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Marble bust of a man with a long, pointed beard, wearing a tainia, a kind of ancient Greek headcovering in this case resembling a turban. The face is somewhat gaunt and has prominent, but thin, eyebrows, which seem halfway fixed into a scowl. The ends of his mustache are long a trail halfway down the length of his beard to about where the bottom of his chin would be if we could see it. None of the hair on his head is visible, since it is completely covered by the tainia.
Bust of Pythagoras of Samos in the
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Born c. 570 BC
Died c. 495 BC (aged around 75)
either Croton or Metapontum
Era Pre-Socratic philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Pythagoreanism
Main interests
Notable ideas
  • Communalism
  • Metempsychosis
  • Musica universalis

Attributed ideas:

Pythagoras of Samos (Ancient Greek: Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος Pythagóras ho Sámios "Pythagoras the Samian", or simply Πυθαγόρας; Πυθαγόρης in Ionian Greek; c. 570 – c. 495 BC) was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the founder of Pythagoreanism.

His political and religious teachings were well known in Magna Graecia and influenced the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and, through them, the West in general.

In antiquity, Pythagoras was credited with many mathematical and scientific discoveries, including the Pythagorean theorem, Pythagorean tuning, the five regular solids, the Theory of Proportions, the sphericity of the Earth, and the identity of the morning and evening stars as the planet Venus. It was said that he was the first man to call himself a philosopher ("lover of wisdom") and that he was the first to divide the globe into five climatic zones.


Early life

His life story is clouded by legend. Pythagoras appears to have been the son of Mnesarchus, a gem-engraver on the island of Samos, around 570 BC. His mother was a native of Samos, named Pythaïs. While she was pregnant she was prophesized that she would give birth to a man supremely beautiful, wise, and beneficial to humankind.

Pythagoras's name led him to be associated with Pythian Apollo (Pūthíā); Aristippus of Cyrene in the 4th century BC explained his name by saying, "He spoke [ἀγορεύω, agoreúō] the truth no less than did the Pythian [πυθικός puthikós]".

Pythagoras's early life coincided with the flowering of early Ionian natural philosophy. He was a contemporary of the philosophers Anaximander, Anaximenes, and the historian Hecataeus, all of whom lived in Miletus, across the sea from Samos.


Pythagoras is traditionally thought to have received most of his education in the Near East. Like many other important Greek thinkers, Pythagoras was said to have studied in Egypt. Some ancient writers claimed that Pythagoras learned geometry and the doctrine of metempsychosis from the Egyptians.

Other ancient writers, however, claimed that Pythagoras had learned these teachings from the Magi in Persia or even from Zoroaster himself. Diogenes Laërtius asserts that Pythagoras later visited Crete. By the third century BC, Pythagoras was already reported to have studied under the Jews as well.

Alleged Greek teachers

Pythagoras Bust Vatican Museum (cropped)
Bust of Pythagoras in the Vatican Museums, Vatican City, showing him as a "tired-looking older man"
Archytas of Tarentum MAN Napoli Inv5607
Bronze bust of a philosopher wearing a tainia from Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum, possibly a fictional bust of Pythagoras

Some identify Hermodamas of Samos as a possible tutor. Others credit Bias of Priene, Thales, or Anaximander (a pupil of Thales). Pythagoras might have met Thales of Miletus on his travel to Greece or Egypt before 520 BC. Thales would have been around fifty-four years older than him. He was a philosopher, scientist, mathematician, and engineer, also known for a special case of the inscribed angle theorem.

In Croton

Scholars agree that, around 530 BC, he travelled to Croton in southern Italy, where he founded a school. The initiates were sworn to secrecy and lived a communal, ascetic lifestyle. This lifestyle entailed a number of dietary prohibitions, including vegetarianism, although modern scholars doubt that he ever advocated complete vegetarianism.

All sources agree that Pythagoras was charismatic and quickly acquired great political influence in his new environment. He served as an advisor to the elites in Croton and gave them frequent advice. Later biographers tell fantastical stories of the effects of his eloquent speeches in leading the people of Croton to abandon their luxurious and corrupt way of life and devote themselves to the purer system which he came to introduce.

Family and friends

The story of the greatest nations; a comprehensive history, extending from the earliest times to the present, founded on the most modern authorities, and including chronological summaries and (14783288925)
Illustration from 1913 showing Pythagoras teaching a class of women. Many prominent members of his school were women and some modern scholars think that he may have believed that women should be taught philosophy as well as men.

According to Porphyry, Pythagoras married Theano, a lady of Crete and the daughter of Pythenax and had several children with her. Porphyry writes that Pythagoras had two sons named Telauges and Arignote, and a daughter named Myia, who "took precedence among the maidens in Croton and, when a wife, among married women." Iamblichus mentions none of these children and instead only mentions a son named Mnesarchus after his grandfather. This son was raised by Pythagoras's appointed successor Aristaeus and eventually took over the school when Aristaeus was too old to continue running it. Suda writes that Pythagoras had 4 children (Telauges, Mnesarchus, Myia and Arignote).

The wrestler Milo of Croton was said to have been a close associate of Pythagoras and was credited with having saved the philosopher's life.


Pythagoras's emphasis on dedication and asceticism are credited with aiding in Croton's decisive victory over the neighboring colony of Sybaris in 510 BC. After the victory, some prominent citizens of Croton proposed a democratic constitution, which the Pythagoreans rejected. The supporters of democracy, headed by Cylon and Ninon, the former of whom is said to have been irritated by his exclusion from Pythagoras's brotherhood, roused the populace against them. Followers of Cylon and Ninon attacked the Pythagoreans during one of their meetings, either in the house of Milo or in some other meeting-place. The building was apparently set on fire, and many of the assembled members perished; only the younger and more active members managed to escape.

