Tag: Byzantine Science

Struggling with Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός

It is perversely reassuring to see that other people have had to labor to understand Ptolemy’s aphorisms.[1] Consequently, this 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός (more widely known by its Latin title, Centiloquium) makes my day.

Copied sometime in the latter half of the fifteenth century by a certain George Mediates, this manuscript was later owned by Jean Hurault de Boistaillé, who amassed an impressive collection of Greek manuscripts, see, e.g., this list.[2] Philippe Hurault de Cheverny inherited Boistaillé’s manuscripts. Shortly after his death in 1620 the collection was purchased for the Bibliothèque royale de France.

A page from a manuscript copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός with numerous Latin interlineations.

Some premodern reader worked through Ptolemy’s text adding Latin translations above most of the Greek words. He worked diligently through the first 50 or so aphorisms, adding such interlinear glosses throughout. Then he suddenly stopped.

An enlargement showing more clearly the interlinear, Latin glosses.

Here is a transcription of the preface and the first aphorism (most of what you see in the image immediately above):

βιβλίον κλαυδίου πτολομαίου ὁ λεγόμενοϲ καρπόϲ κεφαλεα ρ’
Προεκθέμενοι, ὦ σῦρε, τὰϲ ἐνεργείαϲ τῶν ἀστέρων τὰϲ ἐν τῷ ϲυνθέτῳ διενεργουμένας κόϲμῳ κατὰ πολλὺ λυσιτελεισ, ουσας πρὸϲ τὴν πρόγνωσιν, καὶ τὸ παρὸν ἐξεθέμεθα πόνημα, ὅπερ καρπόϲ ἐστι τῶν βιβλίων ἐκείνων, γυμνασθὲν διὰ τῆσ πείρασ τὴ ἀληθεία σύστοιχον

δεῖ οὖν τὸν μέλλοντα τοῦτω απιέναι προότερον διελθεῖν τὰϲ τῆσ ἐπιστήμης ἁπάσας μεθόδους, εἶτα πρὸϲ τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν τουτῶν χωρῆσαι.

ἀπὸ σοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ τῆϲ ἐπιστήμηϲ οὐ γάρ ἐστι δυνατὸν τὸν ἐπιστήμοναν τὰϲ μερικὰσ ἰδέαϲ τῶν πραγμάτων ἀναγκεῖλαι, ὥσπερ οὐδὲ ἡ αἴσθησισ δέχεται τὴν μερικὴν ἰδέαν τοῦ αἰσθητοῦ ἀλλά τιναν γενικήν. καὶ δεῖ τὸν μετιόντα καταστοχάζεσθαι τῶν πραγμάτων μόνοι γὰρ οἱ ἐνθουσιοντες προλέγουσι τὰ μερικά.[3]

A number of things about this copy interest me, starting with the Greek itself. Perhaps the least significant: this scribe ranges freely across the three forms of sigma with no apparent rhyme or reason: the typical internal form, σ, occurs frequently at the end of words; the typical Byzantine form, ϲ, appears at the beginning and end of words; and the terminal form, ς, appears only occasionally at the end of a word. Further, the scribe either misspells a number of words or, as seems possible in some cases, spells them to capture pronunciation. Then there are the places where the wording itself varies from other copies.

For those who care, here’s a comparison of the preface and first aphorism in BNF gr. 2180 and those in the now quite old critical edition (I added line breaks to the critical edition text to make it easier to compare to BNF gr. 2180).

A Comparison of BNF gr. 2180 and the critical edition
BNF gr. 2180 Critical edition
Preface Προεκθέμενοι, ὦ σῦρε, τὰϲ ἐνεργείαϲ τῶν ἀστέρων τὰϲ ἐν τῷ ϲυνθέτῳ διενεργουμένας κόϲμῳ κατὰ πολλὺ λυσιτελεισ, ουσας πρὸϲ τὴν πρόγνωσιν, καὶ τὸ παρὸν ἐξεθέμεθα πόνημα, ὅπερ καρπόϲ ἐστι τῶν βιβλίων ἐκείνων, γυμνασθὲν διὰ τῆσ πείρασ τὴ ἀληθεία σύστοιχον.

δεῖ οὖν τὸν μέλλοντα τοῦτω απιέναι προότερον διελθεῖν τὰϲ τῆσ ἐπιστήμης ἁπάσας μεθόδους, εἶτα πρὸϲ τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν τουτῶν χωρῆσαι.

Προεκθέμενοι, ὦ Σῦρε, τὰς ἐνεργείας τῶν ἀστέρων τὰς ἐν τῷ συνθέτῳ διενεργουμένας κόσμῳ καὶ πολὺ λυσιτελούσας πρὸς τὴν πρόγνωσιν, καὶ τὸ παρὸν ἐξεθέμεθα πόνημα, ὅπερ καρπός ἐστι τῶν βιβλίων ἐκείνων, γυμνασθὲν διὰ πείρας.

