Unlike most ancient Greek mathematicians, Ptolemy's writings (foremost the Almagest) never ceased to be copied or commented upon, both in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. However, it is likely that only a few truly mastered the mathematics necessary to understand his works, as evidenced particularly by the many abridged and watered-down introductions to Ptolemy's astronomy that were popular among the Arabs and Byzantines alike.
Ptolemy lived in or around the city of Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt under Roman rule, had a Latin name (which several historians have taken to imply he was also a Roman citizen), cited Greek philosophers, and used Babylonian observations and Babylonian lunar theory. In half of his extant works, Ptolemy addresses a certain Syrus, a figure of whom almost nothing is known but who likely shared some of Ptolemy's astronomical interests.
The 14th-century astronomer Theodore Meliteniotes gave his birthplace as the prominent Greek city Ptolemais Hermiou ( ?) in the Thebaid (). This attestation is quite late, however, and there is no evidence to support it. Ptolemy died in Alexandria around 168.
Naming and nationality
Engraving of a crowned Ptolemy being guided by Urania, from Margarita Philosophica by Gregor Reisch (1508), showing an early confluence between his person and the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt.
The name Claudius is a Roman name, belonging to the gens Claudia; the peculiar multipart form of the whole name Claudius Ptolemaeus is a Roman custom, characteristic of Roman citizens. Several historians have made the deduction that this indicates that Ptolemy would have been a Roman citizen. Gerald Toomer, the translator of Ptolemy's Almagest into English, suggests that citizenship was probably granted to one of Ptolemy's ancestors by either the emperor Claudius or the emperor Nero.
The 9th century PersianastronomerAbu Ma?shar mistakenly presents Ptolemy as a member of Ptolemaic Egypt's royal lineage, stating that the descendants of the Alexandrine general and Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter were wise "and included Ptolemy the Wise, who composed the book of the Almagest". Abu Ma?shar recorded a belief that a different member of this royal line "composed the book on astrology and attributed it to Ptolemy". We can infer historical confusion on this point from Abu Ma?shar's subsequent remark: "It is sometimes said that the very learned man who wrote the book of astrology also wrote the book of the Almagest. The correct answer is not known." Not much positive evidence is known on the subject of Ptolemy's ancestry, apart from what can be drawn from the details of his name, although modern scholars have concluded that Abu Ma?shar's account is erroneous. It is no longer doubted that the astronomer who wrote the Almagest also wrote the Tetrabiblos as its astrological counterpart. In later Arabic sources, he was often known as "the Upper Egyptian", suggesting he may have had origins in southern Egypt.Arabic astronomers, geographers and physicists referred to his name in Arabic as Ba?lumyus (Arabic: ).
Astronomy was the subject to which Ptolemy devoted the most time and effort; about half of all the works that survived deal with astronomical matters, and even others such as the Geography and the Tetrabiblos have significant references to astronomy.
Pages from the Almagest in Arabic translation showing astronomical tables.
Ptolemy's Math?matik? Syntaxis (Ancient Greek: ? , lit. "Mathematical Systematic Treatise"), better known as the Almagest, is the only surviving comprehensive ancient treatise on astronomy. Although Babylonian astronomers had developed arithmetical techniques for calculating and predicting astronomical phenomena, these were not based on any underlying model of the heavens; early Greek astronomers, on the other hand, provided qualitative geometrical models to "save the appearances" of celestial phenomena without the ability to make any predictions.
The earliest person that attempted to merge these two approaches was Hipparchus, who produced geometric models that not only reflected the arrangement of the planets and stars but could be used to calculate celestial motions. Ptolemy, following Hipparchus, derived each of his geometrical models for the Sun, Moon, and the planets from selected astronomical observations done in the spanning of more than 800 years; however, many astronomers have for centuries suspected that some of his models' parameters were adopted independently of observations.
Ptolemy presented his astronomical models alongside convenient tables, which could be used to compute the future or past position of the planets. The Almagest also contains a star catalogue, which is a version of a catalogue created by Hipparchus. Its list of forty-eight constellations is ancestral to the modern system of constellations but, unlike the modern system, they did not cover the whole sky (only what could be seen with the naked eye). For over a thousand years, the Almagest was the authoritative text on astronomy across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and its author soon became an almost legendary figure: Ptolemy, King of Alexandria.
