Monday 27 November 2023

The camel, the rope, and the needle's eye

There’s no good evidence that kamilos — supposedly meaning ‘rope’ — was ever even a real word in ancient Greek.

The myth we’re looking at is to do with the following passage in the Bible.

εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστιν κάμηλον διὰ τῆς τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ἢ πλούσιον εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Mark 10.25 (~ Matthew 19.24, Luke 18.25)

According to the myth, ‘camel’ is a misreading: originally, it was a ‘rope’ going through a needle. Still impossible, but not surreal like ‘camel’. Supposedly, the text originally had kamilos, but kamēlos ‘camel’ and kamilos ‘rope’ sounded the same in imperial-era Greek, so they got mixed up.

A Roman needle and a camel. Not to scale.

The ‘rope’ theory is one of a couple of tactics for softening Jesus’ condemnation of wealth-hoarding. There’s another one about an imaginary gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’: that one was made up in the 11th century. But some religious groups have a strong motivation for reading this passage as being about something other than a literal camel going through a literal needle’s eye. So fake explanations tend to stick around.

This review is a resource for anyone who’s in doubt about what the evidence for the ‘rope’ interpretation looks like. The executive summary is this: the word supposedly meaning ‘rope’ was made up in the 5th century or shortly beforehand, and it was made up specifically to weaken Jesus’ condemnation of wealth. It’s older than the ‘eye of the needle’ gate, but it’s just as bogus.

Note. This isn’t the first debunking of its kind. My aim is to make the evidence as accessible as possible. Zahn 1922: 601–602 n. 71 cites most of the ancient evidence in German; Khalil 1978 cites much of it in French; Henry 2022 disposes of purported arguments from Aramaic, but without delving into the Greek use of kamilos.

For the origins of the bogus ‘gate’ theory, see Ziemińska 2022. The gate first pops up in a fragment of Anselm of Canterbury quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea on on Matthew 19.24. My translation: ‘Gloss. Alternatively: because there was a certain gate in Jerusalem called ‘the eye of the needle’, and a camel could not pass through it unless it laid down its burden and bent its knees. So this means that a rich person cannot travel the confined way to (eternal) life unless they lay down their uncleanness of sin and their wealth, that is, or at least by not loving (wealth).’

A review of κάμιλος

I’ll carry on spelling kamēlos (‘camel’) and kamilos (supposedly ‘rope’) differently, for clarity. Ancient and mediaeval sources often spell them both kamēlos.

The earliest authentic appearance of kamilos is in Cyril of Alexandria (1st half of 5th century). In nearly all cases where it appears in ancient and mediaeval sources, it’s only mentioned because someone is giving it as a textual variant for ‘camel’ in the gospels. In other contexts it appears only twice, and even those are still as annotations to the word ‘camel’, and they repeat Cyril’s exact phrasing.

So there’s no independent evidence to corroborate Cyril’s claim that kamilos was even a real word, let alone that it was the original text in the gospels. There’s just one possible exception: one possible candidate for an independent use of the word — a 5th century inscription from southern Anatolia — but the interpretation of the inscription is very doubtful.

1. Sources that cite kamilos as a textual variant in the gospels

As I said, nearly all uses of kamilos ‘rope’ belong to this category. These are no use at all as corroboration. They don’t show that the word could ever be used in any other context.

Cyril’s definitions (sources a, b) are echoed in most post-Cyril sources.

  1. Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Matthew fr. 219 Reuss (1957: 226; ~ Patrologia graeca 72 429d–431a)
  2. Cyril of Alexandria, commentary on Luke, Patrologia graeca 72 857c
  3. Cyril of Alexandria, Against Julian the apostate fr. 21 Neumann (Syriac: Neumann 1880: 56; Latin translation: Neumann 1880: 75, fr. 29; French translation: Khalil 1978: 91 n. 1)
  4. Tractatus de divitiis 18.2 (Kessler 1999: 306 = Caspari 1890: 55)
  5. pseudo-Origen, commentary on Matthew fr. 390 Klostermann (1941: 166)
  6. Photios, commentary on Matthew fr. 77 Reuss (Reuss 1957: 318)
  7. Theophylact, Enarratio in Evangelium Matthaei, Patrologia graeca 123 356d

I stop at the 11th century. (Zahn goes on further, to include a 12th century citation of Cyril in Bar Hebraeus: Zahn 1922: 602 n. 71.)

I’ll just quote the first two, sources a and b, from Cyril. They’re both fragments preserved in catena commentaries. First, Cyril on Matthew 19.24:

κάμηλον δὲ ἐνταῦθά φησιν οὐ τὸ ζῷον τὸ ἀχθοφόρον, ἀλλὰ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον, ἐν ᾧ δεσμεύουσι τὰς ἀγκύρας οἱ ναῦται. οὐκ ἀνήνυτον παντελῶς τοῦτο δείκνυσιν ὄν, τῷ δὲ ἄγαν δυσχερὴ λοιπὸν ἤδη πως ἐγγὺς καὶ ἀγχίθυρον τοῦ ἀδυνάτου τὸ χρῆμα τιθείς.

‘camel’: he doesn’t mean the pack animal here, but the thick rope, with which sailors bind anchors. He shows that the situation isn’t absolutely permanent, but makes the matter extremely difficult for him in future, and for the present, close to and neighbouring on impossibility.

Note. Reuss’ text fills in a chunk that’s missing in the Patrologia text, based on a manuscript at Mt Athos, Great Lavra cod. B 113 (11th cent.), fol. 97r. Reuss silently alters δυσχερή to δυσχερεῖ: I restore the manuscript reading here.

And Cyril on Luke 18.25. This one is very bald-faced, selecting the contrived word for the express purpose of allowing rich people to go to heaven.

κάμηλον· οὐ τὸ ζῶον, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐν τοῖς πλοίοις παχὺ σχοινίον. ἔξεστι γὰρ αὐτοῖς, εἰ μὴ εἰσάπαν ἕλοιντο τὸ τῶν ὅλων ὄντων ἀπολισθεῖν, ἑτέρως εὐδοκιμεῖν, ποιῆσαι φίλους ἐκ τοῦ ἀδίκου μαμωνᾶ, ἵνα ὅταν ἐπιλίπωσε, δέξωνται αὐτοὺς εἰς τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς.

‘camel’: not the animal, but the thick rope used on ships. For it is possible for them to arrive at blessedness in a different way, even if they don’t choose to lose all their property completely, if they use their unjust Mamon to make friends, and the friends invite them into the eternal tabernacles.

If you’re thinking of investigating all the sources listed here, take notice of Cyril’s phrasing: τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’), and the bit about binding anchors. You’ll see these pop up routinely in later sources, including the sources in category 3, below. That shows that they aren’t independent.

The only post-Cyril source worth noticing is source e, the spurious Origen fragment. If authentic, it would put kamilos back to the 3rd century. But as Theodor Zahn points out, Origen’s authentic discussions of the gospel passages are entirely unaware of the ‘rope’ interpretation (Zahn 1922: 601 n. 71).

2. Manuscripts of the New Testament with kamilos

A handful of the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament — none earlier than the 9th century — give the variant reading kamilos in one or more of the three gospel passages. Like the sources in category 1, these have no corroborative value, because they do not show the word being used in any other context.

Even when New Testament manuscripts include the kamilos variant, they don’t use it consistently. Top: minuscule 13 ( 50, 13th cent.), ff. 26r and 59v (Matthew 19.24, Mark 10.25); bottom: uncial S ( 354, 949 CE), ff. 55r and 162r (Matthew 19.24, Luke 18.25). The readings in the left column have kamēlos, the ones on the right have kamilos.

Many of the kamilos manuscripts belong to ‘family 13’, a group of 10th–15th century manuscripts with affinities to minuscule 13, that is, 50 (11th cent.). Even in ‘family 13’, kamilos only appears in Mark 10.25 and Luke 18.25; in Matthew 19.24, it’s always kamēlos.

Note. On ‘family 13’ see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 87. On the Armenian and Georgian translations that have affinities to ‘family 13’, and which translate using a word meaning ‘rope’, see Metzger and Ehrman 2005: 117–119; McCollum 2015; Pirtea 2021: 331. McCollum shows that ‘camel’ is standard in the Greek, Syriac, and Athonite Georgian versions, while ‘rope’ is standard in the Armenian and pre-Athonite Georgian evidence. (He doesn’t notice that the pseudo-Origen, here source e, is spurious — but it’s no discredit to miss something so obscure.)

Here are the manuscripts that are not in ‘family 13’ but which have the kamilos variant.

