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Written In The Stars

Posted 12/11/2023 by Farah Djama

To the Ancient Romans, these stars are more than what meets the eye. photo by Ibrahim Chalhoub

 The word “disaster” – like many other words in the English language – has its roots in other languages, in addition to ancient Roman astrology.

Fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, famines. Bankruptcy, business failure, the loss of a phone with years of memories hidden in its camera roll. Each of these occurrences can be described by just one word: ‘disaster.’ The Oxford English Dictionary definition of this word is stated as, “a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.” Like many words in the English language, ‘disaster’ is a word that has its roots in Italian and Latin, with its Italian equivalent being the word ‘disastro.’ Like many words in the Italian and English language, it is made up of root words following a prefix. ‘Dis’ expresses negativity, and ‘astro’ means star. The Italian word ‘astro’ has its roots in the Latin word for star: ‘astrum.’ By directly tracing the Italian lineage of ‘disastro,’ it can be determined that the word originally translated directly to ‘ill-fated star.’

Surprisingly, this can also be traced, this time using thousand year-old Roman astrology. Astrology’s introduction is currently credited to the ancient Babylonians over 4,000 years ago. At that time, astronomy and astrology were deeply intertwined studies. Early astrologers tracked, mapped, and observed celestial bodies’ movement in the sky in an attempt to make predictions about future events and justify specific human behaviors. As time went on, more and more civilizations began including the study of astrology into their cultural practices with their own interpretations. One of said civilizations was none other than the ancient Greeks. Through the Greek invasion of Babylon, numerous astrological methods suddenly became available to Greek astronomers. These newfound astronomers rapidly became absolutely fascinated with the stars, planets, and the night sky as a whole. They firmly believed that their Olympian deities had placed the stars in constellations – representing people, animals, and objects – in order to serve as lessons to the rest of humanity. Of course, the Romans loved copying the Greeks, so when they inevitably invaded Greece, they picked up Greek (previously Babylonian) astrological beliefs in the process. Not only did Roman astrologers predict natural events and human behavior, but they had also implemented astrology into their daily lives, religion and politics.

Like the ancient Greeks, ancient Romans also believed that their Pantheon had control over the natural world, including the stars and planets. This can be seen thanks to the Romans’ habit of naming each deity after a planet, star, or moon. They believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and the planets and stars all orbited around them. The Romans interpreted the movement of celestial bodies in the sky as different emotions and moods, as well as the will of their gods. 

Astronomical events such as eclipses, comets, and meteors were seen as omens or signs to many Romans. Comets in particular were thought to signify oncoming disasters. Solstices, both winter and summer, were crucial to the planning of festivals. For instance, the festival of Saturnalia was held during the winter solstice, not only marking the shortest day of the year and the start of winter, but also the turning point where the days would gradually grow longer. The winter solstice was also when the stars’ position in the sky indicated the return of the sun and a renewal of life. Roman astrologers worked in temples in order to figure out when would be the best time to send an offering to their gods, or when would be the best time for a festival (the Romans loved those).  

Astrology was also used to predict the outcomes of wars. Generals would heed the advice of astrologers to determine if the war or military campaign they were planning would have more loss then gain. Astronomy wasn’t used only for war, however: many farmers, businessmen, and of course, politicians also consulted the stars themselves. The most famous case of this would be the Ides of March. According to Suetonius, a Roman historian, it was an astrologer that told Julius Caesar that he would encounter great danger during the Ides of March. Caesar went to the Senate anyway, where he would be assassinated after being stabbed 23 times. Emperor Augustus was a firm believer in astrology, even having his own personal astrologer whom he would consult regularly. The horoscope of a ruler would be examined in order to determine if they were the best possible fit for the honorable position, which, in the case of Emperor Tiberius, contributed greatly to his election as Augustus’ successor. 

Thinking back to the present, it’s incredibly fascinating that a word like ‘disaster’ has roots in beliefs and practices from hundreds of years ago. Humans have been fascinated with the stars for thousands of years, and continue to be in the modern field of Astronomy and Space exploration. Even though astrology isn’t as commonly practiced as it once was, ancient methods of surveying the skies still live on through archaic words like ‘disaster.’