Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders

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Joshua J. Mark
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published on 21 July 2023
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Available in other languages: French, Spanish

Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders (225 BCE) is the first known list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (though it may have been based on earlier works now lost). Philo's list differs from the standard Seven Wonders in replacing the Lighthouse at Alexandria with the Walls of Babylon.

Hanging Gardens (Artist's Impression)
Hanging Gardens (Artist's Impression)
Mohawk Games (Copyright)

There were several lists, or references to, the Seven Wonders in antiquity by writers including Herodotus, Antipater of Sidon, Callimachus of Cyrene, Strabo, and Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus (l. 1st century BCE), in his Bibliotheca historica ("Historical Library") provides the standard list recognized today:

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Philo includes all of these except the Lighthouse of Alexandria, choosing instead the Walls of Babylon, perhaps because he lived in the city and worked at the Library of Alexandria and so, maybe, he was simply used to seeing the lighthouse which was completed under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 282-246 BCE), though this is speculation. There does not seem to need to be any reason for one writer choosing a given Wonder over another other than personal taste, and any list or reference to the Seven Wonders includes sites on par with those on the list recognized today. Callimachus of Cyrene (l. c. 310 to c. 240), for example, chose to include the Ishtar Gate of Babylon among the Wonders, and many who have seen the rebuilt gate at the Pergamon Museum in Germany would most likely agree with him.

The piece is important as the first known catalog of the Seven Wonders, even if it does draw on earlier authors.

Philo's list breaks off in the middle of his description of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Chapter 6), and the rest of the manuscript is lost. It is thought the missing part included the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus because, in his introduction, he mentions how one must "go to Halicarnassus in Caria" in listing where to see the Seven Wonders (Romer, 230). The work was created in Alexandria, probably at the library, where Philo was an engineer. This is by no means certain, however, and some scholars doubt whether Philo of Byzantium is even the author of the piece, referring to whoever wrote it as "Pseudo-Philo of Byzantium." It seems, however, to have been written in Alexandria and was then taken to Byzantium where it was copied, and those copies sent to other intellectual centers of the time (Romer, x).

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At some point, it made its way to Europe and, according to scholar Roger Pearse, was "in the hands of the printer Hieronymus Froben in Basle in Switzerland" in the 1530s (2). Prior to this, it is thought to have been consulted by the historian, monk, and scholar Bede (l. c. 673-735 CE), who compiled his own list, which, like the many others, differs from the standard. On the Seven Wonders was included in the Palatine Library of Heidelberg, Germany, in the 16th century, was part of the collection of the Vatican in the 17th century, and then was taken to Paris after the library was looted, only finding its way back to Heidelberg in the 19th century, where the manuscript is held today (Pearse, 2).

The piece is important as the first known catalog of the Seven Wonders, even if it does draw on earlier authors. Philo's obvious admiration for the works he describes, as well as what he says about traveling to see them in his introduction, leads a reader to believe he visited all seven sites personally, though this may not have been the case. Even so, the detail of his work has captured the imaginations of readers for centuries, inspiring others to create lists of their own right up through the present day.

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Reconstructions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

This collection features reconstructions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Colossus of Rhodes. Out...

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The following translation is by Hugh Johnstone, from the book The Seven Wonders of the World: A History of the Modern Imagination by John and Elizabeth Romer. It should be noted that Philo never places the Hanging Gardens in Babylon – he does not mention where they are – supporting the claim of modern scholars, such as Stephanie Dalley, that the Hanging Gardens were actually in Nineveh. He also chooses all of the pyramids of the Giza plateau, not just the Great Pyramid.

1.Everyone has heard of each of the Seven Wonders of the World, but few have seen all of them for themselves. To do so, one has to go abroad to Persia, cross the Euphrates River, travel to Egypt, spend some time among the Elians in Greece, go to Halicarnassus in Caria, sail to Rhodes, and see Ephesus in Ionia. Only if you travel the world and get worn out by the effort of the journey will the desire to see all the Wonders of the World be satisfied, and by the time you have done that you will be old and practically dead.

2.Because of this, education can perform a remarkable and valuable task: it removes the necessity to travel, displays the beautiful and amazing things in one's very own home, and allows one to see those things with one's mind if not with one's eyes. If a man goes to the different locations, sees them once, and goes away, he immediately forgets: the details of the works are not recalled, and memories of the individual features fail. But if a man investigates in verbal form the things to wonder at and the execution of their construction, and if he contemplates, as though looking at a mirror image, the whole skillful work, he keeps the impressions of each picture indelible in his mind. The reason for this is that he has seen amazing things with his mind.

3.What I say will be shown to be reliable if my words make a clear description of each of the Seven Wonders and persuade the listener to acknowledge that he has got an idea of the spectacle. Of course, only the Seven Wonders are commonly described as praiseworthy, in so far as other sights can be seen just as much as these, but the admiration for the Seven Wonders and for other sights is different. For beauty, like the sun, makes it impossible to see other things when it is itself radiant.

