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In classical times, wind was in some cases understood to be a god, or as being under the influence of a god; it was understood by some to be a phenomenon liable to prediction and/or explanation as a natural (often regarded as seismic) phenomenon. Wind was important for navigation, agriculture and town planning, as well as managing health and disease.

Wind, and both its beneficial and destructive powers, features importantly in the earliest Greek texts. Individual winds are themselves gods, or associated with gods. The epic poets offer names for several specific winds: Boreas (the north wind; Op. 505–518), Notus (south), and Zephyrus (west) are described by Hesiod as sons of Astraeus and Eos (Theog. 378–380; see also 869–880), while a fourth wind, Eurus, also features in the Homeric poems (Od. 5.295); other, unnamed winds are also mentioned. Such conceptions of wind pervaded Graeco-Roman popular culture. Aristotle refers to painters’ depictions of wind (Mete. 349a32–b2), specifically Boreas (De motu an. 698b25–27). A minor god, believed to have intervened against the Athenians’ naval enemies (Herodotus 7.189), Boreas is often depicted on vases as winged, indicating his swiftness.1

The importance of wind for sailing is emphasised in the Odyssey (10.19–27), where Zeus makes Aeolus, a mortal, responsible for all the winds, secured in a sack; he only releases the west wind to enable ships to be blown safely on their journeys. The danger of wind was exposed when some of Odysseus’ men, hoping that Aeolus’s bag held treasures, untied the string closure, letting loose all of the winds and causing a terrible storm that swept them away. The usefulness of knowing about wind is also emphasised in an early prose text, the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places; there, observation of seasonal winds is helpful in predicting disease (see, e.g., Aer. 3, on cities with hot winds).2

Our sources for understanding Greek and Roman conceptions regarding wind include material culture (such as vase paintings) as well as texts of various sorts, including philosophical and medical as well as literary ones. Unusually, a number of descriptions and examples of tools used to identify particular winds—such as the “wind-rose” or anemoscope, to use modern terminology—also survive. These instruments indicate that wind was a phenomenon not only to be explained (e.g., through mythology or philosophical theorising), but also to be observed, noted, and acted upon. The observation and identification of winds was a valued activity, allowing not only intellectual control but, presumably, some idea of the possibility of practical mediation enabled through knowledge of winds.

A number of important philosophers and philosophical schools discussed the nature of wind. Two of the earliest Presocratics, Anaximander and Anaximenes, are each reported to have explained various meteorological phenomena—including thunder—as the result of the action of wind (or “air” or “breath”; e.g., Seneca QNat. 2.18 on Anaximander, 2.17 on Anaximenes); later authors—including Aristotle (Mete. 360a27–32), the Aetna poet (212, Ellis) and Pliny (HN 2.45.116)—consider the relationship between wind, air and breath. In the Meteorology, Aristotle explains wind as exhalations whose movement is caused by celestial—primarily solar—motions (361a5–35). He suggests that subterranean wind trapped in the earth has similar effects to those of wind in human bodies, causing earthquakes (Mete. 366b14–30). A number of other Peripatetic writings focus on wind, including Book 26 of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Problems, as well as The Situations and Names of Winds. Theophrastus, who devoted an entire work to their study, regarded winds as movements of the air, which restore balance in air disrupted by the influence of the sun. In his view, what happens in the sky, air, on earth, and on the sea is on account of wind (De vent. 1); however, he thought that wind was only one of a number of possible causes of earthquakes (Theophr. Mete. [15].). Seneca understood wind as moving air, and also attributed the cause of earthquakes to a disturbance similar to that which affects weakened human bodies (QNat. 6.18). In the anonymous Aetna poem, the volcano’s eruptions are explained as principally due to wind moving at high pressure in subterranean channels (209–218). Discussing volcanic activity and wind, Pliny the Elder relates that inhabitants of Stromboli were reputed to predict the presence of specific winds three days in advance by observing the volcano’s smoke; he claims this as the source of the belief that wind obeyed orders from King Aeolus, in Homeric times (HN 3.9.94).

