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Aristarchus: The Forgotten Genius

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.



The Greatest Mind Nobody Knew

Aristarchus of Samos is likely the greatest mind... that nobody's ever heard of. His work in math and astronomy influenced many Greek philosophers, including Archimedes, the great inventor of antiquity. Also, his theory of a heliocentric universe predates those of Copernicus and Galileo of the modern era. Why don't we talk about this guy?

With such a resume, one would expect Aristarchus would be an iconic figure remembered throughout the ages. But, that appears not to be the case. In fact, many of the theories and concepts he came up with would be lost to time. If it wasn't for a few references from other great historians and philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, he may have been utterly forgotten.

Today, Aristarchus's name is rarely brought up in the world of academia. How this happened is possibly due to the fact one full manuscript and fragments of another have survived the test of time. In addition, his work may have been controversial for his time.

This is unfortunate, Aristarchus's influence still resonates, despite not being well known. He is a lost genius that deserves to be found again.

A Man From Samos

So who was this intriguing person? Aristarchus was born on the Island of Samos in 310 BCE and lived until 230 BCE. During his lifetime, he managed to rise to prominence as a philosopher of math and science. As a result of his work, he became the head of the Peripatetic School (an exclusive school for philosophers founded by Aristotle).

During his lifetime (depending on varying historical accounts) he was known more for his math than astronomy. But in truth, he pioneered both disciplines.

On top of discovering the heliocentric concept, Aristarchus estimated that the universe was much larger than what was suspected.

To give you an idea of his pioneering spirit, here are some “firsts'' Aristarchus was known for. He was:

  • the first to use math as a tool to understand cosmology (it should be noted that there were others before him - including Aristotle - who studied the stars and Earth's position in the universe);
  • to devise the heliocentric theory; and
  • to compute and understand the relationship and size of the sun, Earth, and moon (something that solidified his reputation in his time).
  • To realize that the Earth traveled around the sun in an elliptical orbit.

Sizes and Distances of Celestial Bodies

As mentioned, much of his reputation relied on his work devising the sizes and distance of the celestial bodies. A major feat that would be studied for years by modern astronomers.

Aristarchus wrote On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. This treatise was his first and only surviving major work of his. It contained a mathematical formula and research depicting the diameter of the sun. In it, he concluded the sun was seven times the diameter of the Earth.

The concept that the Earth was smaller than the sun was unheard of during that time. This alone could have made Aristarchus very popular among the philosophers of his time and scientists of the modern era. However, it was what he did next with the information he gathered on the sun that became the hallmark of his career.

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He would set the basis for the heliocentric theory in a later book – which survives in fragments and speculations. This theory became influential among scientists for two millenniums. They would draw upon his concepts to push humanity's understanding of the cosmos.



The Heliocentric Model stipulated that the Earth revolved around the sun. In the 15th century, Nicolaus Copernicus "rediscovered" and devised his own brand of the theory. Copernicus's model is the one that is still used, today.

Most accounts suggest, especially from Copernicus, himself, that the Polish mathematician came up with the model independently. However, he was aware of Aristarchus's work, despite the public's lack of knowledge of the person (more on that later)

The reintroduction of this model wasn't an easy matter for Copernicus. He delayed the publication of De Revolutionibus orbium Coelestium for fear of harsh criticism, especially from the Vatican (Copernicus was a devout Catholic).

Still, rumors of his model piqued the interests of Europe's intellectual community and eventually led to the work being published near the end of Copernicus's life.

With the emergence of the heliocentric model, as well as the research conducted by Galileo Galilei, interest in what the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient societies knew about cosmology rose. Eventually, Aristarchus would be rediscovered, as well.

Going Against the Gods

Heliocentric Model from Copernicus wasn't accepted by all. However, the same can be said about Aristarchus when he came out with his concept.

One such antagonist to Aristarchus was Cleanthes, one of Aristarchus' contemporaries who went as far as to write a treatise called Against Aristarchus.

Cleanthes countered Aristarchus's heliocentric theory by arguing that it went against the (Greek) gods and their creation myths. This will be a theme that will plague this concept thousands of years later when members of the church challenged Copernicus's and Galileo's work by calling it heresy.

Model of the heliocentric theory

Model of the heliocentric theory

The Roman historian Plutarch later wrote about Cleanthes' attack against Aristarchus in his account called On the Face in the Moon.

He wrote that Cleanthes thought "it was the duty of the Greeks to indict Aristarchus of Samos on the charge of impiety for putting in motion the Hearth of the Universe, this being the effect of his attempt to save the phenomena by supposing heaven to remain at rest and the Earth to revolve in an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis" (Velekovsky).

Eventually, Aristarchus's books would be lost to time. Archimedes captured some of the finer points of Aristarchus's concepts in his own papers. Plutarch, as well, recorded the philosopher's discovery. As a result, these secondary sources of his work on the heliocentric concept are all that's left of his genius.


Vindication came 2000 years later, thanks in part to Copernicus. According to Nick Greene (writing for About.Com), Copernicus later gave Aristarchus credit for the Heliocentric theory by stating: "Philolaus believed in the mobility of the earth, and some even say that Aristarchus of Samos was of that opinion." However, when it came to publishing his work, Copernicus inexplicably had the passage crossed out.

Thus, for a short moment in time, Aristarchus had his moment in the heliocentric sun. However, time placed him on the edge of obscurity.

Even today, as more information on the ancient Greek philosopher emerges, he's given noble, but unflattering, titles such as the "Greek Copernicus" rather than the rightful title of father of astronomy.

Maybe, time will resolve this. As for now, Aristarchus unfairly sits in the abyss of obscurity, almost ready to fall over.

At least they gave him one statue!

At least they gave him one statue!

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Dean Traylor


Chris on May 23, 2018:

It is amazing how accurate results the Greeks where able to obtain more than a thousand years before their knowledge was finally picked up by other scientists, often imperfectly at first. The mathematicians in the 16th and 17th century often obtained results which where still less accurate and rigorous than things Archimedes did more than a thousand years earlier. Aristarchus is probably the greatest genius that ever lived. Because he got something right that was literally for centuries afterwards still gotten wrong by everybody else.

RaulP on May 14, 2017:

I didn't know Aristarchus proposed an elliptical path. That is more advance than Copernicus (or more elegant or uncomplicated), who still believed in circular orbits orbits (with epicycles). I thought Kepler was the first to propose an elliptical path.

I should take a closer look at Aristarchus.

Anne Harrison from Australia on November 11, 2014:

A really interesting hub - thank you.

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