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Dionysus crowns Ariadne

RIADNE was the immortal wife of the wine-god Dionysos.
There were several versions of her story. In one, Ariadne, a daughter of King Minos of Krete (Crete), assisted Theseus in his quest to slay the Minotauros (Minotaur) and then fled with the hero aboard his ship. When they landed on the island of Naxos Theseus abandoned her as she slept. It was then that Dionysos discovered her and made her his wife. Some say she was later slain by the goddess Artemis or else ascended to Olympos with her husband as an immortal.
According to others Ariadne's bridal with Dionysos occurred several generations before this when the god was still travelling the earth spreading his cult. During his war against Argives with a band of sea-women, Ariadne was slain or turned to stone by King Perseus. The god descended into the underworld to recover her and brought her back with him to Olympos.

In Greek vase painting Ariadne is often depicted alongside Dionysos--either feasting with the gods of Olympos or in Bacchic scenes surrounded by dancing Satyroi (Satyrs) and Mainades. Dionysos' discovery of the sleeping Ariadne on Naxos was also a popular scene in classical art.


Selene was a Titan goddess in Greek mythology, daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia.

She had two siblings, Helios and Eos.

Selene was the goddess of the moon, which she drove every night across the skies.

Selene was linked to Artemis as well as Hecate; all three were considered lunar goddesses.

The Real Reason That Men in Classical Portrayals Were Given Small Manhoods

Today, bigger is widely regarded as better. But was this always the case? This article sheds some light on how the Western culture changed in its phallic preferences. Over the past few decades, pornography has played a role in the infatuation of inflated sizes. But in ancient times, men were intentionally portrayed with small genitals. Why was this the case? The story starts all the way back in ancient Greece…

Classical Preferences in Penis Size

If you have ever walked around a museum of classical work (meaning from ancient Greece or Rome) or if you have ever seen a photo of Michelangelo’s David, you may have noticed that male genitals are depicted with a smaller than average size. You are not mistaken. Greeks preferred their heroes to have small members. This preference was then transmitted through Roman, Christian, and ultimately Renaissance art.

Apollo Belvedere. Roman copy after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. attributed to Leochares. Found in the late 15th century.
It may sound like a silly thing to think about; maybe a tour guide or teacher scolded you for even asking about it. But academics have deeply considered the penis size of classical works of art. For instance, a study entitled “Penile representations in ancient Greek art” was conducted in 2013 by the University of Athens and published in the US National Library of Medicine. The study’s stated methods were “The examination of a great number of penile representations from the ancient Greek pottery and sculpture and the review of the ancient theater plays (satiric dramas and comedies)” (Rempelakos, Tsiamis, and Poulakou-Rebelakou, 2013). So leave your giggles aside – this is serious stuff.
Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.

Anatomical Influences

There are a couple of important things to bear in mind. First, as art historian Ellen Oredsson notes in discussing penis size in classical sculptures, “they’re flaccid. If you compare their size to most flaccid male penises, they are actually not significantly smaller than real-life penises tend to be.” (Oredsson, 2016)
Second, as the study mentioned above explains, “It is noteworthy that many of these images belong to athletes during or immediately after hard exercise with the penis shrunk” (Rempelakos, Tsiamis, and Poulakou-Rebelakou, 2013). Finally, with regards to Michelangelo’s David, a 2005 study by two Florentine doctors “offer a scientific explanation: the poor chap was shriveled by the threat of mortal danger. Michelangelo's intention was to depict David as he confronted Goliath. What the new study shows is that every anatomical detail - right down to the shaping of the muscles in his forehead - is consistent with the combined effects of fear, tension, and aggression.” (Hooper, 2005)
Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence).
Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence). (Jörg Bittner Unna/ CC BY 3.0 )