In his Natural Questions, Seneca reviews the classification and nomenclature of different winds (QNat. 5.16–17), complaining that the task is endless because of the local nature of many. The practical benefits of understanding and classifying the winds, especially for agriculture, trade, and navigation, are stressed by Pliny, who alludes to several different explanations of the causes of winds. He distinguishes winds that exhibit some degree of regularity, obeying a law of nature, from gusts of air which may be due to any number of causes; he also presents a brief, but critical, history of Greek and Roman classification of winds. Pliny identifies each wind, giving the Greek name as well as the Latin one when possible, and mentioning other variants, noting the direction from which each blows, as well as the season in which it occurs, and its effects (HN 2.45.116–2.48.129). Familiarity with the possible effects of seasonal and local winds is crucial for the agricultural writers; for example, Columella cautions that vines must be protected from possible wind damage (Rust. 5.5.15), while noting that wind can usefully separate chaff from grain (2.20.5). Vitruvius (De arch. 1.6) recommends that knowledge of local winds be applied to town planning.Winds also feature in the weather-signs literature (for example, Aratus Progn. 177–200=Phaen. 909–932) and parapegmata.

The use of an instrument (wind-rose, compass, or anemoscope) to determine wind direction, in order to identify particular winds, is well attested in texts and also in surviving stone examples; some sundials note the winds as well. In the Meteorology (363a21–364a5), Aristotle describes in detail how to draw a diagram showing the positions of the winds, indicating the direction from which each wind blows, with reference to solar events, such as summer sunset. Pliny offers instructions for setting out a compass of the winds on the ground by drawing lines in the soil, using simple astronomical principles; he also describes a portable version made of wood. Such a compass could be used to identify specific winds; he also issues suggestions and warnings as to which winds might influence particular crops and flocks (18.76.326–18.77.339). Examples of surviving wind indicators include the marble “wind-rose” (or anemoscope, ca. 200 ce) found south of Porta Capena, near the Via Appia in Rome (currently in the Biblioteca e Musei Oliveriana, Pesaro) as well as that found at the foot of the Esquiline Hill in Rome (in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museums, Fig. 1); a hole in the centre may have originally held a pennant, indicating current wind, by name and direction.3 The marble “Horologion of Andronicus Cyrrhus” in Athens (possibly 2nd century bce) is also referred to as the “Tower of the Winds” as, in addition to offering both time-finding and time-keeping functions, it depicted eight winds including Sciron, a wind which Pliny (HN 2.46.120) claims was special to the Athenians; the tower may have incorporated a wind-vane as well.4 The influence of ancient ideas about winds, and their classification, as well as the use of wind-compasses, was particularly long-lasting, and can be found in a number of medieval and later writings, diagrams, and maps.


Figure 1. Marble anemoscope, 2nd or 3rd century ce. Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Primary Texts

Aetna. In Minor Latin Poets, vol. 1. Translated by J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff. Loeb Classical Library 284. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.Find this resource:

    Aetna. In Appendix Vergiliana. Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis (Oxford Classical Texts). Edited by W. V. Clausen, F. R. D. Goodyear, E. J. Kenney, and J. A. Richmond, pp. 37–76. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1966.Find this resource:

      Aetna. “Aetna: A New Translation Based on the Text of F. R. D. Goodyear.” Translated by Harry Hine. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43.2 (2012): 316–325.Find this resource:

        Aetna. Edited and translated by R. Ellis, with a new introduction and bibliography by Katharina Volk. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008. (First published Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901.)Find this resource:

          Aratus. Phaenomena. Edited and translated by D. A. Kidd. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

            Aratus. “Prognostica.” In Aratea. Edited by Victor Buescu. Hildesheim: Olms, 1966.Find this resource:

              Aristotle. Meteorologica. Edited and translated by H. D. P. Lee. Loeb Classical Library 397. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.Find this resource:

                Aristotle. Problemata. Translated by E. S. Forster. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927.Find this resource:

                  Aristotle. Problems, books 20–38. Edited and translated by Robert Mayhew. Loeb Classical Library 317. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                    Hippocrates. “Airs, Waters, Places.” In Hippocrates, Volume 1. Edited by W. H. S. Jones. Loeb Classical Library 147. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923.Find this resource:

                      Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Edited and translated by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 330, 352, 371. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938–1950.Find this resource:

                        Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Natural Questions. Edited and translated by Thomas H. Corcoran. Loeb Classical Library 450, 457. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971–1972.Find this resource:

                          Theophrastus. De ventis. Edited and translated by V. Coutant and V. L. Eichenlaub. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.Find this resource:

                            Theophrastus. “The Meteorology of Theophrastus in Syriac and Arabic Translation.” In Theophrastus: His Psychological, Doxographical, and Scientific Writings. Translated by H. Daiber and edited by W. W. Fortenbaugh and D. Gutas, 166–293. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1992.Find this resource:


                              Realencyclopadie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Winde.” VIII A2. Sect. B (Geophysical theories, 2215–2265), Sect. D (Wind names, 2288–2325), Sect. E (Wind roses, 2325–2381).Find this resource:

                                Coutant, Victor C. B., and Val C. Eichenlaub. “The De Ventis of Theophrastus.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 55 (1974): 1454–1462.Find this resource:

                                  Garani, Myrto. “Going with the Wind: Visualizing Volcanic Eruptions in the Pseudo-Vergilian Aetna.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 52 (2009): 103–121.Find this resource:

                                    Hall, J. J. “Seneca as a Source for Earlier Thought (Especially Meteorology).” Classical Quarterly n.s. 27 (1977): 409–436.Find this resource:

                                      Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

                                        Lehoux, Daryn. Astronomy, Weather and Calendars in the Ancient World: Parapegmata and Related Texts in Classical and Near-Eastern Societies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                          Rehm, Albert. “Griechischen Windrosen,” Sitzungsberichte der königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-philologische und historische Klasse Abhandlung 3 (1916): 1–104.Find this resource:

                                            Taub, Liba. Ancient Meteorology. London: Routledge, 2003.Find this resource:

                                              Thompson, D’A. W. “The Greek Winds.” Classical Review 32 (1918): 49–56.Find this resource:

                                                Williams, Gareth D. “Seneca on Winds: The Art of Anemology in Natural Questions 5.” American Journal of Philology 126 (2005): 417–450.Find this resource:

                                                  Williams, Gareth D. The Cosmic Viewpoint: A Study of Seneca’s Natural Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                                    Wilson, Malcolm. Structure and Method in Aristotle’s Meteorologica: A More Disorderly Nature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                                      Wood, James G. “Introduction” and “Appendix on the Number, Direction and Nomenclature of the Winds in Classical and Later Times.” In Theophrastus of Eresus on Winds and Weather Signs. Edited by G. J. Symons and translated by James G. Wood, 9–19 and 77–97. London: Edward Stanford, 1894.Find this resource:


                                                        (1.) See, for example, the vases depicted in John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Archaic Period (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975), figs. 341, 352; John Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Classical Period (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), fig. 30; and the bronze water jar, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund 1953, 53.11.3.

                                                        (2.) On dating Airs, Waters, Places, see Rosalind Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 24–25; and Lesley Dean-Jones, “Literacy and the Charlatan in Ancient Greek Medicine,” in Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece, eds. Harvey Yunis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 97–121, on 112.

                                                        (3.) See O. A. W. Dilke, “Itineraries and Geographical Maps in the Early and Late Roman Empires,” in The History of Cartography, vol. I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, eds. J. B. Harley and D. Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 234–257, on 248–249; Dilke’s notes provide useful references. Another marble wind indicator, dated 2nd to 3rd century CE, is in the collection of the Musei Vaticani; see Barbara Obrist, “Wind Diagrams and Medieval Cosmology,” Speculum 72 (1997): 33–84, on 40–41; and Giuseppe Lais, “Monumento Greco-Latino di una rosa classica dodecimale in Vaticano,” in Pubblicazioni della Specola Vaticana vol. 4: xi–xvi and Plate I (Turin: Artigianelli, 1894). See also James G. Wood trans., and G. J. Symons ed., Theophrastus of Eresus on Winds and on Weather Signs (London: Edward Stanford, 1894), for a description of the Vatican Table of the Winds, described there on 88–91.

                                                        (4.) On the “Tower of the Winds,” see Hermann Kienast, “The Tower of the Winds in Athens: Hellenistic or Roman?,” in The Romanization of Athens: Proceedings of an International Conference held at Lincoln, Nebraska, April 1996, eds. Michael E. Hoff and Susan I. Rotroff (Oxford: Oxbow, 1997), 53–65; see also Joseph V. Noble and Derek J. de Solla Price, “The Water Clock in the Tower of the Winds,” American Journal of Archaeology 72.4 (1968): 345–355.

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