Sources disagree regarding whether Pythagoras was present when the attack occurred and, if he was, whether or not he managed to escape. In some accounts, Pythagoras was not at the meeting when the Pythagoreans were attacked because he was on Delos tending to the dying Pherecydes. According to another account from Dicaearchus, Pythagoras was at the meeting and managed to escape, leading a small group of followers to the nearby city of Locris, where they pleaded for sanctuary, but were denied. They reached the city of Metapontum, where they took shelter in the temple of the Muses and died there of starvation after forty days without food. Another tale recorded by Porphyry claims that, as Pythagoras's enemies were burning the house, his devoted students laid down on the ground to make a path for him to escape by walking over their bodies across the flames like a bridge. Pythagoras managed to escape, but was so despondent at the deaths of his beloved students that he decided to take his life.

A different legend reported by both Diogenes Laërtius and Iamblichus states that Pythagoras almost managed to escape, but that he came to a fava bean field and refused to run through it, since doing so would violate his teachings, so he stopped instead and was killed. This story seems to have originated from the writer Neanthes, who told it about later Pythagoreans, not about Pythagoras himself.


Salvator Rosa - Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld - Google Art Project
Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld (1662) by Salvator Rosa

Within his own lifetime, Pythagoras was already the subject of elaborate legends.

  • Aristotle described Pythagoras as a wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure. In a fragment, Aristotle writes that Pythagoras had a golden thigh, which he publicly exhibited at the Olympic Games and showed to Abaris the Hyperborean as proof of his identity as the "Hyperborean Apollo".
  • Supposedly, the priest of Apollo gave Pythagoras a magic arrow, which he used to fly over long distances and perform ritual purifications. He was supposedly once seen at both Metapontum and Croton at the same time. When Pythagoras crossed the river Kosas (the modern-day Basento), "several witnesses" reported that they heard it greet him by name.
  • In Roman times, a legend claimed that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo.
  • According to Muslim tradition, Pythagoras was said to have been initiated by Hermes (Egyptian Thoth).
  • Pythagoras was said to have dressed all in white. He is also said to have borne a golden wreath atop his head and to have worn trousers after the fashion of the Thracians.
  • Diogenes Laërtius presents Pythagoras as having exercised remarkable self-control; he was always cheerful, but "abstained wholly from laughter, and from all such indulgences as jests and idle stories".
  • Pythagoras was said to have had extraordinary success in dealing with animals. A fragment from Aristotle records that, when a deadly snake bit Pythagoras, he bit it back and killed it. Both Porphyry and Iamblichus report that Pythagoras once persuaded a bull not to eat fava beans and that he once convinced a notoriously destructive bear to swear that it would never harm a living thing again, and that the bear kept its word.

Scholars suggest that Pythagoras may have personally encouraged these legends, but Gregory states that there is no direct evidence of this. Anti-Pythagorean legends were also circulated. Diogenes Laërtes retells a story told by Hermippus of Samos, which states that Pythagoras had once gone into an underground room, telling everyone that he was descending to the underworld. He stayed in this room for months, while his mother secretly recorded everything that happened during his absence. After he returned from this room, Pythagoras recounted everything that had happened while he was gone, convincing everyone that he had really been in the underworld and leading them to trust him with their wives.

Attributed discoveries

In mathematics

The Pythagorean theorem: The sum of the areas of the two squares on the legs (a and b) equals the area of the square on the hypotenuse (c).

Many mathematical and scientific discoveries were attributed to Pythagoras, including his famous theorem, as well as discoveries in the fields of music, astronomy, and medicine.

Since at least the first century BC, Pythagoras has commonly been given credit for discovering the Pythagorean theorem, a theorem in geometry that states that "in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal [to the sum of] the squares of the two other sides"—that is, a^2 + b^2 = c^2. According to a popular legend, after he discovered this theorem, Pythagoras sacrificed an ox, or possibly even a whole hecatomb, to the gods. Cicero rejected this story as spurious because of the much more widely held belief that Pythagoras forbade blood sacrifices. Porphyry attempted to explain the story by asserting that the ox was actually made of dough.

The Pythagorean theorem was known and used by the Babylonians and Indians centuries before Pythagoras, but he may have been the first to introduce it to the Greeks. Some historians of mathematics have even suggested that he—or his students—may have constructed the first proof.

Pythagoras's biographers state that he also was the first to identify the five regular solids and that he was the first to discover the Theory of Proportions.

In music

Gaffurio Pythagoras
Late medieval woodcut from Franchino Gafurio's Theoria musice (1492), showing Pythagoras with bells and other instruments in Pythagorean tuning

According to legend, Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations when he passed blacksmiths at work one day and heard the sound of their hammers clanging against the anvils. Thinking that the sounds of the hammers were beautiful and harmonious, except for one, he rushed into the blacksmith shop and began testing the hammers. He then realized that the tune played when the hammer struck was directly proportional to the size of the hammer and therefore concluded that music was mathematical.

In astronomy

In ancient times, Pythagoras and his contemporary Parmenides of Elea were both credited with having been the first to teach that the Earth was spherical, the first to divide the globe into five climatic zones, and the first to identify the morning star and the evening star as the same celestial object (now known as Venus).

Of the two philosophers, Parmenides has a much stronger claim to having been the first. Empedocles, who lived in Magna Graecia shortly after Pythagoras and Parmenides, knew that the earth was spherical. By the end of the fifth century BC, this fact was universally accepted among Greek intellectuals. The identity of the morning star and evening star was known to the Babylonians over a thousand years earlier.

See also

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