Lion Gate

Guido's Historia Destructionis Troiae

Astralscapes of the Emotions: Planets, Seasons, Passions, Actions

Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI


Adapted from: "Human Responsibility and the Fall of Troy," Diane P. Thompson, DIS., CUNY, 1981.

The Historia Destructionis Troiae,1 a Latin prose narrative  completed in 1287 by Guido de Columnis, was based on a twelfth  century French metrical romance, Benoit de Sainte Maure's Roman  de Troie.  Guido reworked Benoit's text from the idiom of twelfth  century France into that of thirteenth century Sicily, reshaping  his inherited materials to express an understanding of why Troy  fell that was significantly different from Benoit's.

One factor among many that differentiates the Historia  from the Roman de Troie is Guido's use of the new learning that  was flooding into Europe during his lifetime. Guido was associated with the Sicilian court of Frederick II, where Arabs,  Jews and Christians mingled freely, creating a ferment of ideas  including Arab astronomy/astrology and Aristotelian science along  with the more familiar traditions of the European Middle Ages.  Astrology created problems for theologians in the thirteenth  century, because it was inextricably linked to determinism, but  in Guido's time and place astrological determinism could coexist  with Christian free will without creating too much of a stir, and  while Guido asserts that people ought to resist the essentially  astrological fates, he never shows anyone actually able to do so. 

The Historia is generally lacking in descriptive passages,  but noteworthy among the few are several astralscapes which serve  as settings for significant events.  These descriptions are  organized around the  sun, moon, and stars, rather than ponds,  trees, and hills. They are rhetorical, of course, but rooted in Guido's interest in the "new" learning of  the Greco‑Arab  physical sciences. These astralscapes are descriptions of persons  and events that begin with the positions of the sun, moon and  stars and then work down to the seasons or the passions of human beings, and only then to the actions taken.

 Guido establishes a definite relationship between the sun,  the moon, and Medea's passion for Iason. Medea's love for Iason is literally at first sight, and they arrange to meet secretly. She awaits the meeting with great eagerness which Guido describes  as being measured by the slow and much desired setting of the  sun: "At last, as it drew on toward evening, the sun's descent  beneath the horizon brought on the complete darkness of night,  while the shadow of earth interposed itself between the faces of  man and the sun.  Therefore, as the twilight of that night grew  deeper, the agitated heart of Medea was in a turmoil of varying  emotions, and she, bent on watching the least movement of the sun  until it should set, watched with even greater anxiety and  yearned for nightfall with the concomitant rising of the moon,  since on that night it was to rise at about the first hour of  sleep" (Meek 21).2

The passage of the sun is both astrological and  psychological, since the heavenly bodies act by affecting  people's emotions and judgment. Darkness makes people more  vulnerable to the malicious effects of the stars, as does a state  of intense emotion, such as love or anger.  Not only will the  setting of the sun and rising of the moon provide an opportunity,  the specific time when Iason will come, but Medea's passion will  become more powerful and more vulnerable to being influenced by  the stars when it is dark. Medea participates willingly in her  experience, because she yearns for that darkness which will allow  her passion full rein.  This fits Guido's often repeated warnings  that people ought to resist the influences of the stars (although  he is aware that they rarely do).  Guido plainly intends to  associate the setting of the sun with the increase in the powers  of lust and unreason, and is not merely giving us a poetic  technique for telling time and expressing Medea's eagerness for  her meeting with Iason. The setting of the sun is technically  described, as a natural scientist or astrologer might write: "the  shadow of earth interposed itself between the faces of man and  the sun."

The Judgment of Paris and the death of Paris, two critical  events in the Trojan War, both occur at the summer solstice, and  these are, I believe, the only two mentions of that solstice in  the Historia.  When Paris tells of his dream vision, he begins  with the pertinent astronomical data.  He was in Minor India:  "When the summer sun was at its solstice, and when the sun was  running its course near the beginning of Cancer.... The sun  was already standing at the meridian and was not far from sinking  toward evening" (Meek 59).  After this introduction, Paris tells  his dream.  The position of the sun in the zodiac, and then the  position of the sun in the sky are significant ordering points  for Guido when he describes an event.

