Last updated
De hypothesibus motuum coelestium a se constitutis commentariolus
Commentariolus Wien MS10530 Blatt 34.png
Ms. Austrian National Library, 10530, f. 34r
Author Nicolaus Copernicus
Language Latin
Subject Astronomy
Publication date

The Commentariolus (Little Commentary) is Nicolaus Copernicus's brief outline of an early version of his revolutionary heliocentric theory of the universe. [1] After further long development of his theory, Copernicus published the mature version in 1543 in his landmark work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

Nicolaus Copernicus Renaissanse-era mathematician and astronomer who formulated the heliocentric model of the Universe

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Renaissance-era mathematician and astronomer, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, in all likelihood independently of Aristarchus of Samos, who had formulated such a model some eighteen centuries earlier.

Copernican heliocentrism Concept that the Earth rotates around the Sun

Copernican heliocentrism is the name given to the astronomical model developed by Nicolaus Copernicus and published in 1543. This model positioned the Sun near the center of the Universe, motionless, with Earth and the other planets orbiting around it in circular paths, modified by epicycles, and at uniform speeds. The Copernican model displaced the geocentric model of Ptolemy that had prevailed for centuries, which had placed Earth at the center of the Universe. Copernican heliocentrism is often regarded as the launching point to modern astronomy and the Scientific Revolution.

<i>De revolutionibus orbium coelestium</i> book by Copernicus

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is the seminal work on the heliocentric theory of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) of the Polish Renaissance. The book, first printed in 1543 in Nuremberg, Holy Roman Empire, offered an alternative model of the universe to Ptolemy's geocentric system, which had been widely accepted since ancient times.


Copernicus wrote the Commentariolus in Latin by 1514 and circulated copies to his friends and colleagues. [lower-alpha 1] It thus became known among Copernicus's contemporaries, though it was never printed during his lifetime. In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus' theory. Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals heard the lectures and were interested in the theory. On 1 November 1536, Nikolaus von Schönberg, Archbishop of Capua and since the preceding year a cardinal, wrote to Copernicus from Rome and asked him for a copy of his writings "at the earliest possible moment". [4]

Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter, also called Widmannstadt, Johannes Albertus Widmanstadius or Widmestadius,, was a German humanist, orientalist, philologist, and theologian.

Rome Capital of Italy

Rome is the capital city and a special comune of Italy. Rome also serves as the capital of the Lazio region. With 2,872,800 residents in 1,285 km2 (496.1 sq mi), it is also the country's most populated comune. It is the fourth most populous city in the European Union by population within city limits. It is the centre of the Metropolitan City of Rome, which has a population of 4,355,725 residents, thus making it the most populous metropolitan city in Italy. Rome is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, within Lazio (Latium), along the shores of the Tiber. The Vatican City is an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome, the only existing example of a country within a city: for this reason Rome has been often defined as capital of two states.

Pope Clement VII 16th-century Catholic pope

Pope Clement VII, born Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 19 November 1523 to his death on 25 September 1534. “The most unfortunate of the Popes,” Clement VII’s reign was marked by a rapid succession of political, military, and religious struggles — many long in the making — which had far-reaching consequences for Christianity and world politics.

Although copies of the Commentariolus circulated for a time after Copernicus's death, [lower-alpha 2] it subsequently lapsed into obscurity, and its previous existence remained known only indirectly, until a surviving manuscript copy was discovered and published in the second half of the nineteenth century. [lower-alpha 3]


The Commentariolus is subdivided into eight sections (or chapters), of which all but the first bear brief descriptive titles. After a brief introduction, the first section states seven postulates from which Copernicus proposes to show that the apparent motion of the planets can be explained systematically. [7]

The seven postulates

  1. Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point.
  2. The centre of the Earth is the centre of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the Moon around the Earth.
  3. All the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the centre of the Universe.
  4. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from the Earth and the Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars.
  5. The stars are immovable; their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of the Earth.
  6. The Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; the Earth has more than one motion.
  7. The Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

The remaining seven sections are titled, in order, De ordine orbium ("The order of the spheres"), De motibus qui circa solem apparent ("The apparent motions of the Sun"), Quod aequalitas motum non ad aequinoctia sed ad stellas fixas referatur ("Equal motion should be measured not by the equinoxes but by the fixed stars"), De Luna ("The Moon"), De tribus superioribus: Saturno, Jove et Marte ("The outer planets: Saturn, Jupiter and Mars"), De Venere ("Venus") and De Mercurio ("Mercury"). [8]

Moon Earths natural satellite

The Moon is an astronomical body that orbits the Earth as its only permanent natural satellite. It is the fifth-largest satellite in the Solar System, and the largest among planetary satellites relative to the size of the planet that it orbits. The Moon is, after Jupiter's satellite Io, the second-densest satellite in the Solar System among those whose densities are known.

