Behold now this vast city; a city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection
John Milton, Areopagitica
While Alexandria may have looked little different, perhaps even improved, by Roman rule, the change in her fortunes had not left the minds of her inhabitants unaffected. As part of the Roman imperial project, Alexandrians were no longer their own masters, and what was decided in far-off Rome could have a direct effect on life in the city. A new era was dawning, an era of radical thought and new religions, many of which would take root in the city. In time the change would affect all parts of the population, but in the first years of the first century AD no one would be affected more than the Jews.
By the first century AD the population of Alexandria had risen to about 1 million people, and many, perhaps a fifth of this number, were Jewish. Since the days of Persian and then Macedonian rule this group had grown both in numbers and importance until the quarter of the city they mainly gathered in, known as Delta, was the largest Jewish community in the world outside Palestine. A cornerstone of the growth of the city, they had become Hellenized, writing and speaking and, since the writing of the Septuagint, even reading their holy books in Greek. They were, however, a population apart, without the automatic right of citizenship enjoyed by their Greek neighbors and so always vulnerable in times of crisis.
In Hero’s days, the single most powerful Jew in Alexandria was Alexander Lysimachus—his names, both Greek, a testament to Hellenization. He was in charge of collecting all customs dues on goods imported from the East, and became one of the richest men in the ancient world. So powerful had he become that he could marry one of his sons to the greatgranddaughter of Herod the Great. The other son, Tiberius Julius Alexander, had risen to extreme prominence in Rome. Renouncing Judaism, he became the first procurator of the province of Judea, and later prefect of all Egypt. But Alexander senior also had a brother, a man little interested in money, power, and worldly affairs. His name was Philo, and he would go down in history simply as Philo of Alexandria.
Philo is important to our story because he spent his whole life writing in Alexandria. Not many of his extensive works deal specifically with town life, but because he drew on his own experiences, he cannot help but give us a glimpse of the people of the city. In doing so he introduces us to an Alexandria missing from the records of geographers and philosophers and looks beyond the marble walls and ornamental gardens into the minds of its inhabitants.
Philo was born around 20 BC into one of the wealthiest and most privileged Jewish families in the city. As such, he was able to enjoy many of the liberties of citizenship, and at fourteen years of age he would have been taken to the Serapeum, where a priest would have shorn his long childhood hair and enrolled him as an ephebos—a young man suitable to receive the most select education available. He would then have set out on the encyclia, the secondary education program that included grammar, rhetoric, music, dialectics, geometry, and astronomy. As a physical counterpart to these mental exertions he would have been required to walk across from the lecture halls to the great gymnasium, where he would learn boxing and wrestling, the main sports of the day. In the extensive grounds here he would also have practiced the javelin and the discus, built his strength with the punching bag, and mixed with the other gilded youths who cooled their tired muscles in the fountains of the gymnasium’s grounds. Outside his studies, he would also have become acquainted with some of the delights of his city, such as the theater, reached, according to Polybius, by a covered gallery that wound from the water gardens known as Meander (after the winding river in Asia Minor), past the wrestling arena. Here he would have seen the classical plays he quotes in his own books and watched the politicians working the crowds. He and his friends would have bet on the outcome of the races in the hippodrome before retiring to their own clubs for an evening of banqueting.
This youthful regime was an entrée into a life of great privilege, and Philo, a believer in the Great Chain of Being that linked everyone and everything in order from the lowliest animals (and humans) up to God, knew he stood near the top, looking down over all but the mightiest leaders. His time as an ephebos probably also granted him full citizenship, marking him out from the ordinary Jews of the city. This gave him further rights—the right to marry as he chose and, most important, an exemption from the Roman poll tax. One of the most noticeable effects of Roman rule was an increase in taxation, particularly in Egypt, and a parallel increase in the brutality with which taxes were collected. Tax collectors were required to remit a certain figure to Rome, and Rome had no interest in how the collector went about gathering it, or what he did with any surplus. This made the tax collector a powerful and terrifying figure, as we see from the horror that Jesus’ decision to dine with one provokes in the New Testament. Tax collectors were not suited bureaucrats; they were thugs, sadists, and bullies. Philo records one case he witnessed in the marketplace in Alexandria. A man owing tax had fled to avoid paying, and in response the collector seized his closest family members—the elderly, women, and children. These he then set about publicly torturing:
He filled a large basket with sand and having hung this enormous weight by ropes round their necks set them in the middle of the marketplace in the open air. . . . They sank under the cruel stress of the accumulated punishments, the wind, the sun, the shame of being seen by passers-by and the weights suspended on them.
