Pythagoras of Samos
an outline biography
The famous Greek philosopher mathematician Pythagoras was
born circa 570 B.C. on Samos an island lying off the western
coast of Asia Minor. Samos was at this time one of the colonies
that had been developed by the city states of ancient Greece
centred upon Asia Minor and the islands lying off its coasts.
Such colonisation had been encouraged moreso by population
pressures and political turmoils in ancient Greece rather than by
the prospect of trading opportunities.
At this remove it is difficult to be precise about Pythagoras
and his background, 570 B.C. is rather a long time ago and
records were not really maintained even about prominent or
It is suggested that his mother came from amongst the colonial
Greeks of Samos but that his father was a Phoenician craftsperson
from Tyre who worked with precious metals and who had been
granted citizenship rights after bringing corn to Samos at a time
Pythagoras seems to have had an impressive birthmark on his
thigh that, amongst his fellows, was held to be a mark of divine
favour - he was considered to have had a "Golden Thigh."
In his later journeys about the Greek colonial world Pythagoras
is said to have ventured to Miletus and to have been taught there
by the mathematicians Thales (also of Phoenician descent) and
Anaximander. Thales, who had been the first person to actually
predict a solar eclipse, was then too old to teach as he would
wish but strongly advised the younger man to persue his studies
further in Egypt.
Pythagoras' life was affected by the geopolitics of the day.
The Persian Empire under Cyrus joined with the populous state of
Media. The resultant Empire of the Medes and Persians defeated
Croesus ruler of Lydia the most notable Greek Kingdom in Asia
Persian sway extended towards the western coasts of Asia Minor
and in 538 B.C. power in Samos was seized by Polycrates who
established Samos as a centre of power through alliances, the
maintainance of an army and navy, - and through piracy.
Pythagoras seems to have fallen out of favour with Polycrates
but, before going into exile, obtained a letter of introduction
from him addressed to Polycrates' ally the ruler of Egypt.
Despite a permission obtained from the Egyptian ruler most of
the Egyptian priestly schools seemed unwilling to take in the
young foreigner who eventually found a grudging acceptance and
went on to learn much in Egypt.
Quite apart from proficiency in Mathematics and Geometry these
Egyptians often evidenced a passion for secrecy, a refusal to eat
beans, and a striving for purity.
In 525 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Cambyses II son and
successor to Cyrus as ruler of the Medes and Persians. Pythagoras
was captured and carried into captivity in Babylon where he
associated with the mystically inclined Magi (followers of
Zoroaster) priesthood and gained further instruction in
mathematics, geometry, and music.
In 522 B.C. Cambyses II died and was replaced by Darius,
Polycrates also died that year. In 520 B.C. Pythagoras was able
to return to Samos which seems at that time to have fallen under
Darius' control. Following a brief visit to Crete to study its
system of Law he again returned to Samos where he established a
school known as the Semicircle.
The Samians called their learned returned citizen into taking a
part in public affairs and also into involvements in diplomatic
missions. Pythagoras was not happy with these political and
diplomatic roles being forced upon him and, stating that his
teachings were not really what the Samians seemed to be happy
with, left Samos.
In 518 B.C. Pythagoras travelled west - there were many
wealthy Greek colonies in Magna Graecia the "Greater
Greece" then located upon the Italian peninsula.
Pythagoras chose to now base himself in Kroton on the "heel" of
today's Italy founding a school that was dedicated to the study
of mathematics and philosophy but which also had a marked
mystical aspect to its teachings. Kroton was then a health
resort and religious centre but also having a famed medical
school. Sybaris, the town from which our own term Sybarite
indicating a hedonistic life of material extravagance and excess
is derived, was a close neighbour.
An inner circle of students at Kroton were remarkable for
wearing long hair, being vegetarians and having no personal
property. This inner brother (and sister) hood maintained vows of
secrecy and were taught that reality was mathematical in nature.
The mystical aspects of this Pythagoreanism held that philosophy
tends to purify the Soul and that the Soul can attain to Union
with the Divine.
The Pythagorean school regarded Geometry as being the highest
form of mathematical studies. Mathematics generally was seen as
being a direct approach to reality.
Pythagoras was deeply struck by how, on the Greek seven string
lyre, harmonious notes were obtained when the lengths of those
strings was proportional to whole numbers e.g. 2:1, 3:2,
The number 10 was deemed particularly significant. The
Pythagoreans associated Opportunity with the number 7, Justice
with the number 4, Marriage with the number 5, Masculinity with
odd numbers and Femininity with even numbers.
The famous Pythagoras Theorem concerning right angled triangles
holds that the square of Hypotenuse (i.e. the length of the long
line opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares
of the other two sides. This idea was current for many centuries
beforehand but Pythagoras was the first to prove it to be
The Pythagoreans eventually gained political control of Kroton,
whilst under Pythagorean control Kroton utterrly defeated Sybaris
in war but the Pythagoreans were later banished by political
The Pythagoreans outlook later greatly influenced Plato who
was a major founding figure in several main branches of western