Saturn Sixth planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. It is a gas giant with an average radius about nine times that of Earth. It has only one-eighth the average density of Earth; however, with its larger volume, Saturn is over 95 times more massive. Saturn is named after the Roman god of wealth and agriculture; its astronomical symbol (♄) represents the god's sickle.

Jupiter Fifth planet from the Sun in the Solar System

Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System. It is a gas giant with a mass one-thousandth that of the Sun, but two-and-a-half times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined. Jupiter has been known to astronomers since antiquity. It is named after the Roman god Jupiter. When viewed from Earth, Jupiter can be bright enough for its reflected light to cast shadows, and is on average the third-brightest natural object in the night sky after the Moon and Venus.

The order of the spheres

In this section, the heavenly spheres are given in order from outermost to innermost. The outermost sphere is that of the fixed stars, which remains perfectly stationary. Then follow those of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, which each revolve about the Sun from west to east with successively shorter periods of revolution, Saturn's being between 29 and 30 years, Jupiter's between 11 and 12, Mars's between 2 and 3, Earth's exactly one, Venus's between 8 and 9 months, [lower-alpha 4] and Mercury's between 2 and 3 months. The Moon's sphere, however, revolves around the Earth in a period of one month, and moves with it around the Sun like an epicycle.

The apparent motion of the Sun

This section explains how the apparent motion of the Sun could arise from three separate motions of the Earth. The first motion is a uniform revolution, with a period of one year, from west to east along a circular orbit whose centre is offset from the Sun by 1/25 of the orbit's radius.

The second motion is the daily rotation about an axis which passes through the Earth's centre and is inclined at an angle of about 2312° to the perpendicular to the plane of its orbit.

The third motion is a precession of the Earth's axis of rotation about an axis perpendicular to the plane of its orbit. Copernicus specified the rate of this precession with respect to the radial line from the Earth to the centre of its orbit as being slightly less than a year, with an implied direction as being from west to east. With respect to the fixed stars, this precession is very slow, and in the opposite direction—from east to west—and explains the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes.

Equal motion should be measured not by the equinoxes but by the fixed stars

Here Copernicus asserts that the motion of the equinoxes and celestial poles has not been uniform, and argues that consequently they should not be used to define the reference frame with respect to which the motions of the planets are measured, and that the periods of the various planetary motions are more accurately determinable if those motions are measured with respect to the fixed stars. He maintains that he had found the length of the sidereal year to have always been 365 days 6 hours and 10 minutes. [lower-alpha 5]

The Moon

Diagram of the Moon's orbit, as described by Copernicus in his Commentariolus Commentariolus moon.jpeg
Diagram of the Moon's orbit, as described by Copernicus in his Commentariolus

Including the annual revolution around the Sun, which the Moon shares with the Earth in his system, Copernicus explains the Moon's motion as composed of five independent motions. Its motion around the Earth lies in a plane which is inclined at an angle of 5° to the plane of the Earth's orbit, and which precesses from east to west around an axis perpendicular to that plane, with a period of between 18 and 19 years with respect to the fixed stars. The remaining three motions, which take place within this orbital plane, are depicted in the diagram to the right. The first of these is that of the first, and larger, of two epicycles, whose center (represented by the point e1 in the diagram) moves uniformly from west to east around the circumference of a deferent centred on the Earth (represented by point T in the diagram), with a period of one draconitic month. [lower-alpha 6] The centre of the second, smaller epicycle (represented by the point e2 in the diagram) moves uniformly from east to west around the circumference of the first so that the period of the angle β in the diagram is one anomalistic month. [9]

The Moon itself, represented by the point M in the diagram, moves uniformly from west to east around the circumference of the second epicycle so that the period of the angle γ is half a synodic month. [9] Copernicus states that whenever the point e1 lies on the line joining the Earth to the centre of its orbit (represented by the dotted line OTC in the diagram, of which only the point T here lies in the Moon's orbital plane), the Moon M will lie precisely between e1 and e2. However, this can occur only once every 19 years, when this line coincides with the line of nodes WTE. At other times it does not lie in the moon's orbital plane and the point e1 cannot therefore pass through it. In general, then, while the Moon will be close to conjunction or opposition to the Sun whenever it lies precisely between e1 and e2, these events will not be precisely simultaneous.

