The theory of climates; astrological ethnography in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Empire

Many Byzantine texts suggest that one’s origin from a particular area also could be the cause of certain defects of character. Some of these prejudices are reflected by Constantine the Porphyrogennetos in his De Thematibus: the natives of Cappadocia were regarded as greedy and wicked as the echidna. The Paphlagonians were described, with reference to Homer, as “blameworthy and being known for their obscenity and depravity,” while subsequent Byzantine tradition spoke even worse of them. Similar prejudices existed in regard to the natives of Isauria who were considered bandits and ruthless barbarians.


Geographic origin could easily become an object of scorn and ridicule, in which the alleged negative traits inherent in the natives of an area were depicted in a grotesque and exaggerated manner. Such topographic prejudices are well known in many cultures of the Mediterranean and beyond; the Byzantines were in no way an exception. Those originating from outside the πατρίς ( = the fatherland) were referred to as “foreigners” and “outsiders” (ξένοι, ἀλότριοι, ἐξωτικοί, etc.). The negative connotations of “foreigners”and “outsiders” were mainly of a “cultural” sense, denoting that the character, upbringing, and education were inferior to those of the locals.

It must be emphasized that the biogeographical features of one’s origin had nothing to do with ethnic, tribal, or religious components of identity but rather indicated the “cultural” and “psychical” features of a person. Normally Byzantine authors, describing their own or someone else’s homeland, paid little attention to the ethnic or religious affiliation of the population, while at the same time emphasizing the “cultural” advantages or disadvantages (virtue, education) associated with a particular locality. Geographical locus by itself, especially its spatial characteristics, predetermined the qualities of its inhabitants. Unselfconscious and subconscious geographical determinism, rooted in ancient tradition, seems to have been functional in the worldview of the Byzantines.

Attention to the geographical origin of a person had an apparent relationship to the more general “biogeographical” ideas of ancient Greek astronomy/astrology, geography, and physiology, which were amalgamated in the theory of climates. In astronomy/astrology, the climate (κλίµα “slope, inducement” from κλίνω) was understood as the angle of the polar axis of the celestial sphere with respect to the horizon, which increased with distance from the equator. Latitudinal changes are extremely important for drawing up horoscopes, and the angle of declination of the celestial sphere at a certain locality is of primary importance for astrological examination. In ancient and Byzantine geography, the climate was understood as the angle at which sunlight hit the earth’s surface, which determined the length of the day; respectively, in the south the days were shorter and longer in the north. Initially, climates designated a reason the earth’s surface, in which the average length of the day differed by half an hour, resembling modern time zones. Later in the development of the theory of climates, ancient science developed the idea of latitude zones on the surface of the earth stretching from east to west and located from south to north parallel to the equator. The populated part of the earth was divided into seven climates, i.e., latitudinal bands from Meroe in the south to Borysthenes in the north. The concept of latitude parallels can be found in its fully developed form in Claudius Ptolemy’s texts.

The combination of astrological, geographic, and physiological concepts led to the idea of the influence of latitudinal differences on human characteristics and habits. Hippocrates formulated the dependence of the natural qualities of people on the influence of their surrounding natural environment. Poseidonios linked the intensity of sunlight and the effects of other celestial bodies with the geographic characteristics of the earth’s surface and with the temper of the peoples living there. The extreme southern and northern climates were determined through ethnic names, respectively, “Ethiopian” and “Scythian and Celtic.” Poseidonios, apparently, continued to consider the climate not as a latitudinal band but rather as a region. The first thinker who articulated this ethnographic aspect of climate theory was probably Pliny the Elder, who postulated the dependence of flora, fauna, and human morals on latitudinal location.

The idea of the relationship between the geographical locus and characteristic features of both individuals and nations can be traced explicitly in astrological texts. The peculiarities of geographical origin that affected the “cultural” features of nations were, in no small measure, due to the celestial bodies. First among these were the Sun and the Moon, which affected various points on the earth’s surface differently depending on the angle of slope of their light. Specific astrological descriptions of climates, based on the studies of Auguste Bouché-Leclercq, are described as a special genre of “astrological chorography.” Usually, these are brief treatises that establish the correspondence of various regions of the oikoumene with zodiac signs and luminaries.


