Colourful Planets: The Reception of an Astronomical Detail in the Myth of Er

M Martijn, Emilie van Opstall (Guest editor), RJ Allan (Guest editor)

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In the Myth of Er, Plato describes the 'Spindle of Necessity', a contraption presenting the cosmos as guided by Sirens and Fates, and ascribes different colours to the planets (Rep. 616e-617a). This paper argues that Plato probably used astronomical data for that passage, but possibly gave them a metaphorical sense, and discusses the likelihood of his having used Mesopotamian sources. The second half of the paper studies receptions of and allusions to the image, with context-based astronomical, political, and metaphysical features. Cicero adjusted the image to contemporary astronomy, and to the political function of the cosmic structures in the Somnium Scipionis. His commentator Macrobius emphasizes empirical correctness, but possibly with metaphysical undertones. Apuleius' Metamorphoses alludes to the image in a portrait of Isis, perhaps to refer to her metaphysical role. Finally, Proclus interprets the Platonic passage as primarily metaphysical, and pointing to truths beyond astronomical phenomena.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-168
Number of pages24
JournalMnemosyne: A Journal of Classical Studies
Issue number1
Early online date7 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Special Issue in Honour of Gerard Boter, edited by Rutger Allan and Emilie van Opstall: Greek Culture in the Roman World.

Funding Information:
Much of this paper was written during the pandemic and hence to some extent without library access. I thank Maaike Zimmerman, Wytse Keulen, Jonathan Greig, John Dillon, Roelf Barkhuis, Ben Schomakers, Joachim Quack, Hasse Leemans, the participants of Aiste Celkyte's workshop on late antiquity, and my mother Evelien Bodenstaff for their help. I also thank the editors and an anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments, which made this a better paper. Remaining flaws are all mine.

Publisher Copyright:
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2021


  • Apuleius
  • Astronomy
  • Cicero
  • Colours
  • Myth of Er
  • Planets
  • Plato
  • Proclus


Dive into the research topics of 'Colourful Planets: The Reception of an Astronomical Detail in the Myth of Er'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this