The ratio which Copernicus took as that for the relative lengths of the small epicycle, large epicycle and deferent is 4:19:180.

The outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars

The theories Copernicus gives in the Commentariolus for the motions of the outer planets all have the same general structure, and only differ in the values of the various parameters needed to specify their motions completely. Their orbits are not coplanar with that of the Earth, but do share its centre as their own common centre, and lie in planes that are only slightly inclined to the Earth's orbital plane. Unlike the Moon's orbital plane, those of the superior planets do not precess. Their inclinations to the Earth's orbital plane do oscillate, however, between the limits 0°10′ and 1°50′ for Mars, 1°15′ and 1°40′ for Jupiter, and 2°15′ and 2°40′ for Saturn. Although Copernicus supposes these oscillations to take place around the orbits' lines of nodes that he assumes to remain fixed, the mechanism he uses to model them does cause tiny oscillations in the lines of nodes as well. As Kepler later pointed out, the necessity for assuming oscillations in the inclinations of the outer planets' orbital planes is an artefact of Copernicus's having taken them as passing through the centre of the Earth's orbit. If he had taken them as passing through the Sun, he would not have needed to introduce these oscillations. [10]

Diagram of an outer planet's orbit, as described by Copernicus in his Commentariolus Commentariolus outer planets.jpeg
Diagram of an outer planet's orbit, as described by Copernicus in his Commentariolus

Like the Moon's motion, that of the outer planets, represented in the diagram to the right, is produced by a combination of a deferent and two epicycles. The centre of the first, and larger of the two epicycles, represented by the point e1 in the diagram, revolves uniformly from west to east around the circumference of a deferent whose centre is the centre of the Earth's orbit, represented by the point S in the diagram, with a period relative to the fixed stars as given in the section The order of the spheres above.

The centre of the second epicycle, represented by the point e2 in the diagram, revolves uniformly from east to west around the circumference of the first, with the same period relative to the radial line joining S to e1. As a consequence, the direction of the radial line joining e1 to e2 remains fixed relative to the fixed stars, parallel to the planet's line of apses EW, and the point e2 describes an eccentric circle [lower-alpha 7] whose radius is equal to that of the deferent, and whose centre, represented by the point O in the diagram, is offset from that of the deferent by the radius of the first epiycle. In his later work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium , Copernicus uses this eccentric circle directly, rather than representing it as a combination of a deferent and an epicycle.

The planet itself, represented by the point P in the diagram, revolves uniformly from west to east around the circumference of the second epicycle, whose radius is exactly one third of that of the first, at twice the rate of revolution of e1 about S. This device enabled Copernicus to dispense with the equant, a much-criticised feature of Claudius Ptolemy's theories for the motions of the outer planets. In a heliocentric version of Ptolemy's models, his equant would lie at the point Q in the diagram, offset along the line of apses EW from the point S by a distance one and a third times the radius of Copernicus's first epicycle. The centre of the planet's deferent, with the same radius as Copernicus's, would lie at the point C, mid-way between S and Q. The planet itself would lie at the point of intersection of this deferent with the line QP. While this point only coincides exactly with P whenever they are both at an apsis, [lower-alpha 8] the difference between their positions is always negligible in comparison with the inaccuracies inherent to both theories.

For the ratios of the radii of the outer planets' deferents to radius of the Earth, the Commentariolus gives 11325 for Mars, 51360 for Jupiter, and 9730 for Saturn. For the ratios of the radii of their deferents to the radii of the larger of their epicycles, it gives 6138167 for Mars, 12553606 for Jupiter, and 118591181 for Saturn. [lower-alpha 9]


In the last two sections Copernicus talks about Venus and Mercury. The first has a system of circles and takes 9 months to complete a revolution.


Mercury's orbit is harder than any of the other planets' to study because it is visible for only a few days a year. Mercury, just like Venus, has two epicycles, one greater than another. It takes almost three months to complete a revolution.


