Claudio Tolemeo, Almagesto, Libro Primo


Some time ago, a young man of rare intelligence, but short of humanistic culture, phoned us to ask if there was extant an Italian translation of the Almagest. We were frankly surprised. “No,” we replied, “there is no Italian translation of it.” And he promptly said, “Could you translate it for me?” “But,” we retorted, “have you any idea what you are asking me? It is a huge work, extremely difficult: it would take years to complete such a task.” We had a feeling he was a bit disappointed, and the conversation ended there.
That request, however, crept into our minds like a woodworm that had no intention of leaving its new home. In the end, to get rid of it, we thought: “Not the whole Almagest, but perhaps the first book...”. And so we began to entertain the idea, which is now realised in the following pages. We must admit that the effort put in was more than we had anticipated, but we must also confess that, in spite of the content, the non-fragmentary reading soon proved to be not only extremely interesting, but also engaging.
We hope that, in spite of the very sad times, in which the annihilation of culture is being perpetrated, this work will be appreciated by those who are wary of being carried away by the media current of that moat, where one sees, to quote Dante, a people smothered in a filth / that out of human privies seemed to flow.
As always, we will be grateful to those who wish to point out inaccuracies, errors or anything else.

Dorno, March 2021.


The considerations with which Ptolemy begins his "Syntax," although expressed with the utmost caution, reveal a very precise conviction: practice is indispensable, and theory, if not applied in practice, is of little use; in fact, of the three branches into which Aristotle divides speculation, namely physics, mathematics and theology, the latter is nothing but an εἰκασία, an imaginative intuition, while the former applies to matter that is by its nature unstable and unclear; mathematics is the only one providing certain knowledge.
The reason why Ptolemy starts like that, is evident from the reading of Chapter 7, where he denies that the earth makes any movement whatsoever; a chapter against which all modern scholars, and not only the modern ones, have attacked in order to denigrate the Alexandrian astronomer and blame him for having prevented the evolution of astronomy. It would be hard to conceive of a more naive behaviour, to say the least. Well, in Chap. 7, speaking of those who argue the rotation of the Earth around its axis, Ptolemy says: "It escapes them that, even if by reason of the phenomena relating to the stars, nothing would prevent, in the simplest formulation, that things were so, ..."; well, in the parenthetical phrase κατά γε τὴν ἁπλουστέραν ἐπιβολήν, "in the simplest formulation," is condensed the real core of the problem; such a phrase implies the following thought: "All right! Let's admit that the earth turns on its axis, as you say—and indeed it is not at all impossible that this should be the case—but... what about the planets, the moon... what about them? Where do we place them? Do they rotate, do they not rotate? How do they rotate? Can you not answer that? Do you not have a proven solution? Then, guys, let's leave everything as it is, otherwise we shall never get away with it!".
Most likely, Ptolemy's turn of speech, with his calm, stately manner, would have been different, but that is exactly what he meant. After which, Ptolemy has an easy time in using the physical theories of the time to put a stop to the issue.
Another important point is the statement, at the end of the “Preamble”, that as for the contributions of the predecessors, as long as they are still valid, they will be summarized as concisely as possible, in order to avoid unnecessary length, but safeguarding the completeness of the treatise. The usual detractors prone to slander reproach Ptolemy for giving insufficient information about his sources—then, they say, he is a plagiarist—; for not reporting in detail his observations—he never made them, they insinuate (yet the Astronomer defines them as ἀδίστακτοι, not to be doubted!). But have you read, we wonder, his “Preamble”? Yes, it's true, it lacks a complete bibliography, the kind that is as long as it is infesting, which is so fashionable in contemporary culture. Of course, we would have liked more generous information on certain occasions, but that is not the purpose of the treatise. Ptolemy wants to supply all the necessary means to make his interpretation or geometric representation of the appearances well understood, so that it can be profitably employed by whoever, in carrying out his work, may need it, starting from the sailors. Everything else is of absolutely secondary importance. It may be an attitude that can be criticised; everything can be criticised. The fact remains, however, that his “Mathematical Syntax,” with all its imperfections, errors, alleged plagiarism, phantom observations, etc. etc., has served for over a millennium. What other treatise, what other handbook in any field of knowledge did ever last longer?!
It is worth recalling here the words of a scholar who needs no introduction, Germaine Aujac, who, referring to the period “from the 5th century to the 1st century BC”, writes: “In this period of extraordinary intellectual fervour, in which ideas were spreading everywhere and in every field, with an exuberance and a freedom of spirit that we could hardly conceive, the Earth was certainly at the centre of the world according to a hypothesis, but according to only “one” hypothesis among the three or four that had been formulated by astronomers to explain celestial appearances. The aim of these hypotheses was in fact not so much to delineate physical reality as to discover the simplest mathematical system that could reproduce the apparent movements: if the geocentric hypothesis was widely adopted, it is because its implementation succeeded better than others, given the state of the art, in “saving phenomena.” Above all, the geocentric model of the Earth and the sky allowed scientific geography to make spectacular progress, and this is undoubtedly what eventually won him the unconditional support of a Ptolemy, geographer as much as astronomer.”[1]

