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Ptolemy, the Man who Reached the Stars

by May 17, 2019

By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The study of the earth, stars and space started millennia ago. With a lot of observation and subsequent writings, men such as Ptolemy built the foundations of our understanding of the universe that surrounds us.
Today we know that his name was, in fact, Klaudios Ptolemaios. He probably lived in or near Alexandria, Egypt during the times of the Roman Empire. Better known as Ptolemy, he made astronomical observations between the mid 120s and the early 140s of our era. Some have identified his method as Aristotelian, as while there are no records of his education, he regularly quotes Aristotle. This can give us hints regarding his methods.
From math and geography to music and optics, Ptolemy bequeathed us decades of work that are still a reference today.
Painting of Ptolemy

Ptolemy with an armillary sphere model, by Joos van Ghent and Pedro Berruguete, 1476, Louvre, Paris

Ptolemy’s Career
Sciences, as we know them today, have come a very long way. Over the centuries the broader categories have branched out into specific groups, which, of course affects the way we relate to ‘knowledge’.
According to Ptolemy, physics and theology are conjecture, while mathematics alone yields true knowledge and has the ability to contribute significantly to what we today consider the study of physics. This assertion was unprecedented in the history of ancient Greek philosophy.

Early Baroque artist’s rendition of Ptolemy

While reading his work, it’s important to remember that Ptolemy does not distinguish the terms astronomy and astrology as we do. What we call astronomy explains and predicts the configurations and movements of celestial bodies; what we call astrology studies and predicts physical changes caused by the powers emanating from celestial bodies. For Ptolemy, these were one and the same.
Ptolemy’s Known Work
Ptolemy lived in the second century C.E. in or around Alexandria and developed astronomical models that served as the western world’s paradigm in astronomy for approximately 1400 years. Lasting straight up to the Scientific Revolution, Ptolemy’s ideas have been arguably referred to longer than any one else’s.
Quite a bit of his work is fortunately extant; some exist in their original versions, while others are translations. Harmonics, Geographia and Almagest are the best kept today.
Geographia by Ptolemy

Geography by Ptolemy, Latin manuscript of the early 15th century

Ptolemy’s Harmonics is about music theory and the mathematics of music. It contains three books, though unfortunately the last three chapters, 3.14-16, no longer exist; only their titles remain.
Almagest is a systematic treatise in thirteen books in which Ptolemy deduces the structure and quantitative parameters of geometrical models for the heavenly bodies from empirical evidence, including specific dated observations. The Almagest uses models to derive tables for calculating the positions of the heavenly bodies on any given date, together with other phenomena, such as eclipses and planetary first and last visibilities. In Almagest, Ptolemy treats Hipparchus as his only legitimate predecessor in theoretical astronomy.
Almagest is so important because Ptolemy presents a series of astronomical models, which aim to account for the movements of the stars and planets, including the sun and moon. The models are both demonstrative and predictive, which was a breakthrough at the time.
Geometric models

Geometric construction used by Hipparchus in his determination of the distances to the Sun and Moon

Another known work is Optics, however, some scholars have questioned Ptolemy’s authorship of this book. There, he explains how the eye emits a visual flux in the form of a cone, which is resolvable into a collection of rays traveling in straight lines. As in the case of the Harmonics, sections of the Optics have disappeared.
In the book On the Kritêrion, Ptolemy examines the criterion of truth, the method by which humans gain knowledge, and the nature and parts of the human soul. Similar to Optics, some scholars have questioned Ptolemy’s authorship of this book. Others prefer the idea that this could be one of his first writings.
The books On the Elements and On Weights have also been attributed to Ptolemy, but are completely lost.
Ptolemy’s Legacy
While many of Ptolemy’s theories and ideas have been updated, his contributions cannot be understated. For instance, in Geographia, he acknowledged a spherical world and offered coordinates for over 6,000 places in the ancient world.
Unlike many other scholars, Ptolemy divided the world into 360 degrees, as well as into minutes and seconds. This could potentially give him credit for the first recorded treatise on geo-positioning.
Ptolemy's map

A 15th-century manuscript copy of the Ptolemy world map, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geography (circa AD 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).

Of course, he did make a few mistakes. For instance, he exaggerated the length of the Mediterranean by about 30% and he ended his world in the middle of China. However, this can be forgiven as he only worked with astronomical observations without any sophisticated equipment.
Ptolemy’s works were later studied by Asian and Arabian cultures and as such, have survived until this very day. With them we are able to see and reflect on our path and evolution as humankind… as well as learn a little bit about our universe.