δεῖ οὖν τὸν μέλλοντα τοῦτο μετιέναι πρότερον διελθεῖν τὰς τῆς ἐπιστήμης ἁπάσας μεθόδους, εἶτα πρὸς τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν τούτου χωρῆσαι.

First aphorism ἀπὸ σοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ τῆϲ ἐπιστήμηϲ οὐ γάρ ἐστι δυνατὸν τὸν ἐπιστήμοναν τὰϲ μερικὰσ ἰδέαϲ τῶν πραγμάτων ἀναγκεῖλαι, ὥσπερ οὐδὲ ἡ αἴσθησισ δέχεται τὴν μερικὴν ἰδέαν τοῦ αἰσθητοῦ ἀλλά τιναν γενικήν. καὶ δεῖ τὸν μετιόντα καταστοχάζεσθαι τῶν πραγμάτων μόνοι γὰρ οἱ ἐνθουσιοντες προλέγουσι τὰ μερικά. Ἀπὸ σοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς ἐπιστήμης οὐ γάρ ἐστι δυνατὸν τῷ ἐπιστήμονι τὰς μερικὰς ἰδέας τῶν πραγμάτων ἀναγγεῖλαι, ὥσπερ οὐδὲ ἡ αἴσθησις δέχεται τὴν μερικὴν ἰδέαν τοῦ αἰσθητοῦ ἀλλά τινα γενικήν. καὶ δεῖ τὸν μετιόντα καταστοχάζεσθαι τῶν πραγμάτων· μόνοι γὰρ οἱ ἐνθουσιῶντες προλέγουσι καὶ τὰ μερικά.

I have nothing profound to add to this post, no insight to give. The goal of this post was merely to draw attention to this Byzantine copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός because, well, I find it interesting. Now back to work on this text.


  1. Modern scholarship has shown to its own satisfaction that the collection of aphorisms attributed to Ptolemy, well known in Latin as the Centiloquium, were not, in fact, composed by Ptolemy. For the moment, I don’t care if the text was or was not written by Ptolemy. The copiest and the pre-modern owners of this manuscript thought Ptolemy had composed the aphorisms—for my purposes now, that’s more important than insisting on a ps- prefix for Ptolemy.  ↩

  2. See also D. Jackson, “The Greek Manuscripts of Jean Hurault de Boistaillé,” Studi italiani di filologia classica 2(2004): 209–252.  ↩

  3. Translations from the Latin versions of the Centiloquium are easy to find. I know of only one translation from the Greek. A second, it seems to me, could be useful. So I will slowly add translations from the Greek. Here, then, is a really rough translation of the first aphorism (I reserve the right to admit I totally messed up this translation and to improve it when I realize that):

    For it is not possible that the wise man from himself or from knowledge reports the particular forms of events, just as perception cannot grasp the particular form of the thing perceived but a certain general form. And so it is necessary to infer the course of events, for only those inspired by a god can predict the particulars.  ↩

Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς … ἀστρολάβου”

An illustration of a rete from a 15th-century copy of Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς καὶ γενέσεως ἀστρολάβου,” BN suppl. graec. 0652, fol. 285v.

A nice drawing of the rete from Nicephorus Gregoras’s “περὶ κατασκευῆς καὶ γενέσεως ἀστρολάβου” (“On the Mathematical Origin and Construction of the Astrolabe”). This rete, like other diagrams in copies of Gregoras’s text, lacks stars and finer details. In the few copies I’ve seen that include the stars, the rete closely resembles the one surviving Byzantine astrolabe, especially the number and style of the star pointers.

The only Byzantine astrolabe known to survive dates from the 11th century and reflects the style of other early, Islamic astrolabes. Today this astrolabes is in Brescia.

Interesting, at least to me, is the fact that the illustrations in different copies of Gregoras’s text often label the diagrams in different ways. In this copy diagrams are labeled counterclockwise starting at the 9 o’clock position, e.g., the diagrams on fol. 284v of BN suppl. graec. 0652. In other copies, diagrams are labeled counterclockwise or clockwise from various starting points (the 9 o’clock position is the most common starting point). In one manuscript, diagrams on consecutive folia are labeled in opposite ways. The absence of illustration in many copies of Gregoras’s work makes it challenging to follow the text. In most such cases, the copyist left no room for illustrations, suggesting he was working from an unillustrated copy. In some manuscripts, the copyist left large spaces for the illustrations.

A Wolf-Headed Byzantine Veterinarian

A wolf-headed man binds a horse’s leg in this illustration “On Fractures” from a 15th-century copy of the “Hippiatrica”, University of Leiden, VSQ 50, fol. 68r.

