Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Claudius Ptolemy on astrological effects on peoples (second century CE),' Last modified October 26, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7231.
Comments: Claudius Ptolemy (a Greek active in Alexandria in the second century CE) is best known for his works on mathematics, on geography, and on astrology. In his Four Books (Tetrabiblos) on astrology and its effects, he goes into some detail about his theories regarding the correspondence between astrological phenomena and the character of peoples in different parts of the Mediterranean world. He first divides that world into three parts (north, south, and middle) before going on to its four quarters, in both cases outlining the astrological effects on peoples in each area. Noteable and not unexpected is the fact that he openly places Greek and Greek cities of Asia Minor at the centre of the universe with Greek peoples viewed as the most superior peoples in many ways.
Ptolemy’s Geography also mentions many descent groups or peoples throughout the Mediterranean, but it is just that: a list according to geographical location. In that work, there are no signs of the sort of theorizing about the characters of peoples that we find in the passage of Four Books presented here.
Source of the translation: F.E. Robbins, Ptolemy: Tetrabiblos, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1940), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.
[Characteristics of peoples of the three general regions]
2 On the specific characteristics of inhabitants in the general climates
[1. Southern peoples – Ethiopians]
The specific characteristics of peoples (ethnē) are established in part by entire parallels and angles through their position relative to the ecliptic and the sun. For while the region which we inhabit is in one of the northern quarters, the people who live under the more southern parallels, that is, those from the equator to the summer tropic (since they have the sun over their heads and are burned by it) have black skins and thick, woolly hair, they are contracted in form and shrunken in stature, they are hot-headed by nature, and they are for the most part savage (agrioi) in their habits (ēthē) because their homes are continually oppressed by the heat. We call them by the general name “Ethiopians.” Not only do we see them in this condition, but we likewise observe that their climate and the animals and plants of their region plainly give evidence of this baking by the sun.
[2. Northern peoples – Scythians]
Those who live under the more northern parallels, those, I mean, who have the Bears over their heads, since they are far removed from the zodiac and the heat of the sun, are therefore cooled. However, because they have a richer share of moisture, which is most nourishing and is not there exhausted by heat, they are white in complexion, they have straight hair, they are tall and well-nourished, and they are somewhat cold by nature. These people are also savage in their habits because their dwelling-places are continually cold. The wintry nature of their climate, the size of their plants, and the wildness of their animals are in accord with these qualities. We call these men, too, by a general name “Scythians.”
[3. Middle peoples]
The inhabitants of the region between the summer tropic and the Bears, however, since the sun is neither directly over their heads nor far distant at its noon-day transits, share in the equable temperature of the air, which varies, to be sure, but has no violent changes from heat to cold. They are therefore medium in colouring, they are moderate in stature, they are naturally equable, they live close together, and they are civilized (hēmeroi) in their habits.
The southernmost of them are in general more smart and inventive, and better versed in the knowledge of things divine because their zenith is close to the zodiac and to the planets revolving about it. Through this affinity the men themselves are characterized by an activity of the soul which is intelligent, investigative, and fitted for systematic study of mathematical knowledge.
The eastern group of them are more masculine, vigorous of soul, and direct in all things, because one would reasonably assume that the eastern partakes in the nature of the sun. This region therefore has the characteristics of the day and is masculine and right-handed, even as we observe that among the animals too their right-hand parts are better fitted for strength and vigour.
Those to the west are more feminine, softer of soul, and secretive, because this region, again, is lunar, for it is always in the west that the moon emerges and makes its appearance after conjunction. For this reason it appears to be a nocturnal climate, feminine, and, in contrast with the eastern, left-handed.
[Effects of the general regions on character and customs]
And now in each of these general regions certain special conditions of character and customs naturally ensue. For as likewise, in the case of the climate, even within the regions that in general are reckoned as hot, cold, or temperate, certain localities and lands have special peculiarities of excess or deficiency by reason of their situation, height, lowness, or adjacency. Furthermore, as some peoples are more inclined to horseman-ship because theirs is a plain country, or to seaman-ship because they live close to the sea, so also would one discover special traits in each arising from the natural familiarity of their particular climates with the stars in the signs of the zodiac. These traits, too, would be found generally present, but not in every individual. We must, then, deal with the subject summarily, in so far as it might be of use for the purpose of particular investigations.
