Pontanus, Johannes Isaacius (1571-1639)

I. Life

Johannes Isaacius Pontanus (21.1. (or 21.6.) 1571 Helsing0r, Denmark – Harderwijk 6./7.10.1639) was the second son of Dutch Protestant parents – Isaach Pietersz and Helene Backer -who in the 1560s had fled to Denmark and settled in Helsing0r, c. 30 km north of Copenhagen. When Johannes later adopted the name Pontanus, it was probably an allusion to his birthplace close to the sea (pontus), the narrow 0resund. At some point during Pontanus’s childhood, the family moved back to the Low Countries and settled in Amsterdam, where Isaach Pietersz served as agent to the Danish king Frederik II (later he returned to Helsing0r). His two sons, Johannes and Pieter (1569-1625), maintained the connections with the Danish court. Both went into the service of Frederik lI’s son Christian IV, Pontanus as historiographer and Pieter Isaachs as painter.

In 1592 Pontanus matriculated in Leiden, where he studied philology, V medicine, philosophy and mathematics. After a visit to Italy he went back to Denmark in 1593, where he stayed for two years. Here he became attached to the astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), with whom he seems to have studied both astronomy and chemistry. Moreover he made aquaintance the prominent Danish historian, nobleman and politician Arild Huitfeldt. In 1595-96 he visited England where he met the influential historian William Camden (1551-1623). He studied in Leiden in 1597-98 and then spent some time in Denmark assisting Huitfeldt in his work on Danish history. He also went to Rostock to study with David Chytrreus (1530-1600j and in 1601 he graduated in medicine in Basel. After some further travelling, particularly in France, he spent two years in Denmark. From 1604 (possibly 1606) to his death in 1639 he served as a professor in Harderwijk in Geldern, where he taught a variety of subjects. Twelve years later, in 1618, he was engaged as royal historiographer by the Danish king Christian IV and set out to write a history of Denmark from the earliest times. In 1621 he accepted a similar engagement from the Estates of Gelderland, and in the course of the 1620s and 1630s he managed to carry out both projects: The first – and longest part – of his history of Denmark came in 1631 and his history of Gelderland in 1639. The second part of the Danish history was published posthumously. He married Anneken, daughter of Philip van den Herde and Annekden Zuer, in 1606.

II. Works

Pontanus devoted himself primarily to philological and historical studies. His first major accomplishment within the field of history and topography was a history of Amsterdam (1611), which he later felt it necessary to defend against critics who found it too full of digressions (1628,1634). The work was put on the Index on account of its hostile attitude towards Catholicism. The same fate befell his work on early Frankish history, the Originum Francicarum libri VI from 1616, inwhich he claimed that the religious beliefs of the early Franks were close to that of the Reformed Church. In this period he involved himself in a dispute with the geographer Philipp Cliiver, whose treatise on the earliest peoples living at the mouths of Rhine had provoked Pontanus’s criticism in his Disceptationes chorographicae of 1614. Cliiver counter-attacked in the work Germaniae antiquae libri III of 1616, and Pontanus soon after, in 1617, published his answer.

In the last two decades of his life Pontanus was commisioned to write a history of Denmark as well as a history of Gelderland. Both these comprehensive works testify to their author’s learning, marked as they are by discussions andreferences to documents and other texts, many of which are also quoted. Both cover the period between the first centuries BC and the end of the sixteenth century, and both contain a thorough topographical description of the region in question. Pontanus also defended Danish interests in a treatise of 1637, in which he refuted the English John Selden who had recently claimed English sovereignty over the surrounding seas. In the history of Denmark itself Pontanus attacked another contemporary, the Icelandic historian Arngrimur Jonsson, who had argued against the common identification of Iceland with the “Thule” mentioned in classical texts. In response Arngrimur wrote a treatise entitled Specimen Islandiae historicum, published in 1643, after Pontanus’s death.

III. List of Works

Historical and topographical works:

Itinerarium Galliae Narbonensis [poem]: cum dupIici appendice, id est Universae fere Galliae descriptione philologica ac politica: cui accedit glossarium prisco-gallicum (Leiden 1606).

Rerum et urbis Amstelodamensium Historia (Amsterdam 1611; in Dutch 1614 (facs. 1968?).

Disceptationes chorographicae de Rheni divortiis atque ostiis eorumque accolis populis (Amsterdam 1614)

Originum Francicarum Libri VI in quibus, praeter Germaniae et Rheni chorographiam, Francorum origines et primae sedes etc. ordine deducuntur (Amsterdam 1616; new ed. 1646).

Disceptationum chorographicarum de Rheni divortiis et accolis populis adversus Phil. Cluverium partes duae (Harderwijk 1617).

Disceptationum chorographicae adversus Phil. Cluverum nova sylloge (Harderwijk 1617).

Epistola apologetica pro iis, quas historiae suae rerum & urbis Amstelodamensis subinde inseruit, excursionibus, coenobia praesertim sacraque immutata spectantibus (Amsterdam 1628). (Perhaps already 1625). (Title in R0rdam: Apologia pro Historia Amstelodamensi adversus Franciscum Sweertium ad Arnoldum Buchelium (Amsterdam 1628; rep. 1634).

Theoremata … (mentioned by P. in a letter to Constantinus l’Empereur 1629, cf. Nyenhuis 1840, 99).

Rerum Danicarum Historia libri X … deducta (Amsterdam 1631) (Second part, covering 1448-1588, publ. by E.J. v. Westphalen in Monumenta inedita rerum Germanicarum II, 1740, cols. 713-1230; parts of this work also published separately: Vita Christiani III Daniae et Norvegiae Regis (ed. J. Hubner 1729) and Vita Friderici Secundi, Daniae et Norvegiae Regis (ed. G. Krysing 1735).