Social Factors in Penis Portrayals

However, there are plenty of sculptures depicting men and gods who are not athletes and who are not scared. So why are these guys shown with small sex organs? The answer turns out to be a matter of cultural taste. As mentioned above, the Greeks preferred to see their heroes with small penises. This reference derives from several factors.
The ancient Greek ideal man was not a lustful lover but a wise public servant. “Greeks associated small and non-erect penises with moderation, which was one of the key virtues that formed their view of ideal masculinity,” explains classics professor Andrew Lear, who has taught at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. “There is the contrast between the small, non-erect penises of ideal men (heroes, gods, nude athletes etc.) and the over-size, erect penises of Satyrs (mythic half-goat-men, who are drunkards and wildly lustful) and various non-ideal men. Decrepit, elderly men, for instance, often have large penises.” (Goldhill, 2016)
There is the contrast between the small, non-erect penises of ideal men (heroes, gods, nude athletes etc.) and the over-size, erect penises of Satyrs (mythic half-goat-men, who are drunkards and wildly lustful) and various non-ideal men.

Indeed, there are many sculptures from this time that show large penises, but they are not of Zeus. For example, one god who is always depicted as ‘well-endowed’ by modern standards is Priapus, god of fertility, protector of livestock and gardens. Priapus is the son of Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) and Dionysus (god of wine). While still in the womb, Priapus was cursed by Hera (wife of Zeus) to be forever impotent, foul-minded, and ugly (she cursed him because Paris choose Aphrodite, see The Iliad ). He was so grotesque that the other gods refused to allow him to live with them. So he was raised by lustful satyrs. Forever filled with lust, there are several myths in which Priapus tries to rape sleeping goddesses, nymphs, and maidens. But each time he loses his erection before he can. He is a ridiculous figure and always portrayed with an enormous penis. (Interesting side note: the medical condition known as priapism was named after Priapus. It is when an unwanted erection lasts for hours.)
Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. Depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold.
In addition to mythical creatures, ancient Greeks saw other negative examples of large penises: the barbarians. In addition to being foolish, a large penis indicated a person was uncivilized. Remember, at this point in history Greece was something of an island of civilization amid more primitive hunter-gather tribes who frequently tried to raid Greek towns. For better or worse, a barbarian stereotype of crazed men ruled by their lustful urges emerged. “Many barbarians surrounding Greece whom had raided and warred with Greece had demonstrated their penis worship and such practices were therefore a sign of barbarism and cultural vacuum in the eyes of the Greeks” (Admin, 2016). Whether a fool or a barbarian, large penises were considered signs of a man ruled by desire (not rationality) and were associated with uncivilized, animal-like behaviors.
A young Greek would not want to end up like Priapus and definitely would not want people to think he was affiliated with barbarians. As Ellen Odredsson wrote, “the ideal Greek man was rational, intellectual and authoritative. He may still have had a lot of sex, but this was unrelated to his penis size, and his small penis allowed him to remain coolly logical” (Oredsson, 2016) Moreover, the most ideal of all human beings was the male youth (Greek men did not prefer women). The prepubescent male was considered beautiful, innocent, and full of potential because he had not yet ‘burst forth.’ For those who don’t know, the male genitalia increase in size during puberty. Therefore, “the smaller your penis is the closer you are to the ideal and the more attractive you're considered” (Admin, 2016).
Anavysos Kouros, c. 530 BC.
Anavysos Kouros, c. 530 BC. (Steven Zucker/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Proportionality was sought instead of size. As with the arms, legs, and face, Greek sculpture made a radical departure from previous cultures artworks (think Egyptian and Sumerian) because the Greek artists tried to capture man as he really was, with all the curves and proportionate sizes that entailed. Remember, “Greek men saw each other nude all the time in the gymnasium,” said Lear.  “So they must have been aware, at some level, that not every admirably moderate man had a small penis, and not every immoderate, cowardly, drunken man a large one” (Goldhill, 2016) In addition to the preference of proportion over size, the Greeks did not like circumcised penises. At the time, circumcision was mainly practiced by Egyptians.
Bronze statue of a man. Mid-2nd-1st century BC.

