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Alexander Jones

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, tables were extensively employed in Graeco-Roman astronomy to present structured, quantitative astronomical data for reference, calculation, and display of patterns of data. Media for tables included papyrus, in roll or codex format, wooden boards, and occasionally inscriptions. Aside from their didactic function in writings on theoretical astronomy such as Ptolemy’s Almagest, the chief practical applications of astronomical tables were in astrology. Tables for calculating celestial positions and phenomena of the heavenly bodies represented two distinct traditions: an originally Babylonian tradition based on arithmetical operations and a Greek tradition, best known from Ptolemy’s works, based on trigonometry relating to geometrical theories for the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Both traditions made use of sexagesimal place-value notation. Additionally, almanacs and calendrically structured ephemerides presented celestial positions calculated over long spans of dates as a convenient tool for horoscopy and the astrological evaluation of days.


Callimachus was a Greek poet and scholar who flourished in the first half of the 3rd century bce in Alexandria, wrote in the context of its Library and Museum, and had close connections to the Ptolemaic court. Apart from six hymns and around sixty epigrams, Callimachus’s texts, both poetry and prose, have survived only in fragments. Chief among his fragmentary works are the Aetia, Iambi, and Hecale: the many papyrus fragments and quotations from these poems give evidence of their lasting impact and popularity in antiquity. Callimachus’s work is highly allusive, refined, learned, and experimental, but also attuned to its political and cultural context and engaged in a poetological discourse with predecessors and colleagues. In his poetry, Callimachus absorbs much of the earlier Greek literary tradition, and his experiments and innovations, while highly original, also reflect trends suggested by the generations preceding him. He in turn exercised great influence on later Roman and Greek poetry, particularly on the poets of Augustan Rome.


Ptolemy III Euergetes (“Benefactor”) I, king of Egypt, early 246–February 221 bce. Born mid‑280s bce, the son of Ptolemy II and Arsinoë I, daughter of Lysimachus, married Berenice II, thereby reuniting Cyrene and Egypt. Two crises determined the course of his reign: the Third Syrian War (246–241 bce) and the first Egyptian uprising (c. 245 bce) and the accompanying famine. Initially having been begun in 246 bce in support of Ptolemy’s sister Berenice, widow of Antiochus II Theos, the Third Syrian War resulted in extensive territorial gains in Anatolia and Thrace, which Ptolemy strove to retain throughout the remainder of his reign. Almost simultaneously, the Egyptian uprising and famine that occurred c. 245–244 bce led to significant innovations in the internal governance of Egypt and relations between the government and the Egyptian priesthood, which was now required to meet annually in synods but also received important benefits, most notably an extensive temple-building program which included construction of the Serapeum at Alexandria and the temple of Horus at Edfu.


Nathan Camillo Sidoli

The development of trigonometry as a branch of mathematics was a combined effort of mathematical scholars working in a number of different languages and cultures, over many centuries. The first texts containing trigonometric computations are found in Greek sources, although these do not contain the trigonometric functions we now use. The introduction of the trigonometric functions is found in Sanskrit sources, and scholars working in Arabic composed the first works devoted entirely to trigonometry, adopting and expanding on the work of their Greek and Sanskrit sources. The word trigonometry itself was a neologism of Latin scholars, whose treatises developed this field as an independent branch of mathematics, adopting and extending previous Arabic works.

Trigonometry was not regarded as an independent branch of mathematics in the ancient period—the word itself is an early modern neologism and does not translate any ancient expression. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources—which do not introduce angles—appear to have handled the mensuration of triangles, and slopes, through the ratios of the sides of normalized triangles. The preserved texts of these cultures contain some tables that might be regarded as trigonometric, but computations that are clearly trigonometric have not yet been found in these texts.


Noah Hacham

The short book of 3 Maccabees, written in Egypt in the Hellenistic or Roman period and almost unknown in antiquity, records king Ptolemy Philopator’s (221–204 bce) two failures to harm the Jews: In the first he failed to enter the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, and in the second the God of Israel thwarted the king’s three attempts to annihilate all Egyptian Jews with intoxicated elephants. The Jews instituted a holiday commemorating this rescue.

While the book’s historical credibility regarding these events is dubious, it should be seen as an important historical source for the life of Egyptian Jewry and the challenges that it faced during the Hellenistic-Roman period. The book has a discernible four-faceted agenda: (a) Jews are loyal both to their God and to the king, although they cannot be confident of the king’s goodwill toward them; (b) the God of Israel is the Jews’ protector and savior; (c) He also revealed Himself in the Diaspora, far away from the Jerusalemite Temple. The book is also (d) an anti-Dionysiac polemic.


Sylvie Honigman

The Letter of Aristeas is a literary work composed in Greek that narrates the legendary origins of the Septuagint. Scholars date the work to between the 3rd century bce and the late 1st century bce, with most at present agreeing on the 2nd century bce. While the first-person narrator, Aristeas, introduces himself as a Greek courtier of Ptolemy II Philadelphus writing to another Greek named Philocrates, modern scholars concur that the author was in fact an Alexandrian Jew. The Letter of Aristeas offers the earliest version of the legend according to which the Septuagint was translated by seventy-two elders from Jerusalem who came to Alexandria upon the invitation of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Because the nomenclature employed to describe the work done by the elders suggests a process not of translation but of textual emendation, the letter is also an important source of evidence for the editorial techniques developed by the scholars of the Alexandrian Museum. It is only with subsequent authors that the legend of the Septuagint’s origins acquired a miraculous element, according to which each one of the seventy-two elders produced the very same translation simultaneously through prophetic inspiration.