Philo of Alexandria, De Specialibus Legibus, book 3, chapter 160
The family would remain in the marketplace until the money was found, the tax evader returned, or they died. Either way the Alexandrians would know better next time than to run from him. We do not know what happened to the family Philo saw. He tells us that many cast pitying glances at them but, tellingly, fails to mention anyone coming to their aid. Such horrors were just a normal part of life under Roman rule.
Not being liable for the poll tax put Philo apart. He would never know the terror of the tax collector’s call, never be humiliated in the marketplace—he was a man of position. But in the leisure hours that such privilege brought him, Philo was not wasting his time. At some point as a young man, it seems, he turned back to his Jewish roots, and he began applying the skills he had learned in the encyclia to analyzing his own religion.
Above all Philo was devoted to the Hebrew stories of his ancestors, in particular the revelatory teachings of the prophet Moses. He believed passionately that Moses was the original perceiver of divine wisdom and that his doctrine formed the basis of Greek classical philosophy, actually referring to him as “the summit of philosophy.” When Philo compares Greek and Jewish scholarship he cannot help but give precedence to Moses over all others, and even when he is quoting Plato he has to add the caveat “but Moses said the same thing as Plato, only earlier and better” (Philo of Alexandria, De Specialibus Legibus, book 4, chapter 110).
This was not an entirely original position—something similar had been attempted in the first century BC by an unknown author in a work known as The Wisdom of Solomon. But ever since the Septuagint had been translated and Hebrew mythical thought came face-to-face with Greek philosophy, it had seemed inevitable that a figure would emerge who would try to develop a philosophical justification for Judaism in Greek terms. Philo was the man for the job, and set about it in great earnest. It would prove to be the happiest time of his life:
There was once a time when, by devoting myself to philosophy and to contemplation of the world and its parts, I achieved the enjoyment of that Mind which was truly beautiful, desirable, and blessed; for I lived in constant communion with sacred utterances and teachings, in which I greedily and insatiably rejoiced.
Philo, On the Unchangeableness of God,
Loeb Classical Library, volume 3, pp. 1-6
Philo’s works are generally divided into three groups. In the first he concentrates on a detailed analysis and paraphrasing of the biblical texts, with titles like On Joseph, The Life of Moses, On the Creation of the World, and On the Migration of Abraham. In much of this writing, Philo employs allegorical techniques to interpret the biblical stories, some of them very profound. For example, in his great Commentary on Genesis he argues that the whole of Genesis is a metaphor for the history of the soul, from its formation at the dawn of the perceivable world to its fall, followed by its mature development as wisdom after its restoration through repentance.
Interspersed among these biblical exegeses are more abstract pieces, where Philo the classically trained philosopher comes to the fore, with titles like On the Virtues, On Drunkenness, On Flight and Finding, On the Unchangeableness of God, and On Dreams. In these works it is almost as if Philo is saturating himself with Jewish mythology, wanting to ingest and absorb every tiny nuance of the text. It has even been claimed that he sometimes spent hours contemplating a single word from the Bible. And all the time with one foot in the traditions of the great synagogue and the other in those of the museum, Philo was comparing and contrasting Moses with Plato, the Septuagint with the works of Socrates and Aristotle, the classical world with the Jewish.