  • Mark 10.25: minuscules 28 and 579 ( 379, 11th cent.; 59, 13th cent.).
  • Matthew 19.24: minuscules 579 and 1424 ( 97, 13th cent.; Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.).
  • Luke 18.25: uncial S ( 354, 949 CE); minuscule 1424 (Chicago Gruber 152, 9th/10th cent.); possibly minuscule 579 ( 97; illegible).

All older manuscripts — including the ancient ones, like the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts — invariably use kamēlos.

3. Sources that cite kamilos as an annotation to ‘camel’

There are two sources in this category:

  1. Scholion on Aristophanes, Wasps 1035
  2. Souda κ.282 κάμηλος (Suda on line)

These are both mediaeval. The Aristophanes scholia may go back to the early Byzantine period; the Souda encyclopaedia is 10th century.

I’ll quote the first one in full. The background is that in 422 BCE, the comic playwright Aristophanes made a joke about camels, describing a contemporary politician as having the smell of a seal, the testicles of a bogeyman, and the arsehole of a camel. About a millennium later, an anonymous scholar explains the joke as follows:

πρωκτὸν δὲ καμήλου· θερμόπρωκτος γὰρ ἡ κάμηλος καὶ λάγνος. κάμιλος δὲ τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον διὰ τοῦ ι.

‘(and he had) a camel’s arsehole’: the joke is that camels are hot-arsed and lewd. And a kamilos is the thick rope, with an i.

Neither h nor i uses kamilos in a sentence. They only cite it lexicographically — as a footnote to talking about camels. In both sources, the commentator explains what the word means. That is, the word is rare enough that a scholarly reader cannot be expected to know it. And both definitions use Cyril’s exact phrase τὸ παχὺ σχοινίον (‘the thick rope’).

So these sources have no corroborative value either. Kamilos doesn’t get used in its own right, it’s purely an appendage to ‘camel’, and even more importantly, neither source is independent of Cyril.

4. Sources that use kamilos independently

Finally we get to the one category of evidence that could in principle corroborate that kamilos is a real word. However, there’s only one source that might potentially fall into this category, and it’s really shaky:

  1. Inscriptions de Cilicie 108, col. ii line 5 (Dagron and Feissel 1987: 170–185)

This is a 5th or 6th century CE inscription found near Anazarbos (Anavarza) and held at the Adana Archaeology Museum. The inscription is a list of tariffs for various freight goods. Here’s the start of column ii, with my translation:

[ . . . κ'] β
[ ]ι̣ο̣υ̣ γο' κ' α
κρόκου γο' κ' δ
γάρου γο' κ' α
μασσίνων καμηλ( ) κ' αγ'

[ . . . ] 2 keratia
[ ] — per load — 1 keration
saffron — per load — 4 keratia
garum — per load — 1 keration
massinoi — per camel load — 1⅓ keratia

The fifth line is the relevant one. For discussion, see Dagron and Feissel (1987: 176–177). They supplement the text as μασσίνων καμήλ(ων), which they interpret as ‘thick ropes’.

The meaning of both massin- and kamēl- is questionable. Dagron and Feissel think massinos is an adjective relating to ropes, partly because of Cyril’s interpretation of kamilos (source a above); partly because of the Syrian author John Malalas (6th century), who refers to someone being tied up with a σχοῖνος μάσσινος or ‘massinos rope’; and the Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger (7th century?), which has the 6th century Syrian saint winding a μάσ(σ)ινον σχοινίον (‘mas(s)inos rope’) around his body. So in this inscription they regard massinōn as an adjective, modifying kamēl(ōn) ‘ropes’.

Note. Malalas, Chronographia 7.12, p. 142,35 ed. Thurn (= p. 186,19–20 ed. Dindorf); Life of Symeon Stylites the Younger 26 ed. van den Ven. For the latter I rely on Dagron and Feissel’s report.

They might be right. However, first, the context doesn’t favour ‘rope’: lines 3 to 11 of the inscription appear to be foodstuffs — saffron, garum, possibly gourds, possibly fenugreek, garlic, wine, and so on.

Second, every other line gives the freight good in the genitive case, and an indication of quantity. So line 3 gives the tariff for a γόμος of saffron, line 4 for a γόμος of garum, and so on. In lines 16–17, the price is given per unit: the tariff per slave, per bovine. Why, then, is μασσίνων genitive plural? Where’s the indication of quantity? The most intuitive answer is that that’s what καμηλ( ) is doing there. The correct supplement is μασσίνων καμηλ(ικός), ‘a camel load of massinoi’. The camel was the most commonly used beast of burden in Anatolia until the 20th century (Potts 2004; İnal 2020: 71), and Dagron and Feissel themselves point out that γόμος καμηλικός is standard phrasing in the famous Palmyra tariff inscription, alongside γόμος καρρικός ‘wagon load’ and γόμος ὀνικός ‘ass load’, and with a conversion rate of 1 wagon load = 4 camel loads. As for massinoi, its meaning is doubtful. Even if it really is an adjective, it’s completely normal for Greek to use an adjective as a substantive.

The argument for κάμηλος ‘rope’ in the Anarbazos inscription isn’t intuitive, it neglects the format of the tariff list, and it relies on Cyril’s testimony — so it begs the question of whether kamilos is even a real word.

Can we be certain that this isn’t an instance of kamilos ‘rope’? Not 100% certain, no — but this inscription certainly can’t take the weight of being the sole independent use of the word.


The word kamilos ‘rope’ —

  • first appears in the 400s CE, more than three centuries after the gospels
  • is vanishingly rare even after that date
  • is never, ever used in a sentence by any ancient or mediaeval writer
  • appears only in lexicographical contexts
  • is always cited as an annotation either to camels, or to Matthew 19.24
  • is always defined, because no reader can be expected to know its meaning
  • is usually defined using Cyril of Alexandria’s phrasing

The fact that kamilos normally appears in the context of camels or the gospel passages makes it look very much like that is its primary context.

That is: kamilos was coined specifically to contrive a variant interpretaion of the gospels.

And, by the way, that’s exactly what the Liddell & Scott Lexicon suggested all along.

Perh(aps) coined as an emendation of the phrase εὐκοπώτερόν ἐστι κάμηλον διὰ τρυπήματος ῥαφίδος διελθεῖν ... Ev.Matt. 19.24

(The Greek quotation is the ‘eye of a needle’ line in Matthew.)

The upshot is that kamilos is just like the ‘eye of the needle’ gate: it’s a fabrication, contrived specifically to make wealthy people happy about hoarding their wealth.

The only potential corroboration for its existence is source j, the Anarbazos inscription. There it’s part of a collocation where, at best, both words are unclear. I’ve argued above that καμηλ( ) is a quantity, a καμηλ(ικός) or ‘camel load’, not a rope. Even if you disagree, still, the most the inscription can show is that kamilos existed as a hyper-rare word in 5th century Anatolia. Does it show anything about the 1st century? Absolutely not. The inscription is an obscure speculative possibility, not a corroboration for anything.

What is it about camels, anyway?

A rope through the eye of a needle would have been a striking choice of image. A camel is ... surreal.

As Zahn and many others have pointed out, it isn’t unique. It’s not a common expression, and the Christian gospels are its earliest appearance, but there are parallels in Rabbinic sources and in the Quran. The Rabbinic sources involve elephants, not camels, but still.

These parallels are late, like Cyril’s made-up word, so they’re not exactly overwhelming evidence. But they have one thing going for them that kamilos doesn’t: they use the expression in the same way as the gospels, not as an annotation to the gospels.

How will you know the thoughts of your heart? By their being revealed to you in a dream. Rava said: Know that this is the case, for one is neither shown a golden palm tree nor an elephant going through the eye of a needle in a dream. In other words, dreams only contain images that enter a person’s mind.

Berakhot 55b.21

Rav Sheshet said mockingly to him, employing a similar style: Perhaps you are from Pumbedita, where people pass an elephant through the eye of a needle, i.e., they engage in specious reasoning.

Bava Metzia 38b.16

Surely those who receive our revelations with denial and arrogance, the gates of heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel passes through the eye of a needle.

Quran 7.40

Of these, the Rabbinic texts look like decent candidates for independent testimony. The Quran, less so: its version of the aphorism is almost identical to that in the gospels. The word used in Quran 7.40 is جمل jamal (‘camel’). Arabic dictionaries do record an alternate reading, with the word jummal, ‘rope’.

But don’t get excited. The only locus for jummal in the Arabic corpus is ... this exact verse in Sura 7.

