Claudius Ptolemy (Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος, Klaudios Ptolemaios, Claudius Ptolemaeus; c. AD 90 – c. 168) was a Greco-Egyptian writer of Alexandria, known as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology.
Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, three of which were of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science. The first is the astronomical treatise now known as the Almagest, although it was originally entitled the "Mathematical Treatise" and then known as the "Great Treatise" (Ἡ Μεγάλη Σύνταξις, Ē Megálē Syntaxis). The second is the Geography, which is a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. The third is the astrological treatise in which he attempted to adapt horoscopic astrology to the Aristotelian natural philosophy of his day.
The Almagest is the only surviving comprehensive ancient treatise on astronomy. Babylonian astronomers had developed arithmetical techniques for calculating astronomical phenomena; Greek astronomers such as Hipparchus had produced geometric models for calculating celestial motions. Ptolemy, however, claimed to have derived his geometrical models from selected astronomical observations by his predecessors spanning more than 800 years, though astronomers have for centuries suspected that his models' parameters were adopted independently of observations. Ptolemy presented his astronomical models in convenient tables, which could be used to compute the future or past position of the planets. The Almagest also contains a star catalogue (A star catalogue, or star catalog, is an astronomical catalogue that lists stars. In astronomy, many stars are referred to simply by catalogue numbers), which is a version of a catalogue created by Hipparchus. Its list of forty-eight constellations is ancestral to the modern system of constellations, but unlike the modern system they did not cover the whole sky (only the sky Hipparchus could see). Through the Middle Ages, it was the authoritative text on astronomy, with its author becoming an almost mythical figure, called Ptolemy, King of Alexandria. The Almagest was preserved, like most of Classical Greek science, in Arabic manuscripts (hence its familiar name). Because of its reputation, it was widely sought and was translated twice into Latin in the 12th century, once in Sicily and again in Spain. Ptolemy's model, like those of his predecessors, was geocentric and was almost universally accepted until the appearance of simpler heliocentric models during the scientific revolution.
His Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to compute the dimensions of the universe. He estimated the Sun was at an average distance of 1,210 Earth radii, while the radius of the sphere of the fixed stars was 20,000 times the radius of the Earth.
Ptolemy presented a useful tool for astronomical calculations in his Handy Tables, which tabulated all the data needed to compute the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets, the rising and setting of the stars, and eclipses (An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured, either by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer. An eclipse is a type of syzygy) of the Sun and Moon. Ptolemy's Handy Tables provided the model for later astronomical tables or zījes. In the Phaseis (Risings of the Fixed Stars), Ptolemy gave a parapegma, a star calendar or almanac, based on the hands and disappearances of stars over the course of the solar year.
Ptolemy has been referred to as “a pro-astrological authority of the highest magnitude”. His astrological treatise, a work in four parts, is known by the Greek term Tetrabiblos, or the Latin equivalent Quadripartitum: ‘Four Books’. Ptolemy's own title is unknown, but may have been the term found in some Greek manuscripts: Apotelesmatika, roughly meaning 'Astrological Outcomes,' 'Effects' or ‘Prognostics’.
As a source of reference, the Tetrabiblos is said to have "enjoyed almost the authority of a Bible among the astrological writers of a thousand years or more". It was first translated from Arabic into Latin by Plato of Tivoli (Tiburtinus) in 1138, while he was in Spain. The Tetrabiblos is an extensive and continually reprinted treatise on the ancient principles of horoscopic astrology. That it did not quite attain the unrivaled status of the Almagest was, perhaps, because it did not cover some popular areas of the subject, particularly electional astrology (interpreting astrological charts for a particular moment to determine the outcome of a course of action to be initiated at that time), and medical astrology, which were later adoptions.
The great popularity that the Tetrabiblos did possess might be attributed to its nature as an exposition of the art of astrology, and as a compendium of astrological lore, rather than as a manual. It speaks in general terms, avoiding illustrations and details of practice. Ptolemy was concerned to defend astrology by defining its limits, compiling astronomical data that he believed was reliable and dismissing practices (such as considering the numerological significance of names) that he believed to be without sound basis.
Much of the content of the Tetrabiblos was collected from earlier sources; Ptolemy's achievement was to order his material in a systematic way, showing how the subject could, in his view, be rationalized. It is, indeed, presented as the second part of the study of astronomy of which the Almagest was the first, concerned with the influences of the celestial bodies in the sublunar sphere. Thus explanations of a sort are provided for the astrological effects of the planets, based upon their combined effects of heating, cooling, moistening, and drying.
Ptolemy's astrological outlook was quite practical: he thought that astrology was like medicine, that is conjectural, because of the many variable factors to be taken into account: the race, country, and upbringing of a person affects an individual's personality as much as, if not more than, the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets at the precise moment of their birth, so Ptolemy saw astrology as something to be used in life but in no way relied on entirely.
A collection of one hundred aphorisms about astrology called the Centiloquium, ascribed to Ptolemy, was widely reproduced and commented on by Arabic, Latin and Hebrew scholars, and often bound together in medieval manuscripts after the Tetrabiblos as a kind of summation. It is now believed to be a much later pseudepigraphical composition. The identity and date of the actual author of the work, referred to now as Pseudo-Ptolemy, remains the subject of conjecture.