Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 35.

Alan C. Bowen and Robert B. Todd, Cleomedes' Lectures on Astronomy: A Translation of The Heavens. Hellenistic Culture and Society, 42. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xvi + 238, incl. 25 figures, an appendix, and a glossary. ISBN 0-520-23325-5. US$55.00 / UKĀ£35.95.

Graham Shipley
Professor of Ancient History, University of Leicester

This elegant volume in the outstanding 'Hellenistic Culture and Society' series from University of California Press presents the first published English translation of a Greek work preserved in eleven medieval manuscripts under the name of Kleomedes and traditionally known as Caelestia or Meteora. The aim of the treatise is to survey Stoic cosmology and astronomy. It is best known today as the source of the fullest account of Eratosthenes' technique for measuring the size of the Earth, though this account only occupies a digression (1.7) and is sometimes dismissed as unreliable, just as the whole treatise has unfairly been called 'disordered and often trivial'.[[1]]

What we have is only the small surviving part of a much longer survey of Stoic teachings. Of Kleomedes nothing is known save that he was a Stoic teacher in the Roman period (presumably in the eastern Mediterranean world). The present editors reject Neugebauer's astronomical argument for a fourth-century AD date, as they do the suggestion that Kleomedes refers to the equation of time (the annual variation in the length of the day due to the elliptical form of the Earth's orbit around the Sun) and must therefore postdate Ptolemy of Alexandria. They prefer not to attempt a close dating, limiting his possible floruit to the period between Poseidonios (c.135-c.51 B.C.) and c. A.D. 250 (pp. 2-4).

As the editors observe, Kleomedes assumes an importance greater than he probably deserves, simply by the accident of being 'the only work of "school" Stoicism from its period to survive intact' (p. xi). He himself describes his two-part text as scholika (2.2) and scholai (2.7), terms both well rendered here as 'lecture courses'. We do not know how long an ancient lecture typically lasted, or how the text we have may relate to what was delivered orally. The present translation, at about 40 000 words, might take six or seven hours to deliver at a measured pace -- much longer with elaboration and discussion -- so two courses, rather than two lectures, is a reasonable guess.

The translation (pp. 21-165) is based on Todd's own edition of the text.[[2]] The commentary is given in extensive footnotes on these pages. Also provided are an introduction (pp. 1-18), twenty-five diagrams at the end explaining the relevant spherical astronomy (pp. 168-92), an appendix on Poseidonios fragment 18 in Edelstein-Kidd (pp. 193-204, translation at 199-204), a useful glossary giving the transliterated Greek equivalents of some 170 relevant scientific and philosophical terms (pp. 205-9), and a bibliography (pp. 211-21). The volume closes with an index of modern corpora (for example, SVF) that include passages from Kleomedes (p. 223), a general index (pp. 225-30), and an index locorum (pp. 231-38). The general index is disappointingly short and in my view it is more helpful if an index locorum precedes a general index, giving the latter the final place in a volume so it can be found most easily. The publishers are to be congratulated, however, for choosing footnotes in favour of endnotes (always inconvenient and these days typographically inexcusable) and on the overall production values of the volume: non-glossy paper, an elegant font (Janson) with increased line spacing and, in the main text, 'old style' or non-lining numerals (always easy on the eye),[[3]] Greek type where warranted, and near-perfect proof-reading.[[4]]

The translation aims at readability rather than being closely literal. For example, in Kleomedes' astonishing tirade against the Epicureans in 2.1, he declaims (in a literal rendering), 'Will you not get rid of yourself . . . to the saffron robes and the concubines with whom you will pass the day on their couches . . .?' More fluently, the editors render this as 'Will you not be off . . . to your saffron-robed whores, with whom you will dally on couches . . .?'. That is typical of the accessible tone maintained in the English version, and though it is a little too free for my taste a translator often has to make compromises if she does not want to lose her audience.

In the first 'course' (pp. 21-95) Kleomedes first deals with the nature and situation of the Earth within the cosmos; then (1.2) the motions of the fixed stars and planets; (1.3) latitudes, seasons, and the annual movement of the Sun; (1.4) variations in the length of daylight according to latitude; (1.5) the spherical shape of the Earth and (1.6) its position at the centre of the cosmos; (1.7) Poseidonios's and Eratosthenes' methods for establishing the size of the Earth; and (1.8) the negligible size of the Earth in relation to the celestial sphere and the irrelevance of parallax to observations other than those of the Moon. Part 2 (pp. 99-165) opens with the longest sustained discussion in the work, a refutation of the Epicurean view that we should regard the Sun as being as large as it appears to be (!) and a demonstration that it is very large indeed. There follow demonstrations that the Sun is larger than the Earth (2.2; though the Earth, interestingly, contains most of the matter in the cosmos, 1.8) and that the other heavenly bodies are not the size they appear to be (2.3). The Moon's illumination is explained by the mingling of the Sun's light with it (2.4), its phases by its movement relative to the Sun and Earth (2.5). Lunar eclipses are explained (2.6) by the Earth's shadow falling upon the Moon. Apart from a concluding disclaimer by the author, which the present editors regard as genuine, the short appendix (2.7) on the movements of the Moon and planets relative to the ecliptic, and of Mercury and Venus relative to the Sun, may be an interpolation.

All these passages amply illustrate the sophistication of ancient thinkers and the remarkable links between philosophy and science in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial world. Kleomedes, however, is a philosophy teacher, not an astronomer, so his main concern is not to expound the complexities of the mathematics of that science but to communicate a 'correct' approach to cosmology. Physics, for him, must be prior to the interpretation of observed data (p. 8), otherwise we risk falling into error since astronomical observations are, by their very nature, consistent with divergent explanations. Thus he is not prepared to question received Stoic dogmas, for example the geocentric universe and the infinite void surrounding the Earth. Crucial to the understanding of his text is his relationship to the work of Poseidonios, who asserted this particular relationship between physics and astronomy in what we call fr. 18 but is actually a fourth-hand account of Poseidonios's words made in the sixth century AD (pp. 193f.). The editors argue that Kleomedes widens the Stoic concept of truth from strict phantasia kataleptike (self-certifiable 'cognitive presentation') to 'structures of argument within which such presentations are included as premises' (p. 13); and that he makes this move because Poseidonios made it. As so often, Poseidonios proves pivotal to an understanding of Greek philosophy in the Roman Empire.

The editors, experts in ancient science and Stoicism respectively, are to be commended warmly on their seamless collaborative effort and high scholarship. Kleomedes may not be an original or particularly subtle thinker but his work, besides transmitting material we would otherwise not have, gives us additional insight into the place of Greek science in the public culture of the Roman empire, and of the interest shown in serious science by Stoic philosophers. Bowen and Todd have fulfilled admirably their aim of bringing him to a wider public.


[[1]] For both assertions see G. J. Toomer, 'Cleomedes', OCD (1996[3]) 345.

[[2]] R. B. Todd (ed.), Cleomedes, Caelestia (*METE/WRA): Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana (Leipzig 1990).

[[3]] I differ in my opinion on this point from another reviewer of the volume: N. Sidoli, BMCR 2004.08.06.

[[4]] I spotted only two errors: hupotheses for hupotheseis (p. 13) and an uncorrected 'pp. 0-0' (p. 211).