* * *

Before the modern era, the Ptolemaic “Treatise on Mathematics” had been translated into Arabic, Persian, Syrian and Latin,[2] and also commented on by Greek mathematicians Theon and Pappus,[3] in addition to the Arabic commentators. The reference text is still that established by Heiberg[4] and will last for how many decades... goodness knows!, since the scholarship required to embark on such a work has for quite a time left the humanities. Heiberg, after stating not only that he could not use the Arabic translations and commentaries but also that he did not want to consult the Latin ones, concludes his "Preface" by admitting that he did not dare, because of the objective difficulty (in tanta rerum difficultate), to add his own translation, in Latin or in a modern language: if the astronomers wanted a translation, that is their own lookout (de ea re videant astronomi, si interpretationem desideraverint).
The first of the modern translations, together with the Greek text, is that of abbot Nicolas Halma (1755-1828),[5] whom Heiberg judges not competent enough as a philologist, and poorly versed in Greek as a translator: an unfair judgement for many reasons. As for the text, Halma read the codices directly, which modern philologists tend to avoid by relying on the collations of others; until then the only Greek text available was that of the Basel edition of 1538! As for the translation, it is agile and does not bore, and, given the subject matter, written in excellent French: "I have always translated literally," says the abbot, "to the extent that the genius of each of the two languages has allowed me. I have even kept the names of the 'median circle of the zodiac' for the ecliptic, which I have named in this way only in those places where Ptolemy's periphrasis would have been too long; of 'dodecatemoria,' for one twelfth of the zodiac. [...]. [...] to my translation I have added the Greek text, as a witness that will testify against it, if it is unfaithful, or that will confirm it, if it is exact".[6] If an Italian publisher wished to have the Almagest in his catalogue, without having to go in search of an expert Greek scholar with a passion for geometry and astronomy, he could easily translate the Halma, insert appropriate drawings and synthesise the formulae in the notes: the result would be in no way inferior to the many translations that circulate with the text opposite.
The second is that of Manitius,[7] an expert scholar and translator. It is a scrupulous work with great attention to any detail: the translation tries to maintain the Ptolemaic Greek prose, but, in order to give the German a certain harmony, there are extensions that are not in the Greek original. It remains, however, an important aid that every scholar of the Alexandrian astronomer cannot afford to ignore.
The third one came to light in 1952[8] together with the treatise “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” by Copernicus and the 4th and 5th books of the "Epitome" by Kepler; “The Harmonies of the World”, by Kepler too, close the volume. Catesby Taliaferro also adds notes here and there. Toomer states that this English translation, “besides being difficult to acquire, is such that silence is the kindest comment one can make.”[9] A decidedly snobbish statement. We do not share such an attitude: if a scholar or, in this case, a translator does a bad job, it should be pointed out in detail, not vaguely; we do not expect a review of all the errors-which would be a frustrating waste of time-, but pointing out, when the opportunity arises, the most obvious coarseness is a duty towards the possible unsuspecting reader.
Finally, the second English translation.[10] It is a work worthy of all praise; the author has lavished energy and doctrine on it: from the consultation, where necessary, of manuscripts to the arrangement of the text on the page; from beautiful and clear drawings to explanatory notes where appropriate; from the care of terminology to more specifically technical matters. Moreover, Heiberg's text is much improved: “The basis of my translation,” Toomer points out, “is the Greek text established by Heiberg. I have, however, found it necessary to make several hundred corrections to that text.”[11] It is true that the English language is poorly adapted to the Ptolemaic Greek prose, so Toomer is forced-unlike Manitius-to fragment the long periods, thus suppressing the concatenation that characterises Ptolemy's argumentation. In any case, the reader is offered every possible aid so that he does not get lost and give in to boredom or discouragement. In short, an effort that must have cost years and years. Chapeau bas!
It should be noted, however, that none of the translations cited are free, thank goodness, from errors or misunderstandings, which—we are convinced of it—are the leaven of knowledge, and the simple admission of which is the salt.

