Claudius Ptolemy

About Claudius Ptolemy

Who is it?: Astronomer, Cartographer & Mathematician
Birth Place: Egypt, Ancient Roman
Died On: c. AD 170 (aged 69–70)\nAlexandria, Egypt, Roman Empire
Occupation: Mathematician Geographer Astronomer Astrologer

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Claudius Ptolemy was born in Egypt, Ancient Roman, is Astronomer, Cartographer & Mathematician. Claudius Ptolemy was a Greco-Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and writer. He lived in Alexandria in the Roman province of Egypt during the 2nd century and authored several scientific treatises, three of which were of considerable significance to the development of Byzantine, Islamic and European science in later centuries. One of his treatises on geography, which gave a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, was used by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus as the map for his westward-bound path to Asia many centuries later. Not much is known about Ptolemy except for the fact that he lived in Alexandria, wrote in Koine Greek, and held Roman citizenship. Whatever reliable facts modern historians know about him have been deduced from the writer’s surviving works. A renowned astronomer of his era, he authored the seminal text the ‘Almagest’ which is a treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and planetary paths. A highly influential scientific text, its geocentric model was accepted for more than 1200 years from its origin. In another astronomical text he detailed what is now known as the Ptolemaic system. Even though his brilliance is widely accepted, scholars in the recent centuries have cast doubts over some of his astronomical observations.
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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 (Geography 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 before (Arbela eclipse). When switching from 700 stadia per degree to 500, he (or Marinos) expanded longitude differences between cities accordingly (a point first 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 application of Galileo's Jovian moon method in 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.


Ptolemy's Almagest is the only surviving comprehensive ancient treatise on astronomy. Babylonian astronomers had developed arithmetical techniques for calculating astronomical phenomena; Greek astronomers such as Hipparchus had produced geometric Models for calculating celestial motions. Ptolemy, however, claimed to have derived his geometrical Models from selected astronomical observations by his predecessors spanning more than 800 years, though astronomers have for centuries suspected that his models' parameters were adopted independently of observations. Ptolemy presented his astronomical Models in 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 the sky Hipparchus could see). Across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in the Medieval period, it was the authoritative text on astronomy, with its author becoming an almost mythical figure, called Ptolemy, King of Alexandria. The Almagest was preserved, like most of extant Classical Greek science, in Arabic manuscripts (hence its familiar name). Because of its reputation, it was widely sought and was translated twice into Latin in the 12th century, once in Sicily and again in Spain. Ptolemy's model, like those of his predecessors, was geocentric and was almost universally accepted until the appearance of simpler heliocentric Models during the scientific revolution.


Ptolemaeus (Πτολεμαῖος – Ptolemaios) is a Greek name. It occurs once in Greek mythology, and is of Homeric form. It was Common among the Macedonian upper class at the time of Alexander the Great, and there were several of this name among Alexander's army, one of whom made himself King of Egypt in 323 BC: Ptolemy I Soter. All the kings (Pharaohs) after him, until Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC, were also Greek Ptolemies.


Ptolemy has been referred to as “a pro-astrological authority of the highest magnitude”. His astrological treatise, a work in four parts, is known by the Greek term Tetrabiblos, or the Latin equivalent Quadripartitum: ‘Four Books’. Ptolemy's own title is unknown, but may have been the term found in some Greek manuscripts: Apotelesmatika, roughly meaning 'Astrological Outcomes,' 'Effects' or ‘Prognostics’.


The work is also important for the early history of perception. Ptolemy combined the mathematical, philosophical and physiological traditions. He held an extramission-intromission theory of vision: the rays (or flux) from the eye formed 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. Ptolemy offered explanations for many phenomena concerning illumination and colour, 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.