Vettius Valens: Soldier of Fate

Know to the Arabs as “Al-Rumi”, Vettius Valens gained near-mythical status in the East while his fame was largely eclipsed by Ptolemy in the West but his Anthologies remains the most important source contemporary readers have for the foundations and techniques of Hellenistic astrology.

Published Categorized as History
The port of Alexandria shows sand houses along the beach. Boats are involved in shipping and trade. On the far left horizon we see a lighthouse.
Alexandria in the late 18th century, painting by Luigi Mayer

Those who have trained themselves in the prognostic art and in the truth keep their minds free and out of bondage. They despise Fortune, do not persist in Hope, do not fear death, and live undisturbed […] They are alien to all pleasure or flattery and stand firm as soldiers of fate.”

Vettius Valens

Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., by the second century A.D. Alexandria had become Rome’s second-largest city—and its foremost scientific capital. Scholars writing in Greek mined Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hellenistic sources in the multicultural metropolis, creating a vibrant intellectual scene centered on the city’s legendary library. The city’s renowned religious tolerance and its association with two major astrologers made Alexandria virtually synonymous with the practice of Hellenistic astrology. The first astrologer, Ptolemy, cemented his place in the history of astrology with Tetrabiblios, his systematic treatise of astrology in explicitly scientific terms. The second, Vettius Valens, penned a seminal work of Hellenistic astrology, Anthologies, a vibrant guide to contemporary astrological practices, becoming a legendary figure for successive generations of astrologers.

Widely considered a younger contemporary of Ptolemy, Valens does not mention Ptolemy in his work and primarily uses astrological formulas that predate Ptolemy’s spherical trigonometry methods. While later scholars would associate Valens with Alexandria, he never explicitly mentions the city. Valens is identified as a native of Antioch, at the time the third-largest city in the Roman Empire. Antioch too had a strong astrological reputation. Then the capital of Roman Syria, Antioch had been founded by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals, in 300 B.C., according to auspicious conditions determined by his army’s soothsayers. The general intended to found a city that could parallel Babylon, itself the cradle of astrology. Ptolemy chose this capital of Roman Syria as the center for his division of the known world into quadrants. Furthermore, Antioch’s patron goddess, Tyche, represented Fortune—a key component of Valens astrological worldview. Regardless of where Valens was from and where he traveled to, the multicultural nature of these two cities, and to a similar extent, the Roman Empire as a whole, fostered a Hellenistic astrological tradition that blended Egyptian, Chaldean, Greek, and Roman practices into a syncretic spiritual art. And it is largely thanks to Vettius Valens and his Anthologies that an understanding of this art and its practices has survived to the present day. 

Vettius Valens: The Pious Astrologer

The entirety of the biographical information scholars have about Valens can be traced back to his musings in Anthologies. The final volume of the work is dated to the mid 170s, meaning that Valens lived at least until the outbreak of the Antonine Plague in the empire.

A chart in Book II of Anthologies, first identified as Valens’ own by scholar David Pingree, notes the nativity’s date of birth as February 8, 120 A.D. Valens never claims the chart as his own, but does advise his students to know their own charts and to use them in their astrological practices. Valens initially uses the chart to demonstrate why the native’s mother predeceased their father. Further details show them traveling abroad at age 34, taking a sea voyage plagued by storms and pirates, making friends with superiors, and running the risk of being ruined by a woman. The image that Valens presents of himself is somewhat more reserved. Valens attests to moving to Egypt in search of astrological knowledge and paying large sums to avaricious teachers but learning no secret wisdom. The astrologer then withdrew into ascetic life for some time before devoting himself wholeheartedly to the study of astrology.

Valens was most productive between 152 and 162, and his career as a working astrologer spanned the reign of the emperors Antonius Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-186). He also admits to eventually finding a “learned man” that he studied under, and the nigh-sacred student-teacher relationship is a major theme in Anthologies. The work itself is addressed to Valens’ students, as a practical guide to the various techniques of the era. Valens seems happy to graciously share his knowledge but warns his students to show him proper due and to avoid sharing secrets with the uninitiated—threatening curses from the gods if he is not properly heeded. 

