Perceiving the Antipodes

“Those who inhabit the earth are not only divided, so that nothing can pass between them from one group to another, but some stand obliquely, some transversely, and some even directly opposite to you’ from these you can certainly expect no glory.”

Perceiving the Antipodes Terra Australis Chronicles

In this episode we will be exploring the concept of a southern land as believed by ancient philosophers from BC to early AD. Written article and references can be found at https://terraaustralischronicles.com/2021/11/07/perceiving-the-antipodes/
  1. Perceiving the Antipodes
  2. Terra Australis Chronicles podcast trailer

You may have already heard of terms such as Terra Australis Incognita, Terra Australis Ignota & Megallencia that were used to place the unknown southern land on maps. But before this term was commonly used the ancient Greek philosophers referred to the southern land as the Antipodes, which purely translates to ‘the opposite of something’. We can already see how easily this could result in a lot of mistranslation from historians, making us unsure who first conceived the idea of a southern land. While many historians may claim that it was a particular philosophers, this was due to placing too much meaning in translated words such as ‘antipodes’ in order to find information to serve their own purpose.

I’m going to be honest, when I first thought of doing a series on Terra Australis the easiest starting point for me would’ve been with the Dutch exploration of the Australian Western and Tasmanian coast. But that didn’t account for how the idea of a southern land was first conceived by Europeans. I rely heavily on reading the works of others to connect the dots. Finding Avan Judd Stallards thesis on Antipodes to Terra Australis (2010) was a game changer for this series. He stated that in order for Europeans to perceive a Southern l and they must first hold belief in a spherical globe.

So two big things needed to happen in order for the idea of a Southern land to evolve during the time of antiquity. Firstly there needed to be a shift in the perception of earth from being either flat, a cylinder, a bowl or a cube into a sphere. Secondly there had to be a understanding of a zonal theory of climate that allowed for people to theorise these hypothesised area of the earth as inhabitable[1].

While it is evident that this was a belief held by many early Greek philosophers, who first conceived this idea? While it would be easy to do a quick Google search or hop onto Wikipedia and claim that it was Aristotle, no Plato, or was it Socrates, wait, maybe it was Pythagoras all along… It has became clear that historians and those who have previously sought this information have a bit of a hard on for these guys. So we are now going to trudge through the murky timeline of the main contenders, analysing some of their works and historical interpretations.

But firstly what do we know. We know that within this timeline there were three known lands made up of Asia, Africa and Europe, these were known as the oikumene. Antipodes was a term used for dwellers beyond these lands which were broken down to the Antoikoi (opposite of the oikumene), Antichthones (on opposite side of the earth, and perioikoi (around from the oikumene). But in terms to the region of the southern land Stallard[2] raises the question:


“why would people construct and then choose to passionately believe in something that they cannot know exist?”

Which brings us to our earliest contender Anaximander. Anaximander inhabited the ancient Greek city of Miletus, presently known as Turkey between 610 546 BC, over 2600 years ago. Now you might consider him as one of the great granddaddy’s of the philosophers with Thales being his teacher. It is claimed that he was the first philosopher to look into cosmology.

He was known for making maps of the known world while questioning earths relationship to the sun, the moon and the stars. The early scholar Hippolytus whom lived between 170 – 236 AD saw him as one of the earliest philosophers to regard the idea of an antipodal land mass whereby he said:

“[Anaximander] asserted that there is an eternal motion, by the agency of which it happens that the heavens are generated; but that the earth is poised aloft, upheld by nothing, continuing on account of its equal distance from all [the heavens bodies]; and that the figure of it is curved, circular, similar to a column of stone. And one of the surfaces we tread upon, but the other is opposite”[3]

In this passage we can assume that Anaximander was the first known philosopher to believe that the earth stood on its own, not being held up by anything, while considering its relation to the cosmos. The use of the word circular cannot simply be attributed to the thought of a sphere. While Diogenes stated in his writings that Anaximander modelled the earth as a globe, others believed that he saw it as disc or a cylinder as said in this passage “similar to a column of a stone”. While his use of the word opposite has been translated from the word antipode  it is purely used in a geometrical sense when describing a shape not the idea of an opposing land mass. None of his works survive today and most of his theories are known through the later works of other philosophers such as Aristotle. While it is known that he may have been the first philosopher to construct a model of the cosmos with the earth at the centre, it’s thought that he may have actually seen the stars, moon, and sun encircling the earth more like a belt[4].