The 7 Wonders of the Ancient World “Reconstructed” with GIFs

by May 7, 2019

Finally technology is being put to good use!
The 7 Wonders of the Ancient World was a list of must-see sites for Ancient Greek tourists. Compiled by Antipater of Sidon, a poet in 2nd-century-BCE Greece, with later contributions by figures such as the mathematician Philon of Byzantium, the list remains an important piece of intangible heritage today.
Sadly, only one of those ancient wonders is still standing. Fortunately technology has come to the rescue so that modern classics-lovers can have the chance to visit the structures that Antipater first recommended.
Check out the reconstructed the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, so you can see how the ruins originally looked:
A feat of ingenuity and engineering and served as a Rhodian symbol of victory. The Colossus of Rhodes was erected in 280 BCE but was toppled by an earthquake in 226 BCE.
2. The Great Pyramid of Giza
The oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex bordering present-day El Giza, Egypt. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact.
3. Hanging Gardens of Babylon
An ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines, resembling a large green mountain constructed of mud bricks, and said to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.
4. Lighthouse of Alexandria
A lighthouse built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom, during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (280–247 BC), and was estimated to be 100 metres (330 ft) in overall height. For many centuries it was one of the tallest man-made structures in the world.
5. Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
A tomb built between 353 and 350 BC at Halicarnassus (present Bodrum, Turkey) for Mausolus, a satrap in the Persian Empire, and his sister-wife Artemisia II of Caria. The structure was designed by the Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene.
A giant seated figure, about 13 m (43 ft) tall,[1] made by the Greek sculptor Phidias around 435 BC at the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, and erected in the Temple of Zeus there. It represented the god Zeus on a cedarwood throne ornamented with ebony, ivory, gold and precious stones. Lost in the 5th AD.
7. Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
A Greek temple dedicated to an ancient, local form of the goddess Artemis (associated with Diana, a Roman goddess). It was located in Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey). It was completely rebuilt three times.
Pretty exciting results!
Of course to get these excellent images, researchers commissioned by budgetdirect had to find extensive visual and written information on each wonder; including when it was built, which civilization built it and for what purpose. They gathered information around the specific features of each wonder; such as building materials, measurements and key architectural features. These details were then backed up with hi-resolution images of drawings, sketches or any other available imagery in the archives. Once this research was compiled, it was passed along to architectural design duo Keremcan Kirilmaz and Erdem Batirbek, under the guidance of NeoMam’s art director.
The final Photoshop files were sent to motion graphics artist Fractal Motion, who were in charge of creating the animations. This complex process involves dividing up the images, then animating them using a tool in Cinema 4D software called Polyfx before refining it all in After Effects.

Missing Piece of World’s Oldest Computer Discovered?

by April 29, 2019

Potentially a missing part of the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek device designed to calculate astronomical positions and often considered the world’s first computer, has been found on the Aegean seabed. The section was discovered at the same wreck site where the original 2,200 year old mechanism was first located in 1901. Researchers were elated to retrieve artifacts that had survived not only the passage of time, but also the destruction havocked by looters and Jacques Cousteau. (Indeed, in 1976, the famous French explorer accidentally destroyed much of what remained of the ship’s hull.)
Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera Mechanism, Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty

The Antikythera Mechanism was initially lost when the cargo boat that it was on was shipwrecked off the coast of a small Greek Island between Kythera and Crete called Antikythera (which is why it has been named the Antikythera Mechanism).
When the Mechanism was first discovered, Greek sponge divers brought it to archaeologist Valerios Stais at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, who had no idea what they had discovered. Fortunately Spyridon Stais, Stais’ cousin and a former mathematician, was able to recognize the gears in the mechanism. With the development of advanced x-ray technology and plentiful collaboration (from Cousteau to modern historians of science like Alexander Jones), it was eventually identified to be a technologically advanced calculator.
The Gears inside

The gears of The Antikythera mechanism

For those who want a quick recap on the abilities of the Antikythera Mechanism, the second century BCE invention could calculate the movements of the sun and moon, predict eclipses and equinoxes, track movements of constellations and planets… as well as do basic math!
Not only that, but the Greek (possibly from the Island of Rhodes) creation also contains over thirty hand-worked cogs, dozens more than the average luxury Swiss watch.
Almost 50 years after Cousteau’s underwater research, a new team of archeologists excavated the site, finding hundreds of previously undiscovered artifacts, such as statues, coins, furniture, even a sarcophagus lid.
Last year they found an encrusted corroded disk about 8 cm in diameter… and recently it was revealed that the disk has an engraving of the zodiac sign Taurus the bull, which was discovered through x-ray analysis.
Discovery of a missing piece of Antikythera Mechanism

