Ptolemy ~ The Ptolemies

Ptolemy - Claudius Ptolemaeus, Ptolomaeus, Klaudios Ptolemaios, Ptolemeus - lived in Alexandria, Egypt from approx. 87 -150 AD.

Very little is known about his personal life.

He was an astronomer, mathemetician and geographer.

He made astronomical observations from Alexandria in Egypt during the years AD 127-41. In fact the first observation which we can date exactly was made by Ptolemy on 26 March 127 while the last was made on 2 February 141.

It was claimed by Theodore Meliteniotes in around 1360 that Ptolemy was born in Hermiou (which is in Upper Egypt rather than Lower Egypt where Alexandria is situated) but since this claim first appears more than one thousand years after Ptolemy lived, it must be treated as relatively unlikely to be true. In fact there is no evidence that Ptolemy was ever anywhere other than Alexandria.

His name, Claudius Ptolemy, is of course a mixture of the Greek Egyptian 'Ptolemy' and the Roman 'Claudius'. This would indicate that he was descended from a Greek family living in Egypt and that he was a citizen of Rome, which would be as a result of a Roman emperor giving that 'reward' to one of Ptolemy's ancestors.

He codified the Greek geocentric view of the universe, and rationalized the apparent motions of the planets as they were known in his time. That theory was presented in such a form that it prevailed for 1400 years.

Ptolemy synthesized and extended Hipparchus's system of epicycles and eccentric circles to explain his geocentric theory of the solar system. Ptolemy's system involved at least 80 epicycles to explain the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known in his time. He believed the planets and sun to orbit the Earth in the order Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn . This system became known as the Ptolemaic system.

Ptolemy's major works have survived. The most important, however, is the Almagest which is a treatise in thirteen books. We should say straight away that, although the work is now almost always known as the Almagest that was not its original name. Its original Greek title translates as The Mathematical Compilation but this title was soon replaced by another Greek title which means The Greatest Compilation. This was translated into Arabic as "al-majisti" and from this the title Almagest was given to the work when it was translated from Arabic to Latin.

The Almagest is the earliest of Ptolemy's works and gives in detail the mathematical theory of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Ptolemy made his most original contribution by presenting details for the motions of each of the planets. The Almagest was not superseded until a century after Copernicus presented his heliocentric theory in the De revolutionibus of 1543.

It predicts the positions of the planets accurately enough for naked-eye observations This is described in the book Mathematical Syntaxis (widely called the Almagest), a thirteen book mathematical treatment of the phenomena of astronomy. It contains a myriad of information ranging from earth conceptions to sun, moon, and star movement as well as eclipses and a breakdown on the length of months. The Almagest also included a star catalog containing 48 constellations, using the names we still use today.

In addition to his well known works in astronomy, Ptolemy was very important in the history of geography and cartography.

Ptolemy of course knew that the Earth is a sphere. Ptolemy's is the first known projection of the sphere onto a plane. His Geography remained the principal work on the subject until the time of Columbus.

But he had Asia extending much too far east, which may have been a factor in Columbus's decision to sail west for the Indies.

The Ptolemaic explanation of the motions of the planets remained the accepted wisdom until the Polish scholar Copernicus proposed a heliocentric view in 1543. It should be noted, too, that Ptolemy's system is actually more accurate than Copernicus's. The heliocentric formulation does not improve on Ptolemy's until Kepler's Laws are also added.

It is doubtful that Ptolemy actually believed in the reality of his system. He may have thought of it only as a method of calculating positions.

Ptolemy also wrote Tetrabiblos, a work on astrology.

Ptolemy's Geography

Ptolemy, who gave Greek astronomy its final form in the second century A.D., did the same--and more - for geography and cartography. His massive work on the subject, which summed up and criticized the work of earlier writers, offered instruction in laying out maps by three different methods of projection, provided coordinates for some eight thousand places, and treated such basic concepts as geographical latitude and longitude.

In Byzantium, in the thirteenth century, Ptolemic maps were reconstructed and attached to Greek manuscripts of the text. And in the fifteenth century, a Latin translation of this text, with maps, proved a sensation in the world of the book. A best seller both in the age of luxurious manuscripts and in that of print, Ptolemy's "Geography" became immensely influential. Columbus-- one of its many readers--found inspiration in Ptolemy's exaggerated value for the size of Asia for his own fateful journey to the west.

Ptolemy's Handy Tables intended for practical computation, were edited by Theon of Alexandria in the fourth century A.D. and became, with various modifications, the basis of later astronomical tables in Greek, Arabic, and Latin.

