A question of Balances: f.72v

Though the month-folios evidence none of that affect from habits of drawing found east from the Persian Gulf, they do show evidence of origins in the eastern side of the classical world, in which I include Asia Minor and the Black Sea.

If the series were intended for a 12-figure  zodiac,  standard opinion would insist that the series had been formulated no earlier than the 2nd-3rdC AD, that being the time when the Romans invented a twelfth zodiac constellation by re-defining the stars of the Scorpion’s claws.

Modern discovery of  the Mul.apin tablet, with its reference to a Babylonian constellation named the Scales,  had led to a general belief that the Roman constellation derived from the Babylonian.

It is an idea which finds no support in contemporary Latin or  Greek sources. Nor does the Roman imagery (in or out of zodiacs) offer any support for it either.  In the zodiacs and even in gems and coins, the type of scales shown are always the Roman.

The germ of the idea for the Roman constellation began with the scales’ being the emblem for both Aequitas (‘fair bargains’) and Monetas (guarantor of good coin) in Roman myth.

Ironically,  Monetas appears most often upon coinage distinctly third-rate.  Examples are  still found in formerly Roman territories).

The scales are shown on such coinage in typically simple Roman style. The  Emperors’ use of the emblem in imperial propaganda was responsible for the increasing emphasis and elaboration on their meaning by Roman orators and writers. Finally,   in the late 2nd or early 3rdC AD, these scales were elevated to the stars and made the only inanimate figure in the zodiac.

No-where is their origin credited to any but the Romans, and even in Latin sources some writers  dismiss them as caprice, still describing the scorpion’s claws and then remarking that ‘some of our writers’ have imagined the stars a Balance.

Others congratulate themselves on having rationalised the zodiac by adding a twelfth figure, but none ever suggests an origin older or external.

No version of the Roman figure resembles this on f.72v.

Among the important differences  is the fact that Roman and medieval scales show their baskets or trays tied, or hung, directly from the cross-beam, where f.72v shows a  cord or narrower bar passing through the wider section at the centre. Such scales are known, but not in Roman times nor in zodiacs.










.This is not to say that scales similar those on f.72v  are unknown, but that they pre-date the Roman era by a considerable length of time, and there is no evidence that they affected the form in which the Roman constellation, and its zodiac, were conceived.

The type is Egyptian and given the similar origin, and considerable antiquity of the lotus motif that appears as the central emblem in  f.67r-ii,  it may be less surprising than it would otherwise be that the same period and place of origin is indicated for this type of balance.

The Egyptian type does have the cords issuing from within a more solid, if hollow, crossbar. It also has a needle which descends below the level of that crossbar, and appears regularly with a heart-shaped plumb-bob. The earlier versions show a tray; later versions contemporary with the Roman era may show baskets. But clearest image of the type occurs earliest and these contemporary with the older forms for the lotus as rosamundi. The illustration shown first, therefore, comes from the Papyrus of Ani,





All things considered, the draughtsman who worked on f.72v has not done too badly~ so long as no more than the line-work is considered.

Unfortunately, in this case just as in the depiction of the  ‘armoured fish’ (f.70r ) the copyist is apparently nonplussed by his master-work, and to add to this, his best effort (which includes the point descending below the bar) is then ‘corrected’ by the painter, he apparently determined or convinced that these images do, should or will be made to more nearly resemble the style of a western medieval scales.

Right:  Scales of  Egyptian type  in daily commerce in Cyrene,  (6thC BC).

The image from Greek Cyrene shows continuing use of the Egyptian style into the time of the Greeks, and gives evidence for a suspended variant used in daily life, in addition to that fixed type illustrated above.

What does not appear in this later image  is the heart-shaped plumb-bob.

However, three centuries later still  – but still  six centuries before the Roman constellation of ‘Libra’ exists –  coins made under Pharaoh Nectanebo II  have two designs, each seeming to show a different form of scales. That on the gold echoes the old Egyptian form for scales; the other is much simpler and this form is not unlike what is pictured on some Roman coins made half a millennium later (linked example is dated 125-128AD), and even in some zodiacs made in Rome’s eastern provinces.

The first is designed to evoke the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘gold’; the second on the silver coin does offer a suggestion of  astronomy in the form given the lamb, whose form and pose is very like figures for Aries on our earliest western astronomical globes.

I’ll have reason to look more closely at some of those globes in later posts about this section from the manuscript.

Egypt’s  funerary art would continue to show versions of the ancient scales into Roman times, but it would seem from the representations in these later versions that their use in daily life had declined. (Flinders Petrie’s work on weights and other instruments and tools is valuable still.)ion is best represented by a sculpture made in Anatolia at about the same time

So it is possible that a Roman writer or astronomer might have seen scales of a type similar to that pictured on f.72: possible, but no more. When  Roman emperors began pushing imagery of Aequitas and Monetas with their Roman scales –  those of the type shown the Helios miniature – it was six centuries after Nectanebo’s death, and the Hellenistic era had intervened. It would seem that by Roman times the earlier type of scales referenced in f.72v had passed from mind as from use except among the class of scribe which made copies of the Book of the Dead in Egypt.

There is no mention of  any derivation for the Roman constellation from Egyptian or any non-Roman precedent in the extant literature, and no scales resembling this type appear in classical or medieval works that I have seen.

This may simply be a result of the paucity of evidence, but evidence is all we have to go by, and the only version I have seen of the  hand-held type is in the following sculpture, made in Anatolia at a time when Egyptian power had extended so far – a time roughly contemporary with the Papyrus of Ani as it happens.

The message in the sculpture appears to be one of the purity, or relative value of silver or of coinage (the disk) as against gold itself (the heart).

Egypt at that time, as a contemporary ruler wrote, had gold in such quantities that it was ‘as dust’ to them. Silver is the material for which the Hittites are now best remembered in history: for their  skill in working silver and for the amount of  silver taken from their territory by Assyrian raiders.

From Nimrud, with its magpie-collection of raided treasures gained by the Assyrians comes the following image of a scales which shows points in common the Egyptian forms. It is interesting to speculate whether this  type is the form referenced long before (12thC BC) in the Mul.Apin tablet. Whether or no, it appears that the world of imperial Rome did not know it, nor so  far as we know of the cuneiform script in which that tablet had been written.

As far as the Roman world was concerned, the Scales constellation was their own invention, and its appearance was that of the emblem for Aequitas and Monetas (and thereafter  Justice).

Which means, altogether, that the figure on f.72v was not made to represent the zodiac’s Scales,  and I doubt if that is its purpose in ms Beinecke 408. Just as this image of the Scales is not that of the Roman zodiac figure, so the section as a whole does not represent the Roman zodiac, despite the efforts of the painter and the person who added the month-names.

With reference to the informing matter [i.e. not the physical materials used to make ms Beinecke 408 itself]: I think that the latest possible date could be posited as 3rdC BC for the lower end of the range, and (chiefly by reference to the capsa- or cippus- type of containers in the ‘pharma’ section) an upper limit of c.3rdC AD.

If it should prove that containers of that type continued to be used (e.g. in Parthian or Sasanian territories) the upper limit could be as late as the sixth century AD in some parts of the manuscript.

Potentially of course the lower limit could be very considerably earlier.



A very good summary and comparative tables for ancient, classical, medieval and  modern systems of weight and measure is here.

Do try not to be too offput by the author’s signing himself  ‘Druidic Imperior Rhymer’. The information is good.








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