Valens’ nine-part Anthologies (i.e., ‘Collections’) is the most comprehensive account of astrological theory and practice to have survived from antiquity. Only the eight-part Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus comes close to its length, although Firmicus makes reference to only one example nativity, whereas Valens takes every opportunity to illustrate his teachings with details from horoscopes he has worked on or has knowledge of. Valens does not identify the names of his subjects, provide horoscope diagrams, or even give dates for most of the example nativities he describes, but research by Otto Neugebauer in the mid-1950s proved each set of planetary positions to be an authentic horoscope that can be dated to the first or second century.
In his identification of the oldest chart to “about sunrise” on 15 December 37 CE, Neugebauer failed to realise (but others quickly noted) that this was the horoscope of the Roman Emperor Nero, whose birth was recorded by the historian Suetonius in 121 CE: “Nero was born at Antium, on 15 December 37 A.D. ... The Sun was rising ...”. Valens uses the chart as a typical example of how his techniques identify crisis periods, which in this chart occurs in the 31st year (68 CE, when Nero committed suicide). It is this rich supply of ancient chart-data that has made Valens’ work of great significance to scholars of classical history, calendar systems, and astronomy; as well as students of ancient astrological techniques. Its value was underlined by Otto Neugebauer and Henry Van Hoesen in their 1959 work Greek Horoscopes, which says in regard to the “importance of the Anthology of Vettius Valens”:
Nativity of Nero
The Roman historian Suetonius says of Nero's chart (337.VI):
Modern calculation shows combust Mars rising on the ascendant with the Sun, with Saturn dominating all three by square from Virgo and itself receiving the trine of Venus (Venus is in the sign of Saturn; Saturn in the fall of Venus). Saturn’s dispositor Mercury is in its sign of fall and placed in the 12th house by equal or quadrant division. Moon (in the 8th house by equal or quadrant division) applies to the square of Jupiter, which is in mutual reception with Mars.
The single statement that he travelled to Egypt started to generate characterizations of Valens as Egyptian or ‘Alexandrian’ as early as the Sassanian period. Other Arabic references identify him with the appellation al-Rūmī, ‘the Byzantine’, which corresponds to what Professor of History of Science, David King terms “his accepted provenance, Antioch”. This finds support in the title accorded to him in manuscript ascriptions: ‘Vettius Valens of Antioch’, which indicates association with the once great metropolitan city on the Orontes, in Syria, whose ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya in Turkey (‘Antakya’ is the Turkish variant of the Syrian Antiokia). Other ancient cities bore this name, but the fact that no further detail is given suggests none was needed: Antioch was in Valens’ time the third largest city in the world (after Rome and Alexandria) and capital of the Roman province of Syria.
Founded in 300 BCE by Seleucus Nicator (former general of Alexander the Great, who gained control of Babylon after Alexander’s death), and named after his father Antiochus, the site of Antioch was determined by ceremonial ritual to establish a western capital for Seleucus’ rapidly expanding empire, which eventually stretched from modern-day Turkey to the borders of India (see map 2, below). Twinned with (and intended to replicate) the more eastern capital, Babylon, Antioch acted as a node for important trade routes that crossed from north-south and east-west, and quickly developed into a prosperous, densely populated cultural centre, which came to rival Alexandria as the chief city of the Near East. We do not know whether Antioch was Valens’ birthplace, or if this was where he lived and worked for most of his life, or whether this name association was made because this is where he died or his manuscript was found, but any connection with Antioch would suggest awareness of Babylonian principles of astrology, since the region was saturated with Chaldean philosophies. Franz Cumont made much of the importance of Antioch in the transmission of astrology in several of his works, stressing how:
The inclination of some modern biographers to nationalize Valens as Alexandrian rather than Byzantine or Syrian was strengthened by a misleading comment in Greek Horoscopes, where Neugebauer and Van Hoesen analyzed the 53 charts that include reference to the clima in which someone was born and concluded “such a distribution is in good accord with Alexandria as the locality where Vettius Valens and his predecessors collected their evidence”. However, this conclusion lies at odds with the data, which shows the number of charts cast for the clima of Alexandria is only two thirds of those cast for the clima of Syria, and less than those cast for the clima of Rome. The distribution is explained as follows:
|Analysis of 53 charts where Valens mentions the clima|
|Clima 2||Syria & Palestine||17|
|Clima 6||Rome & Italy||15|
|All other clima (3, 4,5 & 7)||10|
We can certainly see that Valens was not constrained to one geographical area or ethnic outlook, but worked for natives of diverse nationalities at a time when there was free-flowing cultural exchange between Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and other major cities connected by important trade routes. We see this also in the details of Valens’ technique and the sources he acknowledges:
- He makes no reference to Alexandria in his text but talks about the effect the obliquity of the ecliptic has on determining the cusps of the twelve houses, and how this causes a great difference in the fortunes and lifespans of those born in Rome and those born in Babylon:
Therefore the layout of the XII Houses, which are arranged differently depending on the inclination of the ecliptic in different [geographical areas], cause an extraordinary variation [in fortune]. Those born in Rome will not have the same lifespan as those born in Babylon, and vice-versa.
- In book I, Valens gives tables of ascension that Neugebauer establishes to be “operating with the sequence (a) which is based on Alexandria”, and yet Neugebauer admits, “… our table shows that the use of the proper clima [Alexandria] is not the rule but the exception. The majority of all values, can be explained as belonging to the clima 2.b (Babylon) and System B”.
- Valens’ reference to his sources shows he mingled doctrines found in texts associated with ancient Egypt (Nechepso, Petosiris), Babylon (Soudines, Kidenas, Critodemus), and Persia (Zoroaster, Orion). He adhered to the Greek convention of following “Hipparchus for the Sun” but adopted the Babylonian tradition of placing the vernal point in the 8th degree of Aries, recommending the tables of Hipparchus, Apollinarius and others “if one applies the addition-factor of 8°, which I believe to be correct”.
- In contrast to Ptolemy, who referenced the old Egyptian calendar in his astronomical work, Valens utilized the reforms of the Julian calendar and followed the convention of the Roman government in adopting the Alexandrian calendar set for the era of Augustus, which commenced the count of all dates from August 31, 30 BCE to celebrate the conquest of Alexandria on that date by Gaius Octavius (later known as Augustus). This perhaps tell us little about his own national preferences since, according to Albiruni, this imposed upon Egypt the calendar system previously employed by “the Chaldeans”.
- Apparently unaware of the more precise methods of astronomical computation set out by Ptolemy, which rested on spherical trigonometry and were facilitated by the circulation of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, Valens relied on what are usually described as 'Babylonian-style' methods of calculation, being purely arithmetical.
Pursuing this storyline means biographers not only have a date of birth for Valens, but a calculated date of conception too, along with the biographical details that are recorded as the experiences of the man this horoscope belongs to: his mother predeceased his father; at age 34 he fared well abroad and enjoyed friendships with superiors, but was in danger of being ruined by a woman and suffered cuts and bloodshed; a year later he encountered dangerous storms and pirate attacks at sea.
Pingree’s suggestion that this might be Valens’ own horoscope is now repeated widely in the style of established fact; however, Valens nowhere claims this chart as his own and pointedly describes it as being that of someone else. Nor does he admit to any of those life experiences beyond stating that he travelled widely in search of astrological knowledge. He characterizes himself as a man of independent means, who avoided controversies and lived soberly, so it is hard to reconcile the biographical highlight of someone who suffered prospects of ruin because of entanglements with a woman with Valens’ own report of his lifestyle:
We can be certain that Valens knew his own chart (he taught methods that allowed computation or rectification of a chart with a specific degree for the ascendant and midheaven even when the time was unknown) because he made it a requirement for members of his school to know and progress their nativities, and factor this knowledge into their actions:
Given the pride Valens expresses for being unstintingly willing to tell the truth and hold nothing back from his reader (expected to be a trusted member of his school), and given his undoubtedly wide experience and client-base, Valens had no need to fall back upon use of his own chart for demonstrations of technique; much less to masquerade it as someone else’s.