The Hippiatrica assembles treatments for a wide range of ailments and injuries horses might suffer. The work itself is a collection from various other treatises by authors—e.g., Eumelos, Apsyrtos, Anatolios, Pelagonius, Themnestos, and Hierocles—and was probably assembled sometime between the 5th and the 10th centuries. In this illustration from a 15th-century Italian copy (now in Leiden), a wolf-headed man binds a horse’s fractured leg, the caption says “περὶ κατεαγμάτων” or “On Fractures.” What makes this illustration so amazing is the wolf-like creature caring for the horse. This illustration (like others in the manuscript) closely resembles, in most ways, illustrations in other copies of the Hippiatrica.

A man binds a horse’s fractured leg in late 14th-century copy of the Hippiatrica, Paris, BN graec. 2244, fol. 36v.

But unlike the stern but generally non-threatening looking man in the BN copy, the man (?) in the the Leiden copy is rather scary looking, with his wolf’s head and long tongue threatening the horse. There are other strange creatures depicted in this manuscript caring for horses, such as the footless, dragon-bird monster treating a horse for an ulcer.

A strange footless, dragon-bird hybrid treats a horse for an ulcer in the chapter “On Ulcers” from a 15th-century copy of the “Hippiatrica”, University of Leiden, VSQ 50, fol. 70r.

I know so little about Byzantine veterinary medicine, but am now intrigued. I think I’ve found my holiday reading: Anne Elena McCabe, A Byzantine encyclopaedia of horse medicine (OUP, 2007).[1]

Anne Elena McCabe, A Byzantine encyclopaedia of horse medicine (OUP, 2007) looks promising, but sorry OUP, I can’t afford $155 for a book.

  1. Alas, I will have to wait until the new year, since I have to request a copy though ILL. OUP prices are too high for a) our library or b) me to justify buying a copy. Seriously OUP? $155 for a single volume? That is outrageous! There is something wrong with the business that raises the prices at the expense of selling more copies. Whose interests are served by this? Not the author’s, who presumably would like people to read and benefit from her work and who might enjoy even a small royalty check now and then.  ↩

Byzantine Structure of the Cosmos

A diagram showing the nature of the cosmos from earth at the center to God at the top, passing through the various levels‚—e.g., the elements, ether, angles—from a 16th-century copy of Nicephorus Blemmydes’ “Epitome physica” Oxford, Bodleain Barocci 94, fol. 27v.

This diagram showing the structure of the cosmos comes from Nicephorus Blemmydes’ “Epitome physica.” At the center is the sphere of elemental earth surrounded by a narrow sphere of water. Then a broad sphere of air surrounds them capped by the sphere of fire. Separating the elements from the heaves is the sphere of the moon. Beyond that is the ether, the “ΑΙΘΗΡ,” where we see planets and stars. Beyond this is the “Water beyond the heavens” surrounded by the “Place of the angels.” A hierarchy of nine levels of angels, archangels, and beyond culminates in the Trinity at the top.

Born just before the Latins sacked Constantinople in 1204, Blemmydes fled the capital and studied mathematics, medicine, astronomy, logic, as well as theology and rhetoric in Asia Minor, especially Nicaea. He participated in the controversies between the Eastern and Western Churches, agreeing with the Western Church’s beliefs on such issues as the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father through the Son. He was also renowned for establishing a school, where the young George Akropolites studied. Like so many Byzantine polymaths, he ultimately retired from public life to a monastery he had built.

A Byzantine form of Geomancy?

A figure that correlates the planets, signs of the zodiac, and figures, which seems to be related to some geomancy of some form. “Cleromancy,” Harley MS 5596, fol. 4v.

This illustration from a 15th-century manuscript seems to be a type of geomantic figure that correlates the planets, signs, and figures (arrangements of dots). It shows the standard astrological relationships between planets and signs. Starting at the top and proceeding counterclockwise from the moon:

  • Moon — Cancer
  • Mercury — Gemini and Virgo
  • Venus — Taurus and Libra
  • Sun — Leo
  • Mars — Aries and Scorpio
  • Jupiter — Sagittarius and Pisces
  • Saturn — Capricorn and Acquarius

We also see a figure of dots associated with each planet/sign combination.

The planets and signs are each associated with a pattern of dots, as they are in geomancy. Here the planets and signs have been labeled.

In its most generic sense, geomancy involved interpreting random markings of dots. Four rows of dots were grouped into figures, each named, associated with a planet, a sign, day or night, and other properties. There were sixteen such figures. This diagram was, perhaps, a form of geomancy or a related mantic practice (the generic title given to this work, “cleromancy”—divination by drawing lots, seems more closely related to the first figure than to this one.)

Various forms of divination were widely practiced (or at least discussed) throughout the Byzantine world, ranging from the recognizable astrology and necromancy to the relatively obscure (at least today) catoptromancy and lecanomancy—divination through interpreting images in mirrors or patterns in liquids in bowls. Both practices could both be part of long and complicated rituals that compelled demons to appear on the surface of the liquid or in the mirror. The demons could be commanded to reveal the future.