Ptolemy : biography

circa 90 – circa 168


The name Claudius is a Roman nomen; the fact that Ptolemy bore it indicates he lived under the Roman rule of Egypt with the privileges and political rights of Roman citizenship. It would have suited custom if the first of Ptolemy’s family to become a citizen (whether he or an ancestor) took the nomen from a Roman called Claudius who was responsible for granting citizenship. If, as was common, this was the emperor, citizenship would have been granted between AD 41 and 68 (when Claudius, and then Nero, were emperors). The astronomer would also have had a praenomen, which remains unknown. It may have been Tiberius, as that praenomen was very common among those whose families had been granted citizenship by these emperors.

Ptolemaeus (Πτολεμαῖος – Ptolemaios) is a Greek name. It occurs once in Greek mythology, and is of Homeric form., Georg Autenrieth, A Homeric Dictionary, on Perseus 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 after him, until Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC, were also Ptolemies.

Perhaps for no other reason than the association of name, the 9th century Persian astronomer Abu Ma’shar assumed Ptolemy to be a member of Egypt’s royal lineage, stating that the ten kings of Egypt who followed Alexander were wise "and included Ptolemy the Wise, who composed the book of the Almagest". Abu Ma’shar recorded a belief that a different member of this royal line "composed the book on astrology and attributed it to Ptolemy". We can evidence historical confusion on this point from Abu Ma’shar’s subsequent remark “It is sometimes said that the very learned man who wrote the book of astrology also wrote the book of the Almagest. The correct answer is not known”.Abu Ma’shar, De magnis coniunctionibus, ed.-transl. K. Yamamoto, Ch. Burnett, Leiden, 2000, 2 vols. (Arabic & Latin text); 4.1.4. There is little evidence on the subject of Ptolemy’s ancestry, apart from what can be drawn from the details of his name (see above); however, modern scholars refer to Abu Ma’shar’s account as erroneous,Jones (2010) ‘Ptolemy’s Doctrine of the Terms and Its Reception’ by Stephan Heilen, p. 68. and it is no longer doubted that the astronomer who wrote the Almagest also wrote the Tetrabiblos as its astrological counterpart.Robbins, Ptolemy Tetrabiblos ‘Introduction’; p. x.

Beyond his being considered a member of Alexandria’s Greek society, few details of Ptolemy’s life are known for certain. He wrote in Ancient Greek and is known to have utilized Babylonian astronomical data.Asger Aaboe, Episodes from the Early History of Astronomy, New York: Springer, 2001, pp. 62–65.Alexander Jones, "The Adaptation of Babylonian Methods in Greek Numerical Astronomy," in The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, p. 99. He was a Roman citizen, but most scholars conclude that Ptolemy was ethnically Greek,Enc. Britannica 2007, "Claudius Ptolemaeus" "Ptolemy." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2006. 20 Jul. 2008. although some suggest he was a Hellenized Egyptian.Victor J. Katz (1998). A History of Mathematics: An Introduction, p. 184. Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-321-01618-1. George Sarton (1936). "The Unity and Diversity of the Mediterranean World", Osiris 2, p. 406–463 [429].John Horace Parry (1981). The Age of Reconnaissance, p. 10. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04235-2. He was often known in later Arabic sources as "the Upper Egyptian",J. F. Weidler (1741). Historia astronomiae, p. 177. Wittenberg: Gottlieb. (cf. Martin Bernal (1992). "Animadversions on the Origins of Western Science", Isis 83 (4), p. 596–607 [606].) suggesting he may have had origins in southern Egypt.Martin Bernal (1992). "Animadversions on the Origins of Western Science", Isis 83 (4), p. 596–607 [602, 606]. Later Arabic astronomers, geographers and physicists referred to him by his name in Batlaymus.