Setting the Norm

Like other Greek artistic innovations, the Greek preference for small but proportionate penises became the norm for artists for centuries to come. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans had a far more positive attitude toward large penises and enjoyed a rich, erotic culture (the hedonism of Romans is one of the several factors that is considered to have contributed to its downfall). Like many things Roman, their fondness for big penises may have contributed to today’s similar interest.
Nonetheless, when it came to high art, the Romans stuck with the Greek standard of the little penis. This practice was then adopted by the Christian artists of the Middle Ages, partly because they did everything as the Greeks/Romans had done, but also because the humble and supposedly less noticeable small penis worked for their portrayals of saints and biblical characters. Finally, when the Renaissance occurred, small penises were the preferred stylistic standard, even if viewers and artists like Michelangelo did not recognize why.
‘Adam and Eve’ (1425) fresco by Masolino da Panicale.
‘Adam and Eve’ (1425) fresco by Masolino da Panicale. ( Public Domain )
Today, the obsession with penis size is just as widespread as it was in classical times. The size preference is just reversed.  Yet, this is not to say that one impression is more correct than the other. It is important to realize that there is “no clear evidence that a large penis correlates with sexual satisfaction. Nor is there proof that a small penis is a sign of moderation and rationality” (Goldhill, 2016).
Top Image: Theseus (center) invented wrestling Source:  CC BY 2.5


Admin. "Penis Size in Classical Art."  Penis Sizes . Penis Sizes, 25 Dec. 2016. Web. http://www.penissizes.org/penis-size-art
Goldhill, Olivia. "Why Do Greek Statues Have Such Small Penises?"  Quartz. Quartz, 21 May 2016. Web. https://qz.com/689617/why-do-greek-statues-have-such-small-penises/
Hooper, John. "Was David Scared Stiff of Goliath?"  The Age. The Age Company Ltd., 2005. Web. http://www.theage.com.au/news/Arts/Shrunken-vision/2005/01/22/1106334263269.html?oneclick=true
Oredsson, Ellen. "Why Do All Old Statues Have Such Small Penises?"  How To Talk About Art History . How To Talk About Art History, 13 Aug. 2016. Web. http://www.howtotalkaboutarthistory.com/reader-questions/why-do-all-old-statues-have-such-small-penises/
Rempelakos, L., C. Tsiamis, and E. Poulakou-Rebelakou. "Penile Representations in Ancient Greek Art."  Arch Esp Urol  66.10 (2013): 911-16.  Department of History of Medicine. Medical School. Athens University . National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24369184

Seven Against Thebes


by Donald L. Wasson

Seven Against Thebes is the third part of a trilogy written by one of the greatest of the Greektragedians, Aeschylus in 467 BCE, winning first prize in competition at Dionysia. Unfortunately, only fragments of the first two plays, Laius and Oedipus and the accompanying satyr drama Sphinxremain. Based on the well-known ancient Greek myth surrounding King Oedipus of Thebes, Seven Against Thebes centers on this rivalry between Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of Oedipus, fulfilling the curse of their father, never being able to settle their dispute and, in the end, falling by each other's hand. As evident with his most famous work Oresteia, Aeschylus may well have been the only tragedian to treat his trilogies as a single drama. This practice is evident in Seven Against Thebes where he makes a number of references to events from the first two plays.

Considered the father of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus was born around 525 BCE into an aristocratic family of Eleusis, an area west of central Athens. A proud Athenian, he fought against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE where his brother was killed. Some scholars claim he may have also fought at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. He began writing about this same time, winning his first victory in 484 BCE. Of his over 90 plays only six have survived – the authorship of a seventh Prometheus Bound is in question. He was best known for his use of the chorus and introduction of a second speaking actor thereby allowing plot development to be given more freedom. His two sons, Euaion and Euphorion, were both playwrights.
Historian Norman Castor in his book Antiquity said that the purpose of Aeschylus’s dramas was not to tell a story but to explore a problem. Classicist Edith Hamilton in her The Greek Way said he was the first poet to grasp the “bewildering strangeness of life” (182). She added that he was profoundly religious but somewhat radical, pushing aside the trappings of traditional Greek religion. The gods in his plays are seen as shadows, “questioning how a god can be considered just when people are allowed to suffer” (193). Late in life, Aeschylus traveled to Sicily where he would continue to write. He died there around 456 BCE.

