Ptolemais of Cyrene

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(fl. between the third century BCE and the first century CE),

history of science, musical theory, musical education.

Ptolemais, whose biographical data are completely unknown to scholars, was the author of a handbook on musical theory titled Pythagorean Elements of Music, of which only few fragments—quoted by Porphyry of Tyre in his Commentary on the Harmonics of Ptolemy—survive. She is the only female musicologist known from classical antiquity and despite the title of her work it seems not to be a manifesto of the Pythagorean doctrine, but to refer to the various traditions of inquiry in harmonic science with no polemic intention.

On her life there is no information at all, except for her place of origin (thanks to the ethnic adjective Kyrenaia quoted by Porphyry). Porphyry neither remarked on her being a woman, nor about her activity or cultural context, but from her name it can be inferred that she was not active before the Ptolemaic era (that is, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, when this sort of name became popular). A terminus ante quem may be deduced from what is known about another musical theorist quoted in the same passage of the Commentary, Didymus, who lived in the first century CE and was presumably Porphyry’s source for quoting Ptolemais. He may have come across her writings thanks to his connections with the scholars of Alexandria. Because of the title of her treatise and because of the quite common presence of women philosophers among Pythagoreans (even if her name is not included in the list of Pythagorean women drawn up by Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras), scholars identified Ptolemais as a follower of neo-Pythagoreanism, whose culmination can be dated in the first imperial age. Therefore a dating around the early first century CE is the most reasonable for her chronological setting, although it cannot be given for certain.

Ptolemais’s treatise was written in the form of question and answer (like another similar work, the Introduction to the Art of Music by Bacchius), therefore perhaps intended as a typical school text of the imperial age. However, its destination is unknown. According to the fragments quoted by Porphyry, her main interest was to draw an outline of the various traditions of inquiry in harmonic science (the study of the elements out of which melody is built) comparing them by reference to their methodologies. The most striking contrast among them was the preference given to perception (aisthesis) or reason (logos) as starting points of musical investigation. The practice of comparing schools of harmonic theory by reference to the status assigned by each to perception and to reason was quite common in Hellenistic and later times. In contrast to what is known from other sources—which describe a sharp division between these two approaches known as the empirical and the Pythagorean—Ptolemais described several shades between these two extremes.

Among Pythagoreans, for instance, she distinguished the kanonikoi and the mathematikoi. The kanonikoi(who, according to her, did not derive their name from the instrument called the kanon, as some people think, but from “straightness,” the science through which reason discovers what is correct) agree to accept perception as a guide for reason at the outset. The mathematikoi, instead, from the very beginning of their musical inquiry adopt theoretical principles such as the fact that intervals are in ratios of numbers (hence the definition of the postulates of kanonike as lying both within the science concerned with music and within that concerned with numbers and geometry. Among empiricists, she separated the mousikoi, that is the harmonic theorists who, despite beginning from perception, applied themselves to a theoretical science based in thought, from the organikoi, who gave no thought at all to theory. It is interesting to notice Ptolemais’s use of the word harmonikoi, which simply came to mean a theorist who has something to do with the harmonic science (instead of being the technical name to mean the empiricists, as it is in most of Greek theoretical sources), and the unusual usage of the term mousikoi intending the empiricists, this is sign of a lexical unlikeness among the different traditions in musical theory.

One of the most interesting passages among her fragments is the one in which she depicted the intellectual figure of Aristoxenus of Tarentum, the greatest musical authority of the ancient world, an Aristotelian pupil who studied the musical phenomena trying to infer the theoretical principles and laws governing them. According to Ptolemais, in his musical inquiry he “accepted both perception and reason in the same way, as being of equal power […] for what is perceived cannot be constituted by itself apart from reason, and neither reason is strong enough to establish anything without taking its starting points (archai) from perception, and delivering the conclusion of its theorising (theorema) in agreement with perception once again” (Ptolemais, third extract, transl. Barker, 1989, p. 241). Despite the Pythagorean orientation of her handbook, it is clear that she described Aristoxenus in an honest and historically reliable way without the distortions typical of some limited followers who transformed him into a pure champion of scientific empiricism (while his real purpose was that of creating a theoretical science, theoretike episteme, concerning audible melos). Thus Ptolemais’s work, despite its form of simple school handbook, displays a quite remarkable critical insight, at least in the part that survives.

A further passage in Porphyry’s treatise includes Ptolemais among those theorists who did not make any distinction between the notions of isotonia (uniformity of pitch) and homophonia (unison). These ideas were later on differentiated by Ptolemy in his Harmonics.



Porphyrios Kommentar zur Harmonielehre des Ptolemaios. Edited by Ingemar Düring. Göteborg, Sweden: Elanders, 1932. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1980. The most recent critical edition of Porphyry’s Greek text that includes Ptolemais’s fragments.

Greek Musical Writings. Vol. 2, Harmonic and Acoustic Theory. Edited by Andrew Barker. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. It includes the English translation of Ptolemais’s fragments.


Barker, Andrew. “Greek Musicologists in the Roman Empire.” In The Sciences in Greco-Roman Society, edited by Timothy D. Barnes, 53–74. Edmonton, Canada: Academic Printing and Publishing, 1994

———. “Ptolemaïs.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Düring, Ingemar. Ptolemaios uns Porphyrios über die Musik. Göteborg, Sweden: Elanders, 1934. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1980.

Harmon, Roger. “Ptolemais [2] aus Kyrene.” In Der Neue Pauly. Enzyclopadie der Antike 10, edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider. Stuttgart, Germany: Metzler, 2001.

Moretti, Gabriella. “Tolomeide di Cirene. Musicologa dell’antichità.” Kleos 9 (2004): 123–152.

Rocconi, Eleonora. “Un manuale al femminile: l’Introduzione Pitagorica alla musica di Tolemaide di Cirene.” In Ars/Techne. Il manuale tecnico nelle civiltà greca e romana, edited by Maria Silvana Celentano. Alessandria, Italy: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2003.

Thesleff, Holger. The Pythagorean Texts of the Hellenistic Period. Abo, Finland: Abo Akademi, 1965.

Ziegler, Konrat. “Ptolemais [3].” In Real-Enzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft23, no. 2 (1959): 1867–1868.

Eleonora Rocconi