The Almagest was preserved, like many extant Greek scientific works, in Arabic manuscripts; the modern title is thought to be an Arabic corruption of the Greek name H? Megist? Syntaxis (lit. "The greatest treatise"), as the work was presumably known in Late Antiquity. Because of its reputation, it was widely sought and translated twice into Latin in the 12th century, once in Sicily and again in Spain. Ptolemy's planetary models, like those of the majority of his predecessors, were geocentric and almost universally accepted until the reappearance of heliocentric models during the scientific revolution.
The Handy Tables (Ancient Greek: ?) are a set of astronomical tables, together with canons for their use. To facilitate astronomical calculations, Ptolemy tabulated all the data needed to compute the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets, the rising and setting of the stars, and eclipses of the Sun and Moon, making it a useful tool for astronomers and astrologers. The tables themselves are known through Theon of Alexandria's version. Although Ptolemy's Handy Tables do not survive as such in Arabic or in Latin, they represent the prototype of most Arabic and Latin astronomical tables or z?jes.
Additionally, the introduction to the Handy Tables survived separately from the tables themselves (apparently part of a gathering of some of Ptolemy's shorter writings) under the title Arrangement and Calculation of the Handy Tables.
A depiction of the Ptolemaic Universe as described in the Planetary Hypotheses by Bartolomeu Velho (1568).
The Planetary Hypotheses (Ancient Greek: ?, lit. "Hypotheses of the Planets") is a cosmological work, probably one of the last written by Ptolemy, in two books dealing with the structure of the universe and the laws that govern celestial motion. Ptolemy goes beyond the mathematical models of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to compute the dimensions of the universe. He estimated the Sun was at an average distance of 1,210 Earth radii (now known to actually be ~23,450 radii), while the radius of the sphere of the fixed stars was 20,000 times the radius of the Earth.
The work is also notable for having descriptions on how to build instruments to depict the planets and their movements from a geocentric perspective, much like an orrery would have done for a heliocentric one, presumably for didactic purposes.
The Analemma is a short treatise where Ptolemy provides a method for specifying the location of the sun in three pairs of locally orientated coordinate arcs as a function of the declination of the sun, the terrestrial latitude, and the hour. The key to the approach is to represent the solid configuration in a plane diagram that Ptolemy calls the analemma.
In another work, the Phaseis (Risings of the Fixed Stars), Ptolemy gave a parapegma, a star calendar or almanac, based on the appearances and disappearances of stars over the course of the solar year.
The Planispherium (Ancient Greek: ? ? ?, lit. 'Simplification of the Sphere') contains 16 propositions dealing with the projection of the celestial circles onto a plane. The text is lost in Greek (except for a fragment) and survives in Arabic and Latin only.
Ptolemy also erected an inscription in a temple at Canopus, around 146-147 CE, known as the Canobic Inscription. Although the inscription has not survived, someone in the sixth century transcribed it and manuscript copies preserved it through the Middle Ages. It begins: "To the savior god, Claudius Ptolemy (dedicates) the first principles and models of astronomy," following by a catalog of numbers that define a system of celestial mechanics governing the motions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars.
A printed map from the 15th century depicting Ptolemy's description of the Ecumene by Johannes Schnitzer (1482).
The first part of the Geography is a discussion of the data and of the methods he used. Ptolemy notes the supremacy of astronomical data over land measurements or travelers' reports, though he possessed these data for only a handful of places. Ptolemy's real innovation, however, occurs in the second part of the book, where he provides a catalogue of 8,000 localities he collected from Marinus and others, the biggest such database from antiquity. About 6,300 of these places and geographic features have assigned coordinates so that they can be placed in a grid that spanned the globe.Latitude was measured from the equator, as it is today, but Ptolemy preferred to express it as climata, the length of the longest day rather than degrees of arc: the length of the midsummer day increases from 12h to 24h as one goes from the equator to the polar circle.
In the third part of the Geography, Ptolemy gives instructions on how to create maps both of the whole inhabited world (oikoumen?) and of the Roman provinces, including the necessary topographic lists, and captions for the maps. His oikoumen? spanned 180 degrees of longitude from the Blessed Islands in the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of China, and about 80 degrees of latitude from Shetland to anti-Meroe (east coast of Africa); Ptolemy was well aware that he knew about only a quarter of the globe, and an erroneous extension of China southward suggests his sources did not reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
It seems likely that the topographical tables in the second part of the work (Books 2-7) are cumulative texts, which were altered as new knowledge became available in the centuries after Ptolemy. This means that information contained in different parts of the Geography is likely to be of different dates, in addition to containing many scribal errors. However, although the regional and world maps in surviving manuscripts date from c. 1300 CE (after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Planudes), there are some scholars who think that such maps go back to Ptolemy himself.