In any event, historians who claim that Valens was born on this date in Antioch cannot have it both ways: this chart is one of only three in his work attributed to the most extreme latitude north (clima 7) — showing that it belongs to a man born in a latitude that falls through central Europe or higher.
Despite the speculative nature of Pingree’s casual proposal, it has nonetheless been taken seriously enough for academics to propose a revision of the dates of the compilation of the Anthologies so that the events attributed to this chart act as key life events for Valens. Eagerness to attribute this chart to him, regardless of the lack of evidence, has also generated a recent assertion that Valens must have been “a Ukranian born Greek”.
What we do know, based on what Valens explains, is that he was an earnest seeker of astrological truth. He reports how he travelled, laboured and made many sacrifices in order to learn the principles of astrology, yet frequently met with disappointment and frustration in attempting to unravel the logic of texts that were, in his opinion, deliberately obscure and put together in “a very complicated and hateful manner”. He frequently complains about the writings of older astrologers and the teachings of other contemporaries: they are obscure, overly complex, long-winded, simple-minded, afflicted by envy or ignorance; and their effect is to beguile “with spectacular words and spells” and cause students to “become lost in a trackless wilderness”.
Valens explains that many of the principles he teaches are subject to divergence of opinion in older sources, and he shows no hesitation towards innovating or clarifying based on his personal experience or adherence to what he sees as a more logical approach. He takes pride in drawing comparison between the convoluted vagueness offered by others, and the fully demonstrated, detailed explanations he offers (showing awareness that the inclusion of horoscopic case studies was an unprecedented move that made his work uniquely valuable as a tutorial guide). The following remark is typical of many similar statements, usually made where he introduces an astrological technique by first explaining how others have treated the topic furtively:
Valens acknowledges the eventual “help of a learned man” who provided sufficient instruction on the theoretical principles to act as a basis, upon which he developed his own understanding through daily practice and observation, encounters with many men, and personal acquaintance with “divinely-inspired and immortal theorems”. He revels in being willing to share his knowledge “without stint”, but stresses that he does so only for the benefit of those who are vitally interested and prepared to spend much time in their own study, so that they can make an equal contribution from their own insights. He expects his readers to be “initiates into this mystic art” and calls on them to “preserve these matters in secret and not to share them with the vulgar, but only with those worthy of them and able to preserve and requite them as they deserve”. They are to lay aside other books, stick to the methods he has prescribed and vow to bestow upon his name the eternal and noble fame of being their guide:
Valens invokes fearful curses of afflictions from the gods, to be suffered by anyone who learns from his work and does not guard it against criticisms, editorial omissions, false reports, replications by others who fail to acknowledge him as their source, the removal of his name from any part of his work, or attempts to introduce the works of others into his own compendium. He was aware that all those things were likely to happen, and one can only imagine the wrath he would have felt over a so-called tenth book (or Additamenta) which is known to be a later addition because it includes analysis of the birth and death of the Roman Emperor Valentinian III (2 July 419 – 16 March 455). Another chart of an unidentified person born in 431 forecasts death to occur in 505, which shows this text was added by someone towards the end of the 5th century, or the turn of the 6th, simply because the author admits to using a method found in the work of Valens.
