its title suggests, the principal theme of the book is fatalistic
astrology. This is the belief that human character and action
are predetermined by fate. In his reaction to The Nero Prediction
the eminent historian Michael Grant confirms that astrology
was "so predominant and indeed universal in the Mediterranean
world that it exceeded every religion in power and influence."
We know something about three of the astrologers who feature
prominently in the story. Thrasyllus, close friend of the emperor
Tiberius, was the towering intellect of his time. His son Tiberius
Claudius Balbillus, born in Alexandria in about 3 AD, was equally
eminent. Like his father he was a polymath, astrology was his
principal interest, but not his only one. He served as Director
of Alexandria's Museum and administrator of imperial buildings
in Egypt. He also held other important administrative posts
in the empire.
Ptolemy Seleucus is a shadier figure. He was Otho's astrologer
(see Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Otho), so
there is every reason to believe that he was also consulted
by Otho's wife Poppaea. He successfully predicted that Vespasian
would become emperor and afterwards became a fixture at Vespasian's
court (Tacitus, Histories 2).
Only fragments of the astrological methods of Thrasyllus and
his son survive in the commentaries of other writers, and nothing
of Ptolemy Seleucus. However the substantial agreement between
the two astrology manuals that have come down to us intact,
the second century Tetrabiblos and the fourth century Matheseos,
suggest that the basic tenets of astrological dogma were widely
accepted and remain so up to the present day. One prominent
exception is the familiar twelve house system where each of
the houses is dedicated to a particular area of life: Character,
Money, Misfortune, Power etc. Although these houses are featured
prominent in the enormously popular Matheseos, they are hardly
mentioned at all in Claudius Ptolemy's much earlier Tetrabiblos,
although Ptolemy obviously has the equal house system in mind
when describes the four cardinal points of the chart: the ascendant,
mid heaven, descendant and the lower heaven or nadir of the
Since the solar system is a vast chronometer with gigantic planets
circling the sun with far greater predictability than any pendulum,
then as now the current and future positions of the planets
could be calculated with the use of astronomical tables. But
so can the positions of the planets in the past, even the remote
past. With the help of modern computer programs we can pin point
the ever-changing positions of the planets during Nero's time
with a higher degree of accuracy than the Neronian astrologers
The confluence of these two facts, our knowledge of ancient
astrological dogma and our ability to recreate the positions
of the ancient planets, gives us a key to unlock the secrets
of the past. Where we know the date and time of birth of someone
like Nero, we can re-create, with a fairly high level of confidence,
what his astrologer would have told him lay in wait at any time
in the future.
Nero's date and time of birth have survived. So has the correct
date of his death - two days later than commonly believed. In
the notebooks of the astrologer Vettius Valens, who was active
about fifty years after Nero's death, charts for an unnamed
person's birth and death are positioned next to each other.
The birth chart is for December 15, 37 AD at about sunrise,
precisely the time specified for Nero by the historian Suetonius.
The death chart is cast for June 11, 68 AD, the day Nero died
according to the ancient historian Cassius Dio who was a stickler
for accurate chronology. What Vettius is trying to demonstrate
is how a person's death can be predicted on the basis of the
return of the planets to the same basic pattern of angular distances
(aspects) from each other. Vettius' cryptic commentaries on
these two horoscopes detail how Neronian astrologers could have
predicted the day of Nero's death from his birth chart or perhaps
how they actually did so.
It is no mystery why Vettius does not say that these charts
are Nero's. Dabbling in imperial horoscopes (particularly concerning
an emperor's death) had been a capital crime since Augustus's
future is predictable and the key that unlocks its secrets is
the movement of the planets. This was the dominant philosophical
idea of Nero's time.
It was grounded on the assumption, popularized by the Stoics,
that heaven and earth are mutually dependent parts of the same
universal flux which is ordered by a predetermined sequence
of cause and effect called fate or destiny. The belief was that
since it is possible to make accurate predictions about the
future movements of the seven planets as they circle the earth,
one can make equally accurate predictions about the future of
the men and women around whom they circle.
From earliest times these seven planets were identified with
seven gods who interacted with each other rather like people
do. The explanation of their changing inter-relationship was
to be found in the constantly changing angular distance between
them. Extrapolating from music, where certain chords are harmonious
and others disharmonious, a system of "aspects" expressed
in degrees was worked out, each of which was thought to indicate
harmony or disharmony between two particular planets.
As it is in heaven so it is on earth, this was the belief. When
the planets at an infant's birth were placed at disharmonious
angular distances from each other (i.e. were unfortunately aspected),
the infant's future could be expected to be unfortunate. The
opposite was true if the infant was fortunate enough to be born
under harmonious stars.