This process becomes much more transparent with the second series of his works, his philosophical treatises, such as On the Liberty of the Wise, On the Incorruptibility of the World, On Providence, and On Animals, where he discusses man’s relations to the natural world. Here he is deliberately abstracting the messages he has found in the Bible and codifying them in moral, ethical, and spiritual terms; that is, he is subjecting them to the same sort of rational treatment and thought processes which we find in the classical Greek philosophers. It is as though Philo has made a magnifying lens from Alexandrian philosophy and through it is now minutely inspecting the Jewish books of law. The result was a modernizing of Jewish law which, quite by accident, also laid out the philosophical foundations for a new religion, one Philo himself would undoubtedly have had little time for, and one which was still barely struggling into existence: Christianity. And he did this in an extraordinarily thorough and creative way.
Philo, a firm believer in the Great Chain of Being, began by placing God at the apex of his philosophical landscape. But his God is so totally infinite and all-pervasive that no individual creations can be attributed to him. Instead, Philo states that God is creativity itself. God is in a permanent state of creation; his executor is a separate entity. In The Wisdom of Solomon the unknown author had called this entity Sophia, or “Wisdom.” Philo decided this entity was Logos, the “Word” of God.
God is continuously ordering matter by his thought. His thinking was not anterior to his creating and there never was a time when he did not create, the “Words” themselves having been with him from the beginning. For God’s will is not posterior to him, but is always with him, for natural motions never give out. Thus ever thinking he creates, and furnishes to sensible things the principle of their existence, so that both should exist together: the ever-creating Divine Mind and the sense-perceptible things to which beginning of being is given.
Philo, De Presidentia, 1.7
This whole idea is a modification, albeit a major one, of the Platonic doctrine, with God constantly generating the forms or ideas which then compose individual entities in the world, and actually brings the cosmic structure closer into line with the Jewish notion of angels and archangels as God’s messengers, beings which Socrates calls “Daemons,” a word later corrupted into “demons” by the Christians. In another passage Philo provides a splendidly Alexandrian analogy for this process when he compares it to planning a city in the mind of the builder:
Now we must form a somewhat similar opinion of God, who, having determined to found a mighty state, first of all conceived its form in his mind, according to which form he made a world perceptible only by the intellect, and then completed one visible to the external senses, using the first one as a model.
Philo, De Opificio Mundi, 19
It is hard to believe that, coming from such an erudite man who was brought up in and felt such passionate affection for Alexandria, there is not the smallest hint of Alexander and his lines of barley flour in this analogy. But from the theoretical perspective what Philo did was introduce the Greek concept of the Logos—the Word—into Jewish religious thought, and thus provide the foundation of Christianity in which Christ himself could be seen as a manifestation of the divine Word.
Philo had created the philosophical space in which the early church fathers would grow Christianity, apparently almost by accident, yet there is a possibility that Philo had closer links with this developing sect than first appears. We should bear in mind that Philo was alive at the same time as Christ, and that the New Testament documents were written in Greek by Jewish intellectuals who were part of the Hellenistic culture of the Greco-Roman world (even though they had, of course, converted to Christianity). Unlike Judaism, Christianity is a proselytizing religion, and the desire of the apostles to at least approach one of the most important figures in Hellenized Judaism seems highly plausible. Scholars have in fact argued that there are echoes of Philo, echoes of Alexandria, to be found in the writings of Saint Paul; in the Gospels, especially the book of John; and in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
There are also hints of early Christian practice in another of Philo’s fascinations, with the contemplative, communal life. Philo, though believing that a family life was best for most people, was intrigued by religious groups that lived communally. He wrote about the Jewish Essenes of Palestine, now known to have been the guardians of the Dead Sea scrolls. But it was a community closer to home that most interested him. One of Philo’s most popular works was a book called Contemplative Life. In it he describes a community of hermits, the Therapeutae, who lived on a low hill just outside Alexandria, on the banks of Lake Mareotis. This group held everything in common and spent their lives in rigorous religious study. Each member had a cabin in which was a room set aside for the study of sacred texts. Here they would study from dawn to dusk, six days a week, without food or drink, until they reached a state of religious ecstasy. On the seventh day they would gather together for holy service in their great hall before returning to their books.
