Aratus & Aratea on Zeus



  1. Introduction
  2. Text and translation of Phaenomena 1–18
  3. Scholium about Zeus
  4. The Φ Scholia on Aratus’ Phaenomena 1–6
  5. […]

1 Introduction

The Greek poet Aratus of Soli (d. 240 BCE) is known to have written a number of poems on various subjects, only one of which, the Phaenomena, was widely read in antiquity; eventually the others dropped out of circulation. But for its part, the Phaenomena, a description of the heavens, and especially of the constellations, became canonical, receiving no less than four known ancient translations into Latin (by Cicero, partially extant; by Ovid, lost; by Germanicus Caesar, extant; by Avienius, extant; a fifth, in prose, was made in the early Middle Ages) and another into Arabic. It was also the focus of a lively commentary tradition, of which we have substantial remains, and even these were translated into Latin and Arabic. This is unparalleled.

Here I translate the beginning of the poem, a sort of Stoic hymn to Zeus, together with ancient scholia (explanatory notes). In this hymnic opening, Aratus claims that the god ordered the constellations for our benefit. This is no doubt influenced, however indirectly, by the Babylonian epic Enūma Eliš, in which Marduk (~Zeus) orders the constellations. (Also cf. the esoteric cosmology of the Secrets of the Great Gods, and the MUL.APIN, which includes a catalogue of the constellations recognized by the Babylonians, which strongly influenced the constellations of the Greek astronomers.)

Apart from the Mesopotamian parallels, Aratus was a close contemporary of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes, and the proem can be fruitfully read as a kind of companion piece to his Hymn to Zeus. Tradition even holds that, like Cleanthes, he studied with Zeno, the founder of the Stoa. But the Stoic inspiration does not foreclose the meanings of the poetry, as the flowering of alternative readings in the commentaries demonstrates. Instead, both Cleanthes and Aratus’ hymns were incorporated into a non-sectarian, mainstream tradition of learning. See John Stobaeus on the God, where both hymns are included, along with passages quoted by the scholiasts on Aratus below.

The Phaenomena’s first three words, translatable as ‘From Zeus let us begin’, were much-imitated (e.g., by Vergil, Eclogues 3.60) and became proverbial for beginning with the most important subject (e.g., Quintilian 10.1.46; Aelius Herodianus, On Unique Words). Another example of the Phaenomena’s popularity is that the fifth line is even cited approvingly in the New Testament (“For we too are of his kin”, Acts 17:28).

[… Avienius; Tiberianus]

2 Text and translation of Phaenomena 1–18

Out of Zeus let us begin, whom never we men leave
Unspoken; filled with Zeus are all streets,
All meeting places of humanity, filled is the sea
And the shores. We are all always in contact with Zeus.
For we too are of his kin. And he, gracious to humankind,
shows favorable signs, rouses people to work,
Reminding them of their livelihood. And he says when the soil is best
For kine and for the mattock, and says when the seasons are favorable
Both to set out plants and to scatter all seeds.
For it was he who fixed the signs in heaven,
Separating out the stars, and for the yearly round thought out
The stars which should especially give well-wrought signs
Of the seasons to mankind, in order that all things grow firm.
Therefore they always worship you first and last—
Hail, father, o great wonder, great boon for humanity.
Yourself and the Elder Generation! And hail, Muses,
So propitious all! But for me, who have prayed to speak of the stars
As is just, order ye my whole song!

Ek Diòs arkhṓmestha, tòn oudépot’ ándres eômen
árrhēton; mestaì dè Diòs pâsai mèn agyiaí,
pâsai d’ anthrṓpōn agoraí, mestḕ dè thálassa
kaì liménes; pántē dè Diòs kekhrḗmetha pántes.
toû gàr kaì génos eimén. ho d’ ḗpios anthrṓpoisi
dexià sēmaínei, laoùs d’ epì érgon egeírei
mimnḗskōn biótoio, légei d’ hóte bôlos arístē
bousí te kaì makélēisi, légei d’ hóte dexiaì hôrai
kaì phytà gyrôsai kaì spérmata pánta balésthai.
autòs gàr tá ge sḗmat’ en ouranôi estḗrixen
ástra diakrínas, esképsato d’ eis eniautòn
astéras hoí ke málista tetygména sēmaínoien
andrásin hōráōn, óphr’ émpeda pánta phýōntai.
tôi min aeì prôtón te kaì hýstaton hiláskontai.
khaîre, páter, méga thaûma, még’ anthrṓpoisin óneiar,
autòs kaì protérē geneḗ. khaíroite dè Moûsai
meilíkhiai mála pâsai. emoí ge mèn astéras eipeîn
êi thémis eukhoménôi tekmḗrate pâson aoidḗn.