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I. Hanging Garden

1.The so-called Hanging Garden with its plants above the ground grows in the air. The roots of trees form a roof over the ground. Stone pillars stand under the garden to support it and the whole area beneath the garden is occupied with engraved bases of the pillars.

2.Individual beams of palm trees are in position, and the space separating them is very narrow. The wood from palm trees is the only kind of wood which does not rot. When they are saturated and under great pressure, they arch upwards and nourish the capillaries of the roots [of the vegetation] and admit into their own crevices roots that are not their own.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Ferdinand Knab (Public Domain)

3.On top of these beams a great amount of earth is poured to quite a depth. On top grow broad-leaved trees and garden trees, and there are varied flowers of all kinds – in short, everything that is most pleasing to the eye and most enjoyable. The area is cultivated just as happens on ground level. In much the same way as on normal ground, it sees the work of people who plant shoots: ploughing goes on above those wandering through the supporting colonnade.

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4.While people walk along the top, the land on top of the roof is motionless and, as in the most fertile regions, remains pure. From above, aqueducts carry in running water: along one way the stream follows a wide downhill course, along the other way the water runs up, under pressure, in a screw; the necessary mechanisms of the contraption make the water run round and round in a spiral. The water goes up into many large receptacles and irrigates the whole garden. It dampens the roots of the plants deep in the earth and keeps the earth moist. This is why the grass is always green and the leaves of the trees grow permanently [? nourished by the dew, on tender boughs.

5.For, free from thirst, the roots suck up the permeating water and form roaming entanglements among themselves below the ground and, as a unit, preserve the developed trees safe and sound. The masterpiece is luxurious and regal, and it breaks the laws of nature to hang the work of cultivation over the heads of spectators.

II. The Pyramids in Memphis

1.While it is impossible to build the pyramids in Memphis [today], it is marvelous to describe them. Mountains have been built on mountains. The sheer size of the squared masonry is difficult for the mind to grasp, and everyone is mystified at the enormous strength that was required to prize up such a weight of material.

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2.A four-cornered base was set down, and hewn stones make up the foundations which are of the same dimensions as the height of each structure above ground. Gradually the whole work was brought up into a pyramid, tapering to a point.

3.Its height is 500 feet and the distance around the base is 3,600 feet. The whole polished work is joined together so seamlessly that it seems to be made out of one continuous rock. But in fact, different colors and types of stone have been used in its construction: here there is white marble, here there is black African stone. Then there is also what is called 'the blood red stone' and a stone of variegated translucent green, brought, so they say, from Arabia.

The Pyramids, Giza, Egypt
The Pyramids, Giza, Egypt
Shellapic76 (CC BY)

4.The colors of some of the stones are a dark glass-green, others are almost quince-yellow, while yet others have a color that is likened to the purple in conch shells. To one's astonishment is added pleasure, to one's admiration respect, and to its lavishness splendor.

5.The ascent is no less long or tiring than a road journey. Standing on the top and looking down, one can only dimly see the bottom. Royal wealth has woven extravagant expense alongside a pleasing array of colors. May its fortune boast that it believes that with its extraordinary expense it can touch the very stars, for it is through deeds such as these that men go up to the gods, or that gods come down to men.

III. Olympian Zeus

1.Cronus is the father of Zeus in heaven, but Phidias is the father of Zeus in Elis. Immortal nature was the parent of the former, but the hands of Phidias of the latter; those hands alone were capable of begetting gods. Blessed is that one person on earth who saw the king and had the ability to show the Thunderer to others.

2.But if Zeus is embarrassed to be called the son of Phidias, skill was the mother of his representation. Nature produced elephants and Africa abounds in herds of elephants just so that Phidias could cut the tusks of the wild animals and work the matter with his hands into the form that he intended.

Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

3.Whereas we just wonder at the other six wonders, we kneel in front of this one in reverence, because the execution of the skill is as incredible as the image of Zeus is holy. The work brings praise, and the immortality brings honor.

4.Those were the good old days for Greece! When her wealth in the world of the gods surpassed any other people's wealth at any subsequent time; when she had an artist who was a creator of immortality unmatched by any that later ages produced; when it was possible to show men how the gods looked – appearances which it was never to be possible for other ages to see. Certainly, Phidias is the champion over Olympus for the longest time, just in the same way as facts are better than guesswork, knowledge better than enquiry, and sight better than hearing.

IV. The Colossus at Rhodes

1.Rhodes is an island in the sea. It had been hidden below the sea for a long time, but then Helios revealed it, and requested of the gods that the new island be his own. On this island stands a Colossus, one hundred and twenty feet high and representing Helios. The statue is recognizable as being of Helios because it has his distinctive features. The artist used a quantity of bronze that might have exhausted the mines, for the molten image of the structure was the bronze work of the world.