The most theoretically elaborate and accomplished astrohorographical conception can be seen in the Tetrabiblos of Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy believed that the most important astrological task was to describe, first, nations and, secondly, individuals: “prognostication by astronomical means is divided into two great and principal parts, and since the first and more universal is that which relates to whole races, countries, and cities, which is called general, and the second and more specific is that which relates to individual men, which is called genethlialogical.” (This passage clearly demonstrates the use of genera-species organization of scientific discourse). Ptolemy then goes on to confirm the importance of astrological descriptions of nations: “The demarcation of national characteristics is established in part by entire parallels and angles, through their position relative to the ecliptic and the sun.” Further, he explains this idea in detail in numerous individual examples. Ptolemy’s astronomical ethnography has been studied in detail by Bouché-Leclercq, Ernest Honigmann, and Mark Riley.

According to generally accepted ideas derived from astrological and geographical interpretations, the superiority of the Romans and Greeks arose from the fact that they lived in the central part of the oikoumene, which was located in the most favorable climate with the perfect balance between hot and cold natures. Other nations were located in regions that lay outside their climatic balance, which caused an imbalance in their natures. Only the Romans and Greeks living in the middle part of the civilized oikoumene had harmonious national characters.

From the earliest times, astrological knowledge in general and the astrological theory of climates in particular encountered criticism, first on the part of pagan intellectuals and later of Christian theologians. However, the theory of climates was still well known in the Middle and Late Byzantine period. In the fourteenth century George Pachymeres repeated the ancient scheme arguing that the natural abilities of people, their character and temperament, depended on the strength of sunlight and the warmth of the climate. Southerners, who get more sunlight, are more clever, capable in arts and sciences, but too self-indulgent and unskilled in war, while the northerners, living in the cold climates, are pale, narrow-minded, cruel, rude, and more warlike. Geographical position, as Pachymeres explained, directly affects character, disposition, and natural abilities. Such arguments (though less detailed and conceptual) can be found in the descriptions of other Byzantine authors.

In Byzantine times, climate theory continued to be closely related to astrology. A popular genre of specific lists of πόλεις ἐπίσηµοι, “famous cities,” recorded major cities in the oikoumene (mainly its Greco-Roman part) and grouped them according to latitude climates. In the fourteenth century, John Katrares, in the context of Greek astrology, linked the destinies of nations with their location. He laid out seven latitude climates and established their dependence on specific planets and zodiac signs. In his description, the fate of the cities and, consequently, those living there was predetermined by the place they occupied in the climate and by the influence of the corresponding area of the celestial sphere. Thus, astrogeographical determinism, rooted in ancient tradition, remained functional in the worldview of the Byzantines. The spatial circumstances of birth (heavenly and earthly) of both the individual and community of people were directly dependent on the locus.

The significance of location for the formation of personal characters and the collective traits of human communities pushed geographical knowledge to the fore. In geography until the fifteenth century, the Byzantines adhered to the ancient picture of the world, relying mainly on Strabo. After the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography by Maximos Planoudes in 1295, Ptolemy’s influence increased. Byzantine geographers tried to adjust Strabo’s system by comparing it with that of Ptolemy. Lands to the north of the Danube, and eastward up to the limits of the oikoumene, Byzantine geographers continued to classify as Scythia, which stretched in the south as far as the Indus River. The Caspian Sea was still considered a bay of the ocean or a lake which was separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of land. In Scythia north of the Caspian Sea, they noted the lands of the Huns, Massagets, Tochars, Saks, etc. In the Middle East, they knew Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia, Media, Armenia, etc. The entire surface of the oikoumene was still divided into seven climates. In other words, the Byzantines inherited the entire bulk of ancient geography, which provided them with basic scientific terminology for their description of the contemporary world.

(Source: “The Byzantine Turks, 1204-1461”, by Rustam Shukurov)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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