[Further astrological details about the four quarters of the inhabited world and their peoples: Europe, southern Greater Asia [Ethiopia], northern Greater Asia [Scythia], and Libya]
3. On the familiarities between lands and the triplicities and stars.
Now of the four triangular formations recognized in the zodiac, as we have shown above, the one which consists of Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius is northwestern, and is chiefly dominated by Jupiter on account of the north wind, but Mars joins in its government because of the south-west wind. That which is made up of Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn is south-eastern, and again is governed primarily by Venus on account of the south wind, but conjointly by Saturn because of the east wind. The one consisting of Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius is north-eastern and is governed primarily by Saturn because of the east wind, and conjointly by Jupiter because of the north wind. The triangle of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces is south-western and is governed primarily, because of the west wind, by Mars, who is joined by Venus as co-ruler on account of the south wind.
As this is so, and since our inhabited world is divided into four quarters, equal in number to the triangles, and is divided latitudinally by our sea from the straits of Herakles to the gulf of Issos and the mountainous ridge adjacent on the east, and by these its southern and northern portions are separated, and in longitude by the Arabian gulf, the Aegean Sea, the Pontοs [Black Sea], and the Lake Maiotis [Sea of Azov], whereby the eastern and western portions are separated, there arise four quarters, and these agree in position with the triangles.
The first quarter lies in the north-west of the whole inhabited world. It embraces Celtic Gaul (Celtogalatia) and we give it the general name Europe. Opposite this is the south-eastern quarter. This includes eastern Ethiopia, which would be called the southern part of Greater Asia. Furthermore, the north-eastern quarter of the whole inhabited world is that which contains Scythia, which likewise is the northern part of Greater Asia. The quarter opposite this and toward the south-west wind, the quarter of western Ethiopia, is that which we call by the general term Libya.
Furthermore, of each of the quarters mentioned above the parts which are placed closer to the centre of the inhabited world are placed in a contrary fashion with respect to the surrounding quarters, just as are the latter in comparison with the whole world. Since the European quarter lies in the north-west of the whole world, the parts around the centre, which are allied to the opposite angle, obviously are situated in the south-east part of the quarter. The same holds of the other quarters, so that each of them is related to two oppositely situated triangles. For while the other parts are in harmony with the general inclination of the quarter, the portions at the centre of the world share in familiarity with the opposite inclination, and, again, of the stars that govern in their own triangles, in all the other domiciles they alone govern. But in the parts around the centre of the world likewise the other group, and Mercury besides, because he is mid-way between and common to the two sects.
[1. Characteristics of peoples in Europe]
Under this arrangement, the remainder of the first quarter, by which I mean the European quarter, situated in the north-west of the inhabited world, is in familiarity with the north-western triangle, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and is governed, as one would expect, by the lords of the triangle, Jupiter and Mars, western. In terms of entire peoples (ethnē), these parts consist of Britannia, Galatia, Germania, Bastarnia, Italy, Gaul, Apulia, Sicily, Tyrrhenia, Celtica, and Spain. As one might expect, it is the general characteristic of these peoples, by reason of the predominance of the triangle and the stars which join in its government, to be independent, freedom-loving, fond of weapons, industrious, very warlike, with qualities of leadership, cleanly, and magnanimous. However, because of the western aspect of Jupiter and Mars, and furthermore because the first parts of the triangle mentioned above are masculine and the latter parts feminine, they are without passion for women and look down upon the pleasures of love, but are better satisfied with and more desirous of sexual intercourse with men. They do not consider it disgraceful to take effeminate roles (malakoi), nor indeed do they actually become effeminate and soft as a result, because their disposition is not perverted, but they retain in their souls manliness, helpfulness, good faith, love of kinsmen, and benevolence.
Of these same lands Britannia, Galatia, Germania, and Bastarnia are in closer familiarity with Aries and Mars. Therefore for the most part their inhabitants are fiercer, more headstrong, and bestial. But Italy, Apulia, Gaul, and Sicily have their familiarity with Leo and the sun. Therefore these peoples are more masterful, benevolent, and cooperative. Tyrrhenia, Celtica, and Spain are subject to Sagittarius and Jupiter, which is where they get their independence, simplicity, and love of cleanliness.
