Aratus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Aratus of Soli c. 315 b.c.-c. 240 b.c.

Greek poet.

Aratus is the author of Phaenomena (c. 270 b.c.), a long, didactic poem that became one of the best known literary works of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Notable for its often imitated invocation to Zeus and thematic evocation of divine providence and celestial order, the Phaenomena is primarily an astronomical work oriented toward the identification of major constellations and the exposition of related myths and stories. A second portion of the poem, called the Diosemeia (c. 270 b.c.; Weather-Signs), concentrates on ancient principles of meteorological forecasting. Frequently adapted and translated, the Phaenomena, with its direct style, relatively simple lyric form, and Stoic themes, is regarded as one of the more influential minor poetic texts of the classical era. Other works by Aratus, none of which have survived, are said to include a selection of elegiac and miscellaneous verse, as well as an edition of Homer's Odyssey.

Biographical Information

Very few details of Aratus's life are known. Born in the Greek city of Soli in Cilicia (on the southeastern coast of what is now Turkey), Aratus presumably studied under Menecrates of Epheseus and Philetus of Cos. He was also a disciple of Praxiphanes early in his career and came into contact with the Stoic philosopher Zeno in Athens, the intellectual center of the Hellenistic world. By about 276, Aratus, probably due to the advocacy of Zeno, entered the court of Macedonian King Antigonus II Gonatas at Pella. Antigonus likely commissioned what would become Aratus's most famous work, the Phaenomena, composed in about 270 b.c. The poet additionally spent some time at the Seleucid court of Antiochus I of Syria and visited other centers of learning in the eastern Mediterranean, including Alexandria. He appears to have returned to Macedonia sometime before his death in approximately 240 b.c.

Textual History

The Aratean tradition rests almost exclusively on the survival of the Phaenomena, a work that prompted numerous commentaries during the Hellenistic period. Antique editors of the work include Theon of Alexandria, to whom the oldest extant manuscripts of the Phaenomena can be attributed. Later scribes of the classical era added commentary and illustrations, contributing to a renewal of the work's popularity in the Roman age, a period that witnessed numerous translations, adaptations, and imitations of the poem. Extensive textual corruption of the text resulted in the eighth-century Aratus Latinus, a distorted manuscript that has troubled Aratean scholarship for more than a millennium. In the late sixteenth century noted Dutch scholar Grotius attempted to correct the text, and the process has continued in the contemporary period. Jean Martin's 1956 edition of the Greek text (reissued in a second edition in 1998) has long been considered definitive. Twentieth-century translations of the poem have appeared in Italian, French, and German in addition to English; Douglas Kidd's 1997 translation and commentary of the Phaenomena is most highly regarded by his peers. Both Martin's and Kidd's works draw upon new manuscript evidence in reconstructing Aratus's poem.

Major Works

In addition to the Phaenomena, Aratus's poetic compositions are said to have included a series of funeral dirges, elegies, epigrams, and hymns, as well as a noted hymn to Pan. Occasionally mentioned in antique commentaries, all of these pieces, save for two of the epigrams, are now lost. Scholarly interest in the writings of Aratus, therefore, has concentrated solely on his Phaenomena, a poem in large part based upon the work of Greek astronomer Eudoxius of Cnidus. Eudoxius, a figure generally credited with developing the first mathematically based model of the motion of the sun, moon, planets, and other celestial bodies, flourished in the mid-fourth century b.c. and was a widely recognized authority on the heavens. Following Eudoxius, Aratus's poem in 1,154 Greek hexameters offers explanations of planetary orbits and lunar phases, observes the locations of significant lines of latitude, presents views on the nature of celestial bodies, and relates facts about comets and meteors. The main subject of the Phaenomena, however, is the identification of the principal constellations visible in the Mediterranean sky. The Diosemeia, a latter portion of the work sometimes treated as a separate poem, describes various forms of meteorological phenomena. The poem opens with an eighteen-line hymn to Zeus, a pious and Stoic expression of the poet's devotion to the mightiest of the Olympian gods. The bulk of the following approximately 700 verse lines contain Aratus's descriptions of dozens of constellations and the myths surrounding their creation, as well as several lengthy digressions. Most prominent among these is an extended treatment of Dike, the Greek goddess of justice. According to Aratus's retelling of the myth, Dike departed earth at the close of the virtuous Golden Age, signaling the end of the first of the legendary Ages of Man. Forsaking the corrupt sublunary realm of humankind, the goddess took her place in the heavens as the constellation Virgo. Other named constellations in the Phaenomena include such familiar zodiac signs as Pisces and Aries and collections of stars representing the mythic figures of Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and many more, with parable-like summaries of their deeds in verse. The later section of the Phaenomena, lines 758 to 1,154, returns to more terrestrial subjects. It features information regarding indications in the skies—such as a halo surrounding the moon—or on earth, including portentous behaviors exhibited by herons, gulls, frogs, oxen, centipedes, and many other creatures that were thought to suggest impending meteorological changes. Overall, scholars recognize that the Phaenomena expounds on the Stoic theme of providential divinity. Beginning with its opening invocation through to its closing descriptions of domestic beasts, the poem praises Zeus as the embodiment of celestial order and as the source of a system of phenomenological signs that may be interpreted by human beings in order to benefit their lives on earth.

Critical Reception

Now considered a work of relatively modest literary accomplishment, the Phaenomena was the source of considerable admiration and critical attention during Aratus's lifetime and for centuries thereafter. Epigrams by Callimachus and Leonidas of Tarentem, contemporaries of Aratus, lauded the work profusely. Indeed, the Phaenomena was extraordinarily well received and widely known, making Aratus one of the most recognized literary figures of the Hellenistic period. The poet's profile was minted onto the coins of Soli as a token of esteem, and by the second century b.c. the Phaenomena had been made the subject of numerous commentaries. New Testament writer St. Paul quoted Aratus's invocation to Zeus in his sermon to the Athenians on the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. The Phaenomena was warmly received in the Roman era as well. Considered a partial source-text for and forerunner to Virgil's Georgics, the poem is also thought to have influenced Ovid's Fasti. The appearance of numerous Latin translations and imitations of the work indicates its enduring appeal in the later classical era for such writers as Cicero, Caesar Germanicus, and Avienus. Cicero, despite high regard for the poem he adapted into his Aratea, nevertheless followed earlier commentators (including Hipparchus of the mid-second century b.c.) in pointing out the substantial limitations in Aratus's scientific knowledge of the heavens. Generally speaking, such denigration did little to diminish admiration for the poem, which remained strong for centuries. Popular interest in astrology has sustained interest in the Phaenomena into the contemporary era, with the work serving as something of a zodiacal handbook. Aratus's poem has also drawn the attention of academic scholars who have evaluated its stylistic debt to Hesiod and studied its literary peculiarities. Numerous critics have remarked on the poem's aesthetic flaws, especially in its final portion, which is regarded as a somewhat tiresome and obscure catalog of meteorological portents. The discovery of hidden acrostics in the text has intrigued postmodern critics interested in the linguistic principles that underlie the work. In the twentieth century, the Phaenomena continues to attract critics, as a number of new essays and two new translations demonstrate.