This is the bare essence of astrology. What follows is a summary
of the way the ancients expanded this idea.
seven planets (this number includes the sun and the moon) were
known to the ancients. Each one had a distinct personality that
originated in the god or goddess they represented. These, in
order of their supposed distance from the earth, were:
Benevolent or malevolent depending on whether she is
waxing or waning. A waning moon is generally malicious,
while a waxing moon is more inclined to be benevolent.
The moon represent the mother in a child's chart and
the wife or mistress in an adult's.
Neither benevolent or malevolent but easily influenced
both by other planets and by its position in the chart.
His gift is intelligence or cunning.
Benevolent. Her gifts are artistic skills, entertainment,
romance and children.
Sun: Generally neither benevolent nor malevolent.
The most benevolent of all the planets. Our word "jovial"
comes from Jupiter's astrological nature. In fact Jupiter
is so benevolent that even normally unfortunate aspects
with Jupiter are often pronounced fortunate.
Lot or Part of Fortune: This point in the
chart is found by counting anti-clockwise from the ascendant
the same number of degrees as the sun is from the moon
also when counting anti-clockwise. If the birth takes
place at sunrise, the Lot of Fortune coincides with
the moon. It was thought to predict good or bad material
fortune depending on its position in the chart and whether
it was influenced by benevolent or malevolent planets.
in Nero's day the earth was known to be an orb. The planets
(Greek for "wanderers") were believed to circle this
orb from west to east and therefore in the opposite direction
to the apparent diurnal motion of the heavenly sphere to which
the rest of the stars were fixed. Because the planets' orbital
speeds were different, the angular distances between them, measured
in degrees of longitude, constantly changed. Whenever the angular
distance between two planets came within more or less ten degrees
of any of five specific angular relationships, they were said
to be in aspect. In order of declining power these aspects are:
planets (A and B) share the same longitude as seen from
earth (center) and therefore their qualities were believed
to mingle. This aspect can be
either fortunate or unfortunate depending on which planets
Opposition. The planets are on opposite
sides of the celestial circle and are therefore separated
by 180 degrees of longitude. Unfortunate since it sets
the one planet against the other.
Also known as quartile. The planets are separated by
90 degrees of longitude. Unfortunate because this is
half of an opposition.
The planets are separated by 120 degrees of longitude.
The planets are separated by 60 degrees of longitude.
Fortunate because it is one half of a trine.
arrows indicate the direction of apparent planetary movement.
are the twelve signs of the zodiac familiar to anyone who has
turned to the astrological section of the daily paper. Each
represents 30 degrees (one twelfth) of the zodiacal circle.
Like the planets the signs have natures. In Nero's time the
signs of the zodiac corresponded roughly to the constellations
of the same name. They are ordered in the same sense as the
motion of the planets: anti clockwise around the chart, beginning
with Aries the ram and ending with Pisces the fishes. Each sign
was believed to be ruled by a planet which was thought of as
that planet's zodiacal house or domicile.
are the four cardinal points of the horoscope. The most important
of these is the ascendant (ASC) which corresponds to the eastern
horizon at the moment of birth where stars, whether visible
or invisible, are rising. Next in importance is the mid heaven
(MC) which is represented as being at right angles to the ascendant.
The descendant (DES) represents the western horizon where stars
are setting. Finally the imum caelum (IC) is the nadir of the
In a world where nothing is believed to happen by chance, when
a planet falls on one of these angles its importance is magnified.
(The midheaven arrived at in this way does not always correspond
with the astronomical midheaven.)
addition to dividing the zodiacal circle into twelve signs,
it was further divided up into twelve houses. Each house was
thought to yield predictions about a particular area of life.
The first house begins with the ascendant which represents the
eastern horizon at the moment of birth. The houses then proceed
around the circle of the horoscope anti-clockwise, just as the
signs do. It is presently unknown when this twelve house system
came into widespread use.
While the stars at the moment of birth were believed to paint
the fundamental portrait of a person's future, their influence
was thought to be constantly, though ephemerally, modified by
the subsequent movement of the planets. Therefore if the astrologer
wanted to discover whether some specific time in the future
was favorable or unfavorable, he would look up his star tables
for the positions of the planets at that time and then draw
them into the birth chart so that they formed a second ring
outside the first. These secondary planets were called the transits.
They were thought to influence the birth planets in precisely
the same way as the birth planets influenced each other.Just as the planets of any day subsequent to birth (the transits)
were thought to influence the birth planets, the planets of
another person, when drawn into the birth chart, predicted how
these two people were destined to interact.
This is a broad overview of Neronian astrology - there were
other computational techniques then in use that introduced so
many variables that it was possible for the unscrupulous (or
perhaps self-deluded) astrologer to justify telling his client
whatever he or she wanted to hear. This is why astrology was
so seductive, and so dangerous.