THE PTOLEMIES, ARCHIMEDES AND THE ALEXANDRIAN SCIENTIFIC BOOM
How great minds and visionary Kings collide during the 3rd Century BCE?
Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367-282 BCE), the founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, was one of the most trusted generals of Alexander the Great. He not only fought alongside with Alexander in his war to conquer Persia "to the end of the known world", he was also a personal friend of Alexander and a historian/"war journalist" who composed a now-lost narrative of Alexander's campaigns. After Alexander's death, the Partition of Babylon established Ptolemy as the ruler of Egypt, Libya and part of Arabia.
After securing his power, Ptolemy I and his successor Ptolemy II introduced a series of policies which laid the foundation of arguably THE most fruitful era in Western and world history in scientific and technological advances before the early-modern scientific revolution.
Marble bust of Ptolemy I (ca. 367-282 BCE)
Ptolemy I, mathematics, and urban development
Ptolemy I established his capital in Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander the Great which bore his name. It located at a strategic location at the crossroad of the Nile River mouth and the Mediterranean. Ptolemy invested heavily in infrastructures. He ordered the construction of Heptastadion, a giant causeway 1,260m long that connected the island of Pharos and mainland Egypt together, forming an artificial basin that would become the greatest harbor in Mediterranean. He also greatly expanded the city. It is generally believed that Alexandria is the first city in human history to reach a population of 500,000.
Ptolemy was also a wise, scholarly King, he was said to learn geometry from Euclid personally and this is the basis of one of Euclid’s most famous quotes “There is no Royal Road to geometry”. The Royal Road was an expressway built by Persian King to facilitate travel/communication throughout the Persian Empire. When Euclid said there was no Royal Road to geometry, he meant that there was no short-cut to the understanding of this mathematical discipline.
Ptolemaic Dynasty: a Greek Dynasty ruling Egypt
Throughout the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Kings were always named "Ptolemy". Queens were frequently called "Cleopatra". The Dynasty practiced Consanguine marriage in an imitation of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. Ptolemaic rulers also took the title of Pharaoh, therefore, the Ptolemaic Dynasty is frequently referred to as the Greek Dynasty in Egyptian history.
In fact, the Ptolemaic Dynasty is not the first time in history when Egypt was ruled by a foreign dynasty. The Late-Bronze Age 15 Dynasty was established by Semitic Hyksos from Levant. The famous 18 Dynasty Pharaohs carried the Y-haplogroup R1b usually associated with modern Western Europeans, indicating that the parental lineage of 18 Dynasty is highly likely to be of foreign origin. Furthermore, the 25 Dynasty was founded by the Nubians.
Even though established not as a democracy or a republic, many Ptolemaic Kings were relatively open-minded and they frequently received letters of appeal from the ordinary people. Such letters usually began with a simple formula "Βασιλεῖ Πτολεμαίωι χαίρειν" (King Ptolemy, greetings).
Ptolemy II Philadelphus: a King marrying his sister?
Ptolemy II (308-246 BCE) was the second King in the Ptolemaic Dynasty which ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic era. During his reign, Ptolemy II fought a series of wars with both other Hellenistic Kingdoms and non-Greeks for the control of the Mediterranean and the Near East.
When his father Ptolemy I was still alive, the personal tie between Ptolemy I and Seleucus I prevented the outbreak of an all-out war between the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucids. However, tension was already escalating in Syria. After deaths of both Kings in the late 280s BCE, the situation in Syria quickly spiraled out of control. Ptolemy II fought two Syrian Wars with Antiochus I/II and made some initial gains. However, by the time of 250s BCE, the Seleucids had gained the upper hand. Ptolemy was forced to pay war reparations in the form of a magnificent dowry when a marriage alliance between Antiochus II and Berenike, a daughter of Ptolemy II, was inked.
Ptolemy II married twice in his life. The first wife Arsinoë I was a daughter of King Lysimachus of Macedon, distantly related to Ptolemy II. However, after Arsinoë II the sister of Ptolemy II arrived in Egypt, she plotted against Arsinoë I and succeeded in convincing the King his wife was planning a conspiracy against him. Arsinoë I was banished to Upper Egypt and Ptolemy II remarried his sister, in accordance to ancient Egyptian tradition. This is the reason why he was called "Philadelphus" (Greek: Πτολεμαῖος Φιλάδελφος, meaning "sibling-lover"). This set a precedent of consanguine marriage in the Ptolemaic court.
Marble bust of Ptolemy II (308-246 BCE)
The Great Library and Musaeum of Alexandria
Despite suffering losses on Seleucid hands, Ptolemy II made important gain in the Southern part of Egypt. He waged war against the Nubians and defeated them, annexing 12 miles from the Nubian Kingdom. 12 miles might not seem a lot, but it contained a rich gold mine. The large scale mining operation provided the monetary basis for economic prosperity.
