The Shape of the Earth According to Thales

  • Dirk L. Couprie
Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 374)


In the archaic world picture, the earth is flat and usually conceived of as a round disk. First of all, it is important to bear in mind that almost all the Presocratics, of which we have reports about what they are supposed to have said about the shape of the earth, believed that the earth is flat. It is reported by several sources that according to Anaxagoras, the earth is flat (πλατεῖα) (DK 59A1(8), DK 59A42(3), DK 59A47, and DK 59A87). Archelaos is said to have conceived of the earth as somewhat concave in the middle (μέσον δὲ κοίλην), but generally speaking he too may be considered to have conceived of the earth as flat (DK 60A4(4)). The ambiguous word στϱογγύλος in the doxographical report on Diogenes’ earth can here only mean circular, not spherical (DK 64A1). The earth is said to be drum-shaped (τυμπανοειδῆ) according to Leucippus, and the surface of the earth is said to be disk-shaped (δισκοειδῆ μὲν τῷ πλάτει) and concave in the middle (κοίλην δὲ τῷ μέσῳ) according to Democritus and Anaxagoras (DK 67A1(30), DK 67A26 and DK 68A94). The concavity of Democritus’ earth does not prevent Aristotle from calling it flat (πλατεῖα) (On the Heavens 294b15 = DK 59A88). Elsewhere, however, Democritus’ earth is said to be oblong (ἡμιόλος) (DK 68B15). Diels’ translation “nicht rund, sondern länglich” is tendentious because the words “nicht rund, sondern” are not in the Greek text. As will be explained in Chap. 6, and drawn in Figs. 6.1 and 6.2, I hold this rectangle to be the shape of the οἰκουμένη on an otherwise disk-shaped and flat earth.1 That Empedocles too conceived of the earth as flat may be concluded from a doxographical report, in which the earth is called “circular” (κυκλοτεϱής) (DK 31A56). Guthrie rightly remarks: “The word is κυκλοτεϱής, not the ambiguous στϱογγύλος” (1965: 192 n. 4). Against this simple evidence, Burkert’s argument that the idea (in DK 31A56) that the sun is the earth’s reflection implies the sphericity of the earth is not very convincing (1972: 305 n. 30).


Celestial Body Full Circle Ambiguous Word Textual Evidence Greek Text 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Burkert, Walter. 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Dicks, D.R. 1970. Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle. Ithaca, NY: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar
  3. Diels, Hermann. 1879. Doxographi Graeci. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.Google Scholar
  4. Dreyer, John L.E. 1953. A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Facs. reprint of: History of the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905).zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  5. Fehling, Detlev. 1985b. Das Problem der Geschichte des griechischen Weltmodells vor Aristoteles. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 128: 195–231.Google Scholar
  6. Frank, Erich. 1923. Plato und die sogenannten Pythagoreer. Ein Kapitel aus der Gechichte des griechischen Geistes. Halle: Verlag von Max Niemeyer.Google Scholar
  7. Guthrie, William K.C. 1962. A History of Greek Philosophy, I. The Early Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Guthrie, William K.C. 1965. A History of Greek Philosophy, II. The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Heidel, William Arthur. 1937. The Frame of the Ancient Greek Maps. With a Discussion of the Discovery of the Sphericity of the Earth. New York: American Geographical Society.Google Scholar
  10. Kahn, Charles H. 1994. Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (repr. of revised 2d ed.1985, Philadelphia PA: Centrum Philadelphia; first ed. 1960, New York: Columbia University Press).Google Scholar
  11. Morrison, John S. 1955. Parmenides and Er. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 75: 59–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. O’Grady, Patricia. 2002. Thales of Miletus. The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  13. Panchenko, Dmitri. 2008. Parmenides, the Nile, and the Circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians. In J.M. Caudan Morón, F.J. González Ponce, A.L. Chávez Reino, eds., Realidad e literatura en la visión grecorromano de África. Homenaje al Prof. Jehan Desanges, 189–193. Sevilla.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dirk L. Couprie
    • 1
  1. 1.MaastrichtNetherlands

Personalised recommendations