Aratus Essay - Critical Essays

Aratus of Soli


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.

Principal Works

*Diosemeia [Weather-Signs] (poetry) c. 270 b.c.

Phaenomena (poetry) c. 270 b.c.

Phenomena and Diosemeia of Aratus (translated by John Lamb) 1848

The Skies and Weather-Forecasts of Aratus (translated by E. Poste) 1880

Callimachus, Lycophron, Aratus (translated by G. R. Mair) 1921

Sky Signs: Aratus' Phaenomena (translated by Stanley Lombardo) 1983

Phaenomena (translated by Douglas Kidd) 1997

*The Diosemeia constitutes the latter portion of Aratus's Phaenomena, but has sometimes been treated as a separate work.


E. Poste (essay date 1880)

SOURCE: Poste, E. Preface to The Skies and Weather-Forecasts of Aratus, translated by E. Poste, pp. v-viii. London: Macmillan, 1880.

[In the following preface to his translation of Aratus's Phaenomena, Poste briefly summarizes the poet's life and antique commentaries on his writing.]

A little observation of the nightly skies inspired a curiosity to see what an ancient poet, now seldom read, had to say on the subject; and a moderate amount of pleasure having been derived from the perusal, the thought occurred that other students of Astronomy or Meteorology, to whom Aratus in his Greek garb was inaccessible, might feel the same curiosity. Hence the following...

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Alfred Körte (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: Körte, Alfred. “Alexandria: The Epic.” In Hellenistic Poetry, translated by Jacob Hammer and Moses Hadas, pp. 150-256. New York: Columbia University Press, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Körte surveys the content of Aratus's Phaenomena, noting its widespread popularity in the classical era.]

Aratus was a contemporary of Callimachus, perhaps an older contemporary, and was descended from a respectable family of Soli, a Greek city of Cilicia. With his brother Athenodorus he went to Athens to study. Both brothers joined the philosopher Zeno, who had at that time founded the Stoic school. Although Aratus' connection with the Stoa does not appear to...

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William Sale (essay date January 1966)

SOURCE: Sale, William. “The Popularity of Aratus.” Classical Journal 61, no. 4 (January 1966): 160-64.

[In the following essay, Sale explores the reputation of Aratus's Phaenomena, discussing the work as a guide to the stars, an astrologer's handbook, and a poetic blend of science and Stoicism.]

One of the tasks which any historian of Hellenistic literature must look upon as providing a definition of the term “thankless” is to explain why the Phaenomena of Aratus, which seems in most of its parts tedious, was so enormously popular from the third century b.c. until at least the fourth of our era. That it was popular cannot be gainsaid. The polymath...

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Friedrich Solmsen (essay date January 1966)

SOURCE: Solmsen, Friedrich. “Aratus on the Maiden and the Golden Age.” Hermes 94, no. 1 (January 1966): 124-28.

[In the following essay, Solmsen discusses Aratus's depiction of Dike, the maiden goddess of justice, and his vision of the Golden Age in the Phaenomena.]

Walther Ludwig's illuminating article1 has shown how ingeniously and with how gentle a hand Aratus appropriates Hesiodic motifs and phrases. Availing myself of Ludwig's insights, I offer a few additional observations bearing on the section about the Παθένοs (vv. 96-136).

In the opening lines of this section Aratus professes to leave his readers a choice between three...

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William Levitan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Levitan, William. “Plexed Artistry: Aratean Acrostics.” Glyph 5 (1979): 55-68.

[In the following excerpt, Levitan identifies three hidden acrostics in the Phaenomena that, he concludes, suggest the concepts of “subtlety, totality, and signification” which inform the literary aesthetics of Aratus.]

ϕύσιs κρύπτεσθαι ϕιλεῖ


Well, we have frankly enjoyed
more than anything these
secret workings of nature. …

Finnegans Wake

The aesthetic revolution that gave rise to the literature of the Hellenistic period (and ultimately to the literature of Rome)...

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Stanley Lombardo (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Lombardo, Stanley. Introduction to Sky Signs: Aratus's Phaenomena, translated by Stanley Lombardo. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1983, np.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to his translation of the Phaenomena, Lombardo remarks on Aratus's poetic vision and provides a structural outline of the poem.]

Aratus' Phaenomena is a semiological celebration of the sky in 1154 Greek hexameters. The sky has not changed much since the time of its publication (c. 270 b.c.) and it may be that the literary climate today is conducive to the revival of a work in which visual signs—celestial, meteorological and verbal—form the very stuff...

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Carl Springer (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Springer, Carl. “Aratus and the Cups of Menalcas: A Note on Eclogue 3.42.” Classical Journal 79, no. 2 (1984): 131-34.

[In the following essay, Springer notes allusions to Aratus in Virgil's third Eclogue.]

In Vergil's third Eclogue the herdsman Menalcas has forgotten the name of one of the two figures carved on the drinking cups which he proposes to wager in an amoebaean singing contest with another herdsman, Damoetas. Menalcas can only remember the name of Conon, a third-century astronomer at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus. So he asks Damoetas:

… quis fuit alter,
descripsit radio totum qui gentibus orbem,
tempora quae messor, quae...