Valens seemed willing to undertake whatever inconvenience and expense was necessary to acquire the instructional works of writers he delighted in criticizing. We must assume a reasonable amount of wealth, or at least sufficient financial independence to make the pursuit of his life-interest possible. He apologizes that his writing style is unpolished and his content (due to enthusiasm or unhappy circumstance) is sometimes chaotically constructed. Clearly, the art of writing was less important to him than the communication of his astrological interest, and in that regard he was evidently well-read — he makes no acknowledgement to older or contemporary astrological authors whose works have survived (such as Aratus, Dorotheus, Eudoxus, Geminos, Manilius, Ptolemy), but offers important references to many works now lost to us, (including those of Abraham, Apollinaus, Aristarchus, Asclation, Asclepius, Euctemon, Hermeios, Hermes, Hermippus, Hipparchus, Hypsicles, Kidenas, Meton, Philip, Orion, Seuthos, Soudines, Thrasyllus, Timaeus, and Zoroaster).
The principle sources Valens used for astrological technique were the 13th book of Nechepso (who he describes as ‘Divine’ and often refers to as ‘the King’, and to whom he attributes his understanding of the use of the Lot of Fortune); works by Petosiris, including one called Oroi (‘Conditions’); and works by the (presumed Babylonian) astrologer Critodemus (c.50 BCE – 50 CE), including one called Horasis (‘Vision’). To the latter he attributes the theory of Antiscia, distribution of chronocrators, and establishment of the critical places which determine length of life. Despite referring to Critodemus as “divine” and “very wise”, he and the others are all criticized for writing books that are overly complex, full of bombast and verbiage, and impossible to understand without his own interpretation and development of their techniques. Hence, using the ‘majestic plural’ Valens asserts in his 8th book:
A more rounded literary interest is displayed by the many quotes Valens draws from Homer’s Illiad (and the works of Cleanthes, Euripedes and Orpheus), which are used as anecdotes to support his views on fate. These are firmly rooted in Stoic philosophy, exemplified in several digressions where he pauses instruction of astrological technique to dwell upon the importance of personal piety, which must include submission to destiny and the calm acceptance of providence, welcoming whatever the future has in store, and never rebelling against it in the hope of gaining a different ‘lot’. One passage begins with a statement that mirrors Ptolemy’s defense of the value of astrology (that “foreknowledge accustoms and calms the soul and prepares it to greet with steadiness whatever comes” Tet. I.3), although Valens is much heavier than Ptolemy in his adherence to determinism, asserting:
It is impossible to overcome with prayers and sacrifices what has been established from the beginning or to gain for oneself something different, something more to one’s liking. What has been given will come about even if we do not pray; what is not fated will not happen, even if we do pray. Just as actors on the stage change their masks according to the poets’ words and act the characters as they should — sometimes kings, sometimes bandits, sometimes rustics, city people, gods — in the same way we too must act the parts assigned us by Fate and adapt ourselves to the chances of the moment, even if we do not like them.
The passage draws interesting parallels with Plato’s ‘Myth of Err’, in which the soul is considered indestructible and subject to a constant variety of experience through reincarnation, and in which strength of character is developed by the choices we make regardless of whether our allotted lives are subject to privilege or adversity.
So what kind of man was Valens, and did he manage to attain those lofty Stoic ideals himself?
We can assume he never married or had children, but instead committed himself fully to his work and cherished the relationships he developed with like-minded students, one of whom, Marcus, became the beneficiary of his work, (see quote, left). He was a sincere and heartfelt astrologer, passionate – and wealthy – enough to travel the world in search of astrological treasures, confident enough to challenge all other authorities, and willing to invest in a lifework he knew would resonate in importance for centuries ahead. But no, he could not (as no one really can) avoid the sufferings of his own human frailties, which are revealed here and there. The real ‘connection’ with Valens as a person comes, for me, in the touching and poignant remark found at the conclusion of his third book. Here he asks for the reader’s understanding and forgiveness: the failing of his eyesight, the dimming of his mind, and the personal grief has he suffered over the death of a precious student; none of these have left him unaffected, free of concern or emotionally undisturbed; all have combined towards the realisation that, now, alas, his own exhaustion and emotional grief have rendered him no longer able to make his work as perfect as he would like. His conclusion of book III reads: