Writing Cicero’s “Aratea” in the 17th c.


When I was doing research for a chapter on the extensive (“self”-)quotation of Cicero’s Aratea in his philosophical work On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), I found myself reckoning with Hugo Grotius’ Syntagma Arateorum published in 1600. The Aratea is Cicero’s Latin translation of a Greek astronomical poem by Aratus of Soli, the Phaenomena (c. 275 BCE), which is sometimes translated as “Appearances” in English. Aratus’ poem reads like a map of the night sky in the form of a poem; the idea is that if you read, or memorize, the Phaenomena, then you will be able to “read” the constellations in the sky. Knowledge of the stars allows you to recognize changes of season, to anticipate weather changes, and to navigate through space. If we can believe what is said in On the Nature of the Gods, then Cicero translated this Greek poem into Latin as a young man, which would place its date of composition in the mid 80s BCE. Several other Latin translations subsequently appear within a century, including one by Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the future Emperor Tiberius.

Harley 647 f2v
Harley 647 f.2v depicting Aries ©British Library

At the very beginning of the 17th century the Dutch Hugo Grotius (Hugo, Huigh or Hugeianus de Groot), who had been a student of Scaliger at Leiden, produced an edition of Aratus, Cicero, and Germanicus. This, the Syntagma Arateorum (“A collection of Arateas”), can be viewed online through google books.

One of the interesting things about this work is that Grotius had to deal with the fact that Cicero’s Aratea only survived in pieces. We have Aratus’ Phaenomena in full, but Cicero’s Aratea is in a fragmentary condition. There is an incredible independent manuscript transmission of Cicero’s Aratea which comes with illustrations of the described constellations, such as Harley 647 (see above), which can also be viewed online, but the text isn’t complete. We also get about 90 verses of Cicero’s Aratea from his On the Nature of the Gods. Because Cicero’s Aratea is a translation of the Phaenomena, Grotius had a basis for the missing material, so he decided to provide the missing parts from Cicero’s Aratea by translating the equivalent Greek himself. Consider the following page:

Grotius p4


The actual verses of Cicero here are lines 96-101 (Arctophylax…Virgo), and 116 (Malebant tenui contenti vivere cultu). Everything else, in italics, is Grotius’ own Latin translation of Aratus. To my mind, this is an incredible response to a fragmentary text – to supply what you don’t have by doing the translation yourself. Grotius was giving himself a lesson in how to write Ciceronian verse. Another remarkable aspect of this is that Grotius, born in 1583, was 17 years old when he published the Syntagma. I wonder whether Grotius was inspired by Cicero’s note that he himself was just a young man when he translated the Aratea (admodum adulescentulus, On the Nature of the Gods 2.104). There may be some shared idea between them that dealing with the Greek hexameters of Aratus’ Phaenomena is a kind of intellectual rite of passage. Grotius is a fascinating figure – one anecdote that you hear about him is that he escaped prison by hiding in a trunk that was supposed to be filled with books…

Further reading: More on Hugo Grotius. English text of Aratus’ Phaenomena, based on the 1921 Loeb. Emma Gee has an excellent book – Ovid, Aratus and Augustus (2000, Cambridge) – which deals especially well with the idea of astronomical writing and the control of time. The Oxford World’s Classics series very recently brought out an English translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena accompanied by the astronomical commentaries of Eratosthenes and Hyginus (Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths, with Aratus’ Phaenomenatranslated by Robin Hard, 2015).


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