Some lexicographers wondered if jummal is a genuine Arabic word, and indeed it is used principally in speculation around Q 7:40. It is possible that Christian exegetical speculation surrounding the Greek word kamēlos influenced Muslim exegetical speculation surrounding the Arabic word jamal and led lexicographers to develop jummal, an equivalent of kamilos, as an alternative reading of jamal. What seems to confirm [this] ... is that, like Christian commentators, Muslim commentators report that the rope (jummal) in question is the sort used for seafaring.
Reynolds 2020: 49–50

Cyril strikes again. Everything to do with ropes in this context — Greek *kamilos, Aramaic *gml, and Arabic *jummal — goes back to Cyril inventing a fake word to keep rich people happy.


  • Caspari, C. P. 1890. Briefe, Abhandlungen und Predigten aus den zwei letzten Jahrhunderten des kirchlichen Alterthums und dem Anfang des Mittelalters. Oslo [‘Christiania’]. [Internet Archive: 1 2 3]
  • Dagron, G.; Feissel, D. 1987. Inscriptions de Cilicie. Paris.
  • Henry, A. M. 2022. ‘The camel and needle: did scholars mistranslate Jesus’s famous saying?’ ReligionForBreakfast. [YouTube]
  • İnal, O. 2020. ‘One-humped history: the camel as historical actor in the late Ottoman Empire.’ International Jounal of Middle East Studies 53: 57–73. [DOI]
  • Kessler, A. 1999. Reichtumskritik und Pelagianismus. Die pelagianische Diatribe de divitiis: Situierung, Lesetext, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Freiburg/Fribourg (Switzerland).
  • Khalil, S. 1978. ‘Note sur le fonds sémitique commun de l’expression “un chameau passant par le trou d’une aiguille”.’ Arabica 25: 89–94. [JSTOR]
  • Klostermann, E. 1941. Origenes Werke. Zwölfter Band. Origenes Matthäuserklärung iii. Fragmente und Indices. Erste Hälfte. (Griechischen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte). Leipzig. [Internet Archive]
  • McCollum, A. C. 2015. ‘A camel or a rope in the eye of a needle? The Old Georgian witness.’ hmmlorientalia (23 Jul 2015).
  • Metzger, B. M.; Ehrman, B. D. 2005. The text of the New Testament. Its transmission, corruption, and restoration, 4th ed. Oxford.
  • Neumann, K. J. 1880. Iuliani imperatoris librorum contra Christianos quae supersunt. Leipzig. [Internet Archive]
  • Pirtea, A. C. 2021. ‘To pass a rope through the eye of a needle: the influence of Byzantine catenae and homiliaries on the Greek, Church Slavonic, and Old Romanian readings of Matthew 19,24.’ In: Jouravel, A.; Mathys, A. (eds.) Wort- und Formenvielfalt. Festschrift für Christoph Koch zum 80. Geburtstag. Berlin. 327–352. []
  • Potts, D. T. 2004. ‘Camel hybridization and the role of Camelus bactrianus in the ancient Near East.’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 47.2: 143–165. [JSTOR]
  • Reuss, J. 1957. Matthäus-Kommentare aus der griechischen Kirche. Berlin. [Internet Archive]
  • Reynolds, G. S. 2020. ‘Biblical turns of phrase in the Quran.’ In: Elias, J. J.; Orfali, B. (eds.) Light upon light. Essays in Islamic thought and history in honor of Gerhard Böwering. Leiden/Boston. 45–69.
  • Zahn, Th. 1922. Kommentar zur Neuen Testament. Band I: das Evangelium des Matthäus, 4th ed. Leipzig/Erlangen. [Internet Archive]
  • Ziemińska, A. 2022. ‘The origin of the “Needle’s Eye Gate” myth: Theophylact or Anselm?’ New Testament Studies 68: 358–361. [DOI]

Image sources: camel, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0; needle,; facsimiles of 50, CSNTM; 354, Apostolic Library.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Textual errors in Lassus' Prophetiae Sibyllarum

It isn’t often that I get to combine my interests as a choral singer and a classicist. Recently I got interested in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum or ‘Sibylline prophecies’ by Roland de Lassus, also known as Orlando di Lasso. These are twelve short pieces for unaccompanied choir, in Latin, composed around 1560.

This story is about how I noticed an error in the text.

Lassus’ pieces are startling, polytonal, chromatic compositions. They’re not often performed. Here’s a selection of scores on the International Music Score Library. And here’s a 1994 recording by the German group Cantus Cölln.

Roland de Lassus

Why Cantus Cölln, rather than one of the more recent recordings by De Labyrintho (2007), Vocalconsort Berlin (2015), or La Main Harmonique (2022)?

Because the Cantus Cölln recording is one of the few to use the correct text. The others all use a faulty text. So does every score hosted by the Choral Public Domain Library. But then, if everyone used the Bärenreiter edition (Schlötter 1990), we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Dactylic hexameter

As I went through the Prophetiae, I slowly realised that the text uses an ancient verse form called dactylic hexameter, the same metre used in ancient epic and oracular verse. The poems that Lassus has set aren’t ancient: the text was written around 1500. Some neo-Latin poets in the modern era have used dactylic hexameter — John Milton, for example — but this was my first time hearing hexameter in Renaissance choral music.

It was in the fourth movement, the ‘Cimmerian Sibyl’, that things went horribly wrong.

In teneris annis facie insignis honore ...

Of tender years, with glorious face, in honour ...

This text is impossible.

Hexameter is supposed to have a steady — ⏑⏑ pulse (or in musical notation, 𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮). The problem is with the words facie insignis. At the place in the line where they sit, they ought to have the rhythm ⏑⏑ — — — ⏑. But they don’t. They can’t.

Latin hexameter has strict rules. One of those rules is that the last syllable of facie has to be abbreviated: faci’ insignis. The text of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum follows that rule rigidly elsewhere. But then facie insignis has the rhythm ⏑⏑ — — ⏑. And that isn’t hexameter.

Is it possible that most of the time the poet had a detailed, skilled knowledge of the intricacies of Latin dactylic hexameter, but when it came to this one line, everything suddenly went pear-shaped?

No, of course not. It’s a textual error. And it isn’t Lassus’ error: he got it right. It’s every edition from 1600 up until 1979 that got it wrong. I find it wild that in that period not a single editor noticed the problem.

The Sibylline oracles

It’d be wise to fill in some background here. There are real ancient poems called the Sibylline oracles, but these are not they. The poems set by Lassus are modern.

The ancient Oracles are a set of Judaeo-Christian poems ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. They too are in dactylic hexameter, but the ancient poems are in Greek, and they’re hundreds of lines long. They’re fascinating poems in their own right. They present themselves as being prophecies spoken by actual oracles, prophesying Jewish history, the coming of Christ, the end times, and so on.

Michelangelo didn’t include the Cimmerian Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: here’s the Libyan Sibyl instead, along with her counterpart in the 1505 edition. (sources: Barbieri ca. 1505, ch. 3;

From late antiquity onward, Christian readers sometimes assumed the poems genuinely were oracular pronouncements. As a result, both the poems and the Sybils acquired a lot of Christian street cred. The Sibyls were reckoned among the virtuous heathen because they supposedly foretold the coming of Christ.

Some ancient Christian writers celebrated them, especially Lactantius, so their fame came to be independent of the Greek poems. Long after the ancient poems faded from public consciousness, the Sibyls continued to enjoy celebrity status.

This is why the legendary Sibyls appear among Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, alongside prophets of the Hebrew Bible. They all get counted as forerunners to Christianity, preparing the way of the Lord.

In the late 1400s, a tract by the Italian humanist Filippo Barbieri gave a tally of twelve famous Sibyls. Barbieri’s tract was the occasion for the first appearance of the short Latin poems that Lassus ended up using in his choral setting. An article by Peter Bergquist (1979) traces the poems to an edition of Barbieri’s tract published around 1505, titled Quattuor hic compressa opuscula (‘four short works compiled here’). This 1505 edition has engravings of the twelve Sibyls, and adds the poems as captions, on facing pages.

Note. Some online facsimiles: Barberi ca. 1505; Birck 1555, an edition of the ancient Sibylline oracles which includes the Latin poems as an appendix; Lassus ca. 1560, the manuscript of Lassus’ choral settings, soprano alto tenor bass (the Prophetiae are around p. 50, with different pagination in each part); and Lassus 1600, the first publication of Lassus’ choral settings (soprano and bass parts). I haven’t been able to trace an online facsimile of Birck’s 1545 edition of the ancient Oracles, which reportedly contains the neo-Latin poems too: Google Books claims to have copies (1 2), but they’re mislabelled.

The unmetrical hexameter

Here’s the faulty text that is used in every copy on the CPDL website, and on nearly every recording: De Labyrintho (2007), Vocalconsort Berlin (2015), Trinity College Music Society (2021), and La Main Harmonique (2022). They all sing the text that Lassus didn’t write.