For our next challenger we have Pythagoras of Samos. Living between 570 – 495 BC. While he did spend his early years on the island of Samos, off the coast of Turkey, though most of his works were not done until his 40’s where he lived in the city of Croton in southern Italy[5]. Diogenes, when regarding Pythagoras stated:

“We are told he was the first to call the heaven the universe and the earth spherical, though Theophrastus says it was Parmenides, and Zeno that it was Hesiod.”[1]

Pythagoras became a bit of a glorified deity of philosophers, sort of like the influencers of today. Many of his known works today have actually been recognised as the ideas of others that were later prescribed to him by historians in early AD. Works such as the Pythagorean theorem, that we were taught at school, were actually used by Babylonians 1000 years before his time[6] and his cosmological works have later been found to be the later works of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Many of his tenants were written by later philosophers that idealised him as a bit of a celebrity of his time, these guys were known as Neo-Pythagoreans. Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek scholar, historian and geographer that lived between 105 – 35 BC whom was imprisoned as a slave by the Romans during the Mithridatic war, was proclaimed to have written a number of Pythagoras’s tenants as many later neo-Pythagoreans did. Diogenes believes that Alexander wrote the passage of Pythagoras that stated:

“a universe animate, intelligent, spherical, with the earth at its centre, the earth itself too being spherical and inhabited round about. There are also antipodes, and our down is their up”[1].

While Aristotle’s work On the Heavens comments on a Pythagorean view regarding the spherical earth there is no information on which Pythagorean conceived this and what the view exactly was. These tenants more inform us that the thought of a spherical earth and the antipodes was already established by both Aristotle’s and Alexanders time, not the words of Pythagoras himself. In fact according Stanford university his fame during his time was due to his works on the fate of the soul after death, as a “wonder worker”, and being the founder of a strict way of life that included dietary restrictions, religious rituals and rigorous self-discipline[5]. So you could say he was more of a spiritual guru of his time.

So now we must move on to Parmenides living in 5th century BC, Now remember when I said two concepts had to come into fruition to think of the concept of a southern land, so far we have been searching for the concept of a spherical earth but with Parmenides we are looking at a much needed theory of climate. It is assumed that Parmenides was the one that invented the theory of Zonal division.

I absolutely hate timelines without birth dates so while his exact birth date is unknown there are two historical guesses. 515BC, provided as a estimate due to Plato’s work Parmenides where he appears as 65 years old with a young Socrates, and 540 estimated by Diogenes, due to an account that Parmenides was flourishing at the age of 40 during the 69th Olympiad. Parmenides was known to write one poem later titled ‘On Nature’ a common title provided to pre Socratic works. The poem in its entirety no longer exists. While it is assumed that the original may have extended to eight hundred verses, an estimated one hundred and sixty fragments survives today through the works of others such as Plato and Aristotle where the fragments were quoted[7].

Many historians including Alfred Hiatt attribute him to inventing the theory of Zonal division, though modified in later years by Aristotle and Posidonius. The zonal division divided the world into five parts. These parts included two frigid zones, known as the poles, at either ends of the earth that laid uninhabitable due to the cold, a central zone of intolerable heat that could not be crossed, and two temperate zones on each hemisphere both inhabitable by humans. This zonal theory was attractive to many philosophers as it could later be used to conceive of an unknown southern land[8].

Due to what survives of his poem Parmenides is thought to be the grandfather of metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space. However, the fact that his original poem is no longer in existence and that fragments only exist through rewritings and translations causes discussion concerning reliability when determining Parmenides actual beliefs[9], especially when philosophers such as Plato have been known for writing their own beliefs into the words of others.

So at this point you are probably thinking are we going to find any answers? Well we know that there is no evidence regarding the idea a spherical earth or the antipodes before the time of Socrates and Plato.

So now you guessed it, we are up to the one and only Socrates. Socrates was an Athenian philosopher living between 469-399BC. He is better known for the Socratic method or the method of the rhetoric, where rather than answering questions you ask questions of others, building on until the subject reaches their own understanding.

As a seeker of knowledge he asked these questions of common folk and the elite alike. He was known for walking around barefoot and unwashed. It should be stated that this was during the golden age of Greece and a time where they really valued beauty so this was not considered in any way normal behaviour.