The community Philo describes is clearly a Jewish one, but he hints that other such communities also existed, and these would seem to provide the model for the early Christian monastic groups, particularly the Nitrian monks of the Egyptian desert who would one day play such an important role in the life of Alexandria itself. It was the view of the Greek Christian historian Eusebius that the Therapeutae were in fact a community of early Christians, and he speculated that Philo himself may have been a Christian. This was certainly not the case, but what Philo did, in his rigorous synthesis of Greek and Jewish philosophy, was to delineate the landscape in which Christianity could develop. As such, Eusebius’s claim that so great a philosopher must be a Christian is perhaps understandable, and we should at least be grateful to Eusebius for helping to preserve Philo’s philosophy, whatever his reasons. By contrast, the Jewish and Greek establishments seem to have been less impressed with Philo’s work, either ignoring or dismissing it. He describes their depressing reaction when he explained his revelations to them, “the sophists of literalness,” as sneering and staring at him superciliously.
Philo was not to spend his whole life in simple contemplation, however. As one of the most influential Jews in the city, he had, whether he liked it or not, to take a part in civic affairs. For all its intellectual tolerance, Alexandria was still extremely volatile politically, even under the Romans. The populace was acutely divided by class, race, and creed, and anarchy was never more than a stone’s throw away for the Alexandrian mob. It must have been a harsh comedown for Philo—from the ecstasies of contemplation to the real, dirty, racist, violent, and fearful world of street life. This would be the dangerous stage on which the battle for the hearts and minds of Alexandrians would be fought, and it was here that Philo would feel the grip of Roman rule.
The early days of Roman rule had promised much to the Jews. Augustus had favored them, as had his successor, Tiberius; but on Tiberius’s death the appalling potential of imperial power became all too evident with the accession of the emperor Gaius, known today by his childhood nickname, Caligula, or “Little Boots.” If we take the Roman historian Suetonius at his word, Caligula’s rule was marked by arbitrary executions, forced suicides, and increasing megalomania. If his prefects and governors wished to keep their jobs (and their lives) they had to go to any length to please him. In Alexandria the man with that unenviable job was Avillius Flaccus, prefect of Egypt. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with the emperor he turned to three notorious marketplace rabble-rousers, Lampo, Dionysius, and Isodorus, who suggested that persecution of the Jews, who had refused to worship Caligula as a god, would increase his popularity with the city mob and hence secure his position.
As the flames of anti-Semitic feeling were fanned, the Jewish community asked Herod Agrippa, a Jewish king in Palestine and a family friend of Philo’s, to intercede on their behalf. It was his arrival in the city that sparked the first outrages. Gathering in the gymnasium, the mob began ridiculing the king. They had found a man in the marketplace whom Philo describes:
There was a certain lunatic named Carabas, whose madness was not of the fierce and savage kind . . . but of the easier going, gentler style. He spent day and night in the streets naked, shunning neither heat nor cold, made game of by the children and the lads who were idling about.
Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, 36
This poor creature, dressed by the mob as Herod, was paraded through the streets. When the mob reached the theater, it demanded that a statue of Caligula be placed in the synagogue, claiming that the Jews had failed to honor the divine emperor as they should. Not having a statue of Caligula at hand, they dragged an old, corroded statue of a charioteer from the gymnasium.
The prefect did nothing to stop this desecration; indeed, he issued a statement denouncing Alexandria’s ancient Jewish population as foreigners with no legal rights. An orgy of looting ensued while the Jews were rounded up and forced into a small part of the Delta district. Philo explains their plan: “After driving these many myriads of men, women and children like herds of cattle out of the whole city into a very small portion as into a pen, they expected in a few days to find heaps of dead massed together” (Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, 124).
Those Jews who were caught searching for food outside this ghetto were beaten and stoned. Even Philo’s own privileged class did not escape: Members of the Jewish governing body were rounded up and scourged like common criminals in the theater, and some were even crucified.
Eventually the situation calmed, and Flaccus found to his dismay that the pogrom had not had the desired effect. The extremely irrational (or perhaps calculating) Caligula had decided, for the moment, that this was not what he wanted, and when two of the governor’s henchmen, Lampo and Isodorus, saw this change of heart, they were quick to condemn Flaccus to their paranoid emperor. Orders were soon sent for his arrest, and after exiling him on a barren Aegean island, Caligula eventually tired of him altogether and soldiers were sent to murder him.
