How Did Columbus Know the Earth Was Round? The Truth!

Today, there is the inaccurate idea that everybody in the Middle Ages believed the Earth was flat and only the voyage of Christopher Columbus proved the spherical shape of the Earth. But in reality, the knowledge of the spherical shape of the Earth was much older and rooted in Ancient Greece.

Ancient Greek Scientists like Aristotle had already established the spherical shape of the Earth and that knowledge spread quickly and soon became scientific consensus. In 1493 the German physician Hartmann Schedel wrote in his Nuremberg Chronicle that „almost everybody“ was convinced of the spherical shape of the Earth. And even the church taught the spherical shape of the Earth as a fact.

So Columbus did not have to do any guesswork on whether or not the earth was round, he just had to follow the scientific consensus of his time.

Ok, now the fact that the ancient Greeks already figured out that the Earth was round does not sound too surprising. But the fact that the church, an institution that is often painted as anti-science, also followed the idea that the Earth was round might come as a surprise to you.

However, in reality, the medieval church was way less anti-science than many people today would want to make you believe. Even the common claim that the medieval church prohibited medicine students from dissecting corpses is only partially true.

So the medieval church was not a backward-looking organization when it came to the spherical shape of the earth.

Even the arguable most influential thinker of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, an influential philosopher, theologian, and Dominican friar, had adopted the idea of the spherical shape of the earth as it had already been taught in Greek and Roman Antiquity. As a result, the fact that the earth was round was also taught at the famous University of Salamanca, a university led by the Dominican order. The University of Salamanca and the Dominicans teaching there also famously supported Columbus’s idea of sailing west.

Here you can find out more about Columbus’s expedition west and why the support of the Dominicans at the University of Salamanca was so important for him.

And in 1493, shortly after Columbus had departed for his expedition west, the physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel published his „Schedelsche Weltchronik“ (Schedel`s world chronicle) in which he wrote that „fast alle“ (almost everybody) is convinced of the spherical shape of the earth.

So it shows that the spherical shape of the earth was not a new secret that Columbus discovered, it was basically common opinion in the Middle Ages. Despite that, Columbus was the first who wanted to sail west to reach Asia (even though a German had the same plan and almost managed to pass Columbus while he was trying to find the necessary financial support for his expedition).

Do you want to find out more about how Columbus got the idea to sail west? Then please check out my article here.

But to be able to sail west, Christopher Columbus also needed a compass. However, while the compass was unknown in Antiquity, it had arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, the Compass had been brought from China into the Middle East. From there the Normans eventually spread the use of the compass over all of Europe. For the first time the Compass now allowed ships to sail far offshore while during Antiquity, ships had to stay relatively close to the shore and sail along the shoreline.

Do you want to find out more about ships in Antiquity? Then I would like to recommend you my article on the famous Athenian navy (that crushed the Persian fleet in the Battle of Artemisium during the Persian Wars).

And if you are interested in the Roman import of grain (and why Rome rather imported grain instead of growing it in Italy despite having more than enough suitable farmland), I would like to recommend you my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


John S. Collis: Christopher Columbus.*

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