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This talk proposes Roman Religious Metaphysics as a semantic framework that allowed astrology to establish itself in Rome during the 2nd century BCE, and positioned it to flourish in Augustan Rome. Scholars of ancient religion like Dumezil (1996), Burkert (1985), Bremmer (1994), Beard (1998), and Feeney (1999) have explored the origins and development of Roman religion primarily through a focus on ritual practices as described by Ovid, Varro, and Cicero. Roman religion’s metaphysical basis has thus been overlooked by earlier scholarship that has focused on the complexities of ritual and the integration of anthropomorphized Greek deities into the more abstract Roman pantheon rather than the meaning behind the rituals. Here, we expand on their scholarship by tracing the semantic system used in Republican Roman divination and sacrificial systems. Though we lack liturgical manuals explaining the significances behind Roman rituals, examining the references to prodigies, omens, and accompanying propitiatory sacrificial practices presents a highly complex network of associations between earthly, celestial, and divine entities, spanning the micro-macrocosmic divide. We then suggest that Religious Metaphysics enabled astrology to take hold in the Roman context and placed it in competition with earlier, state-sanctioned divinatory practices. Unlike divination which required the interpretation of Numen (divine will) after prodigies or omens appeared, astrology could predict events based on celestial movements and explain divine will through the regular planetary and stellar motions since different divinities were associated with the celestial bodies.

We then demonstrate Roman astrology’s reliance on Religious Metaphysics in practice by examining the example of Sirius, the Dog Star, for whom the Robigalia festival and propitiatory puppy sacrifice were performed to prevent the onset of red-colored crop blight, which Ovid (Fast. 4.901-942) and Varro (Ling. VI.16; Rust. I.16) discuss as an important agricultural rite. Sirius’ rising marked the hottest part of the Summer, which was a turning point for the Roman harvest. If properly pacified, Sirius permitted crops to finish growing for the Fall harvest, but if inflamed and enraged, he would destroy the crops with red mildew.

In his Astronomica, Manilius builds on the earlier religious metaphysics associated with Sirius and tells us that in astrology, the fiery-red appearance of Sirius and Canicula, the lesser Dog Star, produces extreme changes in the seasons and peoples’ psycho-physical condition. Drawing on the star’s earlier connections to Robigus (The Ruddy God), to Mars the god of warfare, and Sirius’ importance in agriculture, Manilius demonstrates this Religious metaphysics at work. He closes his poem (Astr. 5.206-233) with an ekpyrosis (cosmic conflagration) brought on by the fire-breathing dog constellation Canicula who burns the world and causes humanity to devolve into a Martial, anger-driven, self-destructive bloodshed (Astr. 5.220-223) all through Sirius’ influence. Our discussion delineates Roman religion’s metaphysical network and argues that this semantic framework was critical for the foreign, “Chaldean” science of astrology to take root in the Roman religious and scientific milieu. By doing so, we move the scholarly discussion regarding Roman religion beyond its ritual aspects.