Alexandria had shown itself to be a tinderbox; at one level the most cosmopolitan city on earth, it was always teetering on the brink of a dramatic descent into racial violence. Even with Flaccus gone the peace in the city remained fragile. Caligula had once more turned against the Jews, threatening to destroy the temple in Jerusalem if they persisted in refusing to worship him. If he did, all Jews in the empire would overnight become fair game for their persecutors. Alexandria was on tenterhooks, and in the following year both Jewish and anti-Jewish delegations headed for Rome to plead their case directly before the emperor; the Jewish group was headed by Philo himself. After months of prevarications the highly unstable Caligula agreed to meet Philo, but ominously began the interview with: “Are you the god-haters who do not believe me to be a god, a god acknowledged among all other nations but not to be named by you?” (Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, 353).
Fortunately for the Jews of Alexandria, Caligula seemed indifferent to the situation in the city and offered the anti-Jewish faction no more than he had offered Philo. In AD 41, on January 24, Caligula’s assassination finally brought the sorry episode to an end. His successor, Claudius, ordered that the Greeks of the city show toleration to the Jews and that the violence stop forthwith. He did not want to be considered a god in his lifetime and he did not want his statue erected in the synagogue. Peace had been restored. But Roman Alexandria had shown another, ugly face which would change the whole complexion of the city.
Philo died peacefully in AD 50 or 55. He had witnessed a haunting warning of what was to come in the city, but he had also experienced the heights of philosophical ecstasy still accessible in the gardens and porticoes of the museum. And it was in those still-quiet groves that another great Alexandrian would soon rise to prominence, a man who would show that if the city’s body was beginning to look diseased, its mind was still as healthy as ever.
Claudius Ptolemy looked beyond the confines of his turbulent city to the world outside, the whole world, and the heavens beyond that. His works would become the cornerstone of science until the Renaissance, and their influence is still seen today.
As with his illustrious antecedent Euclid, we know almost nothing of the life of Claudius Ptolemy. His name suggests that he was a Roman citizen of Greek extraction, as citizens usually took Roman first names. Though some have argued that he was born in the Egyptian town of Ptolemais (hence his surname), there is no solid evidence to support this claim. Nor is there any evidence that he was connected to the royal Ptolemies, though this mistake was made repeatedly in subsequent centuries and he is often portrayed with a crown and scepter. It is pretty certain, from the caliber of his work and the detail of the material he makes reference to, that he was educated and spent his working life in Alexandria, where a few years before his birth the Roman emperor Claudius, having brought peace to the streets, considerably expanded the museum. It is possible that while there he was either tutored by or received patronage from a man by the name of Syrus, to whom all his major works are dedicated, but this man has yet to be identified.
In the true Alexandrian tradition, Claudius Ptolemy was an extraordinary polymath, writing about mathematics, music, astronomy, astrology, optics, philosophy, geography, and cartography. But also in his work is a hint as to how the museum was changing. His books, magnificent as they are, are mainly syntheses. Where Ptolemy does venture into unexplored realms he is often wrong in his interpretation; indeed, there is even the suggestion that he made up data to match his hypotheses. However, there is no questioning the lucidity of his style and the clarity of presentation, and it is these which would carry his work and his name down the centuries. At the beginning of his mammoth work on astronomy, he tells us:
We shall try to note down everything which we think we have discovered up to the present time; we shall do this as concisely as possible and in a manner which can be followed by those who have already made some progress in the field. For the sake of completeness in our treatment we shall set out everything useful for the theory of the heavens in proper order, but to avoid undue length we shall merely recount what has been adequately established by the ancients. However, those topics which have not been dealt with by our predecessors at all, or not as usefully as they might have been, will be discussed at length to the best of our ability.
