Firmicus Maternus was a lawyer and astrologer from Sicily who lived during the time of the Emperor Constantine and his sons in the mid-4th century CE. He wrote a long textbook on astrology in Latin known as the Mathesis.
About the Mathesis
Firmicus’ book largely consists of delineation material that has been excerpted from earlier Greek authors and translated into Latin. He has a somewhat bombastic style, although he is useful because he preserves quite a bit of older material that would otherwise have been lost.
Firmicus dedicated the Mathesis to a government official and friend of his named Lollianus Mavortius. Mavortius had apparently nursed Firmicus back to health after a difficult winter journey, and during their time together he introduced Firmicus to the subject of astrology (Mathesis, 1, proem: 2-5). At some point during their time together Firmicus apparently made a brash offer to write a textbook on astrology in Latin for Mavortius based on earlier sources, perhaps due to his ability to read Greek, and although he later came to regret committing to what became a rather laborious task, he dutifully fulfilled his promise eventually (Mathesis, 1, proem: 6-8).
The title of his book, Mathesis, derives from a Greek term that means “learning” or “the act of learning.” In the Latin of Firmicus’ day the term came to mean “knowledge” or “science,” and Firmicus frequently refers to astrology within the latter context as “the mathesis” or “the science” (Mathesis, 1, 1: 7). So, Firmicus’ Mathesis means “The Science (of Astrology).”
Curiously, Firmicus’ Mathesis contains the only known surviving horoscope in Latin from the classical period.
The Dating of Firmicus
There is a bit of a dispute over the dating of Firmicus. Some internal evidence indicates that he was writing the Mathesis in the mid-330s, and so some authors date him to circa 335 CE.
However, others have pointed out that some statements that he makes about his friend Mavortius’s career could only be interpreted to mean that he didn’t finish writing the Mathesis until after the year 355. These authors tend to date Firmicus to circa 355 CE.
The arguments for the earlier or later dating are long and complicated, so they will be dealt with in a separate article, but in either case we do know that Firmicus lived and wrote sometime around the middle of the 4th century CE.
Firmicus is first mentioned by Sidonius Apollinaris in the mid-5th century, who refers to him as a writer on astrology (Sidonius, Poems and Letters, XXII: 3).
The standard critical edition of the Mathesis was published in two volumes by Kroll, Skutsch and Ziegler from 1897-1913.
- Iulii Firmici Materni Mathesos libri VIII, 2 vols., ed. W. Kroll, F. Skutsch, K. Ziegler, Teubner, Leipzig, 1897-1913 (reprinted 1968).
Google Books has scanned volume 1 of the critical edition, which contains books 1 through 4:
Volume 2 of the critical edition, containing books 5-8, was recently made available by the Internet Archive:
A more recent edition of the Mathesis was published by Pierre Monat in the 1990’s along with a French translation. See the end of the translations section below for more information on this edition.
Translations of the Mathesis
There are currently two translations of the Mathesis into English, and one translation into French.
Until recently the standard English translation was published in the 1970’s by Jean Rhys Bram:
- Firmicus Maternus, Ancient Astrology, Theory and Practice: Matheseos Libri VIII, trans. Jean Rhys Bram, Noyes Press, Park Ridge, New Jersey, 1975. [Available via Amazon]
In the 1990s Pierre Monat published a new critical edition of the Mathesis with a French translation on the facing pages:
- Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, 3 vols., ed. and trans. Pierre Monat, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1992-1997.
A second English translation of the Mathesis which draws on both of the earlier critical editions was published by James Holden in 2011:
- Julius Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, ed. and trans. James Herschel Holden, American Federation of Astrologers, Tempe, Arizona, 2011. [Available via Amazon]
Bram, Jean Rhys (trans.), Firmicus Maternus, Ancient Astrology, Theory and Practice: Matheseos Libri VIII, Noyes Press, Park Ridge, New Jersey, 1975.
Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, edited in Iulii Firmici Materni Mathesos libri VIII, 2 vols., ed. W. Kroll, F. Skutsch, K. Ziegler, Teubner, Leipzig, 1897-1913 (reprinted 1968).
Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, trans. Clarence A. Forbes, Newman Press, New York, NY, 1970.
Holden, James Herschel (ed. and trans.), Julius Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, American Federation of Astrologers, Tempe, Arizona, 2011.
Monat, Pierre (ed. and trans.), Firmicus Maternus, Mathesis, 3 vols., Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1992-1997.
Sidonius, Poems and Letters, vol. 1, trans. W. B. Anderson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1939.
- Author: Chris Brennan
- Originally published: December 20, 2011 | Last updated: December 27, 2015
- Article notes: The article is currently incomplete, and will be expanded in the future.
- Cite this article: Chris Brennan, “Firmicus Maternus,” The Hellenistic Astrology Website, December 27, 2014, https://www.hellenisticastrology.com/astrologers/firmicus-maternus/