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Mathematical Treasure: Ptolemy’s Almagest

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

In the second century, Claudius Ptolemy, an Alexandrian astronomer and mathematician, wrote Mathematike Syntaxis (in Greek) or The Mathematical Compilation, a treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and planets. This work soon became known as The Greatest Compilation and it established the model of a geocentric universe, a scientific schema that would be followed for the next thousand years. When Ptolemy’s Greek work was adopted in the Islamic world, its title in Arabic was shortened to The Greatest, which when transliterated into Latin became Almagest. (The Greek Mathematike Syntaxis translated into Latin as Syntaxis mathematica.) European summaries and commentaries were based on Gerard of Cremona’s 12th century translation of the work from Arabic into Latin. The first complete Latin edition of the Almagest was published in 1515 by Petri Liechtenstein (fl. 1497-1528), who was a printer residing in the German colony in Venice at this time. Copies of Liechtenstein’s 1515 Almagest are extremely rare. The digital images shown here are from such a copy contained in the collections of the Library of Congress. The title page shown above has an altered date of 1465.

Table I, an illustration of known constellations, bears a date of 1532 and appears to be a later addition. Early books were frequently altered, especially when new information brought them “up to date” or made them more desirable.

On page 56 of the Almagest, we find a discussion of a geometric investigation by Hipparchus of Nicaea (ca. 190-120 BCE) of the distances between the earth, the sun, and the moon, accompanied by marginal notes of a previous reader.

The images above are presented through the courtesy of the United States Library of Congress.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Ptolemy’s Almagest," Loci (August 2013)