) – were used by the wider learned audience, especially at the universities. Sufficient classical tradition regarding the constellations had been kept alive to enable the Arab-Islamic civilisation to source them. In post-Roman Western Europe from circa 576 CE to circa 750 CE there was constant trade and migrations. It is obvious from al-Sûfi's medieval text on the constellations (The Book of the Fixed Stars) that ancient pictures of constellations in books as well as on globes, must have been known in the Arabic/Arab-Islamic world before al-Sûfi's time.

Some references:

(1) Jaschek, Carlos. and Sedefio, Eulalia Perez. (2001, Reprinted 2011). "The transmission of Graeco-Roman astronomy." In: Ruggles, Clive., Prendergast, Frank., and Ray, Tom. (Editors). Astronomy, Cosmology and Landscape. (Pages 106-111). [Note: One of 15 selected papers from the sixth annual conference of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture (SEAC), held in Dublin, Ireland, in 1998.]

(2) Kansas, Nick. (2003). "From Ptolemy to the Renaissance: How Classical Astronomy Survived the Dark Ages." (Sky and Telescope, Volume 105, Issue 1, January, 2003, Page 50).

(3) Wickham, Chris. (2010). The Inheritance of Rome.

(4) Liszka, Thomas. and Walker, Lorna. (Editors). (2001). The North Sea World in the Middle Ages: Studies in the Cultural History of North-West Europe.

(5) Metzger, Wolfgang. (2011). "Stars, Manuscripts, and Astrolabes–The Stellar Constellations in a Group of Medieval Manuscripts between Latin Literature and a New Science of the Stars." In: Corsini, Enrico Maria. (Editor). The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI. (Pages 533-542). [Note: ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441. Abstract. The European Middle Ages inherited star names and constellations from Roman antiquity, mostly via Latin literary texts. When, from the 11th century onwards, Arabic texts and instruments became available, figures and vocabulary at first were not compatible with this tradition. The example of an excerpt from Pseudo-Hyginus De Astronomia shows, how a Roman text on the constellations was revised and supplemented with the names of the astrolabe-stars to combine the two different traditions. ]

The Aratus Latinus

Page 86 of Aratus Latinus manuscript, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibiliothek, Cod. Sang. 902. (Cod. Sang. 902 is a composite manuscript with copy of Aratus Latinus.) The parchment manuscript is a school manuscript for the St. Gallen monastery school (Switzerland), containing the Greek grammar by Dositheus, and a prose version of Aratus of Soloi's didactic poem "Phainomena" which is illustrated with pen drawings.

During the Alexandrian age, a number of related Greek texts started to appear alongside the original Greek version of the Phaenomena of Aratus to form a new astronomical corpus. These texts appended to the original Greek version of the Phaenomena of Aratus included some spurious prefaces, various versions of the life of the poet, one or two lists of constellations attributed to Eratosthenes and Hipparchus, and discussions of the constellations as they appear on the celestial sphere. This compilation also included abbreviated versions of the catasteristic myths associated with each constellation and descriptions of the shapes of the individual constellations along with the disposition of the stars within each figure. Some of these texts are associated with an astronomical treatise attributed to Eratosthenes (circa 276 BCE– circa 195 BCE), (the pseudo-Eratosthenes). Also, Theon of Alexandria is credited with producing an edition of the Phaenomena in the late first century BCE which became the standard edition in late antiquity and ultimately the basis of a medieval manuscript tradition. It also introduced new variants into the text.

The Alexandrian compilation was very popular across the Graeco-Roman world. It appeared in several different formats with varying additions and subtractions and served as the inspiration for numerous authors and poets in both languages (Greek and Latin). A definitive version of the Aratean corpus, with a set group of texts ordered in a particular fashion, appears to have come together sometime between the beginning of the 2nd and end of the 3rd-century CE. No complete version of this compilation has survived, but its contents have been largely reconstructed by combining a number of the later Greek and Latin fragments that formed a part of, or were derived from, the original version of the original grouping of texts. This late 2nd or early 3rd-century secondary edition, though based on the earlier edition, was stripped of its scholia and fitted with new scholia on the catasterisms. It also introduced new variants into the text. This branch of the tradition is represented by the 8th-century Latin translation known as the Aratus Latinus and the 15th-century S(corialensis). The Codicis Scorialensis descends from the family of (Vatican) manuscripts titled Marcianus Graecus.

Some time before or during the 8th century CE a Latin translation Aratus Latinus appeared. This translation was based on a text referred to as 'Φ' which was compiled some time between the beginning of the 2nd and end of the 3rd century CE. The Aratus Latinus is a crude anonymous translation. The additional 8th-century translation that is more polished is usually referred to as the Revised Aratus Latinus.