Most people in the audience would have been well-aware of the myth surrounding Oedipus and the curse of King Laius. However, to fully understand and appreciate the play the casual observer had to understand the plight of the doomed family of the king and the legend surrounding the tragedy of Oedipus. Prior to his birth, his father, King Laius, is foretold by an oracle that his son will one day kill him. To avoid this tragedy the baby Oedipus is sent away with orders to be killed. Unfortunately, the soldier sent to perform the deed could not, and by a stroke of luck, the child is raised by the king of Corinth and his wife. Years later, an adult Oedipus returns to his birthplace of Thebes and unknowingly fulfills the prophecy – killing his father and marrying his mother. Eventually, Oedipus, now the king of Thebes, learns of his sinful deed, blinds himself, and goes into exile.  Along with his daughter, Antigone, he wanders as an outcast for many years until settling in Athens at the request of King Theseus. Prior to his death, he places a curse on his two sons; they will never be able to settle their differences and will die in battle. Seven Against Thebes centers on this rivalry between Eteocles and Polynices, the two sons of Oedipus. Although mentioned by name, Polynices does not appear or speak in the play.
After the exile of Oedipus, the brothers agree to share the throne of Thebes; each would serve alternate one-year reigns. Eteocles chose to rule first, but at the end of his year refused to relinquish the throne to his brother, forcing Polynices to go into exile. In retaliation for his brother’s treachery, Polynices aligns himself with King Adrastus of Argos, and a war ensues. Surrounded by the Argives, Eteocles is forced to do battle, and one by one, he sends his seven bravest champions outside the seven gates of Thebes against the best seven of Argos. With the war at a stalemate, Eteocles, the last hope of Thebes, fights his brother at gate seven where both are killed. The attackers are repelled, and the war ends. As with the Sophoclesplay, Antigone attempts to bury her brother Polynices (he is considered a traitor), despite the warnings of the Theban leadership. Although not mentioned in the play, according to the legend, the next generation of Argos returns to battle Thebes and is victorious.

Until the very end when Antigone and Ismene make their appearance, much of the play is spent with Eteocles speaking to the chorus. Therefore, there are relatively few characters:
•           Eteocles
•           Antigone
•           Ismene (non-speaking)
•           a messenger
•           a herald
•           and, of course, the chorus.

The play opens with Eteocles confronting a large crowd of concerned Thebans. It is obvious that Polynices and his fellow Argives are gathered outside the walls of Thebes preparing for battle. The citizens have come to their king for reassurance. He speaks to them in a tone of comfort. He pleads with them to keep the altar, help the children, and lastly to help mother Earth. He informs them that a prophet has foretold that the enemy plans an assault, so they must tend to the gates and towers. In an attempt to ease their worries, he has sent spies and scouts to the enemy.
A messenger enters to tell Eteocles of the “fierce” seven commanders approaching the gates and advises him to “barricade your town before the blast of Ares strikes it in storm: we already hear the roar of the armed land wave” (Grene, 72). The nervous king prays to the gods to protect his city. The chorus is troubled, asking who will protect them, who will be their champion. What god or goddess will shelter them? Speaking of the approaching enemy, they exclaim:
Seven proud captains of the host, with harness and spear, have won their place by lot; they stand champions at seven gates. (75)
They shout to Zeus, to Apollo and to Athena. Speaking to the chorus, Eteocles is angry and says there are many in the city who are afraid, accusing them of being spiritless cowards. He insults them by calling them all a tribe of women. The enemy is gaining strength. If the people fail to obey his orders - both men and women - they will be sentenced to death. “Obedience is mother to success and wife of salvation.” (78) He charges the chorus not to allow the citizenry to become cowards, pray that the towers hold them off, be quiet and not overly fearful. The chorus leader is concerned and frightened:
Our city groans from its foundation, we’re surrounded. ... I’m afraid: the din at the gates grows louder. (79-80)
Eteocles tries to console him, telling him that it is not for him to worry and, again, asks him not to speak of what he hears to the city. The chorus leader remains fearful, adding that he will not be a slave. To the chorus Eteocles speaks of his plans:
I will take six men, myself to make the seventh, and go to post them at the city’s gates, opponents of the enemy, in gallant style. (81)
He exits. The chorus speaks aloud of the chaos behind the city walls; screams, roving bands of pillagers. Eteocles returns just as a messenger arrives with news of the enemy; each Argive champion stands at his appointed gate. He asks the king who shall be sent to the first gate, who deserves their trust. Eteocles listens as the messenger speaks of the might of first enemy champion but quickly dismisses the threat, no equipment of man will make him tremble. He chooses his first champion to face the enemy.

