Eratosthenes was born in Cyrene which is now in Libya in North Africa. His teachers included the scholar Lysanias of Cyrene and the philosopher Ariston of Chios who had studied under Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. Eratosthenes also studied under the poet and scholar Callimachus who had also been born in Cyrene. Eratosthenes then spent some years studying in Athens.
The library at Alexandria was planned by Ptolemy I Soter and the project came to fruition under his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The library was based on copies of the works in the library of Aristotle. Ptolemy II Philadelphus appointed one of Eratosthenes’ teachers Callimachus as the second librarian. When Ptolemy III Euergetes succeeded his father in 245 BC and he persuaded Eratosthenes to go to Alexandria as the tutor of his son Philopator. On the death of Callimachus in about 240 BC, Eratosthenes became the third librarian at Alexandria, in the library in a temple of the Muses called the Mouseion. The library is said to have contained hundreds of thousands of papyrus and vellum scrolls.
One of the important works of Eratosthenes was Platonicus which dealt with the mathematics which underlie Plato’s philosophy. Theon of Smyrna tells us that Eratosthenes’ work studied the basic definitions of geometry and arithmetic, as well as covering such topics as music.
Eratosthenes also worked on prime numbers. He is remembered for his prime number sieve, the ‘Sieve of Eratosthenes’ which, in modified form, is still an important tool in number theory research.
Eratosthenes made a surprisingly accurate measurement of the circumference of the Earth. Details were given in his treatise On the measurement of the Earth which is now lost. However, some details of these calculations appear in works by other authors such as Cleomedes, Theon of Smyrna and Strabo. Eratosthenes compared the noon shadow at midsummer between Syene (now Aswan on the Nile in Egypt) and Alexandria. He assumed that the sun was so far away that its rays were essentially parallel, and then with a knowledge of the distance between Syene and Alexandria, he gave the length of the circumference of the Earth as 250,000 stadia.
Eratosthenes also measured the distance to the sun as 804,000,000 stadia and the distance to the Moon as 780,000 stadia. He computed these distances using data obtained during lunar eclipses. Ptolemy tells us that Eratosthenes measured the tilt of the Earth’s axis with great accuracy obtaining the value of 11/83 of 180, namely 23 51 15.
Eratosthenes made many other major contributions to the progress of science. He worked out a calendar that included leap years, and he laid the foundations of a systematic chronography of the world when he tried to give the dates of literary and political events from the time of the siege of Troy. He is also said to have compiled a star catalogue containing 675 stars.
Eratosthenes made major contributions to geography. He sketched, quite accurately, the route of the Nile to Khartoum, showing the two Ethiopian tributaries. He also suggested that lakes were the source of the river. Many scholars before Eratosthenes had made a study of the Nile and they had attempted to explain the rather strange behavior of the river, but most like Thales were quite wrong in their explanations. Eratosthenes was the first to give what is essentially the correct answer when he suggested that heavy rains sometimes fell in regions near the source of the river and that these would explain the flooding lower down the river. Another contribution that Eratosthenes made to geography was his description of the region “Eudaimon Arabia”, now the Yemen, as inhabited by four different races. The situation was somewhat more complicated than that proposed by Eratosthenes, but today the names for the races proposed by Eratosthenes, namely Minaeans, Sabaeans, Qatabanians, and Hadramites, are still used.
Eratosthenes writings include the poem Hermes, inspired by astronomy, as well as literary works on the theatre and on ethics which was a favorite topic of the Greeks. Eratosthenes is said to have became blind in old age and it has been claimed that he committed suicide by starvation.