  1. A reference to the Commentariolus is contained in a library catalogue, dated 1 May 1514, of a 16th-century historian, Matthew of Miechow, so it must have begun circulating before that date. [2] [3]
  2. Tycho Brahe obtained a copy in 1575, and subsequently presented copies to students and colleagues as tokens of his esteem. [5] [6]
  3. According to Rosen (2004, pp. 6–7), a manuscript copy of the Commentariolus was discovered in Vienna and published in 1878. It was said by Koyré (1973, p. 76) that a very poor copy was published in the 1854 Warsaw edition of De revolutionibus. This seems to be a mistake.
  4. Copernicus does not specify which type of month he is referring to. His period for Venus would be correct if he were referring to tropical or sidereal months. Venus's period is, however, less than 8 synodic months.
  5. A value that lies within one minute of what it is now.
  6. The period referred to here is the time between two successive passages of the epicycle's centre through its ascending node (represented in the diagram by the point W), or two successive passages through its descending node (represented in the diagram by the point E). Copernicus does not always distinguish which periods and which types of month he is referring to, but these can be inferred from our knowledge of the actual motion of the Moon.
  7. That is, a circle whose centre is offset from what would be regarded as the natural centre of the planet's orbit—in this case, the centre of the Earth's orbit.
  8. At all other times it will lie strictly between Q and P.
  9. Copernicus does not give these ratios directly, but expresses the radii of the planets' deferents and epicycles in terms of a unit of length which is 125th of the radius of the Earth's orbit.

Related Research Articles

Parallax difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight

Parallax is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight, and is measured by the angle or semi-angle of inclination between those two lines. Due to foreshortening, nearby objects show a larger parallax than farther objects when observed from different positions, so parallax can be used to determine distances.

Apparent retrograde motion in astronomy, is the apparent motion of planets as observed from a particular vantage point

Apparent retrograde motion is the apparent motion of a planet in a direction opposite to that of other bodies within its system, as observed from a particular vantage point. Direct motion or prograde motion is motion in the same direction as other bodies.

Timeline of Solar System astronomy timeline

Timeline of Solar System astronomy

Geocentric model a superseded description of the Universe with Earth at the center

In astronomy, the geocentric model is a superseded description of the Universe with Earth at the center. Under the geocentric model, the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets all orbited Earth. The geocentric model was the predominant description of the cosmos in many ancient civilizations, such as those of Aristotle in Classical Greece and Ptolemy in Roman Egypt.

In the Hipparchian and Ptolemaic systems of astronomy, the epicycle was a geometric model used to explain the variations in speed and direction of the apparent motion of the Moon, Sun, and planets. In particular it explained the apparent retrograde motion of the five planets known at the time. Secondarily, it also explained changes in the apparent distances of the planets from the Earth.

Orbital period time taken to make one complete orbit

The orbital period is the time a given astronomical object takes to complete one orbit around another object, and applies in astronomy usually to planets or asteroids orbiting the Sun, moons orbiting planets, exoplanets orbiting other stars, or binary stars.

<i>Almagest</i> astronomical treatise

The Almagest is a 2nd-century Greek-language mathematical and astronomical treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and planetary paths, written by Claudius Ptolemy. One of the most influential scientific texts of all time, it canonized a geocentric model of the Universe that was accepted for more than 1200 years from its origin in Hellenistic Alexandria, in the medieval Byzantine and Islamic worlds, and in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance until Copernicus. It is also a key source of information about ancient Greek astronomy.

The cosmological model of concentric or homocentric spheres, developed by Eudoxus, Callippus, and Aristotle, employed celestial spheres all centered on the Earth. In this respect, it differed from the epicyclic and eccentric models with multiple centers, which were used by Ptolemy and other mathematical astronomers until the time of Copernicus.

Inferior and superior planets classification of the planets of the Solar System based on the position of their orbits with respect to that of the Earth

In the Solar System, a planet is said to be inferior or interior with respect to another planet if its orbit lies inside the other planet's orbit around the Sun. In this situation, the latter planet is said to be superior to the former. In the reference frame of the Earth, in which the terms were originally used, the inferior planets are Mercury and Venus, while the superior planets are Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Dwarf planets like Ceres or Pluto and most asteroids are 'superior' in the sense that they almost all orbit outside the orbit of Earth.

Tychonic system model of the Solar System proposed in 1588 by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe

The Tychonic system is a model of the Solar System published by Tycho Brahe in the late 16th century, which combines what he saw as the mathematical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical and "physical" benefits of the Ptolemaic system. The model may have been inspired by Valentin Naboth and Paul Wittich, a Silesian mathematician and astronomer. A similar model was implicit in the calculations a century earlier by Nilakantha Somayaji of the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics.

Celestial spheres Term in ancient times for the heavens

The celestial spheres, or celestial orbs, were the fundamental entities of the cosmological models developed by Plato, Eudoxus, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and others. In these celestial models, the apparent motions of the fixed stars and planets are accounted for by treating them as embedded in rotating spheres made of an aetherial, transparent fifth element (quintessence), like jewels set in orbs. Since it was believed that the fixed stars did not change their positions relative to one another, it was argued that they must be on the surface of a single starry sphere.