Ἐκ Διὸς ἀρχώμεσθα, τὸν οὐδέποτ’ ἄνδρες ἐῶμεν
ἄρρητον· μεσταὶ δὲ Διὸς πᾶσαι μὲν ἀγυιαί,
πᾶσαι δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἀγοραί, μεστὴ δὲ θάλασσα
καὶ λιμένες· πάντη δὲ Διὸς κεχρήμεθα πάντες.
τοῦ γὰρ καὶ γένος εἰμέν. ὁ δ’ ἤπιος ἀνθρώποισι
δεξιὰ σημαίνει, λαοὺς δ’ ἐπὶ ἔργον ἐγείρει
μιμνήσκων βιότοιο, λέγει δ’ ὅτε βῶλος ἀρίστη
βουσί τε καὶ μακέλῃσι, λέγει δ’ ὅτε δεξιαὶ ὧραι
καὶ φυτὰ γυρῶσαι καὶ σπέρματα πάντα βαλέσθαι.
αὐτὸς γὰρ τά γε σήματ’ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἐστήριξεν
ἄστρα διακρίνας, ἐσκέψατο δ’ εἰς ἐνιαυτὸν
ἀστέρας οἵ κε μάλιστα τετυγμένα σημαίνοιεν
ἀνδράσιν ὡράων, ὄφρ’ ἔμπεδα πάντα φύωνται.
τῷ μιν ἀεὶ πρῶτόν τε καὶ ὕστατον ἱλάσκονται.
χαῖρε, πάτερ, μέγα θαῦμα, μέγ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ὄνειαρ,
αὐτὸς καὶ προτέρη γενεή. χαίροιτε δὲ Μοῦσαι
μειλίχιαι μάλα πᾶσαι. ἐμοί γε μὲν ἀστέρας εἰπεῖν
ᾗ θέμις εὐχομένῳ τεκμήρατε πᾶσαν ἀοιδήν.

3 Scholium about Zeus

Scholium about Zeus.

‘Out of Zeus’: he begins out of Zeus because he endeavors to give an account of celestial phenomena, and Zeus is the king and father of everything. It is not pertinent at present to investigate the substance of Zeus, whether it is a body or a thing,1 and whether it is a soul or a mind,2 as being some greater power, supracelestial and unmoved, after its own manner.3 For Aratus used the name of Zeus in keeping with the shared belief of all people, in the sense of the king of everything.

It is one of two things: either (Aratus is showing) that the providence of the divine applies throughout the cosmos, and that he4 moves through the whole cosmos, holding it together; or he is speaking enigmatically5 in reference to (Zeus’) bynames (epōnymiai), which were coined on the basis of each activity, since the ancients attributed (all) good events to a god, as, e.g., they say he is Ancestor (genetōr), ‘of the fraternity’ (phratrios), ‘of the tribe’ (homognios), ‘of fellowship’ (hetaireios), ‘of friendship’ (philios), ‘of suppliants’ (hikesios), ‘of strangers’ (xenios), ‘of the marketplace’ (agoraios), ‘of councils’ (boulaios), Thunderer (brontaios), 6 and the like.7

1 Is the distinction between corporeal and incorporeal or between a human-like body and a non-human thing? Both meanings are conceivable.
2 This distinction is (sometimes) made by the Aristotelians and Platonists.
3 I take this as a description of the intellect (nous): it is supracelestial (beyond the corporeal cosmos) according to the Platonists, and unmoved (an ‘unmoved mover’) especially according to the Aristotelians.
4 Not ‘providence’ (feminine) or ‘the divine’ (neuter), but Zeus (masculine); by synecdoche, ‘the divine’ (= all gods) and Zeus (as king of gods) are semantically equivalent. Alternately, one could understand the masculine ho theos, ‘the god’, again in the generic sense of ‘all gods’.
5 This would mean that things are not really pervaded by Zeus in a literal sense, but that this is a poetic figure.
6 In a shorter parallel scholium, several bynames are omitted, but Good Ruler (eukratōr), Sustainer (threptōr) and ‘of the thunder bolt’ (asteropaios) are added (Q: …).
7 Martin … MmgMatr. 2629 VA Est

4 The Latin Φ Scholia on Aratus’ Phaenomena 1–6

The question is raised why Aratus began ‘out of Zeus’, and not from the Muses like Homer. He judged it to be more appropriate to make the beginning of the Phaenomena from Zeus, because he is the leader of the Muses. But it appears that not only Aratus began this way, but also Crates the comic poet, who says:

“Beginning out of Hestia, I pray to the gods.”