I’m kind of sorry but not sorry as I really need to go slightly off topic here, because this guy is a bad arse, that’s right Socrates was a bit of a punk, a free thinker, he didn’t always do what he was told. In 406 BC he was drafted to become a member of the democratic assembly. He was the only man that voted against Greek soldiers being sentenced to death, for the crime of failing to retrieve dead soldiers from the Spartans and later refused to take part in the arrest of another citizen. These incidences were noted as an act of civil disobedience[10]. It wasn’t until 399 BC he was arrested for failing to honour the gods and corrupting the youth. He chose to defend himself in court, but rather than deny the accusations he stated that he provided an important service to the community by continuously questioning the status quo. He also stated that if he did commit these acts it was purely because he did not know he was doing so and rather than be punished he should be taught otherwise. He was found guilty, but during this time you could propose your own punishment such as exile over death. He proposed his punishment should be that he was honoured by the city for his contribution to their enlightenment and paid for their services. He was sentenced to death by a mixture of hemlock and poison. Plato in his work Phaedo talked of Socrates death stating:

“Socrates drank the hemlock mixture without hesitation. Numbness slowly crept into his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his final breath, Socrates described his death as a release of the soul from the body.”[11]

Alas the only writings of him regarding an antipodal/ southern land are through Plato and argued through historians to be the thoughts of his student, rather than his own. It is thought that Socrates actually never did any writings of his own and simply stuck to his rhetoric allowing others to reach their own philosophies. Even so his character is plagued with the Socratic problem, which is that he was written about so many people with stories differing in crucial ways, so we will never really know who he was or what his beliefs really were[10].

So as we move to our next contenders, things start to get a bit clearer and a bit less murky. From this point, many of these philosophers works still survive to this day. While there is still a problem in knowing if the works were translated correctly due to many of these works being translated during medieval times, a problem we will delve into next episode. This was also a time where the Greek language was no longer being as widely used. There was also the issue of works being broken up by those on wisdom pilgrimages or pages shuffled. Despite all of this, It was still easier to acknowledge what their philosophies were with some of their complete works available.

We will now continue with Socrates student himself Plato. Plato was again a Athenian philosopher living between 428-347 BC. He was a student of Socrates and is the first of the Greek philosophers that we can actually attribute to holding the belief of a spherical globe. In his work Phaedo there is a passage that states:

“Well then, my friend, in the first place it is said that the earth, viewed from above, resembles those balls made of twelve pieces of leather in its variegation and in its division into different colours, of which our colours, the ones the painters use, are as it were samples”[1]

Historians have argued whether he means that the earth is viewed as a ball or disc, such as J.S Morrison in his book The Shape of the Earth noting:

“the image of the balls of twelve pieces of leather is introduced in such a way as to illustrate the variegation in colour of this upper surface not its spherical shape”[1]

This, in my opinion doesn’t make any sense. It is known that there were many balls created by sewing strips of leather together during ancient times and ball games were played in Rome and Greece, smaller balls were filled with items such as feathers and larger balls had a bladder filled with air similar to the modern day football, or soccer ball depending on where you are. So Morrisons idea that Plato was referring to a disc instead of a ball just doesn’t add up. I believe he is putting too much of a meaning on the word variegation rather than looking at the whole passage for meaning.

In his work Phaedo, Plato writes as Socrates, whom refers to multiple ‘other worlds’ but in reading this work completely, the world below he is often referring to has no bearing with the idea of a antipodal land mass or race but that of the underworld. With Plato referring more so to the philosophy of what happens to the soul after death and ideas of reincarnation. However as the story progresses, Socrates mentions that the earth is covered in other landmasses, though rather than refer to any antipodal landmass he refers to the thought that people dwell in craters and that there are lands above these craters where people live healthier and longer lives. At one point in Plato’s work Socrates mentions a river the size of the Mediterranean sea that is made of fire, wrapping around the centre of the earth.

“The third river passes out between the two, and near the place of outlet pours into a vast region of fire, and forms a lake larger than the Mediterranean Sea, boiling with water and mud; and proceeding muddy and turbid, and winding about the earth”[12]

While this river could be seen as a reference to Parmenides central temporal zone or the torrid zone, the river is mentioned after referring to the journey of human and animal souls after death. Thus it could still be referring to the journey to the underworld. Many philosophical works and ideas were actually written in the form of poems, stories and dreams at this time so it is sometimes hard to discern the complete philosophical view behind the stories concepts, leaving it widely up to interpretation.

Despite the lack of a antipodal landmass in Phaedo, Plato was known by Diogenes as being the first person to write of the antipodes as a philosophical discussion. In his work Timaeus there is a passage that has been translated to:

While there is no evidence that the idea of a spherical globe or of the antipodes originated from Plato or his teacher Socrates, evidence from his works points to his belief of a spherical earth and that the southern hemisphere could hold land with the possibility of men.

