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Bill Thayer
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Ptolemy: the Geography

The Author:

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer and mathematician of the 2c A.D., whose exact dates we do not know, but who must apparently have worked in Alexandria between A.D. 127 and 148 since some of his astronomical observations are consistent with those dates.

(Thus the Oxford Classical Dictionary. The Geography itself also provides at least one clue, listing the Egyptian city of Antinoöpolis, founded in A.D. 130.)

Ptolemy's most famous works are the Almagest, a 13‑book textbook of astronomy in which among many other things, he lays the foundations of modern trigonometry; the Tetrabiblos, a compendium of astrology; and the Geography. He also wrote many other works centered on applied mathematics: astronomy, optics, music, etc.; a small Canon of Latitudes and Longitudes may be his as well: it is a sort of abridged version of the Geography, although the coördinates for certain places are not the same — manuscript transmission problems, maybe.

We may not have his dates, but a late 2c equivalent of the Tattler has come down to us in a not-too‑damaged papyrus used as cartonnage for a collection of cat mummies found at Deir-at‑Tahir in the Thebaid, giving us some presumably unreliable if spicy details of his personal life. Found in 1931, the account, couched in the form of an Alexandrian romance, was used in 1952 as the basis for "The Traveling Seer of Alexandria", a B-grade movie with would you believe it? Ava Gardner in the title rôle.

No, you shouldn't believe any of that last paragraph, but I couldn't resist. It is sad that, as with so many figures of Antiquity, we know next to nothing about the man himself. A good summary of his work, can be found at ThoughtCo. For an attempt to reconstruct what he actually looked like, based on medieval portraits (an enterprise which I view as altogether quixotic), see this excellent website: Iconography of Ptolemy's Portrait.

The Text:

This is another useful text that didn't seem to be on the Web when I started getting interested in it. The bare essentials: this is, as occasionally modified by me, a transcript of a Dover edition, first published in 1991, itself an unabridged republication of a public domain work, originally published in 1932 by The New York Public Library, N. Y. in an edition limited to 250 copies, with the title

Geography of Claudius Ptolemy

I am compelled to add right away what I very quickly discovered: that the edition, in English translation with no original-language text, is hardly a scholar­ly one, which is sad, since I know of no other English translation. It is a poor translation; and even as regards the straightforward longitudes and latitudes, it was clearly not proofread and introduces many errors of its own into the already unreliable manuscript tradition. Although Prof. Stevenson doesn't breathe a word, either in his introduction or anywhere else, of exactly what it was that he translated — for very good reasons, I fear — his English version seems to be a translation of no Greek original, but at least in part of the Latin translation in Karl Müller's magisterial 1883 edition: I've spotted at least one typo in the Müller edition that made its way into Stevenson.

Apparently I'm not alone in my disappointment. Aubrey Diller, in "Review of 'Geography of Claudius Ptolemy', translated into English and edited by Edward Luther Stevenson (1932)," ISIS 22 (1934):533‑39, analyzes the entire mess point by point, and states on p538: "The translation is a complete failure." (A big thank you to Gregory McIntosh, a historian of cartography, for this information; and seven years after his heads‑up, I finally put the full review onsite.)

Anyway, the placename readings in Vat. lat. 3810 are not the best, and the English translation is both inconsistent and in spots downright inane.

After wrestling with it for several years, sometime around 2000 I finally decided to abandon this transcription: the Stevenson edition is just too flawed to be worth putting online, although I'm leaving up what I have. If you are doing serious research, you should not base any of it on this edition, nor should you cite it, at the risk of immediately vitiating your work in the mind of anyone competent to judge.

In May 2017, nearly twenty years after I started this project, I found that Karl Müller's edition (sadly incomplete due to his death) had finally been put online — although with one flaw: searches for the Greek text return nothing, neither within the book nor on the Web, making it impractical and near-invisible.

Yet another partial English translation has been published in 2000 by J. Lennart Berggren and Alexander Jones, entitled Ptolemy's Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters. (This information came to me kind courtesy of Glenn Humphress, Geography Instructor at Southeast Community College.)

At any rate, these developments made it official: my transcription of the Stevenson edition is completely useless, and I did well to abandon it.

The Maps:

Ptolemy's Geography was what we would now call an atlas, the core of which was of course the maps, referred to in the text and table of contents below as "Fifth Map of Europe", "Third Map of Asia", etc. The manual copying of maps is fiendish work, however, and considerably less reliable than that of text — Ptolemy was well aware of this (Book I, Chapter 18) — and his maps have consequently disappeared: nothing remains but his index. Recognizing that the maps would be a sticking point, Ptolemy also suggested that people replot his data, and a good section of Book I of the Geography offers advice on how to draw the maps.