The spiritual underpinning of Anthologies is Stoicism, a widespread philosophy in the empire, with an emphasis on Fortune and Fate and the importance of accepting one’s role in the scheme of the universe. Valens likens the struggle of the individual to the work of an actor—although we cannot choose the role given to us by the universe, we can choose how we play it. His faith in the prognostic power of astrology is akin to religious feeling. Whereas Ptolemy set forth a secular understanding of astrology that reconciles the art with Aristotelian natural philosophy, Valens classifies it as “a sacred and venerable learning […] something handed over to men by god so that they may share in immortality.” In learning the prognostic art, the astrologer learns a “cosmic piety” that allows them to accept the omnipotence of fate and frees them from anxiety. Valens peppers Anthologies with quotes from Cleanthes, Homer, and Euripides alongside his own musings on life, fate, and mortality. 

Anthologies: Structure and Core Concepts

Valens’ Anthologies represents one of the longest and most detailed works of Hellenistic astrology that have survived to modern times. Whereas it lacks the systematic, scientific bend of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios, it expounds on the key concepts of astrology and how to use them in what is essentially a textbook for the working astrologer. The first two books of Anthologies are dedicated to a general overview of astrological principles, from the significance of planets and the zodiac signs to the tropical houses. The next six books are largely devoted to two topics that were of particular interest to Valens. The first was the calculation of lifespan. The second involves determining the ruling planet of a particular period of a person’s life, or “chronocratorship”. Valens presents several methods for each of these, which vary between regions or individual astrologers, relaying methods developed by his predecessors and clarifying them via his personal experience. The ninth and final book consists of miscellaneous fragments

To demonstrate these various techniques, Valens includes 123 horoscopes of citizens from all over the Empire. These horoscopes do not contain names, dates, or diagrams, and were either used by Valens to illustrate general astrological information or to explain a method for calculating length of life or placement of crisis periods. In the 1950s, Austrian scientific historian Otto E. Neugebauer demonstrated the veracity of these charts. One, used for calculating crisis periods, was later identified as the horoscope of Roman Emperor Nero. Without the horoscopes included in Anthologies, scholars would not have such a clear perspective of how charts were calculated and used in the heyday of Greco-Roman astrology. 

In addition to compiling some regional variations and unique astrological processes in Anthologies, Valens also cites several ancient astrologers, from Abraham to Zoroaster, who made contributions to the art but whose own work has not survived. Valens credits each of these with a specific innovation but often laments their confusing or obtuse style. He frequently cites Critodemus, one of these ancient astrologers, for both his cryptic style and techniques such as a specific method for annual profections outlined in his now-lost work Vision. Valens also mentions Nechepso and Petosiris, Egyptian astrologers that he considered ideal practitioners of the art. 

Valens’ Legacy

It’s unclear how famous Valens was during his lifetime, but his reputation only grew after death. The current translations of Anthologies are largely based on a 5th-century Greek manuscript. An unknown author added a tenth book, known as the Additamenta, with an analysis of the birth and death of Emperor Valentinian III (July 2, 419 – March 16, 455).

Valens’ work was translated into Middle Persian and then Arabic, and the astrologer enjoyed an elevated reputation among medieval Muslim astrologers such as Mash’allah and Ibn al-Nadim, who knew him as Al-Rumi (the Byzantine). Arab astrologers popularly attributed a chart of Mohammed to Valens, drawn up for the King of Persia when Mohammed was a threat to his kingdom. Legend has it that Valens predicted Mohammed’s success, and the King, in a fit of fury, threw the astrologer in prison. The 12th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos also attributed the chart of the founding of Constantinople to Valens. It was through these anecdotes that Valens’ work found its way to Western Europe.

16th century English collector John Dee preserved a manuscript of Valens’ work in his library, and the first modern critical edition of Anthologies was released in 1908 by Wilhelm Kroll. In 1986, David Pingree released a second critical edition still widely in use today. In many ways, Valens’ legacy was eclipsed in the West by that of Ptolemy, even while he enjoyed considerable fame in the East. But it is thanks to Vettius Valens and his anthologies that a snapshot of Hellenistic astrology, its core concepts, spiritual underpinnings, and practices—as well as many of its original voices—survives to this day. 


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