“if a man were actually to walk round and round the body, he would repeatedly stand on his own antipodes and call the same point on it’s surface ‘above’ and ‘below’. For the whole being spherical as we said just now there is no sense in speaking of one region as above, another below.”[1]

We will now continue with Socrates student himself Plato. Our timeline has finally reached the point of Aristotle. As I have mentioned before he is the philosopher largely accredited to the idea of a spherical globe. Now when I say this I am not really talking from the perspective of a historian, more so from the case of doing a google search and the articles that pop-up. Aristotle lived between 384-322BC, he was born in Stagira but moved to Athens at the age of 17 as it was seen as the educational hub of Greece where he trained under Plato so it’s not surprising to see that he sometimes had similar views.

However Aristotle was his own man and was denied the job as director of Plato’s school after his death due to not following his philosophies to a T. He produced over 200 works, with only 32 still remain to this day[13]. While many articles may attribute to Aristotle conceiving the idea that the earth was spherical due to his works being popularised, we already know that by his time the idea was already well established. In Aristotles work. On the Heaven he wrote:

“Some think it spherical, others flat and shaped like a drum. These latter adduce as evidence the fact that the sun at its setting and rising shows a straight instead of a curved line where it cuts off from view by the horizon, whereas were the earth spherical, the line of section would necessarily be curved. They fail to take into consideration either the distance of the sun from the earth, or the size of the earth’s circumference, and the appearance of straightness which it naturally presents when seen on the surface of an apparently small circle a great distance away.”[1]

In Aristotles Meteorologica he also wrote of a prospective land in the southern hemisphere:

“There must be a region which bears to the other pole the same relation as that which we inhabit bears to our pole, it is clear that this region will be analogous to ours in the disposition of winds as well as in other respects. Thus, just as we have a north wind here, so they have a similar wind which blows from their pole, and which cannot possibly reach us.”[1]

It should be noted that when reading this passage while Aristotle alludes to people through the word ‘they’, this does not actually show a belief in men living in this land of opposite. It was common during times of antiquity to refer to unknown spaces as inhabited land. This simply means that aristotle viewed this land as conceptually able to be inhabited.

Crates of Mallos is our next person of interest. Crates lived between 180-150 BC, he was a librarian of the Greek city of Pergamum. While no original works of Crates survive today through works such as The Geography of Strabo we know that crates posited an Antipodes, as well as a second southern landmass, and possibly a second northern landmass with Strabo saying:

Crates […] says that the torrid zone is ‘occupied’ by Oceanus and that on both sides of this zone are the temperate zones, the one being on our side, while the other is on the other side of it. […] Crates thinks, we must conceive that on the other side of Oceanus also there are certain Ethiopians, the most remote of the other group of peoples in the temperate zone, since they dwell on the shores of this same Oceanus; and that they are in two groups and are ‘sundered in twain’ by Oceanus.[3]

Many historians have drawn spherical globes indicating landmasses of equal size mirroring each other on each hemisphere, regarded as Crates globe. This has been due to a theory that Greeks believed in a principle of symmetry. Stallard claims that this theory cannot be backed and as such could be inaccurate. While the Greeks did prescribe to many principles of ordering such as beauty, perfection and honour there is no evidence to the theory of symmetry. However many historians still believe the ancient Greeks adhered to this theory. Stallard believes that geographical drawings of Crates world, none of which drawn by Crates himself could be widely inaccurate as they are based not only off Crates translation but include this theory[3]. Personally I’m not going to comment on this more until we cover Geminus.

Geminusof Rhodes 1st century BC. I tried to work out an estimated birth date with this guy, believe me. But his estimated birth dates ranges over 100 years apart. While some believe he may have been taught by Posidoneous the lack of birth date and other information to verify this makes it impossible to be sure. In fact, we don’t even know if Geminus was born or worked in Rhodes. He mainly worked on astrology and Rhodes was the hub for Astological work at this time, as such a lot of his books referred to mountains in Rhodes but we cannot actually be sure if he lived there and was not just using them as reference[14].

In his work introduction to Phenomena he provided detail of the potential people of the globe writing:

“Of those who dwell on Earth, some are called synoikoi, some perioikoi, some antoikoi, and some antipodes. Synoikoi are those who dwell around the same place in the same zone [as we do]. Perioikoi are those who dwell in the same zone but around the circle. Antoikoi are those who dwell in the southern zone in the same hemisphere Antipodes are those who dwell in the southern zone in the other hemisphere, lying on the same diameter as our oikoumene, which is why they have been called ‘with feet opposite’”[3]

“When we speak of the southern zone and of those dwelling in it, as well as the so-called antipodes in it, we should be understood in this way: that we have received no account of the southern zone nor whether people live in it, but rather that, because of the whole spherical construction, and shape of the Earth, and the path of the Sun between the tropics, there exists a certain other zone, lying towards the south and having the same temperate character as the northern zone in which we live. In the same way, we speak of the antipodes not in the sense that people positively dwell diametrically opposite us, but rather that there is on Earth a certain habitable place diametrically opposite us.”[1]

