Ptolemy : biography

circa 90 – circa 168



Ptolemy also wrote an influential work, Harmonics, on music theory and the mathematics of music. After criticizing the approaches of his predecessors, Ptolemy argued for basing musical intervals on mathematical ratios (in contrast to the followers of Aristoxenus and in agreement with the followers of Pythagoras), backed up by empirical observation (in contrast to the overly theoretical approach of the Pythagoreans). Ptolemy wrote about how musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations and vice versa in Harmonics. This is called Pythagorean tuning because it was first discovered by Pythagoras. However, Pythagoras believed that the mathematics of music should be based on the specific ratio of 3:2, whereas Ptolemy merely believed that it should just generally involve tetrachords and octaves. He presented his own divisions of the tetrachord and the octave, which he derived with the help of a monochord. Ptolemy’s astronomical interests also appeared in a discussion of the "music of the spheres". See: Ptolemy’s intense diatonic scale.

Named after Ptolemy

There are several characters or items named after Ptolemy, including:

  • The crater Ptolemaeus on the Moon;
  • The crater Ptolemaeus. Google Maps. on Mars;
  • The asteroid 4001 Ptolemaeus;
  • A character in the fantasy series The Bartimaeus Trilogy: this fictional Ptolemy is a young magician (from Alexandria) whom Bartimaeus loved; he made the journey into "the Other Place" to bridge the gap between humans and djinn, being the first magician to do so. He eventually died in an attack ordered by his cousin, the king’s son, who feared his power.
  • The name of Celestial Being’s carrier ship in the anime Mobile Suit Gundam 00.
  • Track number 10 on Selected Ambient Works 85–92 by Aphex Twin.
  • The Ptolemy Stone used in the mathematics courses at both St. John’s College campuses.
  • English astronomer and TV presenter Sir Patrick Moore owned a cat named Ptolemy.


Ptolemy’s other main work is his Geographia. This also is a compilation of what was known about the world’s geography in the Roman Empire during his time. He relied somewhat on the work of an earlier geographer, Marinos of Tyre, and on gazetteers of the Roman and ancient Persian Empire.

The first part of the Geographia is a discussion of the data and of the methods he used. As with the model of the solar system in the Almagest, Ptolemy put all this information into a grand scheme. Following Marinos, he assigned coordinates to all the places and geographic features he knew, in a grid that spanned the globe. Latitude was measured from the equator, as it is today, but Ptolemy preferred to express it as the length of the longest day rather than degrees of arc (the length of the midsummer day increases from 12h to 24h as one goes from the equator to the polar circle). In books 2 through 7, he used degrees and put the meridian of 0 longitude at the most western land he knew, the "Blessed Islands", probably the Cape Verde islands (not the Canary Islands, as long accepted) as suggested by the location of the six dots labelled the "FORTUNATA" islands near the left extreme of the blue sea of Ptolemy’s map here reproduced.

Ptolemy also devised and provided instructions on how to create maps both of the whole inhabited world (oikoumenè) and of the Roman provinces. In the second part of the Geographia, he provided the necessary topographic lists, and captions for the maps. His oikoumenè spanned 180 degrees of longitude from the Blessed Islands in the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of China, and about 80 degrees of latitude from Shetland to anti-Meroe (east coast of Africa); Ptolemy was well aware that he knew about only a quarter of the globe, and an erroneous extension of China southward suggests his sources did not reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The maps in surviving manuscripts of Ptolemy’s Geographia, however, only date from about 1300, after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Planudes. It seems likely that the topographical tables in books 2–7 are cumulative texts – texts which were altered and added to as new knowledge became available in the centuries after Ptolemy (Bagrow 1945). This means that information contained in different parts of the Geography is likely to be of different dates.