A copy of the Quadripartitum (1622)
Ptolemy wrote an astrological treatise, in four parts, known by the Greek term Tetrabiblos (lit. "Four Books") or by its Latin equivalent Quadripartitum. Its original title is unknown, but may have been a term found in some Greek manuscripts, Apotelesmatiká (biblía), roughly meaning "(books) on the Effects" or "Outcomes", or "Prognostics". As a source of reference, the Tetrabiblos is said to have "enjoyed almost the authority of a Bible among the astrological writers of a thousand years or more". It was first translated from Arabic into Latin by Plato of Tivoli (Tiburtinus) in 1138, while he was in Spain.
Much of the content of the Tetrabiblos was collected from earlier sources; Ptolemy's achievement was to order his material in a systematic way, showing how the subject could, in his view, be rationalized. It is, indeed, presented as the second part of the study of astronomy of which the Almagest was the first, concerned with the influences of the celestial bodies in the sublunary sphere. Thus explanations of a sort are provided for the astrological effects of the planets, based upon their combined effects of heating, cooling, moistening, and drying. Ptolemy dismisses other astrological practices, such as considering the numerological significance of names, that he believed to be without sound basis, and leaves out popular topics, such as electional astrology (interpreting astrological charts to determine courses of action) and medical astrology, for similar reasons.
The great popularity that the Tetrabiblos did possess might be attributed to its nature as an exposition of the art of astrology, and as a compendium of astrological lore, rather than as a manual. It speaks in general terms, avoiding illustrations and details of practice.
A collection of one hundred aphorisms about astrology called the Centiloquium, ascribed to Ptolemy, was widely reproduced and commented on by Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew scholars, and often bound together in medieval manuscripts after the Tetrabiblos as a kind of summation. It is now believed to be a much later pseudepigraphical composition. The identity and date of the actual author of the work, referred to now as Pseudo-Ptolemy, remains the subject of conjecture.
Ptolemy wrote an earlier work entitled Harmonikon (Ancient Greek: ), known as the Harmonics, on music theory and the mathematics behind musical scales in three books. It begins with a definition of harmonic theory, with a long exposition on the relationship between reason and sense perception in corroborating theoretical assumptions. After criticizing the approaches of his predecessors, Ptolemy argues for basing musical intervals on mathematical ratios (in contrast to the followers of Aristoxenus), backed up by empirical observation (in contrast to the overly theoretical approach of the Pythagoreans).
Ptolemy introduces the harmonic canon, an experimental apparatus that would be used for the demonstrations in the next chapters, then proceeds to discuss Pythagorean tuning. Pythagoreans believed that the mathematics of music should be based on the specific ratio of 3:2, whereas Ptolemy merely believed that it should just generally involve tetrachords and octaves. He presented his own divisions of the tetrachord and the octave, which he derived with the help of a monochord. The book ends with a more speculative exposition of the relationships between harmony, the soul (psyche), and the planets (harmony of the spheres).
Although Ptolemy's Harmonics never had the influence of his Almagest or Geography, it is nonetheless a well-structured treatise and contains more methodological reflections than any other of his writings. It also exherted a strong influenced during the Renaissance and the seventeenth century; Kepler, for instance, read and was influenced by this work in his own musings on the harmony of the world (Harmonice Mundi, Appendix to Book V).
The Optica (Ancient Greek: ), known as the Optics, is a work that survives only in a somewhat poor Latin version, which, in turn, was translated from a lost Arabic version by Eugenius of Palermo (c. 1154). In it, Ptolemy writes about properties of sight (not light), including reflection, refraction, and color. The work is a significant part of the early history of optics and influenced the more famous and superior 11th-century Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham. Ptolemy offered explanations for many phenomena concerning illumination and color, size, shape, movement, and binocular vision. He also divided illusions into those caused by physical or optical factors and those caused by judgmental factors. He offered an obscure explanation of the sun or moon illusion (the enlarged apparent size on the horizon) based on the difficulty of looking upwards.
The work is divided into three major sections. The first section (Book II) deals with direct vision from first principles and ends with a discussion of binocular vision. The second section (Books III-IV) treats reflection in plane, convex, concave, and compound mirrors. The last section (Book V) deals with refraction and includes the earliest surviving table of refraction from air to water, for which the values (with the exception of the 60° angle of incidence) show signs of being obtained from an arithmetic progression. However, according to Mark Smith, Ptolemy's table was based in part on real experiments.
