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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.