One by one, Eteocles selects the champions to face the enemy. They all watch as the men do battle at the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth gates. Finally, the messenger speaks to Eteocles. At the seventh gate is his brother, Polynices.
Hear how he curses the city and what fate he invokes on her. He prays that once his foot is set upon our walls, once he is proclaimed the conqueror of this land, once he has cried a paean of triumph in its overthrow, he then may choose to fight with you and killing encounter his own death beside your corpse. (93)
Eteocles cries out that his father’s curse has been fulfilled. He asks for his greaves to shield him. Although the chorus leader begs him not to go, Eteocles insists that he must. Eteocles exits. The messenger soon returns. At the seventh gate, the brothers have died by each other’s hand; the curse has come true.
With brothers’ hands they achieved their mutual murder. The city is saved, but of the royal pair the ground has drunk the blood shed each by each. (101)
Attendants bring in the bodies of the two slain brothers. A herald remarks:
It is duty to declare to you counselors of the people, the resolves already taken … Our lord Eteocles for his loyalty it is determined to bury in the earth he so loved. (108)
However, the traitor Polynices must be cast out unburied. As with Sophocles’ play Antigone declares:
… yet will I bury him and take the danger on my head alone when that is done. He is my brother. I am not ashamed of this anarchic act of disobedience to the city. (109)
The herald stands fast, forbidding her, but she remains resolute. Antigone, with half the chorus, stands with the body of Polynices while Ismene, with the second half, stands with the body of Eteocles. They all leave to bury the bodies.
Aeschylus’s influence would live long after him, even having a profound effect on his fellow tragedians. References to Seven Against Thebes appear in both Aristophanes’ Frogs and Euripides' Phoenician Women. The play would survive well into the Byzantine and Renaissance eras. Unfortunately, its present-day form may not be the same one penned by Aeschylus. Many scholars believe that parts of the play were rewritten years later to keep it in line with Sophocles’ Antigone, a play presented 15 years after Aeschylus’s death. This is quite evident is the climax; Antigone only appears in the final lines of the play to voice her concern about Polynices’ unburied body. Despite this rather abrupt conclusion, the play has stood the test of time and influenced not only his fellow tragedians but others well into the Renaissance.


Donald L. Wasson

Donald has taught Ancient, Medieval and U.S. History at Lincoln College (Normal, Illinois)and has always been and will always be a student of history, ever since learning about Alexander the Great. 

Phyrgian type bronze helmet, Greek, 5th-4th century BC


A Greek playwright back in 500 BC. Many historians consider him the father of Greek tragedies.

How he died: An eagle dropped a tortoise on his head

According to legend, eagles picked up tortoises and attempt to crack them open by dropping them on rocks. An eagle mistook Aeschylus' head for a rock (he was bald) and dropped it on him instead.

Echo and Narcissus.



Pasiphae: Daughter of the Sun, Wife of a King, and Mother of the Minotaur
Pasiphae is a figure from Greek mythology. She is best-known as the wife of Minos, the legendary king of Crete, and the mother of the Minotaur. But Greek mythology has more to say about this interesting figure. Stories show she was a strange and spellbinding character.

Her Origins
The name Pasiphae may be literally translated as ‘light for all’. This name is apt, considering that she was the daughter of Helios, the god and personification of the Sun in Greek mythology. Her mother was Perseis, one of the Oceanids, i.e. the three thousand water nymphs who were the daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys.
Pasiphae had several siblings. One of them was Circe, best known for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. She also had two brothers, Aeetes the king of Colchis and guardian of the Golden Fleece, and Perses. Whilst Aeetes and Perses were mortals, Pasiphae and Circe were both immortal.