And Sophron, in the mime titled The Messenger:

“Beginning out of Hestia, I call Zeus, the leader of all.”

The question is also raised which Zeus he is referring to, the mythical (fabulosus) or the physical (naturalis).¹ And most philosophers say that he is referring to the physical Zeus. Now, Crates says that the heaven is called Zeus; air and aether (=heaven) are invoked quite rightly, because the stars are in these, and Homer has somewhere called the heaven Zeus:

“As when dense clouds (nephelaí!) fly forth from Zeus” (Iliad 19.357).

And Aratus himself:

“The Horse
Revolves in (the house) of Zeus” (223).

Whereas Herodotus (the grammarian) says that the air is called Zeus, and Crates is of the same opinion and says that Philemon the comic poet is a witness:

“That of which no one is forgetful, whether they are doing
Anything evil or anything good, that I am:
The Air, which one might also call Zeus.”²

And it is evident that Aratus himself says this:

“Whom we men never leave
Unspoken” (1–2).

And it seems that he has said it appropriately, because the voice is nothing other than air under an impulse, and he confirms the authority of the matter when he refers to ‘streets full of Zeus’ (2) and ‘every gathering of humans’ (3): nothing of the things which are on the earth are without air. With good reason also, ‘in all things we need the use5 of Zeus’ (4), for all mortals show its use in breathing, and we all require the air, by which we live (lat. per quem vivimus = gr. di’ hòn zômen).³ And ‘helpful signs’ (6) pertains to auguries with birds.

On account of this, the Stoics also affirm that Zeus is a breath (lat. spiritus = gr. pneûma) which pervades matter and is similar to our soul.⁴

But Zenodotus the Aetolian and Diodorus say that an opinion of this kind does not oppose the mythical Zeus, because Zeus is the cause of all things,⁵ and that it is fitting that all streets are crowded with him; he describes them,⁶ as it were, in his place. And by saying ‘and we are his offspring’ (5), he shows the immortality of the soul.⁷ Further, ‘mild’⁸ (5) is well-said, because he foreknows everything that will be contrary to virtue. So (he calls) the god mild towards transgressions. But because he is the cause of all goods things entirely, he is reasonably also affirmed to be the parent⁹ of all, and not only of humans, but also of gods.

1: The question, in other words, is whether Aratus’ discourse is in a philosophical or mythological mode. But the “physical Zeus” is still a god, just conceived in different terms.
2: Quoted more fully in John Stobaeus on the God.
3: Per quem vivimus, translating a Greek pun on Zeus’ name (acc. Dia or Zēna): “by (dia) whom is life (zēn).”
4: The scholiast is simplifying the Stoic doctrine somewhat, as ‘spirit’ is not precisely air, but a finer, fiery substance.
5: I here adopt Breysig’s reading emendation, officere, ‘to oppose’, instead of efficere (cf. neque fabulis contendere in Aratus Latinus). I also agree with him that talem causam, ‘a cause of this kind’, cannot be right, and translate in accordance with Aratus Latinus: initium enim omnium rerum Iovis, ‘Jove is the beginning of all things’.
6: The streets.
7: The Stoics did not accept the immortality of individual souls, but this originally Platonic doctrine was nevertheless widely accepted by people otherwise more in accord with Stoicism.
8: Lenem, for Greek ēpios, which I translate ‘favorable’.
9: Ēpios connotes the gentleness of a father specifically.

4 …

5 …

6 …

7 …

[Stobaeus 1.1.3
Allusions: Theocritus + scholia; scholia on Pindar; Scholia on Apollonius;
Prolegomena p. 34, Vita 2 (p.12)
Aratus, Greek and Latin scholia, Avienius, Biruni]