In teneris annis facie insignis honore
Militiae aeternae regem sacra virgo cibavit
Lacte suo, per quem gaudebunt pectore summo
Omnia, et Eoo lucebit sydus ab ore
Mirificum. Sua dona magi cum laude ferentes
Objicient puero myrrham, aurum, thura Sabaea.

Of tender years, with glorious face, in honour,
the sacred virgin has fed the king of the eternal host
with her milk. All things will rejoice in him
with uplifted heart, and from the eastern face will shine a star
of wonder. The magi will bring their gifts with praise
and offer them to the boy: myrrh, gold, (and) Sabaean incense.

There are actually several textual errors. The simple ones are:

  • Line 2 cibavit: should be future tense cibabit (‘the virgin will feed’, not ‘has fed’).
  • Line 4 ore: should be orbe (‘from the eastern sphere’ or ‘eastern world’, not ‘eastern face’).
  • Line 6 objicient: should be obijcient (same meaning, different pronunciation).

Lassus’ manuscript is held in Vienna at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Mus.Hs. 18744. All four parts have orbe in line 4 and obijcient in line 6. Cibavit is Lassus’ own error: he correctly wrote cibabit in the tenor part, but cibavit in the soprano, alto, and bass parts.

The variation objicient–obijcient is a philosophical difference. Objicient is more linguistically sound, and it appears in the 1555 edition of the poem and in the Lassus texts of Bergquist (1979) and Schlötter (1990). But in the manuscript it’s clear that obijcient is what Lassus wrote; it also appears (correctly) in the 1600 edition. Most likely Lassus was using an edition that had obiicient, which is how the 1505 edition prints it.

But it’s line 1 facie insignis that set me on this trail. Take a look at the following scansions. Macron and breve marks (— and ⏑) represent long and short syllables in the hexameter (not the rhythms used in Lassus’ setting); the anceps mark at line-end (×) indicates indifferent syllable length.

(a) The rhythm of dactylic hexameter. (b) The first line from Lassus’ prelude movement, scanned, and illustrating elision on quae. (c) The faulty first line from the ‘Sibylla Cimmerica’ movement in two possible interpretations, one with hiatus, the other observing elision.

I also give the first line from Lassus’ prelude movement (‘The songs you hear, modulated with a chromatic tenor ...’) to illustrate how the words should correspond to the hexameter rhythm, and also to illustrate the correct observance of elision. The text of this opening movement is likely by Lassus himself. Notice incidentally that this line is what metrical stylists call a ‘golden line’, in the form noun A adjective B verb adjective A noun B. It’s clearly calculated to show off Lassus’ skill with Latin verse, as well as with music.

The scansion of the line from the fourth movement shows that the rhythm cannot possibly correspond to the hexameter rhythm, whether facie is elided or not.

The correct reading is facie praesignis, which is similar in meaning: ‘with exceptionally glorious face’, as opposed to insignis ‘with glorious face’. It doesn’t suffer from the problems with insignis:

  • Praesignis starts with a consonant, so there’s no need to worry about elision.
  • Another principle of hexameter is that any vowel followed by a consonant cluster is treated as metrically long. So before the pr- of praesignis, facie acquires a long final syllable, and the phrase has the correct metrical rhythm, ⏑⏑ — — — ⏑.
The manuscript of Lassus’ Prophetiae Sibyllarum, 4th movement, tenor part, with the correct readings clearly visible. (Vienna, Mus.Hs.18744 iii, p. 27)

There are other occasional differences between the text in Lassus’ manuscript and the poems as they appear in the 1505 and 1555 editions. Lassus’ title for his fourth movement is Sibylla Cymmeria (not Cimmeria). ‘Cimmerian Sibyl’ would be Sibylla Cimmerica, and that’s how it appears in the 1555 edition of the poem: Lassus’ title is literally just the words ‘Sibyl’ and ‘Cimmeria’, which is an infelicity. (The 1505 edition is worse: it prints Sibylla Chimeria in one place, Sibylla Chimicha in another.)

The best published text for Lassus’ settings is Bergquist’s (1979), which is also used in the Bärenreiter edition (Schlötter 1990). Even that doesn’t agree perfectly with the Lassus manuscript. Lassus uses forms like obijcient and eximij, rather than objicient and eximii, and he doesn’t usually capitalise the first letter of each hexameter line. You aren’t going to hear most of these things in performance, though objicient is audible.

The only recordings I’ve found that use the Bergquist–Bärenreiter text are the ones by Cantus Cölln (2002) and Gallicantus (2018). (The latter puts Lassus’ settings alongside some modern compositions — ‘Sibylla Clevelandiae’, ‘Sibylla Chicagonis’, and so on.) The Hilliard Ensemble recording (1998) does have the correct text, but their consonants are so under-enunciated that it takes some careful listening to tell.


  • Barbieri, F. circa 1505. Quattuor hic compressa opuscula. ... Venice. [Internet Archive]
  • Bergquist, P. 1979. ‘The poems of Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum and their sources.’ Journal of the American Musicological Society 32.3: 516–538. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Castellion, S. 1555. Σιβυλλιακῶν χρησμῶν λόγοι ὀκτώ. Sibyllinorum oraculorum libri viii. Ed. Sixt Birck (alias Xystus Betuleius), Sébastien Castellion (alias Sebastianus Castalio). Basel. [Internet Archive]
  • Lassus, R. circa 1560. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Manuscript. Vienna Mus.Hs.18744. [Österreichische Nationalbibliothek]
  • Lassus, R. 1600. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Ab Orlando de Lasso, piae memoriae (Cantus, Bassus). Munich. []
  • Schlötter, R. (ed.) 1990. Orlando di Lasso. Sämtliche Werke (Neue Reihe) 21. Prophetiae Sibyllarum. Kassel. [IMSLP (PDF)]

Thursday 2 November 2023

Who has the highest K/D in the Iliad?

You’d imagine the answer would be Achilleus, right? Actually he’s only number three. Remember, he’s out of combat for most of the epic.

Now, I do have to apply some constraints, otherwise this won’t make sense.

First, people don’t get to respawn in the Iliad. (Well, mostly. I’ll come back to this.) So we’re not really talking about K/D, it’s really just K. Only a handful of characters get combat kills and also die: Patroklos, Sarpedon, Hektor, and a few minor characters (Antiphos, Peiros, possibly Akamas). For everyone else, the K/D involves a divide-by-zero error. But many online games calculate K/D as if everyone died at least once, so that’s the principle I’ll adopt.

Second, only named kills count. Unnamed characters don’t get reported individually: it’s impossible to keep a tally when the narrator says something like ‘And then Achilleus killed a countless throng’.

My tally is different from others that I’ve seen, by C. B. Armstrong (1969) and an anonymous user on the ‘ancient Greek’ subreddit (2021) — Armstrong and I have the same count for the top two people on the league table, but our counts differ for number three. Alas, there’s little prospect of reconciling the numbers without everyone sharing their data. So to that end, my own tally is online here. It probably contains errors. I’m sure you’ll tell me.

Here’s the overall kill count by book. Throughout this write-up, green represents Greeks killing Trojans, tan represents Trojans killing Greeks. (Do let me know if this is a poor choice for colour blindness: they were meant to be paler versions of the colours used on Loeb editions.)

Deaths of named characters in the Iliad

Most named deaths are Greeks killing Trojans. The highest densities of Trojans killing Greeks are in book 5 (Diomedes’ aristeia), 11 (Agamemnon’s aristeia), and 15 (the battle by the ships).

In the aristeiai, I get the general sense that the high Greek death counts are there for narrative balance. In book 5, Diomedes starts strong, but while his rampage continues throughout the book, the narrative focus moves around after the first 300 lines. From lines 541 to 659 there’s a mess of deaths on both sides, then Odysseus slaughters seven Trojans in two lines, then Hektor kills seven Greeks. Book 11 also adjusts its focus as it goes: Agamemnon gets a bunch of kills, then Hektor, then Diomedes and Odysseus, then Aias.

That balancing principle doesn’t apply in the aristeiai of Patroklos (book 16) and Achilleus (books 20–21). There, the whole point is that the fighting is not balanced. The vast majority of kills in those books are by Greeks, mostly Patroklos and Achilleus. The only Trojan kills are in book 16, where Hektor and Glaucus get one kill each at lines 569–600; and of course Hektor kills Patroklos at the end of the book.

The standings

Here are the top twenty.