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A. W. Bulloch (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Bulloch, A. W. “Hellenistic Poetry: Minor Figures.” In The Cambridge History of Classical Literature I: Greek Literature, edited by P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox, pp. 598-621. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Bulloch recounts what is known of Aratus's life and writings.]

Apollonius' Argonautica is the only narrative epic to have survived intact from the Hellenistic period, and the only other major examples of epic hexameter writing are poems in the didactic tradition by Aratus and Nicander. The biographies of both authors are uncertain, but about Aratus we can make some reasonable inferences. He seems to...

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George Lovi (essay date October 1986)

SOURCE: Lovi, George. “Aratus, the Constellation Bard.” Sky and Telescope 72, no. 4 (October 1986): 375-76.

[In the following essay, Lovi explores the content and popularity of Aratus's Phaenomena.]

Astronomers take the constellations so much for granted that relatively few give much thought to their origins. We're all aware that the best-known constellations “date from ancient times.” Yet in fact the 88 groups we recognize today differ drastically in age. The most recent are the 14 introduced in the southern sky by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1752 and 1763. The oldest have origins lost in prehistoric times.

Many constellations, including...

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G. O. Hutchinson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Hutchinson, G. O. “Other Poets: Aratus.” In Hellenistic Poetry, pp. 214-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Hutchinson presents a detailed structural, thematic, and linguistic analysis of the Phaenomena.]

We consider first Aratus, whose poetic career overlapped with Callimachus'.1 The only substantial work of his to survive is the Phaenomena. The poem was praised by Callimachus and others for its elegance; it also contains some elevated passages on the gods.2 We should not allow either fact to limit too greatly our approach to the poem. It does have for its core a poetic version of two...

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Barbara Hughes Fowler (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Fowler, Barbara Hughes. “The Creatures.” In The Hellenistic Aesthetic, pp. 115-67. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Fowler describes Aratus's portrayal of animals, the Stoic worldview, and his indebtedness to Hesiod in the Phaenomena.]

Aratus, more obviously than any other Hellenistic poet, shows a scientific interest in animals. He, of course, follows self-consciously in the Hesiodic, didactic tradition. A part of his didacticism is his versification of the works of Eudoxus and Theophrastus. Governing it all perhaps is his Stoicism. The pattern in the skies is perpetuated in the patterns on earth. The same fire that...

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M. J. Edwards (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Edwards, M. J. “Quoting Aratus: Acts 17,28.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentarische Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 83, nos. 3-4 (1992): 266-69.

[In the following essay, Edwards considers the extent to which Saint Paul and Luke may have possessed first-hand knowledge of the Phaenomena of Aratus.]

ἐν αὐτo γὰρ ζoμεν καὶ κινούμεθα καὶ ἐσμἐν· ὡs καί τινεs τoν καθ'ὑμas ποιητῶν εἰρήκασιν· τοὑγ ὰρ καὶ γἐνοs ἐσμἐν.

This verse from Paul's speech to the Athenians prompts two related...

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A.-M. Lewis (review date fall-winter 1999)

SOURCE: Lewis, A.-M. Review of Aratus: Phaenomena, edited and translated by Douglas Kidd. Phoenix 53, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1999): 371-74.

[In the following review, Lewis evaluates Douglas Kidd's prose translation of the Phaenomena, emphasizing its status as the new standard critical edition of the poem in English.]

Douglas Kidd is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He was first inspired to undertake an edition of the Phaenomena of Aratus over thirty years ago (as he mentions on page xi of his preface) and has written, since 1961, three articles dealing with Aratus and the...

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Emma Gee (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Gee, Emma. “Cicero's Astronomy.” Classical Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2001): 520-36.

[In the following essay, Gee assesses Cicero's Aratea—a Latin adaptation of Aratus's Phaenomena—comparing two versions of the work and analyzing the symbolic and philosophical concepts highlighted in Cicero's strongly Stoic interpretation of the poem.]


Imagine that the only reliable way of telling the time of year was by the stars. The observer would have to know the positions of the constellations and their movements relative to one another, and to be aware of the meteorological phenomena accompanying them. This...

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Mirjam Plantinga (review date 2001)

SOURCE: Plantinga, Mirjam. Review of Aratos: Phénomènes, edited and translated by J. Martin. Classical Review 51, no. 1 (2001): 23-5.

[In the following review, Plantinga compares J. Martin's French-language critical edition of the Phaenomena, with that of English translator Douglas Kidd, concluding that the two editions as complementary.]

At the beginning of his career, Professor J. Martin published his first edition of this text (Arati Phaenomena [Florence, 1956]) and a book on its textual tradition (Histoire du Texte des Phénomènes d'Aratos [Paris, 1956]); this was followed in 1974 by his edition of the scholia (Scholia in Aratum...

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Further Reading


Barnholth, William I. Aratos's Phaenomena, in Iambic Verse, translated by William I. Barnholth, Akron, Ohio: n.p., 1958, 19 p.

Privately printed translation of the Phaenomena in verse, preceded by a brief introduction.

Beede, Grace Lucile. Vergil and Aratus: A Study in the Art of Translation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Libraries, 1936, 90 p.

Comparative analysis of the Virgilian Georgics and Aratus's Phaenomena, its partial source-text.

Boyd, Barbara Weiden. “Celabitur Auctor: The Crisis of Authority and Narrative Patterning in Ovid...

(The entire section is 645 words.)