[Centre of the inhabited world: Greeks]
The parts of this quarter which are situated around the centre of the inhabited world, Thrace, Macedonia, Illyria, Hellas, Achaia, Krete, and likewise the Kyklades islands, and the coastal regions of Asia Minor and the island of Kypros, which are in the south-east portion of the whole quarter, have in addition familiarity with the south-east triangle, Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn, and its co-rulers Venus, Saturn, and Mercury. As a result the inhabitants of those lands are brought into conformity with these planets and both in body and soul are of a more mingled constitution. They too have qualities of leadership and are noble and independent, because of Mars. They are freedom-loving and self-governing and they are democratic and framers of law, through Jupiter. They are lovers of music and of learning, fond of contests and clean livers, through Venus. They are social, friendly to strangers, justice-loving, fond of letters, and very effective in eloquence, through Mercury. They are particularly addicted to the performance of mysteries, because of Venus’s western aspect. And again, part by part, those of this group who live in the Kyklades islands and on the shores of Asia Minor and Kypros island are more closely familiar to Taurus and Venus. For this reason they are, on the whole, luxurious, clean, and attentive to their bodies. The inhabitants of Hellas, Achaia, and Krete, however, have a familiarity with Virgo and Mercury. They are therefore better at reasoning and fond of learning, and they exercise the soul in preference to the body. The Macedonians, Thracians, and Illyrians have familiarity with Capricorn and Saturn, so that, though they are acquisitive, they are not as mild natured, nor social in their institutions.
[2. Characteristics of peoples in the southern portion of greater Asia]
Of the second quarter, which embraces the southern part of greater Asia, the other parts, including India, Ariana, Gedrosia, Parthia, Media, Persia, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria, which are situated in the south-east of the whole inhabited world, are, as we might presume, familiar to the south-eastern triangle, Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn, and are governed by Venus and Saturn in eastern aspects. Therefore one would find that the natures of their inhabitants conform with the temperaments governed by such rulers. For they revere the star of Venus under the name of Isis, and that of Saturn as Mithras Helios. Most of them, too, divine future events. They practice consecrating the genital organs because of the aspect of the stars mentioned above, which is by nature generative. Further, they are hot-headed, lustful, and inclined to the pleasures of love. Through the influence of Venus they are dancers and leapers and fond of adornment, and through that of Saturn luxurious livers. They engage in intercourse with women openly and not in secret, because of the planets’ eastern aspect, but hold in detestation such relations with males. For these reasons most of them beget children by their own mothers, and they do obeisance to the breast, by reason of the morning rising of the planets and on account of the primacy of the heart, which is akin to the sun’s power. As for the rest, they are generally luxurious and effeminate in dress, in adornment, and in all habits relating to the body, because of Venus. In their souls and by their predilection they are magnanimous, noble, and warlike, because of the familiarity of Saturn eastern.
Part by part, again, Parthia, Media, and Persia are more closely familiar to Taurus and Venus. So their inhabitants use embroidered clothing, which covers their entire body except the breast, and they are generally luxurious and clean. Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria are familiar to Virgo and Mercury, and so the study of mathematics and the observation of the five planets are special traits of these peoples. India, Ariana, and Gedrosia have familiarity with Capricorn and Saturn. Therefore the inhabitants of these lands are ugly, unclean, and bestial.
The remaining parts of the quarter, situated around the centre of the inhabited world, Idumea, Coele-Syria, Judea, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Orchinia, and Arabia Felix, which are situated toward the north-west of the whole quarter, have additional familiarity with the north-western triangle, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. Furthermore, they have as co-rulers Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. Therefore these peoples are, in comparison with the others, more gifted in trade and exchange. They are more unscrupulous, despicable cowards, treacherous, servile, and in general fickle, on account of the aspect of the stars mentioned. Of these, again, the inhabitants of Coele-Syria, Idumea, and Judea are more closely familiar to Aries and Mars, and therefore these peoples are in general bold, godless, and scheming. The Phoenicians, Chaldeans, and Orchinians have familiarity with Leo and the sun, so that they are simpler, kindly, addicted to astrology, and beyond all men worshippers of the sun. The inhabitants of Arabia Felix are familiar to Sagittarius and Jupiter. This explains the fertility of the country, in accordance with its name, and its multitudes of spices, and the grace of its inhabitants and their free spirit in daily life, in exchange, and in business.