2.Perhaps Zeus poured down marvelous wealth on the Rhodians precisely so that they could honor Helios in spending it on the erection of the statue of the god, layer upon layer, from the ground up to the heavens. The artist secured it firmly from the inside with iron frames and squared blocks of stone, of which the horizontal bars exhibit hammer work in the Cyclopean fashion. The hidden part of the work is bigger than the visible parts. Further questions strike the admiring spectator: what kind of fire tongs were used, what size were the bases of the anvils, with what workforce was such a weight of poles forged?

3.A base of white marble was laid down, and on this he first set the feet of the Colossus up to the ankle bones. He had already conceived in his mind the proportions in which the one-hundred-and-twenty-foot god was going to be built. Since the soles of the feet on the base were already at a greater height than other statues, it was impossible to lift up the rest and set it on top. The ankles had to be cast on top and, just as happens in building houses, the whole work had to rise on top of itself.

Ancient Rhodes by Frantisek Kupka
Ancient Rhodes by Frantisek Kupka
Tony Hisgett (CC BY-NC-SA)

4.And for this reason, in the case of other statues, artists first make a mold, then divide it into parts, cast them, and finally put them all together and erect the statue. But the artist of the Colossus cast the first part and then molded the second part on the first and, when the second part had been cast in bronze, built the third part on top of that. He used the same method of construction for the remaining parts. For it was not possible to move the metal parts.

5.When the casting had been done on the earlier worked parts, the intervals of the bars and the joints of the framework were taken care of, and the structure was held steady with stones that had been put inside. So that throughout the construction he might retain his conception unshaken, he continually poured an immense mound of earth round the finished parts of the Colossus, hiding what had already been worked on underground, and carried out the next stage of casting on the flat surface of what was underneath.

6.Little by little he reached the goal of his dream and, at the expense of five hundred bronze talents and three hundred silver talents, he made his god equal to the god. He produced a work outstanding in its boldness, for on the world he set a second Helios facing the first.

V. The Walls of Babylon

1.Semiramis [legendary queen of Babylon] was rich in royal inventiveness. So when she died, she left a treasure of a wonder behind: she laid down foundations forty-one miles long and walled Babylon. The perimeter wall is long enough to exhaust a long-distance runner. The wall is striking not only on account of its length, but also on account of the solidity of its structure and of the width of the recesses inside it. For it is built from baked brick and bitumen.

Ishtar Gate (Artist's Impression)
Ishtar Gate (Artist's Impression)
Mohawk Games (Copyright)

2.The wall is more than eighty feet high and four four-horsed chariots can simultaneously ride along the width of the circular track [on top]. There are consecutive multi-storied towers [along the wall] which are capable of housing a whole army. The city is, thus, the advanced fortification of Persia. From the outside you would not guess that it encloses within itself a habitation.

3.Thousands and thousands of men live inside the city's round wall! The size of the land outside the walls which is farmed is hardly bigger than the built-up area in Babylon, and the farmers outside the walls are as foreigners to those people living within the wall.

VI. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus is the only house of the gods. Whoever looks will be convinced that a change of place has occurred: that the heavenly world of immortality has been placed on the earth. For the Giants, or the sons of Aloeus, who attempted an ascent to heaven, made a heap out of mountains and built not a temple but Olympus. The result is that the work exceeds the enterprise in boldness and, likewise, the skill exceeds the work.

Model of the Temple of Artemis
Model of the Temple of Artemis
Faigl.ladislav (GNU FDL)

The architect loosened the bottom of the underlying ground, then dug out trenches to a great depth and laid down the foundations underground. The quantity of masonry expended on the structures below the ground amounted to whole quarries of mountains. He ensured its unshakeable steadiness and, having previously set Atlas under the weight of the parts that would support the building, first he set down on the outside a base with ten steps, and on that base he raised…[Here the manuscript breaks off; the rest of the piece is lost].

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Questions & Answers

What is Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders?

Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders is a list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World written in 225 BCE. It includes the Hanging Garden, the Pyramids at Memphis, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Colossus of Rhodes, the Walls of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (though the description of the mausoleum has been lost).

Why is Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders important?

Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders is important because it is the earliest extant list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and is an example of how various ancient writers chose different "Wonders" for their lists.

What is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

The oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is the Great Pyramid at Giza, which is also the only one still standing today.

Who was Philo of Byzantium and did he really visit all Seven Wonders?

Philo of Byzantium (l. 3rd century BCE) was an engineer at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt. It is unclear whether he visited all Seven Wonders or drew upon earlier manuscripts, now lost, for his descriptions of the sites.

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APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2023, July 21). Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2257/philo-of-byzantiums-on-the-seven-wonders/

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J.. "Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified July 21, 2023. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2257/philo-of-byzantiums-on-the-seven-wonders/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J.. "Philo of Byzantium's On the Seven Wonders." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 21 Jul 2023. Web. 20 Feb 2024.

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