Pasiphae and the Bull
Pasiphae was married to Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa and the stepson of Asterion, the king of Crete. When his stepfather died, Minos ascended the throne and Pasiphae became the queen of the island. In one myth, Minos had prayed to Poseidon in order to gain the throne of Crete. As a sign of his favor, Poseidon sent the king a snow-white bull, which became known as the Cretan Bull.
Minos was supposed to sacrifice the bull to the god. The king, however, refused to do so, and kept the beast alive instead. This displeased Poseidon, who punished the king by making Pasiphae fall in love with the bull.
To satiate her lust, she sought the help of Daedalus, a master craftsman at the court of Crete. Daedalus created a hollow cow out of wood and wrapped it with real cowhide. She entered the construction and was brought out into a field. When the Cretan Bull mated with the wooden cow, it was also mating with Pasiphae. The result of this union between the bull and the Cretan queen was the infamous Minotaur, a monster that was half man and half bull.
The tale of the Minotaur is one that many are already familiar with. In this myth, the Minotaur is slain by the Athenian hero Theseus, who was aided by Ariadne, one of Minos and Pasiphae’s daughters. The couple also had other children, including Deucalion, whose son Idomeneus led the Cretans in the Trojan War, and Androgeus, whose death in Athens led to the Athenians being obliged to send Minos 14 noble citizens (seven youths and seven maidens) as sacrificial victims for the Minotaur.  

Magic and Minos
Minos also had children with other women and his unfaithfulness was known by his wife. As the queen was a sorceress, she was skilled in the use of magic. In an attempt to stop her husband from having affairs with other women, she concocted a potion that made Minos ejaculate snakes and scorpions instead of semen when he had sexual intercourse with anyone other than the queen.
The king, however, was eventually cured by Procris, the daughter of Erechtheus, the king of Athens. As a reward for this deed, Procris was presented with Laelaps, a dog that never failed to catch its prey, and a javelin that always hit its target.

Nothing is known about the fate of the queen, as her story ends after her children are mentioned. There is no more about her in the surviving Greek myths. However, some ancient authors recorded that there was a cult dedicated to Pasiphae. 

The glory of Greece


The slime with which the earth was covered by the waters of the
flood, produced an excessive fertility, which called forth every
variety of production, both bad and good. Among the rest,
Python, an enormous serpent, crept forth, the terror of the
people, and lurked in the caves of Mount Parnassus. Apollo slew
him with his arrows weapons which he had not before used
against any but feeble animals, hares, wild goats, and such game.
In commemoration of this illustrious conquest he instituted the
Pythian games, in which the victor in feats of strength,
swiftness of foot, or in the chariot race, was crowned with a
wreath of beech leaves; for the laurel was not yet adopted by
Apollo as his own tree. And here Apollo founded his oracle at
Delphi, the only oracle "that was not exclusively national, for
it was consulted by many outside nations, and, in fact, was held
in the highest repute all over the world. In obedience to its
decrees, the laws of Lycurgus were introduced, and the earliest
Greek colonies founded. No cities were built without first
consulting the Delphic oracle, for it was believed that Apollo
took special delight in the founding of cities, the first stone
of which he laid in person; nor was any enterprise ever
undertaken without inquiry at this sacred fane as to its probable
success" [From Beren's Myths and Legends of Greece and Rome.]

The famous statue of Apollo called the Belvedere [From the
Belvedere of the Vatican palace where it stands] represents the
god after his victory over the serpent Python. To this Byron
alludes in his Childe Harold, iv. 161:--

"The lord of the unerring bow,
The god of life, and poetry, and light,
The Sun, in human limbs arrayed, and brow
All radiant from his triumph in the fight.
The shaft has just been shot; the arrow bright
With an immortal's vengeance; in his eye
And nostril, beautiful disdain, and might,
And majesty flash their full lightnings by,

Developing in that one glance the Deity."


Chaos Refers to the void state preceding the creation of the universe or cosmos in the Greek creation myths, or to the initial "gap" created by the original separation of heaven and earth. In Hesiod's Theogony (c. 700 BC), Chaos was the first of the primordial deities, followed by Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (the nether abyss), and Eros (Love). From Chaos came Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night).