Claudius Ptolemy, Almagest, 1.i
Ptolemy was nothing if not comprehensive. In this massive work he suggests a complex mathematical model for the workings of the universe. And he produces a star catalog listing 1,022 stars in forty-three constellations, which is, incidentally, 22 more stars than Tycho Brahe could manage at the end of the sixteenth century. Ptolemy clearly considered his book to be a practical manual, not merely a reference work, and he wanted it used by and distributed to as wide a portion of the population as possible, and in doing this he became one of the world’s first popular publishers. Having finished the main work, he collected together the tables of practical use to astronomers which are scattered throughout it and published them in a slim volume known as the Handy Tables. He then decided to write a popular account for lay readers, a sort of paperback version, called Planetary Hypothesis.
The Almagest is the second-most important and longest-lasting scientific textbook of all time, after Euclid’s Elements; it held sway in the classical, then Arabic, and finally Western European world until Kepler unraveled the true movements of the “wandering” planets in 1618. But there is a problem. Whereas Euclid’s work is substantially correct, Ptolemy’s is not. In his researches in the library Ptolemy overlooked or ignored the observation by Aristarchus that the sun lies at the center of the solar system, and chose instead a geocentric model. Perhaps to be fair to him, Aristarchus’s work may not have been there, destroyed in the fire started by Julius Caesar. Even if it had survived, other great men like Archimedes had dismissed the idea, so Ptolemy can perhaps be forgiven for doing likewise. Instead, using Aristotle’s vision, along with data collected by the Babylonians and his illustrious Greek predecessor Hipparchus, as well as with some basic trigonometry, Claudius Ptolemy concocted what was by then a conventional view of the universe, with the earth static at its center and the sun, moon, planets, and fixed stars revolving steadily around it.
Observing that the planets do not move smoothly across the sky in one direction but sometimes appear to backtrack, Ptolemy ironed out these eccentricities by introducing the notion of “epicycles,” little pirouettes the planets performed when they appeared to retreat along their paths. With this system, even previously unobserved erratic planetary behavior could be explained with the addition of a new epicycle or two. The addition of this catchy little device meant that cosmology became stuck in the rut of an earth-centered universe, a view which became so ingrained that it became pure dogma, to the point where, according to Arthur Koestler, on February 23, 1616, the church’s qualifiers (theological experts) in Rome gave their decision concerning two propositions put to them:
1. The sun is the centre of the world and wholly immovable of local motion.
2. The earth is not the centre of the world nor immovable, but moves as a whole, also with a diurnal motion.
The Qualifiers unanimously declared the first proposition to be “foolish and absurd, philosophically and formally heretical in as much as it expressly contradicts the doctrine of Holy Scripture in many passages, both in their literal meaning and according to the general interpretation of the Fathers and Doctors.”
The second proposition was declared “to deserve the like censure in philosophy, and as regards theological truth, to be at least erroneous in faith.”
Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, part 5, chapter 1, section 7, p. 455
Such was the gag order pinned on Galileo for daring to suggest that Aristarchus (plagiarized by Copernicus) was right and Claudius Ptolemy, after Aristotle, was wrong.
Claudius Ptolemy should not be criticized out of his time, however. The Almagest—a working, functioning model of the universe, creating mathematically based explanations for all the celestial movements as well as updating and expanding Hipparchus’s star catalog into four figures—was still a stupendous achievement. It may not have been a correct model, but it fitted the observations of the day and provided a usable, working cosmological background to the whole of the Middle Ages.
Nor was Ptolemy about to leave the cosmos at that. His follow-up work, the Tetrabiblos (“The Four Books”), is concerned with the impact which the heavens have upon individual personalities and worldly affairs—that is, astrology. The very mention of the word incites passionate controversy. It did so then, too. But whether we believe in it or not, Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, containing as it does a great deal of data drawn from Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, and earlier Greek sources, is the seminal work on the subject. TheTetrabiblos has had the longest life of all his works, being studied and employed by contemporary astrologers more than 1,800 years after he set down his basic principles.
As astrology, long dismissed as a pseudoscience by many, raises such passionate hackles, it is perhaps worth making some general observations on the subject before going into the details of Ptolemy’s formulations. Astrology as we know it probably originated largely in Babylonia, where priestly watchmen studied the movements of the heavenly bodies in great detail and over very long periods of time. Their reputations as magi were widespread and attracted the attention of classical thinkers like Pythagoras.
