Monday, 27 November 2017

Seven wonders of the world

Both the wall of rocky Babylon, a road for chariots,
     and Zeus on the Alpheius have I seen;
and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun,
     and great toil of steep pyramids,
and Mausolus’ terrific monument; but when I saw
     Artemis’ house, racing to the clouds,
those others dimmed. I thought, ‘Look: apart from Olympus,
     the Sun never shone on anything like it.’
-- Antipater of Sidon, in Greek anthology 9.58
The ancient Greeks had lots of lists of seven things. The first one was a canon of ‘seven sages’. That’s the context for the ‘seven wonders’. Another source, spuriously attributed to Hyginus (Fabulae 221-223, 1st century CE), puts lists of ‘seven sages’, ‘seven lyric poets’, and ‘seven wonders’ right next to each other. And our earliest source, the Laterculi Alexandrini (Berlin papyrus 13044v), is partly lost, but enough survives that we can tell it had lists of ‘seven famous men’ and the ‘seven greatest islands’ as well. Seven is a typical number. (Not a symbolic number, mind: there isn’t anything in particular that it symbolises. Just typical.)

Antipater’s poem, above, is the earliest intact list (2nd-1st centuries BCE): (1) the city wall of Babylon; (2) the sculptor Pheidias’ statue of Zeus, in the temple at Olympia, on the river Alpheius; (3) hanging gardens, of uncertain location (usually Babylon) (correction:) at Babylon; (4) the ‘Colossus’, an enormous statue of the sun god Helios on the island of Rhodes (correction:) in the city of Rhodes; (5) the pyramids at Giza; (6) the tomb of Mausollus, or ‘Mausoleum’, at Halicarnassus; and (7) the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

But different lists exist. They shuffle the sequence, they have many substitutions. Pseudo-Hyginus leaves out the hanging gardens, and puts the palace of king Cyrus at Ecbatana in its place.

Let’s not spend time on all of the wonders. Before we look over a select few, I’d better confirm that this post was originally inspired by the recent announcement of a fascinating discovery at the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza: scientists used muon tomography to discover a large void in the middle of the pyramid. It’s a terrific discovery, but I don’t have any special insights myself: nothing I say here has any bearing on it.

‘The Great Lighthouse’, one of the wonders in Civilization VI (Firaxis Games, 2016): +1 to ship movement, +3 gold, and +1 Great Admiral point per turn. If you like that sort of thing.

The lighthouse of Alexandria (a.k.a. Pharos)

The lighthouse of Alexandria doesn’t appear in any ancient list of the seven wonders.

Oh, it existed. It just wasn’t one of the seven wonders.

This is contrary to what you may read in the New Pauly, or the Britannica, or Wikipedia, or the Ancient history encyclopedia. (The Oxford classical dictionary gets it right, though.) If you go and read the sources these encyclopaedias cite -- where they do cite any, that is -- you will find not a single mention of the lighthouse, nor any reference to the island of Pharos that the lighthouse was named after.

Conversely, if you read up on the Pharos -- for example, the description in Strabo 17.1.6, or Pliny the Elder’s Natural history 36.83-- you will find no mention of a list of seven wonders.

Now, this bald statement does need some qualification -- but only a little. Pliny’s description of the Pharos is embedded in an account of a couple of dozen remarkable constructions, of which two or three others are normally considered to be among the canonical seven wonders (the pyramids of Giza, 36.75-76 and 78-82; Pharos, 36.84; hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes -- not Babylon! -- 36.94; temple of Artemis at Ephesus, 36.95-97). You could call this a kind of a list of wonders, but it’s certainly not ‘seven’ and there’s only a partial overlap with ancient lists of a canonical seven.

The Pharos only starts to creep into lists of seven in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. These late antique and early mediaeval lists are very different from the ancient canon. Here are the earliest appearances of the Pharos in these lists:
  • An anonymous poem in the Greek Anthology (9.656) listing: the palace of emperor Anastasius in Constantinople; the ‘Capitolian hall’ (not hill) in Italy; the ‘Rufinian grove’ at Pergamon; the temple of the deified Hadrian at Cyzicus; the pyramids; the Colossus of Rhodes; and the Pharos.
  • Gregory of Tours, On the course of stars (preface): Noah’s ark; the wall of Babylon; the temple of Solomon; the tomb of a Persian king (presumably Mausollus. who was a Persian satrap); the Colossus of Rhodes; the theatre of Heraclea; and the Pharos.
  • (ps.-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: the Capitolium of Rome; the Pharos; the Colossus of Rhodes; a statue of Bellerophon suspended in air (unknown location); the theatre of Heraclea; a heated bath (unknown location); temple of Artemis.
Why did the Pharos make its way into these late lists? That must surely be because the ancient canon had mostly been destroyed by that time. Only the Mausoleum (destroyed by earthquake in the early mediaeval period) and the pyramids were still standing. The Pharos remained in operation until the 12th century. Now, that doesn’t explain why these lists continued to include some long-lost structures: maybe the Colossus and the temple of Artemis owe their continued presence in the lists to their sheer memorability.

The Titan of Braavos (Game of Thrones, HBO)

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus was a statue of Helios (the sun), made by Chares of Lindos, which collapsed in an earthquake around 226 BCE, less than a hundred years after it was built. It’s popularly imagined as standing astride the harbour entrance at the port of Rhodes. But that’s a complete fabrication, dating to the early modern period.

Even so, that’s how George R. R. Martin imagines it when he parodies it in his A Song of Ice and Fire books -- and if it’s good enough for Braavos, then by golly it must be good enough for Rhodes! Just in case you weren’t sure Martin was taking inspiration directly from ancient Rhodes, we’re told that the Titan is one of a canon of nine ‘Wonders made by man’. The thing is, George Martin does get a bit over-excited about imagining ancient edifices as being really really big.

The Colossus was certainly a jolly big statue. Here are the sources on its size:
  • Strabo, Geography 14.2.5: quotes a poem (presumably 3rd cent. BCE) putting it at 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 223: 90 feet high, or 26.6 m.
  • Pliny, Natural history 34.41: 70 cubits high, or 32.3 m.
  • Philon of Byzantium (ca. 4th-5th century CE; not the same person as the 2nd cent. BCE mechanical writer), On the seven wonders 4: 70 cubits, or 32.3 m.
  • (Pseudo-?)Bede, On the seven wonders: 136 feet, or 40.2 m (if we reckon in Roman feet).
There’s no doubt that 70 cubits was the canonical figure. Ps.-Hyginus’ figures are untrustworthy, as we’ll see below, and Bede had no access to any better information than the ancient sources did. Even if the 70 cubit figure was exaggerated -- which is likely -- the statue was probably still around 30 metres high. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 46 metres high (from feet to torch).

The modern harbour entrance at Rhodes is about 150 metres wide. Ancient triremes needed about 12 metres horizontal space (with oars). Even if the statue was getting on for 40 m high, which it wasn’t, its feet could hardly have been more than 10 metres apart. At 32 m, we’re talking more like 8 m apart. And that’s if it’s doing a really good stretch.

So, no.

In actual fact there’s nothing to suggest it was even located at the harbour, let alone standing astride the harbour. The whole scenario is hogwash. Pliny reports that ‘it is a marvel even lying down’, and talks of visitors seeing the places where the limbs became detached and trying to put their arms around one thumb. In other words: when it collapsed, it fell on land.

I’m a pyramid ... but probably not the one you were expecting. A 2nd century CE pyramid at Meroë (modern Sudan), much pointier and shorter than the famous ones at Giza. (Photo by Fabrizio Demartis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence)

The pyramids

The list of wonders that we get in pseudo-Hyginus helpfully gives sizes for several buildings in the list. The last entry reads:
The pyramids in Egypt where no shadow is visible; 60 feet high.
-- ps.-Hyginus, Fabulae 223
A couple of problems here. First the height; second, the absence of shadows. They’re both wrong. But it turns out that neither of these elements is unique to ps.-Hyginus.

Ps.-Hyginus’ figure, 60 feet, in Roman feet comes to 17.7 m, which is much too small. Then again, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) gets it wrong too: Philon reports the height as 300 cubits (133 m, converting using Roman feet), and the circumference as 6 stadia (278 m per side). The actual figures for the Great Pyramid are 146 m high and 230 m per side. Philon is at least in the right order of magnitude, unlike ps.-Hyginus ... but it does show that accurate figures for the pyramids’ size were not well known.

