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Ptolemy

The Ptolemaic dynasty of Macedonian Greeks ruled Egypt as pharaohs from 323 B.C., when Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals, took over Egyptian rule.

The dynasty lasted until the death of the most famous member of the family, Cleopatra VII, in 31 B.C., shortly after the Battle of Actium. Egypt was then annexed to Rome.


Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek: Klaudios Ptolemaios; A.D. circa 85 - circa 165), known in English as Ptolemy, was a Greek astronomer who probably lived and worked in or near Alexandria in Egypt.

Ptolemy was the author of the astronomical treatise which is now known as the Almagest (its original greek name was Hè Megalè Syntaxis, "The Great Treatise"; it was preserved in Arabic, hence its adultered common name). In this work Ptolemy compiled the astronomical knowledge of the ancient Greek and Babylonian world; he relied mainly on the work of Hipparchos of 3 centuries earlier. Ptolemy formulated a geocentric model (see: Ptolemaic system) of the solar system which remained the generally accepted model in the Western and Arab worlds for more than 1300 years. Likewise his computational methods were of sufficient accuracy to satisfy the needs of astronomers, astrologists, and navigators until the time of the great explorations. They were also adopted in the Arab world and in India. The Almagest also contains a star catalogue, which is probably an updated version of a catalogue created by Hipparchos. Its list of 48 constellations is ancestral to the modern system of constellations, but unlike the modern system they did not cover the whole sky.

Ptolemy's other main work is his Geography. This too is a compilation, of what was known about the world's geography in the Roman empire at his time. He relied mainly on the work of an earlier geographer, one Marinos of Tyre, and on gazetteers of the Roman and ancient Persian empire; but most of his sources beyond the perimeter of the empire were unreliable.

The first part of the Geography is a discussion of the data and of the methods he used. Like with the model of the solar system in the Almagest, Ptolemy put all this information in a grand scheme. He assigned coordinates to all the places and geographic features he knew, in a grid that spanned the globe. Latitude was measured from the equator, as it is today, but Ptolemy preferred to express it in the length of the longest day rather than degrees of arc (the length of the midsummer day increases from 12h to 24h as you go from the equator to the polar circle). He put the meridian of 0 longitude at the most western land he knew, the Canary islands. Ptolemy also devised and provided instructions on how to create maps both of the whole inhabited world (oikoumenè) and of the Roman provinces. In the second part of the Geography he provided the necessary topographic lists, and captions for the maps. His oikoumenè spanned 180 degrees of longitude from the Canary islands in the Atlantic Ocean to China, and about 80 degrees of latitude from the Arctic to the East-indies and deep into Africa; Ptolemy was well aware that he knew about only a quarter of the globe.

Maps based on scientific principles had been made since the time of Eratosthenes (3rd cy. B.C.), but Ptolemy invented improved projections. It is known that a map based on the Geography was on display in Autun, France; in the 15th cy. this work was printed with beatifully drawn maps. They look distorted as compared to modern maps, because his data were inaccurate. One reason is that Ptolemy estimated the Earth too small: while Eratosthenes found 700 stadia for a degree on the globe, in the Geographia Ptolemy uses 500 stadia. It is not certain if these geographers used the same stadion, but if we assume that they both stuck to the traditional attic stadion of about 185 m, then the older estimate is 1/6 too large, and Ptolemy's value is 1/6 too small. Because Ptolemy derived most of his topographic coordinates by converting measured distances to angles, his maps get distorted. So his values for the latitude were in error by up to 2 degrees. For longitude this was even worse, because there was no reliable method to determine geographic longitude; Ptolemy was well aware of this. It remained a problem in geography until the invention of chronometers at the end of the 18th century A.D. It mus be added that his original topographic list can not be reconstructed: the long tables with numbers were transmitted to posterity through copies containing many scribal errors, and people have always been adding or improving the topographic data: this is a testimony of the persistent popularity of this influential work.

Ptolemy also wrote several other books. The Tetrabiblos is a treatise on astrology in four books (greek tetra means "four", biblos is "book"). In his Optics, a work which survives only in a poor arabic translation, he writes about properties of light, including reflection, refraction and colour. His other works include Planetary Hypothesis, Planisphaerium and Analemma.

see also: deferent and epicycle

Ptolemy was a disciple of the Gnostic Valentinus, know to us for writing a letter to a wealthy Christian lady named Flora, trying to convert her to the Valentinian faith.

see also: gnosticism



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