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date: 30 June 2022

The Moon and the Planets in Classical Greece and Romelocked

The Moon and the Planets in Classical Greece and Romelocked

  • Robert HannahRobert HannahUniversity of Waikato

Summary

While the moon naturally featured in Mediterranean cultures from time immemorial, principally noted in the earliest literature as a marker of time, time-dependent constructs such as the calendar, and time-related activities, awareness and recognition of the five visible planets came relatively late to the Greeks and thence to the Romans.

The moon underlies the local calendars of the Greeks, with documentary and literary evidence from the Late Bronze Age through the Imperial Roman period, and there are signs that the earliest Roman calendar also paid homage to the moon in its divisions of the month. However, although Homer in the 8th century BCE knows of a Morning and an Evening Star, he shows no indication of realizing that these are one and the same, the planet Venus. That particular identification may have come in the 6th century BCE, and it appears to have been not until the 4th century BCE that the Greeks recognized the other four planets visible to the naked eye—Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. This awareness probably came via contact with Babylonian astronomy and astrology, where identification and observations of the planets had figured from the 2nd millennium BCE and served as a basis for astrological prognostications. But it is time, not astrology, that lies at the heart of Greek and Roman concerns with the moon and the planets. Indeed, the need to tell time accurately has been regarded as the fundamental motivation of Greek astronomy.

A major cultural issue that long engaged the Greeks was how to synchronize the incommensurate cycles of the moon and the sun for calendrical purposes. Given the apparent irregularities of their cycles, the planets might seem to offer no obvious help with regard to time measurement. Nonetheless they were included by Plato in the 4th century BCE in his cosmology, along with the sun and moon, as heavenly bodies created specifically to compute time. Astrology then provided a useful framework in which the sun, moon, planets, and stars all combined to enable the interpretation and forecasting of life events. It became necessary for the Greeks, and their successors the Romans, to be able to calculate as accurately as possible the positions of the heavenly bodies in order to determine readings of the past, present, and future.

Greek astronomy had always had a speculative aspect, as philosophers strove to make sense of the visible cosmos. A deep-seated assumption held by Greek astronomers, that the heavenly bodies moved in uniform, circular orbits, lead to a desire over the centuries to account for or explain away the observed irregularities of planetary motions with their stations and retrogradations. This intention “to save the phenomena,”— that is, to preserve the fundamental circularity—was said to have originated with Plato. While arithmetical schemes had sufficed in Babylonia for such calculation, it was a Greek innovation to devise increasingly complex geometric theories of circular motions (eccentrics and epicycles) in an effort to understand how the sun, moon, and planets moved, so as to place them more precisely in time and space.

Subjects

  • History of Ideas about Planets and Planetary Systems

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