Ptolemy II diverted part of the the state income to support scholarship at the Alexandrian Library and Musaeum. Top scholars around the Mediterranean were attracted to Alexandria, their salaries and expenses paid by the state, and their research activities well-funded. Therefore, the Musaeum is arguably the first government-sponsored university and research institute in history, the Oxbridge, Ivy League, Max Planck Institute and Los Alamos at its time. Teaching, learning, cutting-edge researches flourished and produced numerous technological and theoretical breakthroughs. And it was in such a favorable environment for scientific inquiries where one of the greatest mathematician, astronomer and physicist of all time studied and conducted researches.
Archimedes: an absolute genius in antiquity
Archimedes (ca. 287 - 212 BCE) is most well-known for his discovery of buoyancy, taught in almost every high school worldwide, but Archimedes' contributions were far, far more than that. Archimedes was too well ahead of his time and his works too cutting-edge that many of his discoveries were underappreciated until many centuries later.
Archimedes was a mathematician originally from the Greek colony of Syracuse, Sicily, Italy, and he was related to the ruling dynasty of Syracuse at the time. In his early years, he studied abroad in Alexandria, the Temple of knowledge and research in the entire Mediterranean. Later, he moved back to his home country and conducted scientific researches until the Roman siege of Syracuse in 214-212 BCE. Ancient literature told us how he constructed ingeniously-designed engines that protected the city against the Roman onslaught, and how the power of his inventions struck fear in the hearts of the Romans. However, the city defense was compromised during a festival of Artemis in 212 CE. Roman soldiers flooded in and Archimedes was stabbed to death by a Roman soldier, against the order from the commander to keep him alive. Legend told that Archimedes was drawing circles when the soldier stopped him, his response infuriated the soldier and caused his immediate death.
Archimedes by Baroque Italian painter Domenico Fetti
The scientific adventure of Archimedes
It has long been known that Archimedes was researching the use of infinitesimals to solve difficult mathematical problems, such as area under a curve, which is generally dealt with using integral calculus in modern time. After the rediscovery of a Byzantine copy of his work Archimedes Palimpsest in 1998, we know that Archimedes was dealing with limits itself, which is the most crucial foundation of modern calculus. Therefore, Archimedes is arguably the earliest forerunner that paved the way for the invention of modern calculus.
Archimedes was not the first astronomer who proposed the heliocentric system, but he was an open proponent of this radical idea. In his work "The Sand Reckoner", he used the heliocentric model to attempt to get an estimate of the observable universe's size, the first such attempt in history. He was also pushing the classical discipline of Natural Philosophy to something very similar to science as we know it by extensive application of mathematical models and scientific inquires in understanding the working of the natural world.
Archimedes as an engineer
Archimedes' ingenuity was not limited to theoretical researches, he was actually keen on applying theories for practical uses, this made him not just a scientist but also an engineer. He helped the construction and launch of a sea-worthy giant luxury cruise ship called Syracusia, which was more than a hundred meters long and displacing thousands of tons. He constructed sophisticated analog computers that precisely tracked celestial movements and predicted astronomical events. The Olbia gearwheel discovered in 2006 was possibly the surviving fragment of this ancient computer.
The Olbia gearwheel
Discovered in Sardinia, Italy in 2006, the Olbia gearwheel fragment was so advanced in its design and manufacturing that some of its features were ahead of its time by more than 2,000 years. It was possibly a remnant part of Archimedes' mechanical astronomical computer.
He also applied his knowledge in the construction of war machines for protection of his home country. The Claw of Archimedes was such an awful weapon that even battle-hardened Romans feared it tremendously. Evidences also suggest that Archimedes constructed a cylindrical cannon a millennium before the invention of gunpowder. Archimedes' cannon was propelled by high pressure steam generated by a fire or parabolic mirrors. Reconstruction thus far has produced mixed results but the MIT team succeeded in replicating a working model of it. The model was capable of launching the projectile at an exit velocity of 300m/s with a kinetic energy of 23kJ, translating to a range of 1,200m, far exceeding the most powerful torsion catapult at the time.
The abrupt end of the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution
The Golden Age of scientific discoveries in Alexandria lasted until 145 BCE, when Ptolemy VIII purged the scholars in Alexandria and sent them into exile.
References and footnotes
Errington R. M. (2008) A History of the Hellenistic World 323-30 BC, Part II.7 "Egypt", pp.143-162. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, USA.
Yehia Z Gad et al. (2020) Insights from ancient DNA analysis of Egyptian human mummies: clues to disease and kinship. Human Molecular Genetics ddaa 223. Oxford Academic. https://doi.org/10.1093/hmg/ddaa223
Wikander Ö. (2008) The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, Part VII, Ch. 31 "Gadgets and Scientific Instruments", pp. 785-799. Oxford University Press. New York, USA.
Vullo V. (2020) The First Scientific Age and Birth of the Science: From the Beginning of Hellenism to the Diaspora of Scientists of the Museum of Alexandria. In: Gears. Springer Series in Solid and Structural Mechanics, vol 12. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-40164-1_3
D'Oriano R. and Pastore G. (2010) Un frammento del Planetario di Archimede da Olbia. L'Africa romana, Atti del XVIII convegno di studio Olbia, 11-14dicembre 2008, vol. 3 edition 1, pp. 1,777-1,813.