Cosmas Indicopleustes: the first flat earther.

Washington Irving is not much remembered today, although most people have heard of Rip Van Winkle, yet it is an historical falsehood that seems to be his most enduring legacy. Mr Irving, you see, popularised the concept that medieval people thought that the world was flat and Columbus first challenged that idea in 1492CE. It’s not true of course, people had known that the world was round since the Ancient Greeks started calculating the circumference half a millennium before Christ. Columbus’ argument was how big the globe was (which incidentally he got wrong and hit continental America by mistake). However, there is one medieval individual who leaps out as the first and only flat earther, in defiance of all accepted and proven contemporary wisdom: Cosmas Indicopleustes.

Cosmas was a native of Alexandria, part of the Eastern Roman Empire, probably a Nestorian heretic, and active in the first half of the 6th Century. He earned his ‘Indicopleustes’ moniker for his extensive travels throughout the Red Sea and Indian Ocean as a merchant. As part of the Roman merchant fleets that had been visiting the Indian coastline for centuries, he visited Ethiopia, India, Yemen and Ceylon. Around the 550CE, Cosmas wrote and illustrated his Christian Topology with its

biblical interpretation of geography.

The main purpose of the Christian Topology was to refute the Ptolemaic understanding of geography established during the classical period. It was mocked by contemporaries, but it is an invaluable resource in understanding the ancients’ world view. Cosmas’ concept was that the world is placed in a jewelled divine box (like the Tabernacle of Moses) with the walls of the box the skies and the heavens the lid. It contains one of our earliest existing maps of the world, and historical details of the early medieval world that have fascinated historians ever since.

However, the flat earth concept was not popular or accepted even at the time. John the Grammarian, a contemporary, attacked Cosmas’s ideas in 557CE, and the theory never took hold even among theologians. The medieval world may not have understood gravity (the venerable Bede writing a century or so after Cosmas assumed that the Southern hemisphere was uninhabitable), but they understood the shape. Sailors, like Columbus’s crew, were all well aware of the horizon and the curvature of the world when they set off in 1492. It was this practical and mathematical understanding that put paid to Cosmas’s fanciful ideas only to be spuriously resurrected by Washington Irvine 1200 years later.

It is, of course, fiction on my part that Cosmas was involved in Procopius’ silk mission, but someone like Cosmas (a widely travelled Nestorian Christian) would have been vital for the venture’s ultimate success.

The Charioteer is available on AMAZON from Sharpe Books.


Cosmas’ as depicted in the Bibliotheca Augustana.

Cosmas' map of the world from his Christian Topology.

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