- Forgotten Stars: Rediscovering Manilius’ “Astronomica” ed. by Steven J. Green and Katharina Volk
When the Roman poet Manilius proclaimed, “Not in the crowd, nor for the crowd, shall I compose my song,” little did he know how accurately these words foretold the reception of his Astronomica. Among the didactic poems of Roman antiquity, providing instruction in hexameters on anything from philosophy (Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things) to farming (Virgil’s Georgics), Manilius’s Astronomica, a teach-yourself guide to astrology, has always attracted the least admiration and the fewest readers. His highly technical material, expressed in highly idiosyncratic Latin—pockmarked throughout with inconsistencies, self-contradictions, obscurity, and out-and-out errors—was never destined to please either the crowd or literary critics. Manilius’s Stoic hymn to the divinely ordered heavens was intended as a deliberate challenge to Lucretius’s Epicurean vision of a universe at the mercy of randomly colliding atoms. As it happens, both poems, lost in the Middle Ages, were recovered in the same year, 1417, by Poggio, the most resourceful of Italian Renaissance bookhunters, and both enjoyed moderate popularity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Yet while Lucretius’s swerving atoms eventually came to occupy an unassailable place in the classical canon, Manilius’s providential stars have largely been forgotten, and the poet is remembered, if at all, for the outstanding editors of three different eras—Joseph Scaliger, Richard Bentley, and A. E. Housman—who applied their genius to unscrambling his corruptly transmitted text and untangling his bewilderingly abstruse doctrines. [End Page 523]
Jill Kraye is emeritus professor of the history of Renaissance philosophy at the University of London, an honorary fellow of the Warburg Institute, and the author of Classical Traditions in Renaissance Philosophy. She is an editor of the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, the International Journal of the Classical Tradition, and the “Renaissance and Sixteenth Century” section of the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.