1902 Encyclopedia > Cosmas (Cosmas Indicopleustes)

(Cosmas Indicopleustes)
Greek explorer and monk
(fl. 6th century AD)

COSMAS, surnamed from his maritime experiences Indicopleustes, a writer of the 6th century. We know nothing of his history except what can be gathered from one of his works which has come down to us, a book which is in itself a mere bank of mud, but is remarkable on account of certain geographical fossils of considerable interest which are found imbedded in it. The first part of the work, embracing books i.-v., can be shown to have been written soon after 535 ; to these seven more books appear to have been gradually added by the author. He was a monk when he wrote, but in earlier days apparently had been a merchant, and in that capacity had sailed on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, visiting Abyssinia and Socotra (_____ and _____), and apparently also the Persian Gulf, Western India, and Ceylon. The book, which was written at Alexandria, is Called by the writer _____, A Christian Topography Embracing the Whole World, and the great object of it is to denounce the false and heathen doctrine of the rotundity of the earth, and to show that the tabernacle in the wilderness is the pattern or model of the universe. Thus the earth is a rectangular plane twice as long as it is broad. The heavens come down to the earth on all four sides like the walls of a room. From the north wall to the south wall, at an un-defined level, a semi-circular waggon vault is turned, and at the same level stretches the " firmament " (_____) like a flat ceiling. All below the firmament is this world ; the story above is heaven, or the world to come. In fact, one of the huge receptacles in which female travellers of our own day carry their dresses forms a perfect model of the universe of Cosmas. Midway in the rectangular surface below lies the inhabited earth, encompassed by Ocean. Be-yond Ocean, bordering the edge, is the unvisited transoceanic land on which, in the far east, lies Terrestrial Paradise. Here, too, on a barren and thorny soil, without the walls of Paradise, dwelt man from the fall to the deluge. The ark floated the survivors across the great ocean belt to this better land which we inhabit. The earth rises gradually from south to north and west, culminating in a great conical moun-tain behind which the sun sets. Repeatedly the writer overflows with indignation against those who reject these views of his, " not built on his own opinions and conjec-tures, but drawn from Holy Scripture, and from the mouth of that divine man and great master, Patricius." The wretched people who chop logic, and hold that the earth and heaven are spherical, are mere blasphemers, given up for their sins to the belief of such impudent nonsense as the doctrine of Antipodes, and so forth. Altogether the book is a kind of caricature type of that process of loading Christian truth with a dead weight of false science which has had so many followers and done so much mischief. Similar cosmography was taught by Diodorus of Tarsus, and other Nestorian doctors.

Among the curious pieces of information very sparsely found amid this stuff are notices of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and its traffic for gold with Inner Africa, of Taprobane or Sielediba (Ceylon), Male (Malabar), and the products and animals of those regions. But the most interesting geographical circumstance is the fact that Cosmas is not only the first who mentions China by a name on which there can be no controversy, Tzinista, i.e., the Persian Ohinistdn, but also that he had a very correct idea of its position as lying on the extreme eastern coast of Asia, and " compassed by the ocean running round it to the left just as the same ocean encompasses Barbary (i.e., the Somali country beyond Abyssinia) round to the right." He knew also that a ship sailing to China, after running east for a long way, and leaving the Clove Country behind, had to turn north at least as far as a ship bound for Chaldaea would have to run up the Persian Gulf, and thus it was intelligible how Tzinista by the overland route lay much nearer Persia than might have been thought from the length of the sea voyage thither.

The work has been preserved in at least two MSS. One is in the Vatican, a very fine uncial MS. of the 8th century, with figures apparently from drawings by Cosmas himself; the other a parchment MS. of the 10th century, is in the Medicean. This last alone contains the 12th book, and of that a leaf is lost. An account of the work is given in the Bibliotheca of Photius, who speaks contemptuously of the author. Some geographical extracts were first published in Thevenot's Collection of Travels (1696). The whole work was edited by Montfaucon in his Collectio nova Patrwm et Script. Grcec, 1706 (vol. ii), and is republished in Bill. Veterum Patrum of P. Andrea Gallandi (vol. xi., Venice, 1776). It appears from allusions in the book itself that Cosmas also wrote a more detailed Topography of Hie Earth, a work on the motions of the stars, and a Commentary on Canticles. The loss of the first is to be regretted. (H.Y.)


This Patricius is stated by Cosmas to have been afterwards Catholicos of Persia. This and other circumstances identify Patricius with Mar Abas, who ruled the Nestorian Chuich from 536 to 552 (se& Assemaui, Bibl. Orient, tent. ii. and iii.).

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