The day on which Paris is killed is also described in  astronomical terms:  "It was the time when the sun had already  progressed so far in its course beneath the celestial circle of  the zodiac that in that year it had entered the sign of Cancer,  in which, according to the divine arrangement of stars, the  summer solstice takes place" (Meek 200).  Paris' dream vision on  the day of the summer solstice was a critical cause of the Trojan  War, since his choice of Venus led him to seize Helen, the  proximate cause of the Fall of Troy.  On the other summer  solstice, when Paris is killed, Ajax, the man who will kill him,  is evidently affected in his mind by the times: "Then Ajax,  carried away by some mad impulse, marched to battle without  armor, and with uncovered head, and he carried only a sword in  his hand, thus indeed being without protection" (Meek 200‑201).   Ajax and Paris kill one another on this fateful day.  The first  solstice influenced Paris' mind and passions, through his dream  vision; the second solstice contributed to Ajax' madness. The  influences of the two solstices interact ultimately to cause the  deaths of both men.          

Guido develops three other extended astralscapes in the  Historia.  They all affirm the dependent relationship between the  position of the sun in the zodiac, the seasons on earth, and the  actions of men.3  These descriptions are based on time, not  place.  They are certainly related to the rhetorical tradition,  which Otto Weinreich calls the "epischen Zeitangabe." 4   However, the consistent use of the zodiacal position of the sun  is peculiar to Guido, as is his use of these set pieces when he  uses so little descriptive material, indicating that he considers  these broad astralscapes which relate the zodiac to the seasons  to human affairs to be significant. 

Guido's use of the relationship of time, the heavens, and  men's actions is clear in his description of the time when the  Greek leaders gather to plot the death of Hector: "Accordingly  when twilight came before the faces of men, and when everywhere  in the space of the sky could be seen the stars that night, which  impairs the eyes of those looking at the appearances of the rest  of things, displays openly on account of the shadows of its  darkness" (Meek 146).  Just as darkness released Medea's passion,  here darkness impairs men's understanding.  When it is dark  enough to see the stars, you cannot see (e.g. know) anything  else.  The stars are real, and therefore in a sense knowable, but  they affect men's minds which are better able to control their  passions by the clear light of the sun.

The dominant power of Agamemnon's army is emphasized by the  fires they light after they have established the siege at Troy:  "That night, at the decision of Agamemnon, they made the siege  permanent with great ease, when with many fires and blazing  torches they scorned the shadows of night.  And it appeared to  the army that the artificial glow was no less than if the  brightness of day were shining" (Meek 122‑3).  Although this  artificial glow is definitely preferable to the darkness of  night, daylight is welcomed: "The shadows of that night were  removed when they were put to flight in the morning by the rising  dawn, and the sun lit up the surface of the earth with its rays"  (Meek 123).  Guido's darkness at night is not simply the absence  of street lamps; the powers of the stars to confuse and influence  human behavior are greatest in the absence of daylight.

Night and day, the sun and moon, the seasons.  These are the  basic descriptive elements that Guido uses to locate events in  the Historia.  They are used in a technical and scientific way  that, although it may also be rhetorical, is definitely  astronomical, that is to say, astrological, for at that time, and  for many years thereafter, they were practically the same.

Works Cited:

1. Guido de Columnis, Historia Destructionis Troiae, ed. by Nathaniel Edward Griffin (1936; rpt. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1970). This edition is cited as Historia.

2. English translations of quotations from Guido are taken from the Historia Destructionis Troiae by Guido delle Colonne, translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), cited as Meek.

3. Historia VII, p. 67; VIIII, pp. 87-88; and XXXIII, pp. 253-54.

4. Otto Weinreich, Ph÷bus, Aurora, Kalender und Uhr: ▄ber eine Doppelform der epischen Zeitbestimmung in der Erzńhlkunst der Antike und Neuzeit. (Stuttgart: Verlag von W. Kohnhammer, 1937), p. 2.


© Diane Thompson: 11/10/1998; updated: 01/28/2011