Rank Player Team Kills
1 Hektor Trojan 28
2 Patroklos Achaian 27
3 Achilleus Achilleus 24
4 Diomedes Achaian 21
5 Odysseus Achaian 18
6= Aias Telamonios Achaian 15
6= Teukros Achaian 15
8 Agamemnon Achaian 12
9= Antilochos Achaian 8
9= Menelaos Achaian 8
11= Aineias Trojan 6
11= Idomeneus Achaian 6
11= Meriones Achaian 6
14 Leonteus Achaian 5
15= Euryalos Achaian 4
15= Polypoites Achaian 4
17= Eurypylos Achaian 3
17= Meges Achaian 3
17= Paris Trojan 3
17= Poulydamas Trojan 3

Two Achaians and four Trojans have 2 kills each. Five Achaians and six Trojans have 1 kill — including the god Ares, who gets a kill of his own at 5.842–844 (unless you want to count that as just teabagging). The lesser Aias, Sarpedon, and Glaukos get 2 each; Helenos gets 1. Nestor is the only major combatant with no kills.


But I also get irritated whenever good Homer nods.
Horace, Art of poetry 358–359

The classic example of the ‘Homeric nod’ is when a character gets killed and then pops up alive later on. Wikipedia, in its article on continuity in narrative, gives the example of the Paphlagonian leader Pylaimenes. He dies in Iliad 5, then respawns in book 13 to witness his son’s death.

There the two of them killed Pylaimenes, equal of Ares,
leader of the Paphlagonians, great-hearted and shield-wearing.
Atreus’ son, spear-famous Menelaos, got him
as he stood there, hitting him at the collarbone with his spear.
Iliad 5.576–579
Then noble Pylaimenes’ son sprang upon him,
Harpalion, who followed his own father into to make war
at Troy — but he didn’t come back home to his ancestral land.
. . .
... he breathed out his life, like an earthworm along the ground
lying down; his dark blood flowed out and soaked the earth.
The great-hearted Paphlagonians tended to him,
placed him in a chariot, and led him to holy Ilion
grieving. And with them walked his father, dripping tears.
There was no blood price for his dead son.
Iliad 13.643–645, 654–659

We can be sure it’s the same Pylaimenes both times, thanks to the references to the Paphlagonians. It shows it isn’t a stock name. Many names in Iliad death scenes are stock names, like the names in these lines —

Which of the Trojans did blameless Teukros slay first?
First Orsilochos, and Ormenos, and Ophelestes,
Daitor, Chromios and godlike Lykophantes,
and Polyaimonides, Amopaon, and Melanippos.
Iliad 8.273–276

Most of these names get repeated elsewhere. Orsilochos had already been killed at 5.541–553, Ormenos dies again at 12.187, Ophelestes at 21.210. Chromios has many appearances, at 4.295 as an Achaian, at 5.160 as a son of Priam killed by Diomedes, at 5.677 as a Trojan slain by Odysseus, here as a Trojan, and in book 17 as another (living) Trojan mentioned at lines 218, 494, and 534. Various Melanipposes appear elsewhere too.

I suppose you could say that Chromios doesn’t just respawn. He also team-hops.

But really, they’re stock names of course. One way of telling that a name is a stock name is if it also crops up in the ‘pair of brothers killed’ trope. What I mean by that is a common trope where the narrator gives a death scene pathos by telling us about what a tragedy it is that both brothers die, to the grief of their dear old father.

Here are the examples of the ‘pairs of brothers killed’ trope. They account for 9.9% of all named kills in the Iliad.

Passage Killer(s) Two brothers
5.148–151 Diomedes Abas, Polyidos Eurydamas
5.152–158 Diomedes Xanthos, Thoon Phainops
5.159–165 Diomedes Echemnon, Chromios Priam
5.541–560 Aineias Krethon, Orsilochos Diokles
6.21–28 Euryalos Aisepos, Pedasos Abarbare,
11.101–121 Agamemnon Isos, Antiphos Priam
11.122–147 Agamemnon Peisandros,
11.221–263 Agamemnon Iphidamas, Koon Antenor
11.328–334 Diomedes Adrestos, Amphios
(named at 2.830–834)
11.426–455 Odysseus Charops, Sokos Hippasos
16.317–329 Antilochos,
Atymnios, Maris Amisodaros
20.460–462 Achilleus Dardanos, Laogonos Bias

Most of these must be stock names. So there’s no good reason to see a continuity error when people with one of these names get killed and reappear later.

Still, for the record, here’s the list of names that get killed multiple times. Note that these aren’t necessarily Homeric nods: there’s no in-universe reason to suppose that it’s the same character each time. Rather, these are typical names for death scenes.

Name First death Second death Third death
Adrestos 6.65 (major scene) 16.694
Agelaos 8.259 11.302
Akamas 6.8 16.343
Apisaon 11.578 17.349
Autonoos 11.301 16.694
Chromios 5.160 5.677 8.275
Dolops 11.302 15.543
Echeklos 16.694 10.477
Echios 15.339 16.416
Erymas 16.349 16.415
Hippodamas 11.335 20.402
Hypsenor 5.81 13.412
Koiranos 5.677 17.618
Laogonos 16.606 20.462
Melanippos 8.276 15.577 16.695
Moulios 16.696 20.473
Mydon 5.588 21.209
Oinomaos 5.706 13.508
Ophelestes 8.274 21.210
Opheltios 6.20 11.302
Orestes 5.705 12.193
Ormenos 8.274 12.187
Orsilochos 5.560 8.274
Peisandros 11.144 13.617
Periphetes 14.515 15.650
Schedios 15.515 17.310
Thoon 5.155 11.422 13.547
Tlepolemos 5.658 (major scene) 16.416

A few of these show notable patterns in the identity of the killers. Echeklos’ and Moulios’ deaths are both at the hands of Patroklos first, and Achilleus second; Peisandros gets killed first by Agamemnon, later by Menelaos; Hippodamas is killed by Odysseus, then Achilleus, maybe hinting at OdysseyIliad parallels. Schedios is killed by Hektor both times.

Perhaps the most suggestive ones are the ones that have non-Greek names. Apisaon’s two death scenes are formulaic (11.578–579 = 17.348–349), with the result that he dies the same way twice, with a spear in the liver. Erymas’ two death scenes are in quick succession. But I wonder if fact that their names are non-Greek suggests that they’re less formulaic. Are they meant to be more memorable than the typical Greek names? If so, what would that imply?

Is Chromios a respawning Orc nemesis? (Middle Earth: shadow of Mordor, 2014)

Armstrong highlights the characters that die three times: Chromios, Melanippos, and Thoon. The many appearances of Chromios, in particular, make me wonder if the Iliad has a Nemesis System, where a character who dies may reappear stronger and buffed up, ready to take vengeance (Magnusson et al. 2022). Or maybe they’re the ones who acquire a new Nemesis each time they respawn. As Armstrong puts it,

With such adversaries it is scarcely surprising that they were finally disposed of.
Armstrong 1969: 31


  • Armstrong, C. B. 1969. ‘The casualty lists in the Trojan War.’ Greece & Rome 16.1: 30–31. [DOI | JSTOR]
  • Gainsford, P. 2023. ‘Iliad deaths.’ Online dataset. [Google Sheets]
  • Magnusson, S.; Hage, E.; Parosu, I. 2022. ‘The Nemesis System. How games create stories.’ Diss. Uppsala. [Digitala Vetenskapliga Arkivet]
  • /u/rebelzephyr 2021. ‘Iliad K/D ratio.’ Online forum post. [Reddit]

Monday 30 October 2023

Who is the hero of the Iliad?

Every now and then an article about Homer pops up in my alerts and I’ll see if it’s worth sharing. This one isn’t. But maybe it’s a teaching opportunity. It’s a short piece about Achilles and Hector at The imaginative conservative, by Joseph Pearce, a writer and editor attached to a Catholic college in New Hampshire.

Worshippers at the altar of ‘western civilisation’ have to put in many hours denying that early Greek literature shows influence from Anatolia and Mesopotamia, or avoiding thinking about non-binary gender representation in the Odyssey. Today’s deflection is about Hector in the Iliad.

Hector, says Pearce, is the very model of a modern hero. He’s admirable, he has noble qualities, he protects and defends his family. He, not Achilles, is the ‘hero’ of the Iliad. Achilles is only a hero for ‘neopagan or atheist humanist readers’.

If you’ve read the Iliad, you’ll already know this is nonsense. It seems as if Pearce relies a little too heavily on Hollywood for his knowledge of Homer.

Hector genuinely does fight Achilles to protect his kin — in this version of the story. (Eric Bana as Hector, Brad Pitt as Achilles; Troy, 2004, dir. W. Petersen)

Hector may be a tragic figure, as Redfield has argued (1975). Some readers may even find him sympathetic. But he’s also obstinate, rude, and easily swayed by pride. He can’t take advice from others, he always has to be told where he’s needed, and most of all, he intentionally and wilfully chooses destruction, solely to save face.

Here’s what Pearce claims.

The Iliad begins with Achilles’ refusal to serve as a protector and defender of his own people, casting him in the role of an anti-hero, and ends with the heroic death and subsequent eulogizing of one who had laid down his life as a defender and protector of his wife, child and people.
Pearce 2023

And, for the record, here’s one of those ‘eulogies’, spoken by Andromache.

My husband, you were lost young from life, and have left me
a widow in your house, and the boy is only a baby
who was born to you and me, the unhappy. I think he will never
come of age, for before then head to heel this city
will be sacked, for you, its defender, are gone, you who guarded
the city, and the grave wives, and the innocent children,
wives who before long must go away in the hollow ships,
and among them I shall also go, and you, my child, follow
where I go, and there do much hard work that is unworthy
of you, drudgery for a hard master; or else some Achaian
will take you by hand and hurl you from the tower into horrible
death, in anger because Hektor once killed his brother,
or his father, or his son; there were so many Achaians
whose teeth bit the vast earth, beaten down by the hands of Hektor.
Your father was no merciful man in the horror of battle.
Iliad 24.725–729 (tr. Lattimore)

Hector did protect her in the past. But now he has left her high and dry: the Trojans have no defender or protector. Hector has consigned his wife, son, parents, and compatriots to murder, violence, and enslavement.

And make no mistake, this isn’t because Hector made a noble effort but failed. It’s absolutely and precisely his own choice. His parents beg him at length to withdraw to safety, to live and fight another day. His father Priam specifically points out to Hector that if he chooses to fight Achilles then his father’s corpse will be mutilated by dogs, his brothers killed, their wives raped, their babies dashed to the ground (Iliad 22.56–76). His mother begs him to continue defending Troy from inside the walls (Iliad 22.84–85).

But Hector is obstinate. (As he routinely is.) He’s fully aware of the consequences of his choice, but he chooses it anyway, because he can’t bear the prospect of someone else pointing out his mistakes.

So these two in tears ahd with much supplication called out
to their dear son, but could not move the spirit in Hektor ...
Deeply troubled he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
‘Ah me! If I go now inside the wall and the gateway,
Poulydamas will be first to put a reproach upon me,
since he tried to make me lead the Trojans inside the city
on that accursed night when brilliant Achilleus rose up,
and I would not obey him, but that would have been far better.
Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people
I feel shame before the Trojans ...’
Iliad 22.90–91, 98–105 (tr. Lattimore)

This isn’t a ‘heroic death’. He’s a narcissist. Rather than get blamed for some deaths, he’d prefer that everyone die.

Mind, this isn’t to say Achilles is a saint. Pearce is right to point out his betrayal of the Greeks. But Pearce genuinely seems to believe that one of them has to be ‘the hero’ — that a reader has to choose between them. One of them has to be the good guy.

If you take a class on the Iliad, one of the first things covered is to avoid that kind of puerility. They’re all awful people — in all senses of the word. Homeric heroes aren’t people who are good, they’re people who have an extraordinary impact on those around them. They’re larger than life. They’re powerful enough that they don’t need to care what you think of them.

Hector and Achilles as depicted in Doctor Who, ‘The myth makers’ (1965): Hector (Alan Haywood, facing camera) as musclebound thug, Achilles (Cavan Kendall) as artful dodger.

Here’s another teaching moment. This time it’s about linguistics. Pearce puts a lot of weight on the linguistic origins of the word ‘hero’.

Etymologically, the Greek hḗrōs means ‘protector’ or ‘defender’.
Pearce 2023

Much of his argument hangs on this. It’s the basis for his conclusion, which I quoted above: Achilles refuses ‘to serve as a protector and defender’, Hector lays ‘down his life as a defender and protector’.

The etymology is entirely false. Pearce got it from Wikipedia.

The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), ‘hero’ (literally ‘protector’ or ‘defender’) ...
Wikipedia, ‘Hero’ (version of 22 Oct. 2023)

This false claim was added to the Wikipedia article anonymously in 2007, along with the related claim (since removed) that the word is cognate with Latin servo. These falsehoods appear to have infected the Etymonline article too — and Wikipedia now cites Etymoline for the etymology. That is, the claim is now sustained by circular reporting.

In reality, the origins of ἥρως are simply unknown. The etymology ‘protector, defender’ was firmly disproved the moment Linear B was deciphered.

Not from ἡρωϝ-, as previously assumed, because of the Mycenaean form [ti-ri-se-ro-e /tris-ērōʰes/ ‘triple hero’]. Probably a Pre-Greek word.
Beekes 2010: 526

The imaginary *ἡρωϝ- root is the one that would have the meaning Pearce wants. If it existed, it would mean ‘watch, shepherd, protect’ (from PIE *ser-u-o).

As used in Homer, though, hḗrōs simply means ‘warrior’, or even just ‘man’ (Cunliffe 1924: 183). In later Greek it came to have a specifically religious meaning. It got used primarily in the context of hero cults, the thousands of Greek religious sites devoted to the worship of legendary figures and culture heroes. As with Homeric characters, these figures of worship weren’t necessarily good or bad: they were just there.

The amorality of Greek religious figures is rather like laws of the land. A law may be morally good or bad, but it’s still the law. And if you break it, you’re still going to face penalties.

Even if hḗrōs were related to Indo-European *ser-u-o — which it isn’t — that wouldn’t matter. Etymologies don’t decide meaning. If they did, English dolphin would mean ‘pertaining to wombs’, weird would mean ‘fateful’, and lord would mean ‘bread monitor’. And somehow I doubt that when Pearce says his prayers he’s thinking about bread.

‘Hero’ is no different. In the sense Homer uses, all the Iliad’s male characters are hērṓes. In the sense of ‘a person idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’, it’s hard to see that the Iliad has any heroes at all.

And really, that’s a pretty level-headed picture of armed conflict. That clarity — that understanding that while violence can be fascinating, there’s nothing admirable or noble about it — is one of the reasons the Iliad is a remarkable piece of literature.


  • Beekes, R. 2010. Etymological dictionary of Greek. Leiden/Boston. [Internet Archive]
  • Cunliffe, R. J. 1924. A lexicon of the Homeric dialect. London/Glasgow/Mumbai (reprinted 1963, Norman, OK). [Internet Archive]
  • Pearce, J. 2023. ‘Hector versus Achilles: who’s the hero?’ The imaginative conservative, 23 Oct. 2023. [Internet Archive]
  • Redfield, J. M. 1975. Nature and culture in the Iliad: the tragedy of Hector. Chicago. [Internet Archive]

Friday 7 July 2023

How Eratosthenes measured the earth. Part 4

  1. The spherical earth | 2. Eratosthenes’ method | 3. Distance | 4. Angle of the sun  

(e) Angle of the sun

Eratosthenes didn’t use gnomons to measure the sun’s angle.

Here once again I have to digress from telling the true story, and dispel a myth. It’s a myth that even many specialists take for granted. I’m just as guilty: in the past I’ve repeated the popular wisdom that Eratosthenes’ measurement was based on gnomon readings. Well, I was wrong.

The sun at midday (source: Stellarium)

The gnomon is the most basic instrument for measuring the sun’s motion. It’s a vertical rod casting a shadow on a horizontal surface. Egyptian observers had been thoroughly familiar with gnomons for many centuries before the Ptolemaic era. Gnomons had several uses:

  1. a way of expressing latitude
  2. determining exact time of midday, dates of equinoxes and solstices
  3. orientation (determining the direction of due north, south, etc.)

The first of these was a comparatively recent innovation: it doesn’t make sense to measure latitude until you know the earth is spherical. The idea is that latitude is expressed as the ratio between a gnomon and the length of its shadow, at midday at the equinox. This ratio is an indirect expression of the sun’s angle.

A gnomon reading measures the ratio of the gnomon to its shadow at midday. This diagram shows a reading taken on the equinox, when the sun’s rays are parallel to the earth’s equator. Using trigonometry, you can use this ratio to calculate the angle θ, since tan θ = o/a.

And this is exactly what Pliny the Elder does (1st century CE). He quotes gnomon readings taken at the equinox.

So in Egypt at midday on the equinox, the shadow of an umbilicus — what they call a ‘gnomon’ — measured a little over half of the gnomon. In the city of Rome, the shadow is one ninth longer than the gnomon. In the town of Ancona, it’s 1/32 more than that. And in the region of Italy called Venetia, the shadow is the same length as the gnomon.
Pliny, Natural history 2.182

Strabo gives the latitudes of Alexandria and Carthage in the same way (2.5.38). Now, remember from Part 2 that at midday on the equinox, the sun’s angle from the vertical is equal to your latitude. This means we can convert Pliny’s and Strabo’s figures to the modern way of expressing latitude — degrees away from the equator — by plugging them into a calculator and using the ‘inverse tan’ function.

