In his well-known measurement of the Earth, and according to Cleomedes, Eratosthenes estimated in 5000 stades the distance between Aswan and Alexandria. Modern accounts state that he calculated the distance from the time taken by caravans (improbable, as the Nile was navigable all the way, downstream from Aswan, so caravans weren't needed) or that he hired walking surveyors for that task. For example, in https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200606/history.cfm

He realized that if he knew the distance from Alexandria to Syene, he could easily calculate the circumference of Earth. But in those days it was extremely difficult to determine distance with any accuracy. Some distances between cities were measured by the time it took a camel caravan to travel from one city to the other. But camels have a tendency to wander and to walk at varying speeds. So Eratosthenes hired bematists, professional surveyors trained to walk with equal length steps. They found that Syene lies about 5000 stadia from Alexandria.

I've been unable to confirm this in old, Greek or Latin accounts.

Any comments?

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    $\begingroup$ The main sources are Cleomedes and Strabo, and neither of them is reliable, so basically we do not know what Eratosthenes actually did. And not just for the distance, see How did Eratosthenes determine that Alexandria and Syene were on the same meridian? $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Mar 28 '20 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ There is no evidence that he specially hired someone to measure this distance. He probably relied on travelers accounts. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 '20 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ Martianus Capella, VI, 598 hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/Chronologia/Lspost05/Martianus/… $\endgroup$
    – sand1
    Mar 28 '20 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ @sand1 It's an interesting text, but I can find no mention to the distance between Alexandria and Aswan/Syene... However, the fact that there were royal surveyors that had worked out the distance between Meroe and Syene is a valuable indirect clue... $\endgroup$
    – xxavier
    Mar 29 '20 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ This can be done reasonably well with a thread or rope of known length and one slave plus one overseer, right? It does not seem like a piece of information that is strictly necessary for running an ancient empire, but it does not seem particularly hard either. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Jul 21 '21 at 14:03

Based on the discussion of Eratosthenes' method in Daniel Špelda's Astronomie v Antice (Astronomy in Antiquity, ISBN 80-7225-210-0), the distance of 5000 stadia was estimated by Eratosthenes based on the time traders took to travel between the cities. A round value was used, similar to other values Eratosthenes used in his computation, suggesting that even he himself was aware that the numbers were just estimations.


You might have heard of something called geometry.

Geometry is from the Greek for "earth measurement", and ancient people use it for measuring land, or surveying.

The ancient Egyptians needed geometry to re survey property boundries after each annual Nile flood. So the ancient Egyptians had been using geometry for at least 3,000 years before the Ptolomaic dynasty gained the throne. And the Ptolomies ran Egypt like a money making business. So it seems pretty obvious that Egypt would have been surveyed rather well during the Ptolomaic dynasty.

Of course the Nile river twisted and turned like most rivers do. If property lines were surveyed at right angles to the river's direction at a spot, instead of all going straight east to west, those property lines would not be all equally spaced from north to south and counting them would not give an accurate north-south distance.

Eqypt would have been mapped for military purposes also. The Ptolomies might want to invade the countries to the south as earlier Egyptian dynasties had, and the Nubian kingdoms might want to invade Egypt - there had been a Nubian conquest that put a Nubian dynasty on the Egyptian throne. And the native Egyptians sometimes revolted.

And obviously there was a military benefit to knowing all the sortcuts through the desert that bypassed the meandering loops of the Nile. So any caravan routes through the desert which were shortcuts between loops would have been surveyed to find all the waterholes and estimate how large an army could use those waterholes.

So it is quite likey that Eqypt was surveyed down to Syene, modern Aswan, a frontier town with a Ptolemaic garrison.

And no doubt the government files had distances and routes between various places measured in case of need.

Aswan/Cyene is at 24 degrees, 05 minutes, 20 seconds north, and Alexandria is at 31 degrees, 12 minutes north, or a little more than 7 degrees of latitude farther north.



An ancient Greek stadion was 600 greek feet, but different foot lengths were used in different Greek regions. A stadion was probably about 157.7 meters or about 172.5 yards.


The length of a degree of latitude is about 67 miles or 111 kilometers, which is 111,000 meters.


So a latitude difference of about 7 degrees is about 7 X 111,000 meters, or about 777,000 meters. And that equals about 4,927.07 stadia.

The actual latitude difference between Alexandria and Syene is about 7 degrees and 7 minutes. A minute of latitude is one sixtieth of a degree, or about 1,850 meters. 7 minutes of latitude are about 12,950 meters, 777,000 meters plus 12,950 meters is 789,950 meters.

So the actual latitude difference between Alexandria and Syene is closer to about 789,950 meters, or about 5,009.1946 stadia, than to 4,927.07 stadia.

So maybe Eratosthenes made a lucky guesstimate, as Frigo suggests, that was rather close to the accurate distance by chance.

Or maybe Egypt was survevyed well enough that the latitude difference between Alexandria and Aswan/Cyene was known pretty accurately to people in the government survey office. Educated people who didn't work in such an office wouldn't remember the exact figure without looking it up, but would remember that it was close to a round 5,000 stadia, especially allowing for various inevitable errors in the surveys which would make more precision meaningless.


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