Second problem: ‘where no shadow is visible’ (quarum umbra non videtur). A later writer, the 2nd century essayist Lucian, also refers to shadowless pyramids (Toxaris 27). (Later still, so does Cassiodorus, Variae 7.15.4; but Cassiodorus’ list of wonders is based closely on ps.-Hyginus, so he’s not an independent source.)

Now, ps.-Hyginus and Lucian can’t possibly be thinking of pyramids that were shadowless even at sunrise and sunset. That’s geometrically impossible. They must mean pyramids that were shadowless in the middle of the day, especially at midday -- because in antiquity, shadow measurements regularly refer to gnomon readings taken at midday.

In summer, the Great Pyramid is indeed shadowless at midday. But not all year round: only for eight months or so. In antiquity, the earth’s axial tilt was 23.8° (slightly greater than the present-day figure of 23.4°), and the Great Pyramid is at latitude 30.0° N; that means that at the winter solstice, the sun’s midday altitude was 36.3°. (Yes, there’s a rounding error in there.) But the slope of the Great Pyramid is 51.9°. Result: shadow.

It’s futile to go looking for alternative pyramids to suit ps.-Hyginus’ report, because there are no good candidates. Pyramids in present-day Egypt are all in the north, with none south of the Fayum, so the difference in the sun’s height at midsummer isn’t nearly great enough to matter. The Nubian pyramids at Meroë, in what is now Sudan, about 200 km north-east of Khartoum, are much further south -- the sun reaches 49.3° above the horizon in midwinter -- but they still get shadows, because they’re much steeper than the Egyptian pyramids (about 70°, as compared with the usual Egyptian angles of 40-50°). If an Egyptian-style pyramid were built at Meroë, it could easily have no midday shadow all year round; but Nubian-style pyramids are just too pointy.

Besides, pretty much every other account of the pyramids makes it clear that they’re talking about the pyramids at Giza. If there’s anything at all to the claims in ps.-Hyginus and Lucian, they must have been thinking of pyramids that are shadowless in limited circumstances: between the spring and autumn equinoxes, at most, and only in the middle part of the day.

So if this shadowlessness is so limited, why did ps.-Hyginus and Lucian find it so striking? There may be a clue in Philon:
The length of the ascent makes it tiring to travel up there, and standing on the peak makes people’s vision darken when they look down at the drop.
-- Philon (of Byzantium?), On the seven wonders 2
Modern visitors aren’t allowed to go climbing up the pyramids. The penalty is three years in prison, if you’re interested. But ancient tourists could. It seems plausible that looking down 146 m, with no shadows in any direction, could have been disorienting and disturbing. The modern lawbreakers who scale the Great Pyramid every few years don’t get to see this, because they have to do it under cover of darkness.

Further reading

  • Brodersen, Kai 2006 [1999]. Die sieben Weltwunder. Legendäre Kunst- und Bauwerke, 7th ed. Munich: C. H. Beck.
  • Clayton, Peter A.; Price, Martin J. (eds.) 1988. The seven wonders of the ancient world. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Roscher, W. H. 1906. Die Hebdomadenlehren der griechischen Philosophen und Ärzte. Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Klasse der königl. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften 24.6. Leipzig: Teubner. pp. 186-193.

Endnote. Lists of the seven wonders

The earliest list, but incomplete, is in the Laterculi Alexandrini, partially preserved on Berlin papyrus 13044 v (late 2nd century BCE) at column 8. Preserved entries: temple of Artemis, pyramids, Mausoleum.

Antipater, Greek anthology 9.58 is the earliest complete list; the same items appear in a different sequence in Greek anthology 8.177; and an incomplete text, Philon’s On the seven wonders (4th/5th cent. CE) is missing the seventh wonder but is otherwise consistent with the two poems. Wall of Babylon; statue of Zeus; hanging gardens; Colossus of Rhodes; pyramids; Mausoleum; temple of Artemis. Philon breaks off before getting to the Mausoleum. These are the only full lists to include the ‘hanging gardens’, but none of the three mentions its location. Pliny Natural history 36.94 places the hanging gardens at Egyptian Thebes, i.e. Luxor; Strabo 16.1.5 places the gardens at Babylon, specifying that they are considered to be among the seven wonders; Gregory of Nazianzos’s reference to Thebes (see below) may support the Egyptian setting.
Correction, July 2018:

Though none of the three (Antipater, Gk. Anth. 8.177, and Philon) mention the gardens’ location, other sources do:
  • Berosus of Babylon, Chaldaean histories book 3, reported in Josephus Ap. 140-141 and J.Ant. 10.225-227;
  • Megasthenes, Indica book 4, reported (with Abydenus as an intermediary source) in Josephus J.Ant. 10.225-227 (= FGrHist 715 F 1a), Eusebius Praep. Ev. 9.41 (= FGrHist 715 F 1b), and Euseb. Armenian Chronica p. 19.13-17 Karst = p. 39 Petermann = pp. 55-6 Aucher Ancyranus (citation of Megasthenes at p. 41 ed. Petermann, mistranslated in Karst);
  • Diodorus of Sicily 2.10.1-6;
  • Q. Curtius Rufus Hist. Alex. 5.1.31-35;
  • Strabo Geography 16.1.5.
I’ve now made a new post (July 2018) with better information on ancient testimony for the hanging gardens. See here.

End correction.

Two more lists which are identical to one another (and in the same sequence) appear in ps.-Hyginus Fabulae 223 and Cassiodorus Variae 7.15. Mostly the same as Antipater, above, but they omit the hanging gardens, and include the palace of Cyrus. Only these two lists include the palace of Cyrus. Cassiodorus adds the city of Rome at the end, as an ‘eighth wonder’.

Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 43.63 (xxxvi.580 Migne) lists six works, of which four or five also appear on the earlier lists: Thebes in Boeotia; Thebes in Egypt (a reference to the hanging gardens?); walls of Babylon; Mausoleum; pyramids; Colossus.

Late antique and early mediaeval sources start to give very different lists, which typically share only two or three items with the ancient lists: Greek anthology 9.656; Gregory of Tours On the course of stars, preface; (ps.-?)Bede On the seven wonders; and many more. For more mediaeval examples see Brodersen 2006.

References outside lists. Diodorus of Sicily’s Library refers to two edifices ‘numbered among the seven most famous works’: the Great Pyramid (1.63.2, 18.4.5); an obelisk at Babylon (2.11.4-5).

Propertius 3.2.17-26 states that the longevity of his poetry is greater than three items conventionally related to the canonical seven: pyramids; temple of Zeus at Olympia; Mausoleum.

Pliny, Natural history 36.64-100, lists numerous ‘wonders’, including three that normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids (36.75-76, 78-82); hanging gardens of Egyptian Thebes (36.94); temple of Artemis (36.95-97). Elsewhere he describes the Colossus (34.41), in the middle of a discussion of many colossal statues.

Martial, On spectacles 1.1, lists six items of which four normally belong to the canonical seven: pyramids; wall of Babylon; temple of Artemis; altar of Apollo at Delos; Mausoleum; Flavian amphitheatre (Colosseum).

Strabo’s Geography names five items, separately, stating that they belong to the seven: Colossus (14.2.5); Mausoleum (14.2.16); wall of Babylon (16.1.5); hanging gardens of Babylon (16.1.5); pyramids of Khufu and Khafre (17.1.33). He appears to cite the last as two separate wonders.

John Malalas, Chronography 11.16 (279 Dindorf), names the temple of Hadrian at Cyzicus as ‘one of the wonders’.

(I’m sure I’ve missed other isolated references: I’ll admit I haven’t read Kai Brodersen’s book end to end, and I haven’t been able to read Clayton and Price because someone has it out of the library just now.)


  1. The 7 Ancient Wonders of The World were: the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The Colossus of Rhodes. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt.

    1. Bad bot. Didn't read the blog post it's replying to!

  2. Do you know where to find any references to the lists of Herodotus or Callimachus? I have read that their lists and some of the entries or known only in references in other writings but I cant find them. Thanks!

    1. We don't have any lists from them, I'm afraid. Herodotos does talk about some of the seven, as individual monuments, but not as a list of seven. I'm not aware that Kallimachos talks about any of them, but I don't know my Kallimachos well.

      For more info, I suggest a look at the 'further reading' bibliography above. It's not perfect -- what is? -- , but it's gone through peer review and it's going to have some useful stuff!

  3. Do you know where I can find a copy or detailed article of the Laterculi Alexandrini? Google hasn't been vert helpful. I even emailed the museum. Thanks!