The Handy Tables allow the calculation of solar, lunar, and planetary positions and eclipses of the sun and moon far more rapidly than the tables included in the Almagest.This early and elegant uncial manuscript is well-known for its illumination, which appears to descend from a prototype in late antiquity as can clearly be seen in this map of the constellations, drawn elegantly in white against the dark blue of the night sky, showing the northern part of the zodiac.

By the fifteenth century it had become common to compute annual ephemerides or almanacs giving daily positions of the sun, moon, and planets (for the casting of horoscopes) and eclipses of the sun and moon. Most were utilitarian but this uncommonly beautiful example, computed for the years 1466 to 1484, was prepared for Paul II by Nicholas Germanus, best known for his maps for Ptolemy's Geography. The entries for the months of April and May of 1473, shown here, illustrate in the margins a partial solar eclipse on April 26 and a partial lunar eclipse on May 11.


Part of Alexandria's power and majesty came from its status as the new capital of Egypt. In 320 BC it replaced Memphis as the seat of rulership for the Ptolemaic dynasty and it remained so throughout the Byzantine period. The rest was largely due to its monopoly on the papyrus industry for the entire Mediterranean world, as well as its hold on the manufacture and export of medicines, perfumes, jewelry, and art. Additionally, many materials and goods prized by the ancient world from the east came into Alexandria and were exported from there.

The arrival of the Greeks brought an unprecedented amount of change in Egypt as they overlaid the existing society with that of their own. At first glance, the Greco-Macedonian period seems to lack the romance and awe of the Pharaohs who came before, but it was during this time, between Alexander's conquest and the Arab takeover of Alexandria in AD 642 that Egypt made some of its most significant contributions to the classical world, as well as absorbing its influences. Change came in many sectors of Egypt and Egyptian life. A new system of roads and canals was created which, coupled with the Nile travel already mastered by the Egyptians, resulted in the ability to move goods and people all over the Nile Valley and the Delta like never before. Better travel resulted in better communications across Egypt, which in turn resulted in greater military security as well as the faster spread of new cultural and social patterns.

Alexander the Great took Egypt from the Persians in 332 BC and made it a part of the the Greek Empire. In the first part of 331 BC, shortly after being crowned Pharaoh in Memphis, he sailed northwards down the Nile and there, prompted by a dream, he began his most lasting contribution to civilization. On the natural harbor near Rhacotis he built a fortified port and named it, in a moment of egotism, Alexandria. Alexander then connected the island of Pharos, located in the center of the bay, to the mainland with a 1,300-meter causeway, the Heptastadion.

Thus two great harbors were created for his city and towering over it all, the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Yet Alexander, true to his nature, did not say long enough to see a single building built of his new city. Instead, he traveled to Siwa and then back to Memphis before setting out on his conquest of Asia. He never returned, dying in Babylon at the age of 38.

Following Alexander's death, his generals divided the Empire, each setting up their own kingdoms. One of them, Ptolemy, took Egypt as his share and made Alexandria his capital, ruling as Ptolemy I Soter and thus established the last dynasty that would rule Egypt with the title of Pharaoh.

He brought Alexander's body with him to be buried in the city, reuniting the famed conqueror with the city that bore his name. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, the Ptolemaic dynasty of the Greeks would successfully rule Egypt, mingling Hellenic traditions with the mighty legacy of the Pharaohs.

It was under the Ptolemaic Dynasty that Alexandria truly became the cultural and economic center of the ancient world. Egypt was ruled from Alexandria by Ptolemy's descendants until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC.

The early Ptolemies raised the quality of Egyptian agriculture by reclaiming cultivatable land through irrigation and introduced crops such as cotton and better wine-producing grapes. In addition, they increased the wealth of their population by increasing foreign trade, making more luxury goods available to more people.

In return, Egypt enriched their lives as the new rulers absorbed their adopted culture. Egypt had enchanted the Ptolemies, as it had all its foreign rulers before them. Ptolemy and his descendants adopted Egyptian royal trappings and added Egypt's religion to their own, worshipping the gods of Eternity and building temples to them, and even being mummified and buried in sarcophagi covered with hieroglyphs.

This adoption of Egyptian culture was really the secret to Ptolemy's rule (and that of his descendants).

Alexander came and left, burning with the desire to bring the rest of the world under his influence, but Ptolemy saw a need to become one of the people he intended to rule. Indeed, the famed Satrap Stele, on which is carved a decree from Ptolemy from the same period as his installation as ruler reads, "I Ptolemy, the satrap restore to Horus, the avenger of his father, the territory of Patanut [Egypt], from this day forth for ever..."

In addition to showing respect for the Egyptian religion and beliefs (something previous conquerors had failed to do), this inscription reminded the people exactly who it was who had liberated Egypt from the Persian Empire, thus ensuring much support for the new ruler and the dynasty that would follow him.

This was quite literally a golden age for the citizens of Alexandria, and for Egypt as a whole. Although Alexander never lived to see its glory, it nevertheless became the racial melting pot he is said to have wanted for his capital city. Ptolemy decided early on that Alexandria would be not just another port capital, but the home of a new age in Greek science and art. It may seem surprising to find such an impulse in a military man, but Ptolemy was more than just another general. He was a great writer of histories, including detailed accounts of Alexander's campaigns, and this love for learning did not die with him. Ptolemy's son and heir, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, for instance, had a passion for science, and Ptolemy III as we shall see, was a manic collector of books.

The Greeks had long had a tradition of enlightened rulers, and despite being on foreign soil, the Ptolemies would be no exception. Ptolemy invited scholars and artists from all over the known world to come to Alexandria, not to be mere court window dressing, but to foster the learning culture of Alexandria.

The arrival of many of these learned people, and later the successors they found amongst the citizens of their new home, resulted in one of the most famous images of historic Alexandria: the Library.

The Library at Alexandria was conceived largely as an attempt to bring together in Alexandria the whole of the earlier Greek science, art, and literature. Ptolemy I, though respectful as he was of the Egyptian culture, nevertheless believed the Greek culture to be superior in many respects, and thus the preservation of it in Alexandria was of utmost importance.

The models for this project may very well have been the research center created by Aristotle at the Lyceum, as well as Plato's Academy. Between these two centers of learning, later joined by the Library, something very close to the modern university was being created, for these centers did not just archive information, they made it accessible to those who sought it, and in return, added to it.

And add to it they did. At one point the Library held close to fifty thousand books, not much when compared to the university libraries of today, but for the ancient world it is an astonishing number.

It was the mission of the librarians, as well as of those rulers who supported it, to rescue and archive all Greek knowledge and to obtain copies of every known work. Stories abound about Ptolemy III Euergetes I, grandson of Ptolemy I, who seized cargoes of books from ships docked at Alexandria, had copies made of each volume, returned the copies to the shipmasters and kept the originals for the library.

He also borrowed the complete works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles from the Athenian collections and never returned them. Yet this is not to say that the Ptolemies hoarded knowledge. The libraries were open to all those who could read and who wished to learn.

And learning was easy indeed thanks to the widespread teaching of the Greek alphabet. With only thirty symbols, as compared with the multitudes of hieroglyphs, virtually anyone could learn it, and almost everyone did. A new age of learning had dawned, and Alexandria stood at the bulwark of it.

The eventual fate of the Library is unknown. A significant portion of it is said to have been destroyed during Julius Caesar's war against Pompey, though how significant this portion was, or even the size of it, is not certain. The Library may have perished during the 270s, along with the palace quarter.

At the very least, it does not appear to have existed at the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD. Stories do abound, as they always will, that part of the library was rescued and remains hidden, waiting to be discovered.

For the next three centuries the Ptolemaic Dynasty would hold sway over Egypt, surviving both family feuds and external conflicts while living an unusual combination of Hellenic and Egyptian life. And under them Alexandria grew mighty and prosperous, the center of an empire that extended around the coast of Syria to the Aegean Sea.

In fact, if Alexandria had been any more prosperous, it might have replaced Rome as the center of the world, as Rome was neither as strategically located nor as culturally diverse. But all this is not to say that Alexandria was a city completely at peace with itself.

With the large numbers of people and cultures coming through the city, it was inevitable that conflict would arise. Certainly racial tensions, by no means an invention of the twentieth century, played a strong part. Additionally, a number of more tradition-minded Egyptians resented the presence of the Greeks, nations brought their feuds with them to the streets and businesses of Alexandria, and there was always the wildly unpredictable Alexandrian Mob to lend spice to things.

Little by little however, the glory days of the early Ptolemies came to an end.

The later successors to the throne did not live up to the standards set by their forebears and moreover, internal strife took its toll.

The Egyptians grew more restless year by year and finally, beginning in 206 BC, Upper Egypt openly rebelled.

Suppressing these revolts took more out of the treasury than the Ptolemies could afford and this, combined with the less-than-sound foreign policy of the later Ptolemies, brought Egypt increasingly under the influence of Rome.

The House of Ptolemy
Kings, Queens, and the Rest of the Royal Ptolemies - There were 12 Rulers named Ptolemy from 331 - 30 BCE.