  Gnomon reading Calculated latitude Actual latitude
Egypt a little over 0.5 over 27° 24.1° (Aswan) to 31.2° (Alexandria)
Alexandria 0.600 (3/5) 31.0° 31.2°
Carthage 0.636 (7/11) 32.5° 36.9°
Rome 0.889 (8/9) 41.6° 41.9°
Ancona 0.920 (8/9 + 1/32) 42.6° 43.4°
Venice 1.00 45.0° 45.4°

These are reasonably accurate, apart from Carthage.

Note. Ptolemy also puts Carthage too far south, at 32.7°: Geography 4.3.7. And no, it isn’t because Strabo and Ptolemy are confusing Carthage with Leptis Magna — one might imagine that, since the Greek name of Leptis Magna, Neapolis ‘new town’, means the same as Carthage’s Punic name, Qrt ḥdšt ‘new town’. But Ptolemy lists Carthage and ‘Neapolis’ separately: see 4.3.13.

Our earliest evidence for the practice of using gnomon readings as a measure of latitude dates to Pytheas of Massalía in the 300s BCE. Pytheas’ book apparently started out by reporting the latitude of Massalía (modern Marseille).

Hipparchos says that in Byzantion the ratio of a gnomon to its shadow is the same as what Pytheas reports for Massalía ...
Pytheas fr. 6c Mette (Strabo 2.5.8; also fr. 6a, i.e. Strabo 1.4.4)

Elsewhere Strabo reports (2.5.41) that Hípparchos’ summer solstice gnomon ratio for Byzantíon is 120 : 41.8, that is, 2.871. That puts the sun’s angle from the vertical at 19.2°. Taking the earth’s inclination to the ecliptic as 23.8° in that era, that implies a latitude of 43.0° N. The real latitudes of Marseille and Byzantíon are 43.3° N and 41.0° N, respectively.

Pytheas’ book doesn’t survive. We aren’t actually told that he carried on taking gnomon readings on his trip into the North Sea. But it’s fairly strongly implied: we do hear about him reporting on the behaviour of the summer tropic at the Arctic Circle (Strabo 2.5.8).

People wrote books reporting gnomon readings in Africa too. In the early 200s BCE Philon, a Ptolemaic diplomat, reported gnomon readings and other observations of the sun in Meroë.

(Hipparchos states that) Phílon described the parallel of latitude at Meroë, and related it in his Voyage to Aithiopia. He stated that 45 days before the summer solstice the sun is directly overhead; and he reports the ratios of gnomons to their shadows at the solstices and equinoxes. Eratosthenes’ (figures) agree very closely with Philon.
Philon, FGrHist 670 F 2 (Strabo 2.1.20)

‘Agree very closely’ implies their figures weren’t exactly identical: that is, Eratosthenes had another source in addition to Philon. Eratosthenes was well equipped with gnomon readings, it seems.

The second use of gnomons — determining solstices, equinoxes, and the moment of midday — was of much longer standing in Egypt. The Egyptian economy depended on the flooding of the Nile, so the Egyptians were highly motivated to keep track of the solar year. Martin Isler points to reliefs dating back to the 20th century BCE which he explains as gnomons with a forked tip and held vertical by struts. These gnomons are taller than a person — much taller, in the second image below — and the forked tip is designed to improve precision.

Left and centre: reliefs depicting gnomons used in ritual contexts, from a chapel of Senusret I (1900s BCE, left) and the Pylon of Ramesses II at Luxor (1200s BCE, centre). Right: diagram illustrating the movement of the gnomon’s shadow. The view is from overhead, with the gnomon at the bottom of the diagram, casting a shadow upward. The fork on the gnomon is oriented east-west: as the sun transits, the fork improves precision in determining the exact moment of midday. (Source: Isler 1991)

The third use of the gnomon, determining true north, may be even older, though the merkhet was better suited to this purpose. The great pyramid complex at Giza, built in the 2500s BCE, is famously oriented so that the main buildings are aligned with the cardinal directions to a precision of around 0.08°. Gnomons probably weren’t the primary tool for achieving that, but they must certainly have been an important piece of ancillary equipment.

Note. Nell and Ruggles 2014 survey possible orientation methods used at Giza, arguing that the primary method was alignment with circumpolar stars; they allow that gnomons and merkhets served ancillary roles. A stellar method seems inevitable given that some pyramid complexes have slightly different orientations, and precession seems to be responsible for that. They find no suitable pairs of circumpolar stars, however. I suggest Phecta and Megrez, in the Great Bear (Gamma and Delta Ursae Majoris, the two stars on the left side of the ‘scoop’ of the ‘big dipper’). According to Stellarium they were at their closest to being in a north-south alignment in the year –2586, with right ascensions differing by just 1.28 s. That is, in 2587 BCE, when one of these stars was due north, the other would be just 0.005° east or west.

Isler goes on to describe further Egyptian refinements to the gnomon, including (a) the use of plumb bobs to ensure the gnomon is exactly vertical; (b) designs for handheld gnomons to be used by travellers; (c) in southern Egypt, the technique of leaning the gnomon towards due north at a fixed angle to compensate for the sun being directly overhead in summer.

By Eratosthenes’ time, then, the gnomon was fully developed. The idea of using it as a measure of latitude was new-ish, but it worked well — and to judge from Pytheas’ measurement at Massalia, under ideal conditions it could be quite accurate.

But there’s a problem. A gnomon measurement is a ratio between two lengths. How do you convert a ratio to an angle?

You could use the inverse tan function, as I mentioned. Just one snag: trigonometric functions are a modern thing. Aristarchos had started to dabble in trigonometric inequalities, but he was a long way from developing the Taylor series, which is what modern calculators use to compute trigonometric functions. Hipparchos apparently computed a table of chord lengths in a circle, which implicitly draws on the sine function: that sounds good. But Hipparchos himself states that he reckoned the circle in 24 portions, that is, in steps of 7.5°. When Ptolemy quotes latitudes, they’re precise to 1/12 of a degree! Hipparchos’ trigonometric table absolutely didn’t have that kind of precision.

And that’s just one angle. Comparing two angles compounds the inaccuracies.

Note. Hipparchos using steps of 7.5°: commentary on Aratos, 148,26–150,3 Manitius. See also Neugebauer 1975: 299–300, with a reconstruction of Hipparchos’ chord table at 1132 (Table 8).

Moreover, if Eratosthenes had quoted gnomon readings for Alexandria, Syene, and Meroë, then it’s a little remarkable that none of the figures are quoted in any source. It’s not like they’d be hard to express. The real latitudes are 31.2°, 24.1°, and 16.9°. If ancient sources quoted equinoctial ratios of 3/5, 4/9, and 3/10, those would be close enough: they’d translate to latitudes of 31.0°, 24.0°, and 16.7°. But only the first ratio appears in any ancient source, and it isn’t in connection with Eratosthenes (Strabo 2.5.38).

The only numerical figure we get that is actually related to Eratosthenes’ angular measurements is this one.

So the distance from Syene to Alexandria must be 1/50 of a great circle of the earth.
Eratosthenes, Measurement M6 Roller (Kleomedes 1.7, 100,19–21 Ziegler)

Eratosthenes jumped directly to the angular measurement, as a proportion of a circle. He didn’t stop and invent trigonometry on the way. Gnomons must have served only an ancillary role, just as they did at Giza 2300 years earlier. Eratosthenes’ measurement wasn’t done with gnomon readings.

Irina Tupikova (2018) suggests that the instrument he used instead was the skáphē, a bowl with a gnomon sticking up out of the centre and gauge markings along the side of the bowl indicating the number of degrees from the vertical. I’ll accept that that’s possible, but I doubt ancient skáphai were capable of the necessary precision. (The precision of the skáphē isn’t attested or well studied.)

A much likelier candidate is a device described by Ptolemy in the 100s CE. This device has the advantage that there’s evidence of it being used at Meroë in the 200s BCE.

