The first and best evidence is that of Archimedes, who, as we have seen, was a younger contemporary of Aristarchus. Writing to Gelon, King of Syracuse, he says that Aristarchus brought out "a book consisting of certain hypotheses," and continues: "His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit." There is a passage in Plutarch saying that Cleanthes "thought it was the duty of the Greeks to indict Aristarchus of Samos on the charge of impiety for putting in motion the Hearth of the Universe (i.e. the earth), this being the effect of his attempt to save the phenomena by supposing the heaven to remain at rest and the earth to revolve in an oblique circle, while it rotates, at the same time, about its own axis." Cleanthes was a contemporary of Aristarchus, and died about 232 B.C. In another passage, Plutarch says that Aristarchus advanced this view only as a hypothesis, but that his successor Seleucus maintained it as a definite opinion. (Seleucus flourished about 150 B.C.). Atius and Sextus Empiricus also assert that Aristarchus advanced the heliocentric hypothesis, but do not say that it was set forth by him only as a hypothesis. Even if he did so, it seems not unlikely that he, like Galileo two thousand years later, was influenced by the fear of offending religious prejudices, a fear which the attitude of Cleanthes (mentioned above) shows to have been well grounded.
The Copernican hypothesis, after being advanced, whether positively or tentatively, by Aristarchus, was definitely adopted by Seleucus, but by no other ancient astronomer. This general rejection was mainly due to Hipparchus, who flourished from 161 to 126 B.C. He is described by Heath as "the greatest astronomer of antiquity." He was the first to write systematically on trigonometry; he discovered the precession of the equinoxes; he estimated the length of the lunar month with an error of less than one second; he improved Aristarchus's estimates of the sizes and distances of the sun and moon; he made a catalogue of eight hundred and fifty fixed stars, giving their latitude and longitude. As against the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus, he adopted and improved the theory of epicycles which had been invented by Apollonius, who flourished about 220 B.C.; it was a development of this theory that came to be known, later, as the Ptolemaic system, after the astronomer Ptolemy, who flourished in the middle of the second century A.D. Copernicus came to know something, though not much, of the almost forgotten hypothesis of Aristarchus, and was encouraged by finding ancient authority for his innovation. Otherwise, the effect of this hypothesis on subsequent astronomy was practically nil.
Ancient astronomers, in estimating the sizes of the earth, moon, and sun, and the distances of the moon and sun, used methods which were theoretically valid, but they were hampered by the lack of instruments of precision. Many of their results, in view of this lack, were surprisingly good. Eratosthenes estimated the earth's diameter at 7850 miles, which is only about fifty miles short of the truth. Ptolemy estimated the mean distance of the moon at 29 ½ times the earth's diameter; the correct figure is about 30.7. None of them got anywhere near the size and distance of the sun, which all underestimated. Their estimates, in terms of the earth's diameter, were:
The correct figure is 11,726. It will be seen that these estimates continually improved (that of Ptolemy, however, showed a retrogression); that of Posidonius is about half the correct figure. On the whole, their picture of the solar system was not so very far from the truth.
Greek astronomy was geometrical, not dynamic. The ancients thought of the motions of the heavenly bodies as uniform and circular, or compounded of circular motions. They had not the conception of force. There were spheres which moved as a whole, and on which the various heavenly bodies were fixed. With Newton and gravitation a new point of view, less geometrical, was introduced. It is curious to observe that there is a reversion to the geometrical point of view in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, from which the conception of force, in the Newtonian sense, has been banished.
The problem for the astronomer is this: given the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies on the celestial sphere, to introduce, by hypothesis, a third co-ordinate, depth, in such a way as to make the description of the phenomena as simple as possible. The merit of the Copernican hypothesis is not truth, but simplicity; in view of the relativity of motion, no question of truth is involved. The Greeks, in their search for hypotheses which would "save the phenomena," were in effect, though not altogether in intention, tackling the problem in the scientifically correct way. A comparison with their predecessors, and with their successors until Copernicus, must convince every student of their truly astonishing genius.