Discovery of a missing piece of Antikythera Mechanism on the Aegean sea floor Brett Seymour / EUA/ARGO

While archaeologists still do not know exactly what this new piece is, there are theories that it could be part of the original Antikythera Mechanism or a section of a second similar device. The reason for this thinking is the presence of the bull engraving, which could have been for the prediction of the constellation of Taurus.
Of course, it will be impossible to know for sure whether this discovery is a piece of the world’s oldest analog computer… or a remarkable discovery on its own terms. Either way the continued exploration and research has drawn attention to the existence of this ancient ‘calculator’ as well as to the field of archeology itself.

Aristarchus of Samos: Prophet of Astronomy

by April 24, 2019

In a recent article, I mentioned Galileo and his idea of heliocentrism. Heliocentrism is the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. It is opposed to the geocentric idea which claims that the Sun and other planets revolve around the Earth.
Galileo posed heliocentrism in the 17th century, and shortly after doing so, his life was threatened by the Church. The Roman Inquisition investigated the idea and claimed that a heliocentric model of the heavens was directly opposed to the Holy Scripture and was heretical in nature.
Thus, Galileo was forced to abandon the idea of heliocentrism on the threat of death.
As much as we might like to believe that we are at the center of the universe, and that everything revolves around us, that notion is quite simply false. My fiancé likes to remind me of this daily…
Just like many other revolutionary ideas, it should come as no surprise that the heliocentric model of astronomy has roots in ancient Greek philosophy.
One might think that since astronomy falls within the contemporary discipline of science, that it must fall within the ancient Greek discipline of science, but science, up until the 19th century, was simply known as natural philosophy.
Greek astronomy began sometime around the 5th century BCE and was rather sophisticated when one considers the lack of technology and scientific instruments available to the ancient Greeks.

Aristarchus of Samos (310 – 230 BCE)

Nearly 2,000 years before Galileo, Aristarchus of Samos posited the notion of heliocentrism. Aristarchus lived from 310 – 230 BCE. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher.
Aristarchus broke with the popular trend which adhered to the geocentric model of astronomy. Both Plato and Aristotle believed in and defended the theory of geocentrism.
To put it into perspective, arguing against Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece would be akin to some contemporary scientist arguing against Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin. There is nothing inherently wrong with opposing their ideas, but you better have a pretty good argument for your opposition if you want to be taken seriously.

A 10th century AD copy of Aristarchus’ calculations regarding the relative size of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. (From left to right.)

Aristarchus capitalized on a few problems which plagued geocentrism. These problems included the brightness of planets and their apparent change in movement through the night sky, known as retrograde motion.
Although Aristarchus posed the heliocentric theory of the heavens, he also wrote an entire book of astronomy from the geocentric point of view. Scholars debate the implications of this, some claim that he only came to the idea of heliocentrism after writing his book on geocentrism. Others believe that it is possible that he abandoned the notion of heliocentrism because of its contradictory nature, and instead pursued geocentrism as the true theory of the heavens.
We could speculate about such matters to no end, so let us leave this aside and focus on what we know about Aristarchus.
Through the geometrical analysis of Earth’s shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse, Aristarchus concluded that the Earth is probably smaller than the Sun. He also held an axiomatic principle which claimed that smaller objects orbit larger ones. Therefore, it would make sense that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

If this wasn’t revolutionary enough, Aristarchus also believed that the stars were distant suns, and that the universe was much bigger than previous astronomical models had predicted.
Most of this was denied legitimacy by mainstream Greek philosophy and mathematics. For instance, the only way Aristarchus could provide adequate proof for heliocentrism was through the idea that the Earth follows an elliptical orbit, rather than a circular one. This was a radical notion and not given much credit by his contemporaries.
Proof to his idea that the stars are distant suns could only be provided by observation via telescope. This is because of the phenomenon known as stellar parallax, which has to do with the movement of stars relative to one another as the Earth moves around the Sun. Stellar parallax is only observable using an instrument such as the telescope.
Like Democritus and his atomic theory of the universe, or the many theories of evolution posed by Anaximander, Empedocles, and Lucretius, Aristarchus’ mind was far beyond the available scientific or technological instruments that were required to prove such speculative theories.
It would take roughly 2,000 years for some of these paradigmatic ideas to gain observational proof.
One must ponder the source of such genius in ancient Greece, and wonder what other ancient theories we might find evidence for in the future…