We make a bronze ring of a suitable size ... We use this as a meridian circle [i.e. oriented north-south], by dividing it into the normal 360° of a great circle, and subdividing each degree into as many parts as [the size] allows. Then we take a smaller ring, and fit it inside the first ... the smaller ring can rotate freely inside the larger, with a north-south motion, in the same plane. At two diametrically opposite points on one lateral face of the smaller ring we fix little plates, of equal size, pointing towards each other and the centre of the rings ... [W]e observed the sun’s movement towards the north and south by turning the inner ring at noon until the lower plate was completely enshadowed by the upper one. When this was the case, the tips of the pointers indicated to us the distance of the sun from the zenith in degrees, measured along the meridian.
Ptolemy, Almagest 1.12 (64,12–66,4 Heiberg, tr. Toomer)
Left: the instrument described by Ptolemy (base image: Toomer 1984: 61). The instrument is lined up north-to-south, with the meridian; at midday the inner ring is turned so that A casts its shadow on B, then the angle of the sun is read on the outer ring. Right: a 2nd century BCE graffito from Meroë depicting a seated observer using a similar device, with the sun at top left (source: Garstang 1914, Plate VI No. 1). Garstang (1914: 4) and Depuydt (1998: 173–176) interpret the device as a ‘transit instrument with circle’, i.e. Ptolemy’s device, combined with ‘an azimuth instrument’, i.e. a gnomon, represented by the vertical line extending upward from the ring and touching a sunray.

In 1914 John Garstang described a building in Meróë, dating to the 2nd century BCE, whose outside wall contained graffiti with astronomical calculations and observations. One graffito (above, right) showed something close to Ptolemy’s ring transit device.

Gnomons still had their uses. You’d need one to pinpoint the direction of the meridian, and the exact moment of midday/ And they weren’t made obsolete by Ptolemy’s device: a gnomon doesn’t require as much precision in its engineering.

But when Kleomedes reports that Eratosthenes measured the distance from Syene to Alexandria as 1/50 of a great circle of the earth, we should take it that he means exactly what he says. Eratosthenes didn’t do trigonometry on two gnomon ratios in order to compare them. He directly compared two angular measurements.

(f) The upshot

Most people, if they know anything about Eratosthenes’ measurement, learned about it from Carl Sagan in his 1980 TV series Cosmos.

Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains — plus a zest for experiment. With those tools he correctly deduced the circumference of the earth to high precision, with an error of only a few percent.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 1 (first broadcast 28 Sep. 1980)

This is mostly false. Sagan both diminished and exaggerated the accomplishment.

Eratosthenes was standing on the shoulders of giants. Sagan’s version diminishes the huge amount of work done by previous explorers, researchers, astronomers, and writers; the political infrastructure, the rich publication history, the high precision instrumentation. He glosses over the reasoning and the tools that Eratosthenes himself devised: the most sophisticated geographer of his time, the inventor of lines of latitude and longitude, and the principle that observations at the same meridian can be directly compared.

At the same time, by looking only at Hultsch’s selectively reported result, he also glosses over the blunders and the inaccuracies. The Ptolemaic understanding of the route of the Nile leaves a lot to be desired; the distance measurements are pretty poor; and it turns out that while shadow lengths can tell you your latitude accurately under ideal conditions, they’re not very reliable.

In light of all that, it’s lucky for Eratosthenes’ modern reputation that his measurement was only 16% high. It remained the most accurate measurement of the earth’s size until the modern era. But there was no way at the time for anyone to be sure of that — no one knew Eratosthenes’ measurement was the most accurate one, until modern measurements improved on him!

It’s only in hindsight that we know the techniques and technology he used were the very best that were available. The principle of his measurement, however, was impeccable. Eratosthenes should be given credit for his methodology, more than for his lucky result.


  • Borchardt 1921. ‘Ein weiterer Versuch zur Längenbestimmung der ägyptische Meilen (itr-w).’ In: Regling, K.; Reich, H. (eds.) Festschrift zu C. F. Lehmann-Haupts sechzigstem Geburtstage. Wien/Leipzig. 119–123.
  • Bowen, A. C.; Todd, R. B. 2004. Cleomedes’ lectures on astronomy. Berkeley/Los Angeles.
  • Bruins, E. M. 1964. Codex Constantinopolitanus Palatii veteris no. 1, 3 vols. Leiden.
  • Carlos Carman, C.; Evans, J. 2015. ‘The two earths of Eratosthenes.’ Isis 106: 1–16. [JSTOR]
  • Couprie, D. L. 2011. Heaven and earth in ancient Greek cosmology. New York.
  • Depuydt, L. 1998. ‘Gnomons at Meroë and early trigonometry.’ Journal of Egyptian archaeology 84: 171–180. [JSTOR]
  • Diels, H.; Kranz, W. 1960. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 9th ed. Berlin. [Internet Archive: vol. 1, vol. 2] (Note: see Kirk and Raven 1957 for a selection of the fragments, with English translations in the footnotes, and cross-referenced to Diels & Kranz)
  • Duncan-Jones, R. P. 1980. ‘Length-units in Roman town planning: the pes monetalis and the pes drusianus.’ Britannia 11: 127-33. [JSTOR]
  • Garstang, J. 1914. ‘Fifth interim report on the excavations at Meroë in Ethiopia. Part I. General results.’ Annals of archaeology and anthropology (Liverpool) 7: 1–10. [Google Books]
  • Hultsch, F. 1882. Griechische und römische Metrologie, 2nd ed. Berlin. [Internet Archive]
  • Isler, M. 1991. ‘The gnomon in Egyptian antiquity.’ Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 28: 155–185. [JSTOR]
  • Kirk, G. S.; Raven, J. E. 1957. The presocratic philosophers. A critical history with a selection of texts. Cambridge. [Internet Archive] (cf. Diels and Kranz 1960)
  • Loret, V. 1903. ‘L’átour et la Dodècaschène.’ Sphinx: revue critique embrassant le domaine entier de l’égyptologie 7: 1–24. [Persée]
  • Mette, H. J. 1952. Pytheas von Massalia. Berlin.
  • Nell, E.; Ruggles, C. 2014. ‘The orientations of the Giza pyramids and associated structures.’ Journal for the history of astronomy 45.3: 304–360. [DOI]
  • Neugebauer, O. 1975. A history of mathematical astronomy. Berlin/Heidelberg.
  • Priskin, G. 2004. ‘Reconstructing the length and subdivision of the iteru from late Egyptian and Graeco-Roman texts.’ Discussions in Egyptology 60: 57-71. [ preprint]
  • Roller, D. W. 2010. Eratosthenes’ Geography. Princeton.
  • Tupikova, I. 2018. ‘Eratosthenes’ measurements of the earth: astronomical and geographical solutions.’ Orbis terrarum 16: 221–254. []
  • —— 2022. ‘A common-sense approach to the problem of the itinerary stadion.’ Archive for the history of exact sciences 76: 319–361. [DOI]

Further scholarschip on the stadion:

  • Engels, D. 1985. ‘The length of Eratosthenes’ stade.’ American journal of philology 106: 298–311. [JSTOR]
  • Gulbekián, E. 1987. ‘The origin and value of the stadion unit used by Eratosthenes in the third century B.C.E.’ Archive for history of exact sciences 37: 359–363. [JSTOR]
  • Oxé, A. 1963. ‘Die Masstafel des Julianus von Askalon.’ Rheinisches Museum 106: 264–286. [Universität zu Köln | JSTOR]
  • Pothecary, S. 1995. ‘Strabo, Polybius, and the stade.’ Phoenix 49: 49–67. [JSTOR]
  • Priskin, G. 2004. ‘Herodotus on the extent of Egypt.’ Göttinger Miszellen 201: 63–67. [ preprint]

Further scholarschip on the measurement of the earth:

  • Diler, A. 1949. ‘The ancient measurements of the earth.’ Isis 40: 6–9. [JSTOR]
  • Drabkin, I. E. 1943. ‘Posidonius and the circumference of the earth.’ Isis 34: 509–512. [JSTOR]
  • Dutka, J. 1993. ‘Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth reconsidered.’ Archive for the history of exact sciences 46: 55–66. [JSTOR]
  • Nissen, H. 1903. ‘Die Erdmessung des Eratosthenes.’ Rheinisches Museum 58: 231–245. [Universität zu Köln | JSTOR]
  • Priskin, G. 2006. ‘The Egyptian heritage in the ancient measurements of the earth.’ Göttinger Miszellen 208: 75–88. [ preprint]
  • Rawlins, D. 1982. ‘Eratosthenes’ geodesy unraveled: was there a high-accuracy Hellenistic astronomy?’ Isis 73: 259–265. [JSTOR]
  • Russo, L. 2013. ‘Ptolemy’s longitudes and Eratosthenes’ measurement of the earth.’ Mathematics and mechanics of complex systems 1.1. 67–79. [DOI]
  • Taisbak, C. M. 1974. ‘Posidonius vindicated at all costs? Modern scholarship versus the Stoic earth measurer.’ Centaurus 18: 253–269. [DOI]