April 5, 2023
Episode 161: Claire Hall on Firmicus Maternus
Julius Firmicus Maternus (c. 300 – some time later than the 340’s) is a figure whom scholarship has had trouble categorising: the writer of our earliest proper astrological manual in Latin, and also the author of a hard-core Christian polemical work in which he attacks traditional religion, calls for the destruction of temples, and so forth. Oh, and he was a lawyer.
He lived in Sicily during the reconstitution of the empire by Constantine and the reign of his sons, during which period the empire was radically transformed in an effort to pull it out of the chaos of the third century; results of this retrenchment included currency reform, military restructuring, and, of course, the official status of Christianity as a state religion. Firmicus, like so much in this period, exhibits a striking mix of the traditions of old Græco-Roman culture and the insurgent Christian movement.
We discuss Maternus’ astrological handbook, the Mathesis, along with some of the philosophical and technical problems it raises. At the forefront of these is the problem of fate: Firmicus is a confirmed fatal determinist, but he is also (or he later becomes) a Christian. Christian arguments against fatalism (as well as against astrology on other grounds) were well-developed by the fourth century, so what the heck is going on here? Claire Hall is our guide to the philosophical, religious, and even political implications of Firmicus’ writings.
Claire Hall is a Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. She works on the intersection of philosophical notions of prediction with real-world practice in the Græco-Roman and early Christian worlds, including work on Origen of Alexandria’s notion of prophecy, the Eudoxan astronomical model, and event-based or katarchic astrology. She also runs an annual lecture course on Ancient Greek science.
W. Kroll and F. Skutsch, editors. Firmici Materni Matheseos libri VIII. Teubner, Stuttgart, 1968.
P. Monat, editor. Firmicus Maternus: Mathesis. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1992-1997. 3 vols.
Robert Turcan, editor. Firmicus Maternus, L’erreur des religions paı̈ennes. Texte établi, traduit et commenté. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1982
Secondary Literature on Firmicus
H.A. Drake. Firmicus Maternus and the Politics of Conversion. In Qui Miscuit Utile Dulci: Festschrift Essays for Paul Lachlan MacKendrick, pages 133–49. Bolchazy-Carducci, 1998.
Mark Edwards. Astrology and Freedom: The Case of Firmicus Maternus. In Alexis Torrance and Johannes Zachhuber, editors, Individuality in Late Antiquity, pages 29–45. Ashgate, London, 2014.
Hannah Elizabeth Mace. Firmicus Maternus’ Mathesis and the Intellectual Culture of the Fourth Century AD. PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, 2017.
Cristiana Sogno. Astrology, Morality, the Emperor, and the Law in Firmicus Maternus’ ”Mathesis”. Illinois Classical Studies, 30:167–76, 2005.