Ptolemy's coördinates are in degrees and minutes (360 degrees to a circle, 60 minutes to a degree), just like our own. His North-South coördinates (latitudes) are measured like our own from the Equator. His East-West coördinates (longitudes) are measured eastward from a point somewhere W of the westernmost point he catalogues in the Geography, and they are traditionally read as "east of the Blessed Isles": for that reason, in this Web edition I indicated latitudes with the familiar degree sign (e.g., 5°00N), but his longitudes with an asterisk (e.g., 25*00).

Various people at various times have redrawn the maps from the coördinates given in the work: the map appended to Prof. Stevenson's edition, for example, is a medieval version or copy of just such a replot, but both Planudes and Karl Müller have done it as well. Thus, in undertaking this Web edition at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, I found myself very moved to be, and in good company at that, following Claudius Ptolemy's instructions using instruments he would never have dreamt of: every once in a while, this would hit me for a few seconds and make the unspeakably tedious cartographic reproduction much easier.

A couple of technical details about my own maps:

Mechanics out of the way, it's useful to point out to the beginning student of Ptolemy that the ancient geographer makes many errors (almost certainly further compounded by scribal transcription errors), and that in our time endless ingenuity has been expended on diagnosing them, correcting them, emending the text, etc.: in shelves full of books — literally, in one good library I saw several yards' worth — to which now a passel of webpages has been added; and though the adherents of these widely varying opinions occasionally propound them with the greatest certitude, none of them is to be trusted, probably. If you write me with your own theory, I'll read it, but that's it: I dislike stress, and won't jump into any of this.

This Web Edition:

Index of Places:


Book 2

Chapter Status Subject
text entered: complete Prologue
text + map: complete Hibernia island of Britannia - First Map of Europe
text + map: complete Albion island of Britannia - First Map of Europe
text + map: complete Hispanic Baetica - Second Map of Europe
text entered Hispanic Lusitania - Second Map of Europe
text entered Hispanic Tarraconensis - Second Map of Europe
text entered Aquitanian Gaul - Third Map of Europe
text entered Lugdunensian Gaul - Third Map of Europe
text + map: complete Belgic Gaul - Third Map of Europe
text entered Narbonensian Gaul - Third Map of Europe
text + map: complete
Karl Müller's apparatus in progress
Greater Germania - Fourth Map of Europe
Raetia and Vindelica - Fifth Map of Europe
Noricum - Fifth Map of Europe
Upper Pannonia - Fifth Map of Europe
text entered Lower Pannonia - Fifth Map of Europe
text entered Illyria or Liburnia and Dalmatia - Fifth Map of Europe
15 Provinces • 5 Maps

Book 3

Chapter Status Subject
text entered All Italy - Sixth Map of Europe
text + map: complete Corsica island - Sixth Map of Europe
text + map: complete Sardinia island - Seventh Map of Europe
text + map: complete Sicily island - Seventh Map of Europe
text entered Sarmatian Europe - Eighth Map of Europe
text entered Tauric peninsula - Eighth Map of Europe
text + map: complete Iazyges Metanastae - Ninth Map of Europe
Dacia - Ninth Map of Europe
Upper Moesia - Ninth Map of Europe
Lower Moesia - Ninth Map of Europe
Thracia and the Peninsula - Ninth Map of Europe
Macedonia - Tenth Map of Europe
Epirus - Tenth Map of Europe
Achaia - Tenth Map of Europe
Crete island - Tenth Map of Europe
15 Provinces • 5 Maps

Book 4

Chapter Status Subject
text + map: complete Mauritania Tingitana - First Map of Africa
text + map: complete Mauritania Caesariensis - First Map of Africa
text entered Numidia and Africa proper - Second Map of Africa
text entered Cyrenaica - Third Map of Africa
text entered Marmarica, which is properly called Libya, All of Egypt, both Lower and Upper - Third Map of Africa
Libya Interior - Fourth Map of Africa
text entered Ethiopia below Egypt - Fourth Map of Africa
text entered Ethiopia in the interior below this - Fourth Map of Africa
12 Provinces • 4 Maps

Book 5

Chapter Status Subject
text + map: complete Pontus and Bithynia - First Map of Asia
text entered Asia which is properly so called - First Map of Asia
text + map: complete Lycia - First Map of Asia
Pamphylia - First Map of Asia
Galatia - First Map of Asia
Cappadocia - First Map of Asia
Cilicia - First Map of Asia
Asiatic Sarmatia - Second Map of Asia
Colchis - Third Map of Asia
Iberia - Third Map of Asia
Albania - Third Map of Asia
Greater Armenia - Third Map of Asia
text + map: complete Cyprus island - Fourth Map of Asia
Syria - Fourth Map of Asia
Palestine - Fourth Map of Asia
Arabia Petraea - Fourth Map of Asia
Mesopotamia - Fourth Map of Asia
Arabia Deserta - Fourth Map of Asia
Babylonia - Fourth Map of Asia
19 Provinces • 4 Maps

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Site updated: 24 Jan 21