Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Preceptum Canonis Ptolomei

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Preceptum Canonis Ptolomei

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Toward the middle of the sixth century the former secretary of the Ostrogothic king, Theoderic, the Senator Cassiodorus composed for the monks of his monastic foundation, Vivarium, a guide to sacred and profane literature1. The last substantive chapter, before the conclusio, of the second book of the /nstitutiones is on the last of the seven liberal arts, De astronomía2. Cassiodorus begins this chapter with a brief compilation of appropriate passages from Scripture, and then proceeds to define the sixteen topics that he believes astronomy to consist of : «spherica positio, sphericus motus», and so on3. Certain technical terms that occur among these sixteen topics he not only defines, but for each provides the Greek equivalent. So for the forward motion of the planets, which he calls in Latin «praecedentia vel antegradatio», he gives the Greek «propodismos» ; for the planets' retrograde motion, «remotio vel retrogradado» in Latin, he gives the Greek «ypopodismos aut anapodismos» ; and for their stations, «status» in Latin, he provides the Greek «stirigmos». The Latin terms were copied by Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae4, and thence were borrowed by numerous medieval authors ; but in the Latin literature before Cassiodorus they do not occur - except for retrogradado or retrogradus5 - in Pliny, Firmicus Maternus, Macrobius, Calcidius, or Martianus Capella. The Latin terms, then, seem to be Cassiodorus' own translations of the Greek terms that he cites.

These Greek terms - TTpoTroSiapos-, ùnoTToÔiapôç, àvanoôiapôs-, and crrqpiypôç - are common in Greek astronomical and astrological texts. The question, then, is apparent : did Cassiodorus know enough Greek and enough astronomy to be able to peruse, say, Ptolemy's ZùvTaÉiç or Proclus' 'TnoTÚmoais-, to pick out these terms, and to understand their meaning ? Or did he find them in a Latin text other than those we have mentioned ? Though Cassiodorus was certainly capable of translating Greek6, he does not give any evidence of having an advanced knowledge of astronomy sufficient to allow him to read Ptolemy or Proclus. But there is evidence that he consulted the Latin version of Ptolemy's Kavoveç npoyeipoi or Handy Tables, that is, the Preceptum canonis Ptolomei, in whose instructions Greek technical terms are presented in transliteration7. Though the parts of the Preceptum that dealt with the forward and retrograde motion and the stations of the planets are no longer present in the manuscripts that have survived of that curious work, we shall soon see that their absence can be explained.

But now we must return to the chapter De astronomía in book II of the Institutiones. Cassiodorus proceeds after his enumeration and defi- nition of the sixteen topics of astronomy to describe the literature pertinent to that science8 : «De astronomía vero disciplina in utraque lingua diversorum quidem sunt scripta Volumina ; inter quos tarnen Ptolomeus apud Graecos praecipuus habetur, qui de hac re duos codices edidit, quorum unum minorem, alterum maiorem vocavit astronomum». Ptolemy's «minor astronomus» may be the piKpôç àaTpovopoùpcvoç to which the scholiast to the Vatican manuscript of Pappus, Vat. gr. 218, refers at the beginning of book VI of the Xuvaymyn9, and the piKpôç àorpovôpoç that Theon is said in an anonymous text on isoperimetric figures to have commented on10. This latter text is part of the Elaayioyn to Ptolemy's ZùvTa^iç that Mogenet has shown to have probably been composed by Eutocius11, who wrote in about the year 500. The Little Astronomy was probably the collection of mainly Hellenistic texts on astronomy and geometry that are preserved as a corpus in Byzantine, Arabic, and medieval Latin manuscripts12. None of these texts, however, is by Ptolemy, so that it remains problematical why Cassiodorus should have claimed that his «minor astronomus» was by the great Alexandrian13. The «maior astronomus» of Ptolemy, however, must be his 2ùvTa£iç. …

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