Copernicus is commonly favoured with the discovery of the heliocentric theory. However, it's well known that the hypothesis was already discussed in Greek Antiquity, primarily by Aristarchus (300 BC) and supported by a direct quotation in Archimedes' Sand-Reckoner (which implies a certain level of substantial support for that hypothesis at that time, considering Archimedes' stature), and, according to Wikipedia, by Islamic and Indian astronomists: Aryabhata (500 AD) in India and by Ibn al-Shatir in the Maragheh school in Persia. Although, here the evidence is contentious, and leans towards a more efficient interpretation of Ptolemy's geocentric model rather than an outright acceptance of a heliocentric one.

Given the prominence of Archimedes as a Hellenic mathematician, and the proximity and efflorescence of Islam before the Italian Renaissance, is there any evidence that links Copernicus with these predecessors? Or indeed an acknowledgement of Archimedes' inclusion of the heliocentric hypothesis against the the prevailing geocentric model in Christian Europe, or was it simply dismissed as a pagan novelty?

  • 5
    How is this a philosophy question and not a history one?
    – stoicfury
    Jul 13, 2013 at 14:34
  • @stoicfury. I guess because of its implications for the philosophy of science. But, perhaps, these possible implications should be elaborated.
    – Jon
    Jul 13, 2013 at 21:24
  • @stoicfury: Jons guess is what I'm driving at, but he's also correct in noting that these 'implications should be elaborated'. Jul 13, 2013 at 21:49
  • you can see a few entries about Aristarchus in the recent : Robert Westman, The Copernican Question Prognostication Skepticism and Celestial Order (2011), the paper of Thomas Africa, Copernicus' Relation to Aristarchus and Pythagoras, in Isis, Vol. 52, No. 3. (Sep., 1961), pp. 403-409 and the references to Cpernicus in Thomas Heath, The Copernicus of Antiquity Aristarchus of Samos (1920), Edward Rosen edition of Three Copernican treatises ... 1/2 Apr 4, 2014 at 10:49
  • ... with three ref to A in the Letter against Werner and the chapter about A of Samos and Copernicus (1978), in Edward Rosen, Copernicus and His Successors (1995), page 1-on for a detailed discussion about the reasons why A "failed to appear alongside others of like mind in the printed version of the Revolutions" (page 9). Apr 4, 2014 at 10:54

2 Answers 2


There seems to be evidence, yet I have only been able to find indirect references:

From Wikipedia:

As a university-trained Catholic priest dedicated to astronomy, Copernicus was acquainted with the Sun-centered cosmos of the ancient Greek Aristarchus. [...] Copernicus cited Aristarchus and Philolaus in an early manuscript of his book which survives, stating: "Philolaus believed in the mobility of the earth, and some even say that Aristarchus of Samos was of that opinion." For reasons unknown (although possibly out of reluctance to quote pre-Christian sources), he did not include this passage in the publication of his book. [Source: Wikipedia]

From Wolfram|Alpha:

We know for a fact that Copernicus was well aware of Aristarchus's priority, since his original draft of De Revolutionibus has survived and features a passage referring to Aristarchus which Copernicus crossed out so as not to compromise the originality of his theory. [Source: Wolfram|Alpha]

Edit by Gugg: I think I might have found the evidence. It may very well be this fragment (lines 11-13). I (well, ManishEarth) pulled it off the Internet, but it wasn't accompanied by any commentary, so I'm not even 100% sure this is by Copernicus. However, I'm quite sure about lines 12 and 13 containing Philolaus, mobility, Earth (or ground?), and Aristarchus. Feel free to comment on whether this indeed is the evidence. If somebody can read and/or translate it, that would be great.

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    Also see the Aristarchus section here. It refers to the Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History.
    – user3164
    Jul 13, 2013 at 12:02
  • @Gugg Thanks. It's good to see a more authoritative source mentions it as well. It doesn't mean it's true necessarily, but it's a whole lot better than Wikipedia with no external reference.
    – Ben
    Jul 13, 2013 at 12:30
  • I think I have the evidence: the relevant part of the draft. But my Latin is a bit rusty and Copernicus' handwriting isn't all that clear either. Shall I edit it in? Here is the copy.
    – user3164
    Jul 13, 2013 at 16:58
  • @Gugg Sure, feel free to edit my answer. My Latin is not just rusty but actually non-existent, but for those who know Latin and can read his handwriting, it is a valuable contribution since it would confirm that the secondary sources I quoted are correct.
    – Ben
    Jul 13, 2013 at 17:18
  • The evidence looks pretty direct to me here. Jul 13, 2013 at 22:19

I would find it difficult to believe that Nicolas Copernicus-(The Father of MODERN Astronomy, circa, the 1500's AD/CE), would NOT KNOW about his predecessors, in particular, his distant Ancient Greek Predecessors, such as Archimedes and especially, Aristarchus of Samos-(the earliest known Heliocentric Astronomer).

Copernicus lived a good part of his adult life in the Northern Italian Renaissance city of Bologna and trained to become a Catholic Priest. Yet, the city of Bologna, during Copernicus' time, was also, one of the more preeminent Renaissance Centers, as well as the location of its famed University of Bologna, which was one of the most prominent Schools of Higher Learning and Renaissance scholarship in the world. In this Academic environment, Copernicus-(despite his religiosity and Priestly ambitions), would have been well acquainted with the (Pre-Christian) ideas of Aristarchus and Archimedes.

The Ancient Greek Heliocentric model-(pioneered by Aristarchus and Archimedes), was essentially, Reintroduced to the Modern European West, via Nicholas Copernicus. However, Copernicus' Reintroduction of Heliocentricity to Europe was NOT a historical example of thievery, nor an early example copyright infringement/ violation. Rather, it was a more sophisticated, refined and comprehensive scientific explanation to a largely ignorant and skeptical Western public, as well as to a largely ignorant and skeptical Papal Bureaucracy-(which literally swore by the Geocentric model that was pioneered by Aristotle and reechoed by Ptolemy centuries later).

I also find it difficult to believe that a scientifically and mathematically oriented figure, such as Copernicus, would have been unaware of Medieval Islamic Mathematics and Astronomy. While Heliocentricity does not appear to have been central to Medieval Islamic Astronomy and Science, it is very likely that the intellectually vibrant atmosphere of Medieval Islamic cities, such as Toledo, Cordoba, Fes, Cairo and Baghdad, would have likely produced Thinkers, Commentators and Scholars, who may have seriously considered and discussed Heliocentricity, as a plausible scientific idea. An idea that, centuries later, would almost have certainly circulated throughout the Northern Italian Renaissance Cities, including, Copernicus' city of Bologna.

Overall, when examining the history of Heliocentricity, one can give Copernicus, the appropriate and deserving credit for his role in reintroducing and refining this ancient idea. However, Copernicus should also be appropriately and accurately positioned within a larger historical context in relation to his Islamic and particularly, his Ancient Greek predecessors and pioneers.

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