* * *

And let us come to our first book. Like Halma, we decided to print the Greek text alongside the translation. The text is that established by Heiberg, from which we have sometimes deviated, explaining the reasons in a note. The letter “H” with a number by the side of the Greek text indicates the page of the Teubner edition.
Agreeing with the choice of Manitius, we have tried to adhere strictly to the Greek text up to the limit bearable by the Italian syntax. In essence, unlike Halma, we have privileged Greek rather than Italian, because, since we have to do with a technical manual, it is necessary to respect the formulation of concepts, starting with the lexicon, so that the reader can be aware of them. For example, in Greek a name for 'ecliptic'—which is a Greek word too (ἐκλειπτικός, 'related to eclipses')—does not exist; so, it is customary to define it with a periphrasis, ὁ λοξὸς καὶ διὰ μέσων τῶν ζῳδίων κύκλος or, more commonly, ὁ διὰ μέσων τῶν ζῳδίων κύκλος, 'the median circle of signs;' the same is true for 'chord,' for which in Greek there is no corresponding term, and in fact it was called ἡ ἐν τῷ κύκλῳ εὐθεῖα, 'the straight line (inscribed) in the circle;' or, again, 'radius,' which the Greek were used to call ἡ ἐκ τοῦ κέντρου, 'the straight line from the centre;' and the equator, ὁ (μέγιστος) κύκλος ἰσημερινός, 'the equinoctial (maximum) circle.' It is our conviction that the linguistic formulation of a technical concept must be respected.
Ptolemy, especially in the passages in which he expounds a theory, not a theorem—i.e. he is more conversational—, constructs periods that, with a volley of oppositions (μὲν... δέ), of absolute genitives and participles that intertwine like links of a chain, put a hard test on the ability of the translator who would like to reproduce in his own language such a plaiting. And these are periods, whose architecture has been carefully studied. Here and there, in the notes, we have tried to highlight this syntactic peculiarity of Ptolemy's prose; on the one hand, it confirms that Greek was not his mother tongue, on the other hand, that, by reading the classics, he had assimilated its genius to such an extent, that he wanted and was able to go over every sentence, every period, until he was fully satisfied, that is, until it appeared to him as if it had been written by a native Greek. Something, however, escaped him from time to time....
Our translation is to the Greek text as the Greek text is to the translation: in short, one should support the other and vice versa. Here and there, in order to make the reading less tiring, we have taken the liberty of inserting lubricating additions in brackets. On its own it could appear a bit heavy; and that is why it is dedicated above all to students and educated people; astronomers, in fact, prefer the reveries of their colleagues more à la page to the knowledge of their own cultural roots.
Two Appendices follow: the first one is dedicated to Proclus' text, where he describes in detail the armillary sundial, of which Ptolemy, indeed, gives a very insufficient description (here is an example of the criterion he applied to the contributions of his predecessors: he probably considered the armillary sundial-not of his invention-too complicated to make and use, but on the other hand, he did not want to hide the existence of a suitable instrument and appear, consequently, as jealous guardian of secret devices).
The second Appendix is dedicated to the controversy surrounding the obliquity of the ecliptic.


[1] Cf. G. Aujac, La sphère, instrument au service de la découverte du monde, Caen (Paradigme) 1993, p. 23.

[2] We owe the first important work to Francis J. Carmody, Arabic astronomical and astrological sciences in Latin translation. A critical bibliography, Berkeley and Los Angeles (University of California Press) 1956. Further materials are available on the excellent site PAL, “Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus” (

[3] Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon d’Alexandrie sur l’Almageste. Texte établi et annoté par A. Rome, Tome I, Roma (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) 1931; Tome II, Città del Vaticano (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) 1936; Tome III, Città del Vaticano (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) 1943.

[4] Claudii Ptolemaei Syntaxis Mathematica, edidit J. L. Heiberg, I, Lipsiae (Teubner) 1898; II, 1903.

[5] Composition mathématique de Claude Ptolémée, traduite pour la première fois du grec en français, sur les manuscrits originaux de la Bibliothèque Impériale de Paris, par M. Halma; et suivie de notes de M. Delambre, I, Paris (Henri Grand) 1813; II, 1816.

[6] Cf. op. cit., I, p. XLIX.

[7] Des Claudius Ptolemäus Handbuch der Astronomie, aus dem Griechischen übersetzt und mit erklärenden Anmerkungen versehen von Karl Manitius, I, Leipzig (Teubner) 1912; II, 1913.

[8] Ptolemy, The Almagest, translated by R. Catesby Taliaferro, Chicago-London-Toronto-Geneva (William Benton) 1952, pp. VII÷XIV, 1÷478. The other works are translated by Charles Glenn Wallis.

[9] Cf. p. XV.

[10] Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated and annotated by G. J. Toomer, London (Duckworth) 1984.

[11] Cf. op. cit., p. 3.

© Franco Luigi Viero