Ptolemy's theory of vision consisted of rays (or flux) coming from the eye forming a cone, the vertex being within the eye, and the base defining the visual field. The rays were sensitive, and conveyed information back to the observer's intellect about the distance and orientation of surfaces. Size and shape were determined by the visual angle subtended at the eye combined with perceived distance and orientation. This was one of the early statements of size-distance invariance as a cause of perceptual size and shape constancy, a view supported by the Stoics.
Although mainly known for his contributions to astronomy and other scientific subjects, Ptolemy also engaged in epistemological and psychological discussions across his corpus. He wrote a short essay entitled On the Criterion and Hegemonikon (Ancient Greek: ? ?), which may have been one of his earliest works. Ptolemy deals specifically with how humans obtain scientific knowledge (i.e., the "criterion" of truth), as well as with the nature and structure of the human psyche or soul, particularly its ruling faculty (i.e., the hegemonikon). Ptolemy argues that, to arrive at the truth, one should use both reason and sense perception in ways that complement each other. On the Criterion is also noteworthy for being the only one of Ptolemy's works that is devoid of mathematics.
Elsewhere, Ptolemy affirms the supremacy of mathematical knowledge over other forms of knowledge. Like Aristotle before him, Ptolemy classifies mathematics as a type of theoretical philosophy; however, Ptolemy believes mathematics to be superior to theology or metaphysics because the latter are conjectural while only the former can secure certain knowledge. This view is contrary to the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, where theology or metaphysics occupied the highest honor. Despite being a minority position among ancient philosophers, Ptolemy's views were shared by other mathematicians such as Hero of Alexandria.
Named after Ptolemy
There are several characters or items named after Ptolemy, including:
^ abcdJones, A. (2020). The ancient Ptolemy. ln Ptolemy's Science of the Stars in the Middle Ages (D. Juste, B. van Dalen, D. N. Hasse, C. Burnett, Turnhout, Brepols, Eds.) Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus Studies 1, 13-34.
^ abNeugebauer (1975, p. 834); Toomer, Gerald (2008). "Ptolemy (or Claudius Ptolemaeus)"". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2013. The only place mentioned in any of Ptolemy's observations is Alexandria, and there is no reason to suppose that he ever lived anywhere else. The statement by Theodore Meliteniotes that he was born in Ptolemais Hermiou (in Upper Egypt) could be correct, but it is late (ca. 1360) and unsupported.}}
^J. F. Weidler (1741). Historia astronomiae, p. 177. Wittenberg: Gottlieb. (cf.Martin Bernal (1992). "Animadversions on the Origins of Western Science", Isis83 (4), p. 596-607 .)
^Martin Bernal (1992). "Animadversions on the Origins of Western Science", Isis83 (4), p. 596-607 [602, 606].
^Shahid Rahman; Tony Street; Hassan Tahiri, eds. (2008). "The Birth of Scientific Controversies, The Dynamics of the Arabic Tradition and Its Impact on the Development of Science: Ibn al-Haytham's Challenge of Ptolemy's Almagest". The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition. 11. Springer Netherlands. pp. 183-225 . doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8405-8. ISBN978-1-4020-8404-1.
^Asger Aaboe, Episodes from the Early History of Astronomy, New York: Springer, 2001, pp. 62-65.
^Alexander Jones, "The Adaptation of Babylonian Methods in Greek Numerical Astronomy", in The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, p. 99.
^ abKatz, Victor J. (1998). A History of Mathematics: An Introduction. Addison Wesley. p. 184. ISBN0-321-01618-1. But what we really want to know is to what extent the Alexandrian mathematicians of the period from the 1st to the 5th centuries AD were Greek. Certainly, all of them wrote in Greek and were part of the Greek intellectual community of Alexandria. Most modern studies conclude that the Greek community coexisted ... So should we assume that Ptolemy and Diophantus, Pappus and Hypatia were ethnically Greek, that their ancestors had come from Greece at some point in the past but had remained effectively isolated from the Egyptians? It is, of course, impossible to answer this question definitively. But research in papyri dating from the early centuries of the common era demonstrates that a significant amount of intermarriage took place between the Greek and Egyptian communities ... And it is known that Greek marriage contracts increasingly came to resemble Egyptian ones. In addition, even from the founding of Alexandria, small numbers of Egyptians were admitted to the privileged classes in the city to fulfill numerous civic roles. Of course, it was essential in such cases for the Egyptians to become "Hellenized", to adopt Greek habits and the Greek language. Given that the Alexandrian mathematicians mentioned here were active several hundred years after the founding of the city, it would seem at least equally possible that they were ethnically Egyptian as that they remained ethnically Greek. In any case, it is unreasonable to portray them with purely European features when no physical descriptions exist.
