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Ptolemy's World

Biography of the Mapmaker



Portrait of Ptolemy and his map

Portrait of Ptolemy and his map; reproduced from the Martin Waldseemüller wall map in twelve sheets, with commentary by Carlos Sanz, 1959.

Little is known about the man, Claudius Ptolemy (Klaudios Ptolemaios, 90-168 A.D), though his is one of the most famous names in the history of geography.

Even the dates that he lived have been questioned. There are a few certainties: Ptolemy was a Greek who lived in Alexandria, the Roman capital of Egypt. He headed the renowned library at Alexandria from 127 to 150 A.D.

In some early printed books about astronomy, Ptolemy is shown wearing a crown, from an idea that arose during the Middle Ages that he was a king because of his name.

But Ptolemy was a common name, and it is very unlikely that he belonged to a royal family. Whatever his background, he is one of the giants in European geographic thought.

Alexandria, marked onto the modern world map from Ptolemy,  Geographia

Alexandria, located near the delta of the Nile River, is marked onto the modern world map from Ptolemy, Geographia, edited by Sebastian Münster. Basel: Heinricum Petrum, 1545.

What kind of a person was Ptolemy? Some traits are evident through his writings: curiosity, dedication, industry–and persistence, surely. He may have been a man whose unceasing efforts to gather information on the many subjects of his interests wearied everyone around him. It appears that Ptolemy worked tirelessly–at night making astronomical observations; during the day in the library or visiting the harbor and marketplace to interrogate travelers who came to Alexandria for trade.