VIDEO: Location of Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations

by March 30, 2019

Discussion about Marcus Aurelius and the history of Roman Carnuntum. Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, interviews Markus Wachter, the CEO of the Carnuntum Archeological Park, at the Museum Carnuntinum in Austria.
Thanks to Landessammlungen Niederösterreich, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum for permission to film.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius:

The Best of Roman Architecture

by March 27, 2019

By Mark Miller, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Ancient Rome borrowed from ancient Greece for architecture, among other things, but then innovated and invented its own architectural features and building types. Roman architecture made a statement with its imposing public edifices: We are a world power, and we have the wealth, technology and manpower to dominate in culture as well as politics.
The Romans used new construction techniques and materials and their own designs along with existing architectural ideas to come up with a new catalog of structures. They invented the triumphal arch, monumental aqueduct, the amphitheater, basilica, granary building, and residential housing block.
The Pantheon

The Pantheon is an iconic example of beautiful Roman architecture.

History of Roman Architecture
The Roman state, both the republic and empire, backed, financed, and organized many such buildings around the Roman sphere of influence around 2,000 years ago. The edifices were built so well, with such durable materials, that many of these beautiful structures still stand.
People still marvel at the Roman architecture examples of the Pantheon, the Roman Colosseum and other such spectacular places, wonderfully constructed aqueducts in Spain and Italy, 200-some amphitheaters in many old cities, and a multitude of other edifices stretching from Spain to Egypt and across northern Africa.
The Colosseum

A 4×4 segment panorama of the Colosseum at dusk.

In many of their buildings, the Romans used columns and arches instead of post-and-beam construction. Arches could bear more weight, so the buildings were bigger than their Greek or Egyptian counterparts, for example.
Roman Columns
The Romans borrowed the classical orders of the Greeks: Corinthian, Doric and Ionic. The Romans favored Corinthian even very late in the Classical period. Thus, many of their buildings had a classical Greek look. But the Romans would make the capital at the top of the column even more decorative than the Greek capital. They also made more decorative cornices.
Roman Columns

Types of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

The Romans also made a composite capital out of Ionic and Corinthian designs. They innovated the Tuscan column, which fused Doric with a small capital, slenderer shaft and a molded base. The Romans used the Tuscan columns in their homes and verandas.
Roman columns were monolithic. The Greeks, on the other hand, used several stacked drums. Columns were an important aspect of Greek and Roman architecture because they often fronted buildings. When a person approached many structures and monuments, the first thing he saw was an expanse of columns across the front. Romans even used columns when they had developed technology that made them obsolete. An example of this type of building is the Pantheon.
Interior of the Pantheon

The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete mausoleum with a beautiful dome and rows of columns.

Roman Architectural Material
The Romans most often used stone, several types of marble, and concrete in their structures. Their concrete was of a special type that has lasted two millennia. Some modern concrete has not lasted nearly as long. Ancient Origins published an article on Roman concrete in December 2014 titled “Researchers discover secret recipe of Roman concrete that allowed it to endure for over 2,000 years.” The article stated:
“It’s been known for a while that the volcanic sand used in Roman concrete and mortar made their buildings last for so long. Now a new study by a group of engineers and engineering researchers has discovered the precise recipe that made the Roman concrete endure much longer than concrete used today.”
Roman Concrete

Looking at Roman concrete close up.

The Roman Forum
The Romans built many public and civic buildings and monuments around a forum, which was a paved public square. Some larger Roman cities had more than one forum.
An interesting type of public building the Romans built there were the bath complexes, large structures with domes, columns, pools, and open spaces. They also built smaller baths at villas, townhouses and forts. The public baths had three big rooms, the frigidarium or cold bath, the tepidarium or warm bath, and the caldarium or hot bath. Some of the imperial baths or thermae also had steam baths and sauna-like rooms.
Bath Baths

View of the Great Bath, part of the Roman Baths complex, a site of historical interest in the city of Bath, England. The baths, based on the local hot springs, were built during the Roman occupation of Britain and have become a major touristic site.

Fantastic Structures of Ancient Rome
The fantastic structures of ancient Rome have been a testament to their people’s power and wealth. Roman architecture was meant to convey Rome’s dominance and cultural superiority. Rome was saying it had the wealth, technology, and manpower to build such huge, wonderfully constructed edifices. The Romans built audacious structures that no modern architect or construction company would attempt and no government agency would approve.