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Burton on Ptolemy

Ptolemy’s authorship of the Ὁ Καρπός (the Centiloquium) has been rejected for the last 120 years or so, since Franz Boll argued concisely that it couldn’t be by Ptolemy.[1] Who originally composed the work and when, however, continues to exercise modern scholars. Medieval scholars, however, seem to have universally accepted that Ptolemy was the author. As David Juste put it recently:

We know that Ptolemy’s authorship on the Centiloquium was never doubted in the Middle Ages ….

I’ve long assumed that Juste’s observation applies broadly to premodern scholars. Then the other day, as I thumbed though Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, I encountered a throwaway comment that caused me to wonder.

Scan of the title page of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the 1628 edition.
The title page to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1628) [shamelessly taken from the Wikipedia page]. The first couple editions had a much more boring title page, filled with just words.

Burton is rambling on about the celestial causes of melancholy, mining the literature for any and all references to melancholy and the stars. He is collecting statements and aphorisms out of Pontanus, Schöner and others. He claims that they had gathered aphorisms from “Ptolomy, Albubater, and some other Arabians, Iunctine, Ranzovius, Lindhout, Origan, &c.” In a note Burton adds:

Ptolomeus centiloquio, & quadripartito tribuit omnia melancholicorum symptomata syderum influentijs. [Ptolemy in his Centiloquium & his Quadripartitum attributes all symptoms of melancholy to the influences of the stars.]

In a later section Burton returns again to review the particular symptoms caused by the stars and planets in specific parts of the body. There he says:

One saith, diverse diseases of the body and mind proceed from their influences, as I haue already proued out of Ptolomy, Pontanus, Lemnius, Cardan, and others, as they are principall significators of maners, diseases, mutually irradiated, or Lords of the geniture, &c. Ptolomeus in his centiloquy, or Hermes, or whosoever else the author of that Tract [emphasis added], attributes all these symptomes which are in melancholy men to celestiall influences….

At a minimum, Burton seems to have voiced a skepticism about Ptolemy’s authorship of the Centiloquium. This first edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was published in 1621. That comment remains unchanged in the many subsequent editions.

I doubt that Burton was the first to express such skepticism. So now I have to go wade through some of his sources to see where he might have got the idea that Ptolemy was not the author of the Centiloquium.


  1. See Franz Boll, “Studien über Claudius Ptolemäus. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der griechischen Philosophie und Astrologie,” Jahrbücher für Classische Philologie, Suppl. 21 (1894): 49–244, esp. 180–181.  ↵