Kylix, Greek and Roman Art, Medium Terracotta, The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Greek Astronomy

The Revival of an Ancient Science
One of the most powerful creations of Greek science was the mathematical astronomy created by Hipparchus in the second century B.C. and given final form by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. Ptolemy's work was known in the Middle Ages through imperfect Latin versions. In fifteenth-century Italy, however, it was brought back to life. George Trebizond, a Cretan emigre in the curia, produced a new translation and commentary. These proved imperfect and aroused much heated criticism. But a German astronomer, Johannes Regiomontanus, a protege of the brilliant Greek churchman Cardinal Bessarion, came to Italy with his patron, learned Greek, and produced a full-scale "Epitome" of Ptolemy's work from which most astronomers learned their art for the next century and more. Copernicus was only one of the celebrities of the Scientific Revolution whose work rested in large part on the study of ancient science carried out in fifteenth-century Italy.

Byzantine Astronomical Collection
 In Greek, Before 1308
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of recent Arabic and Persian astronomical works were translated into Greek by scholars who traveled to Persia under the Ilkhanid Empire. One short and confused treatise, translated by Gregory Chioniades, describes Tusi's lunar theory, illustrated, not altogether correctly, in this figure along with Tusi's device for producing rectilinear from circular motions (shown also in Vat. ar. 319 (math19)). A part of the planetary and lunar theory of the astronomers of Maragha was later utilized by Copernicus, though scholars do not know how he gained access to this material.

Ptolemy, Almagest
 In Latin, Translated by George Trebizond, ca. 1481
George Trebizond, one of the notable Greek scholars who came to Italy in the early fifteenth century, made a new translation of the "Almagest" from the Greek for Pope Nicholas V between March and December of 1451. Due to a dispute about the quality of Trebizond's commentary on the text, the translation was never dedicated to Nicholas. This very elaborate manuscript of the translation, with the figures drawn in several colors, was dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV by George's son Andreas. These pages show Book VI Chapter 7, on the computation of the duration of solar and lunar eclipses.

George Trebizond, Commentary on the Almagest
 In Latin, ca. 1482
During the same nine months that George Trebizond made his translation of the "Almagest," he also wrote a commentary as long as the original text. The commentary was severely criticized, however, which resulted in a falling out with Pope Nicholas V. This opulent manuscript was dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV by George's son Andreas along with Vat. lat. 2055 of the translation. These pages contain a large figure of the model for the planet Mercury, shown at its least distance from the earth, with a list of Mercury's parameters and distances, and then the beginning of the treatment of Venus in Book X.

Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi, Tadhkira
 In Arabic, Fourteenth century
Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi was among the first of several Arabic astronomers of the late thirteenth century at the observatory of Maragha in Persia who modified Ptolemy's models based on mechanical principles, in order to preserve the uniform rotation of spheres. This early Arabic manuscript contains his principal work on the subject, the "Tadhkira fi ilm al-Haya" (Memoir on Astronomy). The figure shown here is his ingenious device for generating rectilinear motion along the diameter of the outer circle from two circular motions.

Georg Peurbach and Johannes Regiomontanus, Epitome of the Almagest
 In Latin, Late fifteenth century
The "Epitome of the Almagest" was written between 1460 and 1463 by Georg Peurbach and Johannes Regiomontanus at the suggestion of Cardinal Bessarion. It gave Europeans the first sophisticated understanding of Ptolemy's astronomy, and was studied by every competent astronomer of the sixteenth century. 

Ptolemy, Geography
 In Greek, Fifteenth century
Ptolemy's "Geography" contains instructions for drawing maps of the entire "oikoumene" (inhabited world) and particular regions, along with the longitudes and latitudes of about eight thousand locations in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The maps in manuscripts of the "Geography," however, date only from about 1300, after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Planudes. There are two versions, the A recension with twenty-six large regional maps, and the B recension, displayed here, with sixty-four smaller regional maps and four large additional maps. Shown here is the additional map of Europe which reveals Ptolemy's systematic exaggeration of west to east distances, particularly in the eastward extension of Scotland and the west to east slope of Italy.