[3. Characteristics of the peoples in the northern part of Greater Asia]
Of the third quarter, which includes the northern part of Greater Asia, the other parts, embracing Hyrkania, Armenia, Matiana, Baktriana, Kasperia, SeriKa, Sauromatika, Oxiana, Sogdiana, and the regions in the north-east of the inhabited world, are in familiarity with the north-eastern triangle, Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius, and are, as might be expected, governed by Saturn and Jupiter in eastern aspect. Therefore, the inhabitants of these lands worship Jupiter and Saturn, have much riches and gold, and are cleanly and cheerful in their living, wise with regard to matters about the gods, just and liberal in manners, lofty and noble in soul, haters of evil, and affectionate, and ready to die for their friends in a fair and holy cause. They are dignified and pure in their sexual relations, lavish in dress, gracious and magnanimous. These things in general are brought about by Saturn and Jupiter in eastern aspects.
Of these peoples, again, Hyrkania, Armenia, and Matiana are more closely familiar to Gemini and Mercury. They are accordingly more easily stirred and inclined to wickedness. Baktriana, Kasperia, and Serika are akin to Libra and Venus, so that their peoples are rich and followers of the Muses, and more luxurious. The regions of Sauromatika, Oxiana, and Sogdiana are in familiarity with Aquarius and Saturn. These peoples therefore are more ungentle, stern, and bestial.
The remaining parts of this quarter, which lie close to the centre of the inhabited world, Bithynia, Phrygia, Kolchika, Syria, Kommagene, Kappadokia, Lydia, Lykia, Kilikia, and Pamphylia, since they are situated in the south-west of the quarter, have in addition familiarity with the south-western quarter, Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces, and their co-rulers are Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Therefore those who live in these lands generally worship Venus as the mother of the gods, calling her by various local names, and Mars as Adonis, to whom again they give other names, and they celebrate in their honour certain mysteries accompanied by lamentations. They are exceedingly depraved, servile, laborious, and wicked. They are to be found in mercenary expeditions, looting and taking captives, enslaving their own peoples, and engaging in destructive wars. Because of the junction of Mars and Venus in the east, since Mars is exalted in Capricorn, a sign of Venus’s triangle, it comes about that their women display complete goodwill to their husbands. They are affectionate, home-keepers, diligent, helpful, and in every respect laborious and obedient. Of these peoples, again, those who live in Bithynia, Phrygia, and Kolchika are more closely familiar to Cancer and the moon. Therefore the men are in general cautious and obedient, and most of the women, through the influence of the moon’s eastern and masculine aspect, are virile, commanding, and warlike, like the Amazons, who shun commerce with men, love weapons, and from infancy make masculine all their female characteristics, by cutting off their right breasts for the sake of military needs and baring these parts in the line of battle, in order to display the absence of femininity in their natures. The people of Syria, Kommagene, and Kappadokia are familiar to Scorpio and Mars. Therefore much boldness, knavery, treacherous, and laboriousness are found among them. The people of Lydia, Kilikia, and Pamphylia have familiarity with Pisces and Jupiter. Accordingly they are more wealthy, commercial, social, free, and trustworthy in their compacts.
[4. Characteristics of the peoples of Libya]
Of the remaining quarter, which includes what is called by the common name Libya, the other parts, including Numidia, Carthage, Africa, Phazania, Nasamonitis, Garamantika, Mauritania, Gaetulia, Metagonitis, and the regions situated in the south-west of the inhabited world, are related by familiarity to the south-western triangle, Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces, and are accordingly ruled by Mars and Venus in western aspect. For this reason it befalls most of the inhabitants, because of the above mentioned junction of these planets, to be governed by a man and wife who are own brother and sister,the man ruling the men and the woman the women. A succession of this sort is maintained. They are extremely ardent and disposed to commerce with women, so that even their marriages are brought about by violent abduction, and frequently their kings enjoy the first night with the brides, and among some of them the women are common to all the men. They are fond of beautifying themselves and dress themselves with feminine adornments, through the influence of Venus. Through that of Mars, however, they are virile of spirit, wicked, magicians, impostors, deceivers, and reckless.
Of these people, again, the inhabitants of Numidia, Carthage, and Africa are more closely familiar to Cancer and the moon. They therefore are social, commercial, and live in great abundance. Those who inhabit Metagonitis, Mauritania, and Gaetulia are familiar to Scorpio and Mars. They are accordingly fiercer and very warlike, meat-eaters, very reckless, and contemptuous of life to such an extent as not even to spare one another. Those who live in Phazania, Nasamonitis, and Garamantika are familiar to Pisces and Jupiter. Therefore, they are free and simple in their characters, willing to work, intelligent, cleanly, and independent, as a general rule, and they are worshippers of Jupiter as Ammon.