This was of course an age of omens, when kings and slaves alike attempted to deal with the often cruel vagaries of life by looking for clues as to what the future might hold. The magi believed that in their observations of the movements of the stars they had found a unique method to do just that—to assess the personalities and fates of individuals by considering the positions of the heavenly bodies at the moment of birth or what is called today “natal astrology.” Whether or not this connection is true or false, the least we can say about astrology is that it is humanity’s first enormous attempt at human psychology. From their observatories every possible form of human personality trait was projected onto the cosmos, though of course the astrologers argued the other way around. So Mars projected warlike characteristics onto people born under its influence, love emanated from Venus, and so forth. And here of course lies the problem: The scientific skeptic simply has to ask the question, how do the planets and other celestial bodies transmit these qualities to individuals on earth? Over the millennia this matter of transmission has essentially been an article of faith, a mystery whose veracity is borne out only by the accuracy of its predictions.
Ptolemy’s approach to astrology was that it was a conjectural rather than a precise science. So many variable factors had to be taken into account, such as race, country, and local culture, that absolute precision was difficult to achieve. And Ptolemy was also very aware that the subject was plagued by charlatans:
As for the nonsense on which many waste their labour and of which not even a plausible account can be given, this we shall dismiss in favour of the primary natural causes. What, however, admits of prediction we shall investigate, not by means of lots and numbers of which no reasonable explanation can be given, but merely through the science of the aspects of the stars to the places with which they have familiarity.
. . . It is the same with philosophy—we need not abolish it because there are evident rascals among those that pretend to it.
Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 3.iii
While Ptolemy displays no interest in the magical or mystical, or even the symbolic, aspects of astrology, he does draw on contemporary scientific thinking, which maintained that planetary characteristics were drawn from this relationship to the sun, where they received heat and light, and the earth, which was the source of moisture. Thus the moon was moist and dark, while Saturn, at the outermost position of all the known planets, was both cold and dark, and therefore thoroughly malevolent, the purveyor of death and destruction. His view was that the constantly changing positions of the celestial bodies created a continually fluctuating atmosphere to which all living creatures must respond.
Whether Claudius Ptolemy was right or not concerning astrology—and we should bear in mind that millions of people worldwide consult astrologers every day, as do countless millions of Western newspaper readers—it is his incredibly convincing presentation of the subject which gave his work its longevity. This is how he opens the Tetrabiblos:
Of the means of prediction through astronomy, O Syrus, two are the most important and valid. One, which is first both in order and in effectiveness, is that whereby we apprehend the aspects of the movements of sun, moon and stars in relation to each other and to Earth, as they occur from time to time; second is that in which by means of the natural character of these aspects themselves we investigate the changes which they bring about in that which they surround.
Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 1.i
With the thirteen books of the Almagest and the four books of the Tetrabiblos Ptolemy effectively created a model of the universe and its workings which would dominate the world for more than a thousand years. Even though we may now consider his work flawed, the fact remains that by all the standards of the time, Ptolemy’s universe worked. And though for the most part his language remains couched in the scientific terminology of his day, he is not above occasionally letting us know his inner, spiritual attitude. For while his work was the first attempt to gather and systematize the mechanism by which the universe operates, his universe is not simply mechanical. Occasionally in his writing we can feel the inspiration behind his work, the sense of wonder that every astronomer knows and which must first have overwhelmed him when, as a child, he looked up through the clear Alexandrian night sky at the great vault of the heavens above him: “I know that I am mortal and ephemeral, but when I scan the multitudinous circling spirals of the stars, no longer do I touch earth with my feet, but sit with Zeus himself, and take my fill of the ambrosial food of the gods” (Claudius Ptolemy, quoted in W. Gunnyon, A Century of Translations from the Greek Anthology, epigram 33).
When Ptolemy looked back down to earth, however, he saw another challenge. Having completed his mammoth task on the heavens, he felt, like Socrates before him, it was time to bring his philosophy from the heavens down to earth.
