Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ptolemy Claudius


Claudius Ptolemaeus (after 83 – ca. 168 AD), known in English as Ptolemy, was an ancient Hellenistic mathematician, geographer, astronomer, and astrologer. He lived in Roman Egypt, and was probably born there in a town in the Thebaid called Ptolemais Hermiou; he died in Alexandria around 168 AD.

Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, three of which would be of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science. The first is the astronomical treatise now known as the Almagest, "The Great Treatise", originally the "Mathematical Treatise").

The second is the Geography, which is a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world.

The third is the astrological treatise known as the Tetrabiblos ("Four books") in which he attempted to adapt horoscopic astrology to the Aristotelian natural philosophy of his day.

Geographia (Ptolemy) This is a compilation of what was known about the world's geography in the Roman Empire during his time. He relied somewhat on the work of an earlier geographer, 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 Geographia is a discussion of the data and of the methods he used. As with the model of the solar system in the Almagest, Ptolemy put all this information into a grand scheme. Following Marinos, 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 in book 8 to express it as 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 books 2 through 7, he used degrees and put the meridian of 0 longitude at the most western land he knew, the "Blessed Islands", probably the Cape Verde islands (not the Canary Islands, as long accepted) as suggested by the location of the six dots labelled the "FORTUNATA" islands near the left extreme of the blue sea of Ptolemy's map here reproduced.

A 15th century manuscript copy of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy's Geographia (circa 150), indicating the countries of "Serica" and "Sinae" (China) at the extreme east, beyond the island of "Taprobane" (Sri Lanka, oversized) and the "Aurea Chersonesus" (Malay Peninsula).

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 Geographia he provided the necessary topographic lists, and captions for the maps. His oikoumenè 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 The Shetlands 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.

The maps in surviving manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geographia, however, date only from about 1300, after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Planudes. It seems likely that the topographical tables in books 2-7 are cumulative texts - texts which were altered and added to as new knowledge became available in the centuries after Ptolemy (Bagrow 1945). This means that information contained in different parts of the Geography is likely to be of different date.

Woodcut of Ptolemy map by Johane Schnitzer(Ulm: Leinhart Holle, 1482) Maps based on scientific principles had been made since the time of Eratosthenes (3rd century BC), but Ptolemy improved projections. It is known that a world map based on the Geographia was on display in Autun, France in late Roman times. In the 15th century Ptolemy's Geographia began to be printed with engraved maps; the earliest printed edition with engraved maps was produced in Bologna in 1477, followed quickly by a Roman edition in 1478 (Campbell, 1987). An edition printed at Ulm in 1482, including woodcut maps, was the first one printed north of the Alps. The maps look distorted as compared to modern maps, because Ptolemy's data were inaccurate. One reason is that Ptolemy estimated the size of the Earth as too small: while Eratosthenes found 700 stadia for a great circle degree on the globe, in the Geographia Ptolemy uses 500 stadia. It is highly probable that these were the same stadion since Ptolemy switched from the former scale to the latter, between the Syntaxis and the Geographia and severely readjusted longitude degrees accordingly. If they both used the Attic stadion of about 185 meters, then the older estimate is 1/6 too large, and Ptolemy's value is 1/6 too small, a difference recently explained as due to ancient scientists' use of simple methods of measuring the earth, which were corrupted either high or low by a factor of 5/6, due to air's bending of horizontal light rays by 1/6 of the earth's curvature. See also Ancient Greek units of measurement and History of geodesy.

Because Ptolemy derived many of his key latitudes from crude longest day values, his latitudes are erroneous on average by roughly a degree (2 degrees for Byzantium, 4 degrees for Carthage), though capable ancient astronomers knew their latitudes to more like a minute. (Ptolemy's own latitude was in error by 14'.) He agreed (Geographia 1.4) that longitude was best determined by simultaneous observation of lunar eclipses, yet he was so out of touch with the scientists of his day that he knew of no such data more recent than 500 years ago (Arbela eclipse). When switching from 700 stadia per degree to 500, he (or Marinos) expanded longitude differences between cities accordingly (a point 1st realized by P.Gosselin in 1790), resulting in serious over-stretching of the earth's east-west scale in degrees, though not distance. Achieving highly precise longitude remained a problem in geography until the invention of the marine chronometer at the end of the 18th century. It must be added that his original topographic list cannot 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 to the persistent popularity of this influential work in the history of cartography.

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Sexta Asiae Tabula Details V

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Sexta Asiae Tabula Details II

Sexta Asiae Tabula Details I

Sexta Asiae Tabula 1478

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