Pomponius Mela was an early pioneer of geography, though encycloedia.com states that his works were unscientific nor mathematical. He lived around 1st century AD, though little is truly known of him besides through his work De Chorographia, that was written around 43 AD. He resided in the Roman city of Tingentera, in southern Spain[15]. Mela believed in Parmenides and Crates zonal theory where the earth was divided into five zones. In Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World he refers to the southern hemisphere according to Crates Antichthones, referring to a land opposite to the oikoumene. He wrote:

“The remaining two habitable zones have the same annual seasons, but not at the same time. The Antichthones inhabit one we the other”[1].

Pliny,was born in 23 AD in the city of Rhaetia. He was known for writing the first ever encyclopedia Natural History containing over a million words over 37 volumes. He, much like myself, admitted to relying heavily on secondary sources claiming that he owned a library of 2,000 works. Plyny died in 79 AD during the volcanic eruption of Pompeii[16]. Regarding the viability of antipodes he wrote:

“On this point there is a great contest between the learned and the vulgar. We maintain, that there are men dispersed over every part of the earth, that they stand with their feet turned towards each other, that the vault of the heavens appears alike to all of them, and that they, all of them, appear to tread equally on the middle of the earth. If any one should ask, why those situated opposite to us do not fall, we directly ask in return, whether those on the opposite side do not wonder that we do not fall. But I may make a remark, that will appear plausible even to the most unlearned, that if the earth were of the figure of an unequal globe, like the seed of a pine, still it may be inhabited in every part”[17].

Another member of antiquity that played a large role in later antipodal theories when rediscovered in the medieval times was Ptolemy. Ptolemy lived in the then Roman city of Alexandria in Egypt between  100-170 AD. He was a mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He completed a number of books in his field including Geographia[18].

Ptolemy also created a map of the world where he was the first to subdivide Europe, Africa and Asia into regions that were calculated by latitude and longitude, while also thinking about how to draw a map on a spherical globe. Ptolemy was aware of his lack of knowledge and noted that his maps were incomplete filled with areas yet to be found or explored that would require later revisions, these surrounding area’s he coined as Terra Incognita, land unknown. He believed that the world was one giant continent of habitable land, bound not only by ocean also landlocked by unknown land. He also believed in a theory of balance, meaning all of the land in the northern hemisphere needed to be connected to a large continent on the southern hemisphere. Ptolemy envisioned that Africa and Asia were land locked with the Indian ocean enclosed between them and this large southern landmass[19]. This allowed for Ptolemy’s theory that the antipodes were connected to the oikumene by the southern, eastern and northern borders rather than being unreachable through the torrid zone.

So we have now come to the end. As you have come to realise there is no simple way to determine which philosopher first conjured the idea of a spherical earth or a theory of climate that in turn lead to the belief of antipodes. Unfortunately too many works have been lost over time and there are probably many philosophers we no longer know of. I still hope that this episode has been enjoyable and lead to information that you were yet to know on early Europeans thoughts of a southern land. The ancient Greeks constantly questioned the world around them, leading to some enlightened hypothesis and philosophies on how the world worked.

[1] Stallard, Origins of the Idea of Antipodes: Errors, Assumptions, and a Bare Few Facts
[2] Stallard, Antipodes to Terra Australis: Introduction – Un-telling the story
[3] Stallard, Antipodes to Terra Australis: Chapter One – Origins: Antipodes, Ancient and Medieval
[4] Famous Scientist, Anaximander
[5] Huffman, Pythagoras, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[6] Rigby, The Babylonians were using Pythagoras’ Theorem over 1,000 years before he was born, Science Focus
[7] Palmer, Parmenides, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[8] Hiatt, Terra Incognita: Mapping the Antipodes before 1600: Chapter Two – The Antipodes in Antiquity
[9] DeLong, Parmenides of Elea (Late 6th cn.—Mid 5th cn. B.C.E.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[10] Nails, Socrates, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[11] Timmons, Socrates, Biography
[12] Plato, Phaedo
[13] Shields, Aristotle, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
[14] O’Connor & Robertson, Geminus, MT Mac Tutor .,/.,,
[15] Grant, Pomponius Mela, Encyclopedia.com
[16] Spartacus Education, Pliny the Elder
[17] Pliny, the Elder, The Natural History of Pliny, Volume 1 (of 6): Chapter 65 – Whether there be antipodes
[18] Brown, Claudias Ptolomy, Khan Academy
[19] St John’s College, Ptolomy’s Ancient Geography, University of Cambridge


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: