What have the Romans ever done for us?
One thing they definitely didn’t do is give us astronomy. Ok, they mucked around with the calendar a bit, but modern astronomers’ use of Julian dates has only the most tenuous connection to the calendar named after Julius Caesar. In any case we have evidence of carefully constructed solar and lunar calendars going back 10,000 years and being incrementally refined – the idea certainly didn’t originate with the Romans. No, the Romans were good at breaking things, but when it came to culture and science they borrowed most of their ideas from the Greek world which they “inherited” (a.k.a plundered).
One way we can interpret the development of an idea is to study etymology – to see where the words came from. There’s an interesting and funny insight into our words for domesticated animals in English. Sheep, cow, and pig are all west Germanic words. Mutton (mouton), beef (boeuf) and pork (porc) all come from French. It’s been suggested that our English words for the animals came from the Saxons who farmed them, while the words for the meat came from their Norman overlords who ate them!
Speaking of Norman overlords, the Norman conquest of Britain happened to coincide roughly with the period of the First Crusade. An interesting juxtaposition of events occurred when a young Saxon lad called Adelard was born in the (Roman) city of Bath fifteen years after the Norman invasion. His father was probably a pig-farming tenant of the porc-eating bishop of Wells ( ). That bishop was John of Tours – a Norman, obviously – who extended his influence by taking over the rich cathedral city of Bath on the death of its Saxon abbot, Aelfsige. John can’t have been uneducated since he was doctor to William the Conqueror before becoming bishop. But he was no scholar, and became a rich benefactor of scholarship rather than a practitioner. Somehow the young Adelard ended up being sponsored to study in Bath abbey, and thereafter in the bishop’s original home city of Tours. His travels didn’t end with France though. He was not a soldier, but the opening up of routes to the Middle East in the footsteps of the Crusaders enabled him to go and study there. Adelard would have spoken Old English, French and Latin due to his studies. But in the Middle East he learned Arabic. And thus it was that he made the first translation of Euclid’s Elements into Latin, not from Greek but from Arabic. That’s how the medieval West got possibly the most important book of mathematics in the history of the world.
The language of astronomy is littered with Latin, Greek, and Arabic etymology. Like the animals and their meat, the language from which we derive our words depends on who was using them, and for what. The routes by which classical learning found its way to the modern West involve a tortured history of Islamic conquest, Christian crusades, Venetian trade with the Byzantine world and much more. We should also not forget that it didn’t all come from the Greeks – Islamic expansion and trade with Persia, India and China resulted in the importation of mathematics and technology that had never been known in the West, including Greece. And even the Greeks inherited their astronomy from the Sumerians and Babylonians.
So somehow we’ve ended up with names for the constellations that are both Greek and Roman. That’s partly down to the fact that Ptolemy was a 2nd century Greco-Roman living in Egypt. The constellations are figures from Greek mythology, and the names were established in the Greek world at least several hundred years before Ptolemy. They were certainly around by 370 BC when Eudoxus wrote his Phaenomena. But our current usage is mostly due to the use of Latin in medieval Europe (plus much later IAU exasperation with people inventing new constellations like the Telephone and the Hot Air Balloon – I kid you not).
Ptolemy’s famous astronomical work is known by its Arabic name – the Almagest – because, like Euclid’s Elements it was through translation from Arabic to Latin that it arrived in Europe. In that case the Latin translation was by Gerard of Cremona, a 12th century Italian working in Toledo which had been recaptured from the Muslim caliphate about the same time that Adelard was born in Bath. (By the way, recalling the domestic animals, all the Spanish terms in sheep-rearing are derived from Arabic because of the historical association). There is, of course, an even older history of translation. The 8th century Abassid Caliph Al-Mansur moved the capital of his Islamic caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad. In doing so, and in establishing a library there, a huge translation effort was needed from Syriac, Greek and Persian into Arabic. Personally I find it weird and wonderful thinking of an 8th century Syriac scholar working for a Muslim overlord, translating an (even then) ancient Greek scientific treatise from Aramaic into Arabic, which had been previously translated from Greek to Aramaic by his Coptic Christian ancestors. The continuity is amazing but it’s no wonder we ended up with a mishmash! Nevertheless, for the constellation names it was the medieval Latin that stuck.
Curiously, though, for the names of the stars themselves we’ve ended up with mostly Arabic. Some of the words are just Arabic translations of Greek, though some are of genuinely Arabian origin. And some are both – the variable star Algol is Arabic al-ghoul, a demon who winks at you from the sky. But in Greek it was the eye of the Gorgon. The Arabs took the Greek idea but used an Arabic monster. And we’ve got some pure Greek names too, like Arcturus, the Bear Watcher.
In many cases, the Greek words made it relatively unchanged into Latin, even when they came via Arabic. The planets are planetas in Latin, completely unchanged from the Greek word. The galaxy is galaxia when used technically, but Via Lactea when used colloquially or poetically. We can see this in English too, with the first recorded use of the word coming from Chaucer:
See yonder, lo, the Galaxyë
Which men clepeth the Milky Wey,
For hit is whyt.
There’s certainly poetry in the idea of a “way” trodden by the gods, but there’s always been a technical distinction, ever since Democritus first hypothesised two and half millennia ago that is was a mass of stars and not Hera’s breast milk. There’s been some very entertaining speculation since, such as Plutarch in the 1st century suggesting that the Milky Way was literally cosmic screen burn-in, from the original path of the Sun ! And by the way, the Greeks didn’t call it the Milky Way but the Milky Circle, Kyklos Galaxias. That’s because they knew it engirdled the spherical Earth. The modern conceit that former ignorant generations thought the Earth was flat is almost completely unfounded, at least as far as most of the last three thousand years is concerned.
Galileo, in Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), seems to mix and match Latin and Greek, even referring to the Milky Circle in Latin when he claims to have solved “altercationes insuper de Galaxia, seu de Lacteo circulo” (“disputes about the Galaxy, known as the Milky circle”). He was the first to confirm Democritus’ speculation with his own eyes.
And now I’ve blabbed on so long I’ve forgotten what the point was. Oh yeah … Latin, Greek and Arabic, all essential to astronomy … without any help from the Romans.