Discussionum historicarum libri II, quibus praecipue quatenus et quodnam mare liberum vel non liberum clausumque accipiendum, dispicitur expenditurque (Harderwijk 1637; new ed. 1693).

Historiae Gelricae Libri XIV (Harderwijk 1639; Dutch 1653/54).

Editions and studies of Latin authors:

Aurelii Macrobii Opera cum Joh. Is. Pontani castigationibus nec non Joannis Meursii notis brevioribus (Leiden 1597; new editions 1628, 1670 etc)

Analectorum libri tres, in quis ad Plautum potissimum, Apuleium et Senecaes ac passim ad historicos antiquos et poetas censurae (Rostock 1599; + 1600?)

Veterum Historicorum Latinorum fragmenta (Rostock 1599; new edition 1622).

M. Annaei Senecae Rhetoris Suasoriae, controversiae, et declamationum excerpta ab Andrea Schotto … castigata, praeterea Justi Lipsii et Joannis Isaaci Pontani notis emendationibusque explicata et aucta (Amsterdam 1619).

L. Annaei Senecae M. F., Philosophi, et M. Annaei Senecae Rhetoris, patris, Opera quae exstant omnia variorum notis illustrata. Accesserunt et his nunc primum Petri Scriverii, Jo. Isaaci Pontani et Danielis Heinsii Observationes ... 1620.

M. Val. Martialis nova editio ex Musaeo P. Scriverii (Leiden 1619).

Plautus cum notis 1620.

Plavti Comoediae superstites XX … ex museo Ioh: Isaci Pontani (Amsterdam 1630).

Lucii Annaei Flori Rerum Romanorum libri IV … Ex museo Joh. Is. Pontani. Acc. breves ejusdem Notae atque Observata praes. politica. (Amsterdam 1626; new ed. 1628, 1632, 1686, 1736).

Petronius (Geneve 1629).

C. Corn. Tacitus / ex recensione Justi Lipsii nec non J. Isaci Pontani post Lipsium aliosque (Amsterdam 1629) (new editions 1637, 1650,1664).

C. Cornelius Tacitus, integritati suae ab illo restitutus & circa annum 1630 Amstel. editus.

Valerii Maximi Dictorum: factorumque memorabilium libir IX ex museo J. Isaci Pontani … (1632, new edition 1639).


De monumentis sepulcralibus praesidiariorum militum Romanorum legionis X Geminae … Io. Is. Pontani et Io. Smetii epistolae ; ex autographis editae (Neomagi 1783).

De columna milliaria imp. Caes. Nervae Trajani supra Neomagum in pago Beek effossa / Io. Is. Pontani et Io. Smetii ; epistolae ex autographis editae. Neomagi 1783.

De castris veteribus Ulpiis sive Trajanis …???

Science and Medicine:

Disputatio de rationalis animae facultate (Leiden 1593)

Theses de affectu hypochondriaco (Basel 1601) (doctoral dissertation).

Tractatus de globis coeliesti et terrestri, eorumque usu, primum conscriptus et editus a Roberto Hues .. de novo recognitus …opera ac studio Johannis Isacii Pontani (Amsterdam 1617; new editions Amsterdam 1624, Oxford 1663)


Iter Galliae Narbonensis … see Historical and Topographical works. (Rep. in Poematum libri VI).

Annae Mariae a Schuermans, virgini omnibus elegantiis, quae manu ac mente perfici possunt, excultissimae sacr. (Hardervijk [ca. 1630?]) (Rep. in Poematum libri?)

Poematum Libri VI (Amsterdam 1634)

Griphus septenarii ad Adrianum Hofferum (Harderwijk 1627) –is this a poem?


Pontanus’s letters were edited by his grandson, A. Matthaeus (1635-1710), in two collections:

Matthaeus, A. (ed): Andrea Alciati ad Bernardum Mattium epistol. Accedit Sylloge epistolarum Giphani, Vulcani, Tychonis Brahe, Scriverii, Pontani, Vossi … (Leiden 1695).

Matthaeus, A. (ed.): Veteris Aevi Analecta I-V (Den Haag 1738 (1st ed. 1698-1710).

In H.F. Rordam’s biography of 1898 (cf. below) are found six previously unpublished letters from Pontanus to the Danish chancellor Chr . Friis concerning his work on Danish history .

IV. Literature

Vita et obitus (Harderwijk 1640) (probably based on autobiographical notes).

E.J. v. Westphalen in his preface (p. 48-52) to Monumenta inedita rerum Germanicarum praecipue Cimbricarum et Megapolensium II, Leipzig 1740 (cf. above).

J.T.B. Nyenhuis, ‘Levensbijzonderheden van den Nederlandschen Geschiedschrijver Iohannes Isacius Pontanus,’ Bijdragen voor Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde II (Arnhem 1840), pp. 81-109.

H.F. Rordam, ‘Den kongelige Historiograf, Dr. Iohan Isaksen Pontanus’ Historiske Samlinger og Studier III (Kobenhavn 1898), pp. 1-24 and 440-492.

Iakob Benediktsson in his introduction to Amgrímur’s Specimen (Amgrímur Jónsson: Opera Latine conscripta I-IV, ed. Iakob Benediktsson, Kobenhavn 1950-57, IV p. 419-27).

Karen Skovgaard-Petersen, Historiography at the Court of Christian IV. Studies in the Latin Histories of Denmark by Johannes Pontanus and Johannes Meursius (forthcoming Kobenhavn 2000).