Herodotus and the shape of the world


What shape did the ancient Greeks think the world was? Usually the answer is to look in philo­sophy texts. It’s been sug­ges­ted that Thales thought the world was flat and floated on water. His (pos­sible) pupil, Anaximander, thought the world was drum-shaped and that people lived on the of the flat sides. The drum, he said, floated in the centre of the uni­verse. Anaximenes, the next philo­sopher at Miletos went back to a flat earth, float­ing on air. The prob­lem was solved when Pythagoras decided the world must be round some time around the late sixth cen­tury BC. So that’s that. Or is it?

There’s a couple of prob­lems with this. One is that the writ­ten sources aren’t the philo­soph­ers them­selves. They’re later records of what other philo­soph­ers thought they said. Or what later philo­soph­ers wanted other people to think they said. There’s a ques­tion of where they got their inform­a­tion from. They cer­tainly could have had access to the ori­ginal writ­ings. That might have been dif­fi­cult for Pythagoras though, who was head of some­thing like a secret soci­ety. The best sources on Pythagoras we have are from the 3rd cen­tury AD, about a eight cen­tur­ies after he lived. There was also a habit in the ancient world of stick­ing an older philsopher’s name on your book. Like today old wis­dom was often much more respec­ted than new.

Another reason to be scep­tical is that these were philo­soph­ers. They were at the cut­ting edge of thought, which doesn’t mean that hicks in the fields would have been up-to-date with cos­mo­lo­gical thought, or believed it. For example Pythagoras’ idea of a round earth would be con­sidered dan­ger­ously mod­ern in some parts of Texas. Don “Someone has to stand up to the experts” McLeroy prefers an older text for his thought. Likewise what would your less-educated ancient Greek think?

A pos­sible answer can be found in Herodotus’ History. In his intro­duc­tion he makes it clear he was writ­ing for a sim­ilar audi­ence to those who listened to the epics. In this sec­tion he’s describ­ing a raid against giant gold-digging ants in north­ern India, or pos­sibly what is now Afghanistan.

Now in these parts the sun is hot­test in the morn­ing, not at mid­day as else­where, but from sun­rise to the hour of market-closing. Through these hours it is much hot­ter than in Hellas at noon, so that men are said to sprinkle them­selves with water at this time.
At mid­day the sun’s heat is nearly the same in India as else­where. As it goes to after­noon, the sun of India has the power of the morn­ing sun in other lands; as day declines it becomes ever cooler, until at sun­set it is exceed­ingly cold.

That doesn’t make sense. There’s a lot of dis­cus­sion about how far Herodotus trav­elled to con­firm things, but it’s clear he never vis­ited India. Like every­where else in the world, it’s the mid-day sun that’s the hottest.

The only way it could make sense would be if India were a lot closer to the Sun in the morn­ing than at mid­day or the after­noon. India is to the east of Greece, but that would only make a dif­fer­ence if Herodotus was using a flat world as his model. Of course, if the world were flat, and India near the edge, then it would fry in the morn­ing before cool­ing as the Sun receded through the day. Without him expli­citly say­ing it, it would seem Herodotus is describ­ing a flat earth. He was writ­ing towards the end of the fifth cen­tury BC, so that would sug­gest that the spher­ical earth model hadn’t made much impact with the aver­age per­son by then.

There’s no doubt philo­soph­ers were mak­ing steps for­ward in under­stand­ing the uni­verse, but Herodotus shows that if you want to under­stand how the aver­age Greek under­stood the world you need to look a bit bey­ond that.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. June 24, 2009

    […] Archaeastronomy on Herodotus and the shape of the world. […]