Equant is a mathematical concept developed by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD to account for the observed motion of the planets. The equant is used to explain the observed speed change in planetary orbit during different stages of the orbit. This planetary concept allowed Ptolemy to keep the theory of uniform circular motion alive by stating that the path of heavenly bodies was uniform around one point and circular around another point.

Earths orbit The gravitationally curved trajectory Earth travels around the Sun

Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of 149.60 million km, and one complete orbit takes 365.256 days, during which time Earth has traveled 940 million km. Earth's orbit has an eccentricity of 0.0167. Since the Sun constitutes 99.8% of the mass of the solar system, the center of the orbit is extremely close to the center of the Sun.

Copernican Revolution 16th to 17th century intellectual revolution

The Copernican Revolution was the paradigm shift from the Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which described the cosmos as having Earth stationary at the center of the universe, to the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of the Solar System. Beginning with the publication of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, contributions to the “revolution” continued until finally ending with Isaac Newton’s work over a century later.

Ancient Greek astronomy

Greek astronomy is astronomy written in the Greek language in classical antiquity. Greek astronomy is understood to include the ancient Greek, Hellenistic, Greco-Roman, and Late Antiquity eras. It is not limited geographically to Greece or to ethnic Greeks, as the Greek language had become the language of scholarship throughout the Hellenistic world following the conquests of Alexander. This phase of Greek astronomy is also known as Hellenistic astronomy, while the pre-Hellenistic phase is known as Classical Greek astronomy. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, much of the Greek and non-Greek astronomers working in the Greek tradition studied at the Musaeum and the Library of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Tusi couple

The Tusi couple is a mathematical device in which a small circle rotates inside a larger circle twice the diameter of the smaller circle. Rotations of the circles cause a point on the circumference of the smaller circle to oscillate back and forth in linear motion along a diameter of the larger circle. The Tusi couple is a 2-cusped hypocycloid.

Jacques du Chevreul (1595-1649). Jacques du Chevreul was born in Coutances, France and died in Paris, France. Du Chevreul grew up in an educated household and was the son of a magistrate. In 1616, he received a Master of Arts for studying humanities and philosophy at the University of Paris. Du Chevreul continued education at a higher level and received a bachelor of divinity for theology in 1619. He did not start teaching until 1620 where he remained associated with College Harcourt and University of Paris, up until two years before his death when he taught philosophy at the College Royal. Throughout his lifetime Jacques du Chevreul held various teaching and administrative positions including principal and rector. Little is known about his later life. Although he studied subjects such as philosophy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, and physics, he published his two popular books over mathematics. Arithmetica (1622) and Sphaera were both published in Paris, France. Sphaera, du Chevreul’s most popular book was about his view of the world and the universe. He used references from the Bible, Aristotle, and Plato to reject the Copernican model and instead created his own eccentric-epicycle geocentric model of the universe. Du Chevreul believed that the earth was the center of the universe, but that the major planets Venus and Mercury orbited around the sun. He theorized that there were wandering and fixed stars in the heavens and there were a total of thirteen planets in his model. The heavens were in the order of the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter surrounded by four Medicean stars, Saturn with two satellites, and above all these levels resided God. Du Chevreul's cosmic scheme is a highly original attempt to resist Copernicanism and accommodate Galieleo's telescopic discoveries in an Aristotelian cosmos.

Historical models of the Solar System

The historical models of the solar system began during prehistoric periods and is updated to this day. The models of the solar system throughout history were first represented in the early form of cave markings and drawings, calendars and astronomical symbols. Then books and written records then became the main source of information that expressed the way the people of the time thought of the solar system.


  1. Koyré (1973 , pp. 18–28); Swerdlow (1973 , pp. 423–24); Copernicus (1992 , pp. 20, 208–52); Rosen (2004 , pp.  6–7 , 5790 ).
  2. Koyré 1973, p. 85.
  3. Gingerich 2004, p. 32.
  4. Schönberg, Nicholas, Letter to Nicolaus Copernicus, translated by Edward Rosen.
  5. Dreyer 1890, p.  83.
  6. Thoren 1990, pp.  98–99.
  7. Goddu 2010, pp.  243-46).
  8. English translations by Rosen (2004 , pp.  57–65 ).
  9. 1 2 Swerdlow 1973, pp. 456–57.
  10. Swerdlow 1973, p. 486.