The remaining parts of the quarter, which are situated near the centre of the inhabited world, Kyrenaika, Marmarika, Egypt, Thebes, the Oasis, Troglodytika, Arabia, Azania, and Middle Ethiopia, which face the north-east of the whole quarter, have an additional familiarity with the north-eastern triangle Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. Therefore they have as co-rulers Saturn and Jupiter and, furthermore, Mercury. Accordingly those who live in these lands, because they all in common, as it were, are subject to the western rulership of the five planets, are worshippers of the gods, superstitious, very focussed on the gods and fond of lamentation. They bury their dead in the earth, putting them out of sight, on account of the western aspect of the planets. They practice all kinds of usages, customs, and rites in the service of all manner of gods. Under command they are humble, timid, petty, and long-suffering, in leadership courageous and magnanimous. But they are polygamous, polyandrous and lecherous, marrying even their own sisters. The men are potent in begetting and the women in conceiving, even as their land is fertile. Furthermore, many of the males are unsound and effeminate of soul, and some even hold in contempt the organs of generation, through the influence of the aspect of the maleficent planets in combination with Venus western.
Of these peoples the inhabitants of Kyrenaika and Marmarika, and particularly of Lower Egypt, are more closely familiar to Gemini and Mercury. For this reason they are thoughtful, intelligent and facile in all things, especially in the search for wisdom and matters about the gods. They are magicians and performers of secret mysteries and in general skilled in mathematics. Those who live in Thebes, the Oasis, and Troglodytika are familiar to Libra and Venus. They are therefore more ardent and lively of nature and live in plenty. The people of Arabia, Azania, and Middle Ethiopia are familiar to Aquarius and Saturn, for which reason they are flesh-eaters, fish-eaters, and nomads, living a rough, bestial life.
Let this be our brief exposition of the familiarities of the planets and the signs of the zodiac with the various peoples, and of the general characteristics of the latter. We shall also set forth, for ready use, a list of the several peoples which are in familiarity, merely noted against each of the signs, in accordance with what has just been said about them, in this way:
- Aries (Krios in the Greek): Britannia, Gaul, Germania, Bastarnia; in the centre, Coele-Syria, Palestine, Idumea, Judea.
- Taurus (Tauros): Parthia, Media, Persia; in the centre, the Kyklades, Kypros, the coastal region of Asia Minor.
- Gemini (Didymoi): Hyrkania, Armenia, Matiana; in the centre, Kyrenaika, Marmarika, Lower Egypt.
- Cancer (Karkinos): Numidia, Carthage, Africa; in the centre, Bithynia, Phrygia, Kolchika.
- Leo (Leon): Italy, Galatia, Sicily, Apulia; in the centre, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Orchenia.
- Virgo (Parthenos): Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Assyria; in the centre, Hellas, Achaia, Krete.
- Libra (Zygos): Baktriana, Kasperia, Serika; in the centre, Thebes, Oasis, Troglodytika.
- Scorpio (Scorpios): Metagonitis, Mauritania, Gaetulia; in the centre, Syria, Kommagene, Kappadokia.
- Sagittarius (Toxotes): Tyrrhenia, Celtica, Spain; in the centre, Arabia Felix.
- Capricorn (Aigokeros): India, Ariana, Gedrosia; in the centre, Thrace, Macedonia, Illyria.
- Aquarius (Hydrokoos): Sauromatica, Oxiana, Sogdiana; in the centre, Arabia, Azania, Middle Ethiopia.
- Pisces (Ichthys): Phazania, Nasamonitis, Garamantika; in the centre, Lydia, Kilikia, Pamphylia.
Now that the subject at hand has been set forth, it is reasonable to attach to this section this further consideration: That each of the fixed stars has familiarity with the lands with which the parts of the zodiac, which have the same inclination as the fixed stars upon the circle drawn through its poles, appear to exert sympathy. Furthermore, that, in the case of metropolitan cities, those regions of the zodiac are most sympathetic through which the sun and moon, and of the centres especially the horoscope, were passing at the first founding of the city, as in a nativity. But in cases in which the exact times of the foundations are not discovered, the regions are sympathetic in which falls the mid-heaven of the birth dates of those who held office or were kings at the time.