That earth began for Ptolemy with Alexandria itself. Here in the markets were people from all over the earth, and piled in the warehouses along the waterfront were exotic goods gathered from as far as any traveler had ever reached. It was in part as a response to this cosmopolitanism that Ptolemy decided that the traders and explorers venturing out from this crossroads of the civilized world, which the Greek orator Dio Chrysostom called “the conjunction of the whole world,” needed a new guidebook: a book that would take them to the very edges of the known world, and perhaps beyond.
Ptolemy’s Geography is composed of eight books. Its intention was simple: to make and draw an account—an atlas—of the entire known world, and to construct maps which accurately reflected the texts. But as always, before proceeding to the work in hand it was necessary to review all the existing sources on the subject, evaluate their relative accuracy, and to devise and develop the necessary mathematical techniques for both the written geography and the accompanying cartography.
The idea of measuring the world (agreed by then to be spherical in shape) by dividing it into vertical and horizontal lines had been used by Eratosthenes when he made his astonishingly accurate measurement of the earth’s circumference, but it was Ptolemy who developed this idea into the notions of longitude and latitude, divided into degrees and minutes. With this framework established, the next question was how to make the most accurate assessment of the positions of the major cities, rivers, lakes, and mountains of the known world. Ptolemy realized that as winds vary, so the speeds of ships fluctuate; further variations are caused by the effects of tides and currents, so simply logging times traveled at estimated speeds would not necessarily produce accurate positioning. Similarly, travelers proceeding on foot or horseback rarely traveled in a straight line or at a constant speed. He preferred Eratosthenes’ method, measuring the angle of the sun’s shadow at midday to estimate where a traveler might be longitudinally. This data he chose to combine with all the known reports from mariners, traders, travelers, and explorers, to come up with a list of more than eight thousand localities, each uniquely pinpointed by its own longitude and latitude.
His next problem was that of projecting the spherical world (of which he knew that only about half was known) onto a two-dimensional piece of paper, to produce a map. In book 1 of the Geography he shows us precisely how he planned to do it, dividing the hemisphere of the known world into eighteen “meridians” of 10 degrees each, the longitudinal lines converging on the North Pole, and at their widest at the equator. The remaining task was therefore to transfer the eight thousand plotted locations onto the grid-planned page and fill in the details of the map.
Ptolemy’s Geography was lost from the fall of Alexandria until about AD 1300. When a copy of the great work was found it was in Arabic, and the world map, the twenty-six regional maps, and the sixty-seven maps of smaller areas were all missing. But the text was so detailed and comprehensive in explaining how to make the projections onto paper that enthusiastic cartographers found the maps relatively easy to reproduce. What then did they see as they put his world atlas together?
The first thing they must have noted was its sheer extent. Stretching from Iceland to China, it really did cover all of the Old World. Admittedly there were several oddities—much of India was not there, replaced by an enormous version of Sri Lanka named “Taprobana,” and Africa below “Ethiopa” appeared to go on indefinitely, as did China as the easternmost point on the map. But most of Europe, North Africa, and the Near and Middle East were much as we see them today. Egypt and the Nile; the details of the Red Sea and Arabia; the Aegean Islands; Cyprus; the leg, high-heeled boot, and football of Italy and Sicily; the square box of the Iberian Peninsula; and France, Germany, and Denmark were easily identified. The British Isles grew an interesting extension jutting out from eastern Scotland, but the southwestern limb of the Cornish Peninsula was there, as were Wales, the Isle of Man, and a plausible outline of Ireland. Considering that Ptolemy constructed this map in the late second century AD and Britain was much more than a thousand miles away by sea, the accuracy of his work is truly astonishing.
Little wonder then that Claudius Ptolemy has come to be known not just as the last, and perhaps the greatest, of the classical astronomers, but as the father of geography too.
Claudius Ptolemy’s achievement was to lay out a whole system by which the world, the universe, and indeed the fates of men might be known. In it he hoped to live up to the ideals of Alexandrian philosophy, ideals which had been known to Eratosthenes, Callimachus, and Aristarchus before him. In this, for all its failings, Ptolemy’s work was a spectacular success. What he could never have known as he wrote, however, was that his system would provide the framework for a new age, the Christian age, which was already sparking to life in the streets around him.