Text #9245"Eratosthenes", in .
Eratosthenes of Cyrene c. 276 BC – c. 195/194 BC) was a Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He was a man of learning, becoming the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He invented the discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.
He is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth, which he did by applying a measuring system using stadia, which was a standard unit of measure during that time period. His calculation was remarkably accurate. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (again with remarkable accuracy). Additionally, he may have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. He created the first map of the world incorporating parallels and meridians, based on the available geographical knowledge of the era.
Eratosthenes was the founder of scientific chronology; he endeavored to revise the dates of the chief literary and political events from the conquest of Troy. In number theory, he introduced the sieve of Eratosthenes, an efficient method of identifying prime numbers.
He was a figure of influence who declined to specialize in only one field. According to an entry in the Suda (a 10th-century reference), his critics scorned him, calling him Beta, from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, because he always came in second in all his endeavors. Nonetheless, his devotees nicknamed him Pentathlos, after the Olympians who were well rounded competitors, for he had proven himself to be knowledgeable in every area of learning. Eratosthenes yearned to understand the complexities of the entire world.
The son of Aglaos, Eratosthenes was born in 276 BC, in Cyrene. Now part of modern-day Libya, Cyrene had been founded by the Greeks centuries earlier, and became the capital of Pentapolis (North Africa), a country of five cities: Cyrene, Arsinde, Berenice, Ptolemias, and Apollonia, Cyrenaica. Alexander the Great conquered Cyrene in 332 BC, and following his death in 323 BC its rule was given to one of his generals, Ptolemy I Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
Under Ptolemaic rule the economy prospered, based largely on the export of horses and silphium, a plant used for rich seasoning and medicine. Cyrene became a place of cultivation, where knowledge blossomed. Like any young Greek, Eratosthenes would have studied in the local gymnasium, where he would have learned physical skills and social discourse as well as reading, writing, arithmetic, poetry, and music.
Eratosthenes went to Athens to further his studies. There he was taught Stoicism by its founder, Zeno of Citium, in philosophical lectures on living a virtuous life. He then studied under Ariston of Chios, who led a more cynical school of philosophy. He also studied under the head of the Platonic Academy, who was Arcesilaus of Pitane. His interest in Plato led him to write his very first work at a scholarly level, Platonikos, inquiring into the mathematical foundation of Plato’s philosophies. Eratosthenes was a man of many perspectives and investigated the art of poetry under Callimachus. He had talent as a most imaginative poet. He wrote poems: one in hexameters called Hermes illustrating the god’s life history; and another, in elegiacs, called Erigone, describing the suicide of the Athenian maiden Erigone (daughter of Icarius). He wrote Chronographies, a text that scientifically depicted dates of importance, beginning with the Trojan War. This work was highly esteemed for its accuracy: George Syncellus was later able to preserve from Chronographies a list of 38 kings of the Egyptian Thebes. Eratosthenes also wrote Olympic Victors, a chronology of the winners of the Olympic Games. It is not known when he wrote his works, but they highlighted his abilities.
These works and his great poetic abilities led the pharaoh Ptolemy III Euergetes to seek to place him as a librarian at the Library of Alexandria in the year 245 BC. Eratosthenes, then thirty years old, accepted Ptolemy’s invitation and traveled to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. Within about five years he became Chief Librarian, a position that the poet Apollonius Rhodius had previously held. As head of the library Eratosthenes tutored the children of Ptolemy, including Ptolemy IV Philopator who became the fourth Ptolemaic pharaoh. He expanded the library’s holdings: in Alexandria all books had to be surrendered for duplication. It was said that these were copied so accurately that it was impossible to tell if the library had returned the copy or the original. He sought to maintain the reputation of the Library of Alexandria against competition from the Pergamum. Eratosthenes created a whole section devoted to the examination of Homer, and acquired original works of great tragic dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
Eratosthenes made several important contributions to mathematics and science, and was a friend of Archimedes. Around 255 BC, he invented the armillary sphere. In On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies, Cleomedes credited him with having calculated the Earth’s circumference around 240 BC, using knowledge of the angle of elevation of the Sun at noon on the summer solstice in Alexandria and on Elephantine Island near Syene (now Aswan, Egypt).
Eratosthenes believed there was good and bad in every nation and criticized Aristotle for arguing that humanity was divided into Greeks and barbarians, and that the Greeks should keep themselves racially pure. As he aged he contracted ophthalmia, becoming blind around 195 BC. Losing the ability to read and to observe nature plagued and depressed him, leading him to voluntarily starve himself to death. He died in 194 BC at the age of 82 in his beloved Alexandria.