The sidereal zodiac in Hellenistic and Persian astrology


In reading the texts of Hellenistic and Persian astrologers, like Vettius Valens and Abu Ma’Shar, it becomes clear that in their case examples they are using the sidereal zodiac, which they inherited from the Babylonians. Even though Hellenistic astrologers around the time of Christ were aware of the findings of Hipparchus regarding the precession of the equinoxes, they persisted in using the sidereal zodiac.

For example, in the 1st century text De re rustica by Roman author Lucius Columella (4 – 70 CE), who wrote about agricultural topics, we find the following comment:

“Winter begins around 8 days before the first day of January, when the Sun is in the 8th degree of Capricorn.  I am not persuaded by the argument of Hipparchus who teaches that the solstices and equinoxes do not occur in the 8th degree of the zodiacal signs but rather in the very 1st degree”  (my translation into English).

Here we see a first century Roman agriculturalist, well acquainted with the seasons of the year, who rejects the tropical zodiac of Hipparchus and instead states his preference for a sidereal zodiac which locates the vernal equinox in the 8th degree of Aries (that is, between 7 and 8 degrees of Aries).

The ayanamsa of Usha-Shashi takes into account this difference postulated by Columella between the tropical and sidereal zodiacs. To illustrate this difference, I cast the vernal equinox for 50 CE in NYC in the tropical zodiac (on the left) and in the sidereal zodiac with the ayanamsa of Usha-Shashi (on the right) in the figure below.

As you can see, in the year 50 CE (at the time when Columella lived), in the tropical zodiac the Sun lies at 0 Aries 0 in the 1st degree of Aries, whereas in the sidereal zodiac the Sun lies at 7 Aries 03 at the beginning of the 8th degree of Aries.

Interestingly, in his book on annual revolutions, the Persian astrologer Abu Ma’Shar describes his own birth chart, which appears to be cast in the sidereal zodiac with what we would now call the ayanamsa of Raman.  Here is what the vernal equinox of the year 50 CE would look like with the ayanamsa of Raman:

The above chart places the vernal equinox in the 5th degree of Aries of the sidereal zodiac in the year 50 CE rather than the 8th degree of Aries, which was in common use by Hellenistic astrologers of the first century CE.

About Anthony Louis

Author of books about astrology and tarot, including TAROT PLAIN AND SIMPLE, HORARY ASTROLOGY, and THE ART OF FORECASTING WITH SOLAR RETURNS.
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1 Response to The sidereal zodiac in Hellenistic and Persian astrology

  1. Nerthus says:

    You had said: “Even though Hellenistic astrologers around the time of Christ were aware of the findings of Hipparchus regarding the precession of the equinoxes, they persisted in using the sidereal zodiac.”

    Why not? That was the tradition of the Chaldeans, those who originated the system we now call astrology.

    The tropical system was developed when Greek astronomers borrowed the Chaldean constellations and applied them to their own native ecliptic calendar. Through the centuries they became increasingly precise in finding the equinox, until Hipparchus.

    It was a sacred solar calendar (as it still is today in India). It was not used for astrology (as it still is not used today in India).

    If anything, the precession of the equinox discounts the use of the tropical Greek calendar for astrology. The point of 0 Aries continues to move. In 560 AD it lined up with the Chaldean 0 Aries and then kept on going.

    That is perhaps why, until Ptolemy, no one used it for reading charts. His contemporary, Vettius Valens, used the Chaldean sidereal system. He was an actual practicing astrologer, whereas Ptolemy was a philosopher and scientist.

    Lucius Romella lived before Ptolemy.

    Regarding his quote:

    “Winter begins around 8 days before the first day of January, when the Sun is in the 8th degree of Capricorn. I am not persuaded by the argument of Hipparchus who teaches that the solstices and equinoxes do not occur in the 8th degree of the zodiacal signs but rather in the very 1st degree”

    He simply does not understand that tropical Capricorn 0 WAS sidereal Capricorn 8. Of course, by his time the solstice was probably between 3 – 4 sidereal Capricorn.

    With all do respect, your assumption the tropical must be correct because “we discovered something new”, namely; the precession of the equinox, likely betrays the assumption of Ptolemy your forbearer. “We Greeks are scientifically, technologically and astronomically superior to those Chaldeans, therefore our superior calendar should be the new improved basis of their ancient system.”

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