^"Ptolemy". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2006.
^George Sarton (1936). "The Unity and Diversity of the Mediterranean World", Osiris2, p. 406-463 .
^The north celestial pole is the point in the sky lying at the common centre of the circles which the stars appear to people in the northern hemisphere to trace out during the course of a sidereal day.
^H. E. Ross and G. M. Ross, "Did Ptolemy Understand the Moon Illusion?", Perception 5 (1976): 377-395.
^A. I. Sabra, "Psychology Versus Mathematics: Ptolemy and Alhazen on the Moon Illusion", in E. Grant & J. E. Murdoch (eds.) Mathematics and Its Application to Science and Natural Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 217-247.
^H. W. Ross and C. Plug, "The History of Size Constancy and Size Illusions", in V. Walsh & J. Kulikowski (eds.) Perceptual Constancy: Why Things Look as They Do. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 499-528.
^Schiefsky, M. J. (2014). The Epistemology of Ptolemy's "On the Criterion". In: Lee M-K (Ed.) Strategies of Argument: Essays in Ancient Ethics, Epistemology, and Logic. Oxford University Press; pp. 301-331.
Campbell, T. (1987). The Earliest Printed Maps. British Museum Press.
Hübner, Wolfgang, ed. 1998. Claudius Ptolemaeus, Opera quae exstant omnia Vol III/Fasc 1? (= Tetrabiblos). De Gruyter. ISBN978-3-598-71746-8 (Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana). (The most recent edition of the Greek text of Ptolemy's astrological work, based on earlier editions by F. Boll and E. Boer.)
Lejeune, A. (1989) L'Optique de Claude Ptolémée dans la version latine d'après l'arabe de l'émir Eugène de Sicile. [Latin text with French translation]. Collection de travaux de l'Académie International d'Histoire des Sciences, No. 31. Leiden: E.J.Brill.
Neugebauer, Otto (1975). A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. I-III. Berlin and New York: Springer Verlag.
Nobbe, C. F. A., ed. 1843. Claudii Ptolemaei Geographia. 3 vols. Leipzig: Carolus Tauchnitus. (Until Stückelberger (2006), this was the most recent edition of the complete Greek text.)
Peerlings, R.H.J., Laurentius F., van den Bovenkamp J.,(2017) The watermarks in the Rome editions of Ptolemy's Cosmography and more, In Quaerendo 47: 307-327, 2017.
Peerlings, R.H.J., Laurentius F., van den Bovenkamp J.,(2018) New findings and discoveries in the 1507/8 Rome edition of Ptolemy's Cosmography, In Quaerendo 48: 139-162, 2018.
Ptolemy. 1930. Die Harmonielehre des Klaudios Ptolemaios, edited by Ingemar Düring. Göteborgs högskolas årsskrift 36, 1930:1. Göteborg: Elanders boktr. aktiebolag. Reprint, New York: Garland Publishing, 1980.
Ptolemy. 2000. Harmonics, translated and commentary by Jon Solomon. Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava, Supplementum, 0169-8958, 203. Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers. ISBN90-04-11591-9
Robbins, Frank E. (ed.) 1940. Ptolemy Tetrabiblos. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library). ISBN0-674-99479-5.
Smith, A.M. (1996) Ptolemy's theory of visual perception: An English translation of the Optics with introduction and commentary. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 86, Part 2. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.
Solin, Heikke (2012), "names, personal, Roman.", in Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony; Eidinow, Esther (eds.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, retrieved 2019.
Stevenson, Edward Luther (trans. and ed.). 1932. Claudius Ptolemy: The Geography. New York: New York Public Library. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1991. (This is the only complete English translation of Ptolemy's most famous work. Unfortunately, it is marred by numerous mistakes and the placenames are given in Latinised forms, rather than in the original Greek).
Stückelberger, Alfred, and Gerd Graßhoff (eds). 2006. Ptolemaios, Handbuch der Geographie, Griechisch-Deutsch. 2 vols. Basel: Schwabe Verlag. ISBN978-3-7965-2148-5. (Massive 1018 pp. scholarly edition by a team of a dozen scholars that takes account of all known manuscripts, with facing Greek and German text, footnotes on manuscript variations, color maps, and a CD with the geographical data)
Geography, digitized codex made in Italy between 1460 and 1477, translated to Latin by Jacobus Angelus at Somni. Also known as codex valentinus, it is the oldest manuscript of the codices with maps of Ptolemy with the donis projections.