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I always assumed that this phrase was coined for the British Empire in relatively modern history, and therefore refers to there being British territories in every time zone. However, the Wikipedia page for this phrase states "It was originally coined for the Empire of Charles V1 and the Spanish Empire, mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries" which surely pre-dates the knowledge or common acceptance of a round world.

What is the correct historical context in which to interpret this phrase?

  • I would have created the tag historical-context, but I don't have enough rep. – Mike Ounsworth Jan 26 '19 at 2:06
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    The vast majority of educated persons around the world have known the world was a globe since at least Eratosthenes' calculation of the Earth's circumference in the 3rd century B.C. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 26 '19 at 2:09
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    @SolarMike: What does the sphericity of the Earth to do with a declaration that "heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus" is heretical? – Pieter Geerkens Jan 26 '19 at 5:34
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    Specifically re the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, you may perhaps have heard of a guy named Ferdinand Magellan, who led an expedition of 5 ships and 270 men to sail around the Earth. He departed in 1519:the few survivors returned in 1522. So yes, the Spanish (and pretty much every educated person) would have known that the world was round. And there was that Columbus fellow a couple of decades earlier, whose plan to sail west around the globe to reach the Indies was foiled because he ran into a continent... – jamesqf Jan 26 '19 at 5:49
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Does the phrase “The empire on which the sun never sets” predate knowledge that the world is round?

Absolutely not.

The fact that the Earth is (approximately) a sphere has been known since antiquity. As the American historian Stephen Jay Gould observed in his paper The Late Birth of a Flat Earth:

There never was a period of “flat earth darkness” among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology


The myth of the flat Earth is actually a relatively modern phenomenon. The idea was popularised by (among others) Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow .

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