The Life of Pythagorus

The Father of Numbers

Pythagoras of Samos Biography - Pythagoras of Samos Pictures - Portrait of Pythagoras
Pythagoras of Samos Pictures - Portrait of Pythagoras. Public Domain - With gratitude to School Mathematics/Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland

Pythagoras, a Greek mathematician and philosopher, was born on the island of Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor (what is now mostly Turkey), about 569 BCE. He was well educated, learning to read and to play the lyre. As a youth, he may have visited Miletus in his late teenage years to study with the philosopherThales, who was a very old man, Thales's student, Anaximander was giving lectures on Miletus and quite possibly, Pythagoras attended these lectures.

Anaximander had great interest in geometry and cosmology, which influenced the young Pythagorus.

Odyssey to Egypt

The next phase of Pythagoras's life is a bit confusing. He went to Egypt for some time and visited, or at least tried to visit, many of the temples. When he visited Diospolis, he was accepted into the priesthood after completing the rites necessary for admission. There, he continued his education, especially in mathematics and geometry.

From Egypt in Chains

Ten years after Pythagoras arrived in Egypt, relations with Samos fell apart. During their war, Egypt lost and Pythagoras was taken prisoner to Babylon. He wasn't treated as a prisoner of war as we would consider today. He continued his education in mathematics and music and delved into the teachings of the priests, learning their sacred rites. He became extremely proficient in his studies of mathematics and sciences as taught by the Babylonians.

A Return Home Followed by Departure

Pythagorus eventually returned to Samos, then went to Crete to study their legal system for a short time. In Samos, he founded a school called the Semicircle. In about 518 BCE, he founded another school in Croton (now known as Crotone, in southern Italy). With Pythagoras at the head, Croton had an inner circle of followers known as mathematikoi (priests of mathematics).

These mathematikoi lived permanently with the society, were allowed no personal possessions and were strict vegetarians. They received training only from by Pythagoras, following very strict rules. The next layer of the society was called the akousmatics. They lived in their own houses, and only came to the society during the day. The society contained both men and women.

Pythagoras and his inner circle believed that souls migrated after death into the bodies of other beings. They thought that animals could contain human souls. As a result, they saw eating animals as cannibalism. The outer circle was not confined to a vegetarian diet. 


We know that Pythagorus and his followers didn't study mathematics for the same reasons as we do today. For them, numbers had a spiritual meaning, and he thought that all things are numbers. There are a number of theorems attributed to Pythagoras, or at least to his society, but the most famous one,  the Pythagorean theorem, may not be entirely his invention. Apparently, the Babylonians had realized the relationships between the sides of a right triangle more than a thousand years before Pythagorus learned about it. However, it seems very likely that he may have been able to prove the theorem (an important step in mathematics).


Besides his contributions to mathematics, Pythagoras's work was essential to astronomy. He felt the sphere was the perfect shape. He also realized the orbit of the Moon was inclined to Earth's equator, and deduced that the evening star (Venus) was the same as the morning star. His work influenced later astronomers such as Ptolemy and Johannes Kepler (who formulated the laws of planetary motion).

To Flee Again

It's not clear when Pythagorus died. Around 508 BC Cylon, a Croton noble, attacked the Pythagorean Society. and vowed to destroy it. He and his followers persecuted the group, and Pythagoras fled to Metapontium, where it's possible he committed suicide.

Others say that Pythagoras returned a short time later, since the society was not wiped out and continued for some years. Pythagorus may have lived at least beyond 480 BCE, possibly to age 100.

Unfortunately, the actual date or place of Pythagoras's death has been lost to history. 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.