This text is part of:
Table of Contents:
MARCUS VARRO, in the first book of his work entitled Hebdomades or On Portraits, speaks of many varied excellencies and powers of the number seven, which the Greeks call ἑβδομάς. “For that number,” he says, “forms the Greater and the Lesser Bear in the heavens; also the vergiliae, 1 which [p. 269] the Greeks call πλειάδες; and it is likewise the number of those stars which some call 'wandering,' but Publius Nigidius' wanderers.'” 2 Varro also says that there are seven circles in the heavens, perpendicular to its axis. The two smallest of these, which touch the ends of the axis, he says are called πόλοι, or “poles” ; but that because of their small diameter they cannot be represented on what is termed an armillary sphere. 3 And the zodiac itself is not uninfluenced by the number seven; for the summer solstice occurs in the seventh sign from the winter solstice, and the winter solstice in the seventh after the summer, and one equinox in the seventh sign after the other. Then too those winter days during which the kingfishers nest on the water he says are seven in number. 4 Besides this, he writes that the course of the moon is completed in four times seven complete days; “for on the twenty-eighth day,” he says, “the moon returns to the same point from which it started,” and he quotes Aristides 5 of Samos as his authority for this opinion. In this case he says that one should not only take note of the fact that the moon finishes its journey in four times seven, that is eight and twenty, days, but also that this number seven, if, beginning with one and going on until it reaches itself, it includes the sum of all the numbers through which it has passed and then adds itself, makes the number eight and twenty, which is the number of days of the revolution of the moon. 6 He says that the influence of that number [p. 271] extends to and affects also the birth of human beings. “For,” says he, “when the life-giving seed has been introduced into the female womb, in the first seven days it is compacted and coagulated and rendered fit to take shape. Then afterwards in the fourth hebdomad the rudimentary male organ, the head, and the spine which is in the back, are formed. But in the seventh hebdomad, as a rule, that is, by the forty-ninth day,” says he, “the entire embryo is formed in the womb.” He says that this power also has been observed in that number, that before the seventh month neither male nor female child can be born in health and naturally, and that those which are in the womb the most regular time are born two hundred and seventy-three days after conception, that is, not until the beginning of the fortieth hebdomad. Of the periods dangerous to the lives and fortunes of all men, which the Chaldaeans call “climacterics,” all the gravest are combinations of the number seven. Besides this, he says that the extreme limit of growth of the human body is seven feet. That, in my opinion, is truer than the statement of Herodotus, the story-teller, in the first book of his History, 7 that the body of Orestes was found under ground, and that it was seven cubits in height, that is, twelve and a quarter feet; unless, as Homer thought, 8 the men of old were larger and taller of stature, but now, because the world is ageing, as it were, men and things are diminishing in size. The teeth too, he says, appear [p. 273] in the first seven months seven at a time in each jaw, and fall out within seven years, and the back teeth are added, as a rule, within twice seven years. He says that the physicians who use music as a remedy declare that the veins of men, or rather their arteries, are set in motion according to the number seven, 9 and this treatment they call τὴν διὰ τεσσάρων συμφωνίαν, 10 because it results from the harmony of four tones. He also believes that the periods of danger in diseases have greater violence on the days which are made up of the number seven, and that those days in particular seem to be, as the physicians call them, κρισίμοι or “critical” ; namely, the first, second and third hebdomad. And Varro does not fail to mention a fact which adds to the power and influence of the number seven, namely, that those who resolve to die of starvation do not meet their end until the seventh day. These remarks of Varro about the number seven show painstaking investigation. But he has also brought together in the same place others which are rather trifling: for example, that there are seven wonderful works in the world, that the sages of old were seven, that the usual number of rounds in the races in the circus is seven, and that seven champions were chosen to attack Thebes. Then he adds in that book the further information that he has entered upon the twelfth hebdomad of his age, and that up to that day he has completed seventy hebdomads of books, 11 of which a considerable number were destroyed when his library was plundered, at the time of his proscription. 12
1 So called (from ver ) because their rising, from April 22 to May 10, marked the beginning of spring.
2 Fr. 87, Swoboda. The planets of the ancients were Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, to which they added the moon.
3 An arrangement of rings (armillae), all circles of a single sphere, intended to show the relative position of the principal celestial circles. The sphere of Ptolemy has the earth in the centre, that of Copernicus the sun. Since the purpose is to show the apparent motions of the solar system, the former is the one most used.
4 That is, seven before, and seven after the winter solstice. During these fourteen “halcyon days” the sea was supposed to be perfectly calm.
5 A mistake for Aristarchus.
6 That is, the sum of the numbers 1 to 7 inclusive is 28.
7 i. 68.
8 Iliad, v. 302:
ὁ δὲ χερμάδιον λάβε χειρὶxii. 383; etc.
τυδείδης, μέγα ἔργον, ὃ οὐ δύο γ᾽ ἄνδρε φέροιεν,
οἷοι νῦν βροτοί εἰσ᾽: ὁ δέ μιν ῥέα πάλλε καὶ οἶος.
9 That is, by the use of the seven-stringed lyre.
10 The harmony produced by the striking of four different strings.
11 Only 39 titles have come down to us, through Hieronymus, De Vir. Ill. 54, whose catalogue is unfinished and also includes ten libri singulares under one head. Ritschl estimated Varro's publications as 74 works, comprising 620 books.
12 By Antony in 43 B. C. Varro was saved from death by Fufius Calenus, and died in 27 B.C., at the age of nearly ninety.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.