Birthday Book

Birthday Book


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Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman scholar Censorinus bestowed upon his best friend a charming birthday present: The Birthday Book, which appears here in its long-awaited first English translation. Laying out everything he knew about birthdays, the book starts simply, but by the conclusion of this brief yet brilliant gem, Censorinus has sketched a glorious vision of a universe ruled by harmony and order, where the microcosm of the child in the womb corresponds to the macrocosm of the planets. Alternately serious and playful, Censorinus touches on music, history, astronomy, astrology, and every aspect of time as it was understood in third-century Rome. He also provides ancient answers to perennial questions: Why does the day begin at midnight? Where did Leap Year come from? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Embodying the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, The Birthday Book has long been treasured by scientists, poets, and scholars, and Holt Parker’s graceful and lively new translation—accompanied by an illuminating introduction and detailed notes—is itself a present for Latinists, historians of science, and anyone looking for an unusual birthday gift.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226099743
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/28/2007
Edition description: 1
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Holt Parker is professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati.

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The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2007

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09974-3



* * *


1 * Happy Birthday

1. There are gifts of gold or those that gleam with silver, and gifts more valuable for the decoration than the material. Let the man whom the crowd calls "rich" stare open-mouthed at things of that sort and all the rest of Fortune's favors. Such things have no effect on you, Quintus Caerellius, because you are rich in virtue no less than in money-that is, truly rich. 2. Not that you completely reject the possession or use of riches, but since you have been educated in the discipline of the philosophers, you have realized quite clearly that such things, founded as they are on shifting sands, are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are what the Greeks call "the indifferents," that is, to be considered in between the good and the bad. 3. "Therefore," as the comic poet Terence wrote, "these things are like the soul of the one who possesses them; good for the one who knows how to use them; bad for the one who doesn't use them well." 4. So, since a man is richer not by having more but by wanting less, you have the greatest riches in your soul, which not only exceed the so-called "goods" of the human race, but even proceed right to the eternity of the immortal gods. For that is what Xenophon, the disciple of Socrates, said: To need nothing is a mark of the gods; to need as little as possible is next to godliness.

5. Therefore, since you have no lack of precious gifts because of the virtue of your soul, and I have no excess because of the thinness of my income, I have sent you this book (take it for what it's worth) composed from my riches, and put the title "Birthday Present" on it. 6. In it I have not, as is most people's custom, borrowed precepts for right living from the ethical branch of philosophy to write to you, nor sought out purple passages from the rhetoricians' handbooks to celebrate your praises. For you have already climbed to such a pinnacle of every virtue that you have excelled in all these things, whether wise admonitions or clever proclamations, by your life and morals. Rather I have chosen certain small problems from the works of the natural philosophers, which gathered together might make up a small volume. 7. I swear I did not do it out of a desire to teach, nor out of a longing to show off, lest the old saying be justly applied to me: "A pig tries to teach Minerva." 8. In fact I know I have learned the most from encountering you, and so that I won't seem ungrateful for all your kindness, I have followed the example of our ancestors, the holiest of men. 9. Since they believed that food, fatherland, light, even their very selves were the gift of the gods, they sacrificed a little of everything to the gods, more to show themselves grateful than because they thought the gods needed it. 10. So when they had harvested the crops, before they ate, they established the custom of offering a libation to the gods; and whenever they took possession of fields and towns by the gift of the gods, they dedicated a part for temples and shrines where they might worship the gods. Some even, in thanks for continued good health, used to let their hair grow as sacred to the god. 11. In the same way I am paying back to you, from whom I have harvested so much in literature, these small offerings.

2 * How to Honor the Genius of the Birthday

I. And now, since this is inscribed The Birthday Book, let us inaugurate it with all good wishes. So, as the poet Persius said, "Mark this day with a lucky white stone," which I hope you will do as often as possible and, as he added, "Pour out an offering of pure wine to your Genius."

2. Now at this point, someone might ask: "Why did Persius think it necessary to pour out unmixed wine for the Guardian Spirit, rather than offering the usual animal sacrifice?" Because, of course, as Varro tells us in his book Atticus (the one about numbers), our ancestors held it as a custom and institution, when they paid the Genius his yearly offering on their birthdays, to keep their hands free from slaughter and blood, so that on the day on which they themselves first saw the light, they should not take it away from any other living being. 3. Also, on the island of Delos no one (Timaeus is our authority here) sacrifices a victim on the altar of Apollo the Begetter. This is another strictly observed custom on birthdays: that nobody partakes of the food offered to the Genius before the person who has made the offering.

But now it seems we need to answer the question asked by so many people: "What is a Genius? And why do we venerate him especially on our birthdays?"

3 * What is the Spirit of the Birthday?

1. A Genius is a god under whose protection each person lives from the moment of his birth. Whether it is because he makes sure we get generated, or he is generated with us, or he takes us up and protects us once we are generated, in any case, it is clear he is called our "Gen-ius" from "gen-eration." 2. Many ancient authors have handed down that the Genius and the Lar, the household god, are the same thing-for example, Granius Flaccus in his book Formulas for Invoking the Gods, which he wrote for Julius Caesar. It was believed that the Genius has the greatest, or rather absolute, power over us. 3. Many believed that two Geniuses should be worshipped, at least in married households. Euclides of Megara, the follower of Socrates, however, said that a double Genius has been appointed for each of us, which you can read about in Book 16 of Lucilius's Satires. And so we offer special sacrifice to our Genius every year throughout our lives.

4. He, however, is only one of many gods who support human life during everyone's allotted span. The books of formulas for invoking the gods will teach anyone sufficiently who is interested in recognizing them. But all these other gods show the effect of their divinities at only certain points for each person, and so are not summoned with annual religious observances during the entire course of one's life. 5. Our Genius, on the other hand, has been appointed to be so constant a watcher over us that he never goes away from us for even a second, but is our companion from the moment we are taken from our mother's womb to the last day of our life. But while most people celebrate only their own individual birthdays, I am bound to double duty for this holiday each year. 6. Since from you and your friendship I receive honor, dignity, glory, and protection-in short, all the rewards of life-I consider it a sin if I celebrated your birthday, the day that brought you into the light for me, more casually than my own. For the one day created life for me, but the other created enjoyment and honor for my life.

4 * Seed and Conception

1. Your lifetime starts on your birthday, but there are also many things before that day which pertain to the origin of humankind. It seems relevant, therefore, to say something first about the things which are themselves first in the order of nature. So I shall briefly set out some of the opinions which the ancients held about the origins of mankind.

2. The first and general question treated by the men of old who were learned in wisdom was this: Everyone agrees that individual humans are created from the seed of their parents and in succession propagate offspring, generation after generation. But some authors maintained that there have always been human beings, and that they were never born from anything except human beings, and that there never had been any beginning or starting place to the human race. Others maintained that there was a time when humans did not exist and that they were allocated a particular point of origin and beginning by Nature.

3. The authorities for the first opinion, that humans have always existed, are Pythagoras of Samos, Ocellus of Lucania, and Archytas of Tarentum, all Pythagoreans; but Plato of Athens, Xenocrates, and Dicaearchus of Messenia and other philosophers of the old Academy seem to have held the same opinion. Also Aristotle of Stagira, Theophrastus, and many other important Peripatetic philosophers wrote the same thing. They gave, as illustration of this fact, a puzzle which they said could never be solved: Are birds or eggs created first, since an egg cannot be created without a bird and a bird cannot be created without an egg? 4. And so they say that for all things in this eternal world, things that always were and always will be, there was no beginning. Instead there is a kind of cycle of things creating and being born, in which the beginning and end of each created thing seem to exist simultaneously.

5. However, there have been many men who believed that the first humans were created by divinity or nature, but they have held very different opinions about it. 6. I will skip over what the fabulous stories of the poets tell: that the first humans were formed by Prometheus out of soft mud or were born from the hard rocks tossed by Deucalion and Pyrrha after the flood. However, some of the professors of philosophy themselves have offered theories in their teachings no less, I won't say monstrous, but certainly no less incredible. 7. For example, Anaximander of Miletus supposed that out of water and earth, after they had been heated, there had arisen fish or fish-like animals, inside of which humans coalesced. They were retained inside as embryos until puberty; then finally they burst open, and men and women, who were already able to feed themselves, came forth. Empedocles, in his wonderful poem, which Lucretius praised as being so good "that it scarcely seems created by the human race," confirms something of the sort. 8. In the beginning individual members were produced everywhere out of the earth, as if it were pregnant, then they came together and produced the material for a complete human being, composed of fire and moisture mixed. But what is the point of continuing with these improbable things? The same opinion is found in Parmenides of Velia, with the exception of a few small details where he differed from Empedocles. 9. According to Democritus of Abdera, humans were first formed from water and mud. Epicurus is not far behind: he believed that at first "wombs" of some kind grew in the heated mud, clinging to the roots of the earth; children were born out of these and the wombs offered them an organically occurring milky fluid, with nature's help. These original children, when grown and adult, propagated the human race. 10. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, held that the origin of the human race lay at the beginning of the world. The first humans were created from the earth with the support of divine fire, that is, the providence of god. 11. Finally, it is commonly believed-by nearly all the genealogical authorities, for example-that the ancestors of various peoples who are not descended from foreign stock were born from the earth, and they are called "autochthonous." This is the case in Attica, Arcadia, and Thessaly. The rough and ready credulity of our ancestors easily believed that even in Italy "Nymphs and native-born Satyrs" held certain forests (as Virgil sang). 12. But nowadays the passion of poetic license has reached such a point that they invent things you can barely listen to, claiming that within the memory of man, long after the various nations were created and cites founded, humans were still being born from the earth in various ways. So in Attica they say that King Erichthonius was born from the seed of Vulcan spilled on the ground; in Colchis and Boeotia, the legend goes that the "Sown Men" came forth fully armed from the sowing of the dragon's teeth; after they killed each other in mutual slaughter, only a few remained who helped Cadmus found Thebes. 13. Also in the area of Tarquinia a divine boy named Tages is said to have been plowed up, who sang poems about the science of reading entrails, which the "Lucumones," priests who ruled Etruria back then, wrote down.

5 * Pregnancy

1. But enough about the origin of humans. Now I will talk as briefly as I can about what pertains to our birth in the present time and its beginning.

2. First, the professors of philosophy do not agree where human seed comes from. Parmenides thought it came at different times from the right and left parts of the body. Hippon of Metapontum (or from Samos, according to Aristoxenus) believed that the seed flows from bone marrow, and thought that his theory was proved by the fact that, if one butchers the males after the animals have mated, no marrow is found, because it has been exhausted, as you might expect. 3. However, many refute this opinion, such as Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Alcmaeon of Croton. They responded that after the mating of the herds, the males had lost not only marrow but also fat and a great deal of flesh. 4. This question also has raised differing opinions among the authors, whether the fetus is engendered by the seed of only the father, as Diogenes, Hippon, and the Stoics wrote, or also from the mother, as Anaxagoras, Alcmaeon, as well as Parmenides, Empedocles, and Epicurus believed.

6 * The Fetus

5.5. Alcmaeon confessed that he knew nothing for certain about the formation of the fetus, and maintained that no one could learn what formed first in the embryo. 6.1. Empedocles, whose opinion Aristotle followed, judged that the heart formed before anything else, since it contains most of all the life of man; Hippon, however, thought it was the head, in which the ruling essence of the soul is found; Democritus, the belly and the head, the two most hollow parts; Anaxagoras, the brain from which all the senses come.

Diogenes of Apollonia thought that flesh was the first to arise from moisture; then the bones, nerves, and other parts were born from flesh. 2. But the Stoics said that the infant was formed as a whole at a single time, just as it is born and bred. Some believed that it is created by nature herself, so Aristotle and Epicurus; while others attributed it to the power of a spirit that accompanies the seed, so nearly all the Stoics. There are those who hold that there is an ethereal heat in the seed and this forms the limbs, so those who follow Anaxagoras.

3. However the fetus is formed, there are two opinions about how it is nourished in the mother's womb. Anaxagoras and many others believed that food is provided through the umbilical cord, but Diogenes and Hippon thought that there was a projection in the womb, which the fetus fastens onto with its mouth and through which it draws nourishment, just as it does from its mother's breasts once it is born.

4. Next, these philosophers gave different answers to the question of what causes males or females to be born. Alcmaeon, for instance, said that the child's sex reflected whichever parent supplied the greatest amount of seed. Hippon affirmed that females are born from thinner seed, males from thicker. 5. Whichever parent's essence took hold of the place first had its nature reflected in the child: that was the opinion of Democritus. According to Parmenides, the seed of the female and the seed of the male compete, and the child has the nature of whichever gains the victory. 6. Anaxagoras and Empedocles agreed that males are born from seed flowing from the right parts of the body, females from the left.

Their opinions were in agreement on this point, but quite different on the question of the resemblance of children to their parents. On this question, Empedocles debated the matter and offered the following conclusions. 7. If the heat in the seed of the two parents is equal, a male will be born, resembling his father; if both are cold, a female resembling her mother. If the father's seed is hotter (and the mother's colder), then it will be a boy who will have his mother's face; if the mother's seed is hotter (and the father's colder), then it will be a girl who looks like her father. 8. Anaxagoras, however, judged that children had the face of whichever parent had provided the most seed. Finally, it was the opinion of Parmenides that when the right parts of the body provided the seed, then children resembled their father; when the left parts, then their mother.


Excerpted from THE BIRTHDAY BOOK
Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Translator's Preface
1 Happy Birthday
2 How to Honor the Genius of the Birthday
3 What is the Spirit of the Birthday?
4 Seed and Conception
5 Pregnancy
6 The Fetus
7 Growth in the Womb
8 The Origins of Astrology
9 The Teachings of the Pythagoreans
10 Harmony and Music
11 Harmony in the Womb
12 Harmony in the Mind and Body
13 Harmony in the Universe
14 Crisis Years and the Length of Life
15 The Praise of Caerellius
16 Time and Eternity
17 Ages and Centuries. The Roman Secular Games
18 The Great Year
19 The Year
20 The Calendar
21 The History of the World
22 Months
23 Days
24 Hours



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