Hipparchus : biography

190 BC –

Hipparchus thus had the problematic result that his minimum distance (from book 1) was greater than his maximum mean distance (from book 2). He was intellectually honest about this discrepancy, and probably realized that especially the first method is very sensitive to the accuracy of the observations and parameters. (In fact, modern calculations show that the size of the 190 BC solar eclipse at Alexandria must have been closer to 9/10ths and not the reported 4/5ths, a fraction more closely matched by the degree of totality at Alexandria of eclipses occurring in 310 BC and 129 BC which were also nearly total in the Hellespont and are thought by many to be more likely possibilities for the eclipse Hipparchus used for his computations.)

Ptolemy later measured the lunar parallax directly (Almagest V.13), and used the second method of Hipparchus with lunar eclipses to compute the distance of the Sun (Almagest V.15). He criticizes Hipparchus for making contradictory assumptions, and obtaining conflicting results (Almagest V.11): but apparently he failed to understand Hipparchus’ strategy to establish limits consistent with the observations, rather than a single value for the distance. His results were the best so far: the actual mean distance of the Moon is 60.3 Earth radii, within his limits from Hipparchus’ second book.

Theon of Smyrna wrote that according to Hipparchus, the Sun is 1,880 times the size of the Earth, and the Earth twenty-seven times the size of the Moon; apparently this refers to volumes, not diameters. From the geometry of book 2 it follows that the Sun is at 2,550 Earth radii, and the mean distance of the Moon is 60½ radii. Similarly, Cleomedes quotes Hipparchus for the sizes of the Sun and Earth as 1050:1; this leads to a mean lunar distance of 61 radii. Apparently Hipparchus later refined his computations, and derived accurate single values that he could use for predictions of solar eclipses.

See [Toomer 1974] for a more detailed discussion.


Pliny (Naturalis Historia II.X) tells us that Hipparchus demonstrated that lunar eclipses can occur five months apart, and solar eclipses seven months (instead of the usual six months); and the Sun can be hidden twice in thirty days, but as seen by different nations. Ptolemy discussed this a century later at length in Almagest VI.6. The geometry, and the limits of the positions of Sun and Moon when a solar or lunar eclipse is possible, are explained in Almagest VI.5. Hipparchus apparently made similar calculations. The result that two solar eclipses can occur one month apart is important, because this can not be based on observations: one is visible on the northern and the other on the southern hemisphere – as Pliny indicates – and the latter was inaccessible to the Greek.

Prediction of a solar eclipse, i.e., exactly when and where it will be visible, requires a solid lunar theory and proper treatment of the lunar parallax. Hipparchus must have been the first to be able to do this. A rigorous treatment requires spherical trigonometry, thus those who remain certain that Hipparchus lacked it must speculate that he may have made do with planar approximations. He may have discussed these things in Perí tēs katá plátos mēniaías tēs selēnēs kinēseōs ("On the monthly motion of the Moon in latitude"), a work mentioned in the Suda.

Pliny also remarks that "he also discovered for what exact reason, although the shadow causing the eclipse must from sunrise onward be below the earth, it happened once in the past that the moon was eclipsed in the west while both luminaries were visible above the earth" (translation H. Rackham (1938), Loeb Classical Library 330 p. 207). Toomer (1980) argued that this must refer to the large total lunar eclipse of 26 November 139 BC, when over a clean sea horizon as seen from Rhodes, the Moon was eclipsed in the northwest just after the Sun rose in the southeast. This would be the second eclipse of the 345-year interval that Hipparchus used to verify the traditional Babylonian periods: this puts a late date to the development of Hipparchus’ lunar theory. We do not know what "exact reason" Hipparchus found for seeing the Moon eclipsed while apparently it was not in exact opposition to the Sun. Parallax lowers the altitude of the luminaries; refraction raises them, and from a high point of view the horizon is lowered.