Flat Earth Society

The image of Domitian’s coin, mentioned below, comes from Wikimedia.

Apparently the old canard that people before Columbus believed that the earth was flat is going around again. Or at least Theology Geek NZ feels the need to explain that it is plain wrong. They seem to be a blog without a comments facility (is that an oxymoron or what?) so here’s what I’d have added to their post (drawn from my post of  Monday, August 04, 2008 Interesting questions):

One of the real benefits of teaching is the questions students ask. Recently one exposed my shameful forgetfulness of what I once knew about the history of science :(

The question ran something like this:

The emperor Domitian had a coin made to celebrate his son’s divinisation showing the boy sitting on a globe – presumably representing the earth, with 7 stars around him.

The Romans like other ancients believed the Earth to be flat.

Why was a globe used?

Of course, the image is typical of a tradition of picturing gods seated on globes, see for example the coin representing Victory seated on a globe (from the page on coins from the time of Nero from the Classics Dept. at Monmouth College).

The Romans regularly used “orbis”, a circle, ring, or disk, in the phrase orbis terrae, terrarum “the circle of the world” to mean the whole earth.

For of course, as I had forgotten, and the student did not know, the story which claims that before Columbus people “all” believed that the Earth was flat is simply a myth.

A Greek, Eratosthenes (c 276 to 195 BCE) estimated the Earth’s circumference by getting measurements taken of the Sun’s position in the sky at two different places Syene (now Aswan, Egypt) and Alexandria which is directly north of Syene. From the difference (and assuming that the Sun is so far away that light is parallel in the two places) he got a value close to the current measurements. (There is a good well documented presentation of this and the whole history of the “flat earthers” on Donald Simanek’s site.)

Most early Christians, in the Roman empire, largely following Aristotle, accepted that the earth was round. Though at least Tertullian and others argued that the Bible spoke of it having four “corners” etc. so it must be flat.

So it is no surprise that Roman coins pictured the globe as round, that was the majority view among educated people at the time!

[Inaccurate snide comment removed 13 Jan 2011.]

7 comments on “Flat Earth Society

  1. Dale Campbell

    thanks sir, good stuff :)

  2. Ali

    Yes, the whole flat earth thing shows how our understanding of history can be skewed by folk-history, myth and the history-teller’s agendas even in our culture at large today.

    One thing I would request, though, is that you don’t perpetuate such a skewed view of creationists via comments such as your final one. And as a creationist myself, I will try not to retaliate with comments about “Christian evolutionists”. ;)

    1. tim

      Thanks! A usfully rounded treatment :)

  3. tim


    Sorry, my mistake! I’ll remove the reference.

  4. Ali

    Thanks, Tim.