In the mid 8th-century CE, a Greek version of the Aratean corpus was translated into Latin (and became known as the Aratus Latinus - to all extent a later version of the Greek Phaenomena). Unfortunately, its author's talent for translation fully reflects the standards of his age. Classicists describe this work as 'versionis rara barbaries', and that 'la langue n'en est pas seulement barbare, elle est inintelligible, au moins pour la texte poétique lui-même,' and it is 'often nonsensical.' This Latin version of the Aratean compilation is usually simply called 'the Aratus latinus.'  Hubert Le Bourdellès, based on his linguistic analysis (L'Aratus Latinus, 1985), suggested that it had been copied from an interlinear translation of the Greek Phaenomena. Le Bourdellès proposed that with the gradual decline of Greek, scholars first needed glossaries to read Greek and this led to a now lost 'bilingual' copy. When the Greek text was later abandoned the literal translation, titled Aratus Latinus, began to circulate separately from the first half of the 8th-century. Due to the poor standard of translation it was difficult to comprehend. A revised and modified version of the text was undertaken almost immediately. This text was called the  Revised Aratus Latinus.

The early history of the editions of the Aratus latinus (Aratus Latinus) is somewhat confusing. Essentially, the Aratus Latinus consisted of 8 Aratean pieces of varies provenance. The Aratus Latinus was rediscovered in Gaul prior to Alcuin and the Carolingian Renaissance. At the beginning of the 8th-century CE Aratus was neglected and almost forgotten, likely because of strong opposition from the church to the pagan legends and images contained in Aratea. The Aratus Latinus is preserved in 4 manuscripts and is a translation of an Alexandrian collection of writings by the Greek poet Aratus. Perhaps owing to the fact that the original version of the Aratus latinus was so difficult to comprehend, a revised and modified version of the text was created almost immediately – sometime during the 2nd half of the 8th-century. This work is generally referred to as the Aratus latinus recensio interpolata (or as the Revised Aratus latinus).

The Revised Aratus Latinus

The text of Aratus latinus was edited by the classical philologist Ernst Maass in 1898. In 1898, Ernst Maass made the first great effort towards reconstructing the text of the Aratus latinus in his Commentariorum in Aratum. As a philologist, it seems that Maass's primary interest in the Aratus latinus was to establish a definitive text. He brought together all the dispersed fragments to form what is now considered to be the more-or-less definitive text. When it came to editing the Revised Aratus latinus (the Aratus latinus recensio interpolata), however, he only provided those sections that correlated to and, therefore, supported the original text. The result is the text Maass provides does not fully reflect what appears in the manuscripts themselves. Maass's editions of these texts remain the touchstone for all subsequent studies. In the main text, the reader is provided with the Aratus latinus and, running along the bas-du-page, is the later version of the text, the Aratus latinus recensio interpolata or Revised Aratus latinus. However, Hubert Le Bourdellès (1985) has pointed out there still many complex problems surrounding the history, structure and language of the texts as they appear in the actual manuscripts. A revision of the Aratus Latinus (producing the so-called Revised Aratus Latinus, "Aratus latinus recensio interpolata") was most probably carried out in the second half of the 8th-century CE. The revision involved the elimination of the unintelligible/confusing parts of the text were eliminated and the meaning of the text was clarified, but without being collated with a Greek manuscript. The Revised Aratus Latinus, apart from correcting and omitting parts of the old texts, also added extracts from Latin works. The text of the Revised Aratus Latinus itself included numerous excerpts from Isidore, Hyginus, Fulgentius Mythographus and others. To a large extent the inclusion of extracts replaced the 2nd part of the poem on weather signs that was initially translated in the Aratus Latinus. According to Hubert Le Bourdellès (1985) the Aratus Latinus was composed circa 750-760 CE at the abbey of Corbie near Amiens in northern France.

Hubert Le Bourdellès, based on his linguistic analysis (L'Aratus Latinus, 1985), suggested that it had been copied from an interlinear translation of the Greek Phaenomena. Le Bourdellès proposed that with the gradual decline of Greek, scholars first needed glossaries to read Greek and this led to a now lost 'bilingual' copy. When the Greek text was later abandoned the literal translation, titled Aratus Latinus, began to circulate separately from the first half of the 8th-century. Due to the poor standard of translation it was difficult to comprehend. A revised and modified version of the text was undertaken almost immediately. This text was called the  Revised Aratus Latinus.


Note: This section on the Aratus Latinus owes heavily to the work of the science historian Kristen Lippencott.

Copyright © 2007-2018 by Gary D. Thompson

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