Eratosthenes of Cyrene Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek scholar and inventor{$I[g]Greece;Eratosthenes of Cyrene}{$I[g]Alexandria;Eratosthenes of Cyrene} Through his energetic directorship, Eratosthenes helped make the Library of Alexandria the greatest repository of learning in the Mediterranean world, and his varied contributions made him the most versatile scholar and scientist of the third century b.c.e.

Early Life

Eratosthenes (ehr-ah-TAWS-theh-neez) was born in the Greek North African city of Cyrene about 285 b.c.e. The only surviving ancient biographical reference places his birth in the 126th Olympiad (276-273 b.c.e.), but this is too late to allow his reported meeting in Athens with Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, who died around 261. His subsequent career suggests, moreover, that he was about forty years of age when he was called to Alexandria in 245; a birth date in the mid-280’s therefore seems accurate. Because neither his name nor that of his father, Aglaus, is otherwise mentioned in Cyrenaean records, it seems that Eratosthenes was not of an especially prominent family.

While his family was not illustrious, his mother city had achieved considerable renown. Founded by Greeks from Thera before 600, Cyrene had prospered as an independent city-state. Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323, however, the Hellenistic Age brought a new political order in which large, bureaucratic monarchies dominated and absorbed the formerly autonomous city-states. Cyrene grudgingly accepted incorporation into the neighboring Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, which was ruled from Alexandria.

Founded by Alexander in 331, by Eratosthenes’ time this harbor city was well on the way to becoming the commercial and cultural center of the Mediterranean world. Thanks to the generous subsidies of the Ptolemies, the city boasted the great Library and its adjunct Museum, a school of advanced studies that attracted scholars in literary and scientific studies, including Callimachus of Cyrene.

The most famous poet of the early third century and compiler of the Library’s first catalog, Callimachus was the latest in a long line of Cyrenaean intellectual figures. Eratosthenes thus followed in a well-established tradition of Cyrenaean learning and scholarship when he undertook his early training at home with the renowned grammarian Lysanias. One might have expected him to pursue advanced studies in nearby Alexandria in the company of his countryman Callimachus, but the young man was primarily interested in philosophy, and for philosophy one went to the city of Socrates and Plato. Therefore, at age fifteen, Eratosthenes sailed to Athens, where he would remain for twenty-five years.

Life’s Work

Eratosthenes later recalled that in Athens he found more philosophers than had ever been known to exist within the walls of one city. The eager student sampled all of their offerings and came away disappointed. He studied Stoicism with the aged Zeno, founder of the school, but he spent more time with Zeno’s revisionist pupil, Ariston of Chios, who became the subject of one of Eratosthenes’ earliest works, a biographical sketch titled Ariston. He also witnessed the flamboyant diatribes of Bion of Borysthenes, the son of a former slave and a prostitute, who preached the doctrines of Cynicism on street corners and dockside. Eratosthenes accused Ariston of not living true to his Stoic principles and Bion of adorning his philosophy to attract more attention, much like a tart in gaudy clothes.

Eratosthenes seems to have been more receptive to the Platonism that he learned from Arcesilaus, head of the Academy in this, its “middle” period. His first seriously intellectual work, the Platonikos (platonics), followed the dialogue format pioneered by Plato and explored traditional Platonic cosmological and mathematical themes. He also wrote another philosophical study titled Peri agathon kai kakon (on good and evil qualities), which has been lost. Eratosthenes’ eclectic approach to his philosophical studies together with his criticisms of established philosophers provoked some later scholars to accuse him of dilettantism.

Less than satisfied with his experiences in philosophy, Eratosthenes fared somewhat better with poetry, the field in which he first achieved a degree of recognition. Although none of his early poetic pieces survives, two poems are known by name. The hexameter Hermes (c. 250) recalled the birth and career of that god, while the Erigone employed elegiac verse to portray the legendary suicide of an Athenian maiden. Both displayed the highly polished style of Callimachus, and the latter poem was later described as completely faultless. Without a doubt it was his early reputation as a poet, not his work in philosophy, that brought Eratosthenes’ name to the attention of the royal patrons in Alexandria when the poet Apollonius of Rhodes retired from his position as librarian in 245.

Ptolemy III Euergetes must have considered other, equally famous poets for the position of librarian, but personal and political factors led him to invite Eratosthenes to Alexandria. While Eratosthenes had pursued his studies in Athens, his homeland had enjoyed a period of independence under the rule of Magas, a renegade Ptolemaic governor who had broken with the government in Alexandria and for several decades styled himself king of Cyrene. In 245 Cyrene had only recently returned to Ptolemaic rule, largely as a result of the conciliatory marriage of Ptolemy III to Berenice, the daughter of Magas. Less than a year on the throne, the young...

(The entire section is 2313 words.)