Who is Pythagoras? - History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the life and works of the ancient Greek mathematician and mystic Pythagoras of Samos. Test your understanding of his life, culture, and major works.

Who was Pythagoras? Who Knows?!

You've heard of the Templars. You've probably heard of the Freemasons and the Iluminati. But have you heard of the Pythagoreans? Maybe. Maybe you even know some trivia about them. But you can't know much, because nobody does. They are that secretive of a secret society!

Pythagoreans Facing the Sunrise
The Pythagoreans

The Pythagoreans were led by a man named Pythagoras, a mathematician, scientist, and mystic of ancient Greece. Pythagoras is responsible for several notable scientific and philosophical discoveries, but he is most famous for the Pythagorean Theorem in math. His life was very much a mystery, but his teachings shaped the ancient world.

Life of Pythagoras

Most of the information on Pythagoras was written down centuries after he died, so there is a lot we don't know about his life. He was born on the island of Samos around 570 BC, and likely travelled across the Mediterranean in his youth to study.

Around 530 BC, Pythagoras moved to Croton, in modern-day southern Italy, and established a secretive religious group devoted to the mystical worshipping of the gods. This group was both a religious sect and a school of science, math, music, and philosophy. His followers were called Pythagoreans.

It was an extraordinarily secretive society and so we what know about them comes from rumors. We do know that the Pythagoreans believed that souls were reborn after death, they shared communal meals, kept rigorous exercise routines, and were divided into an outer circle of 'listeners' and an inner circle of 'learners'. Only those in the inner circle had access to the deepest secrets of Pythagoras' teachings. The Pythagoreans were one of the oldest secret societies in the world, and may have inspired later groups like the Freemasons.

Bust of Pythagoras
Bust of Pythagoras

As a powerful and secretive society, the Pythagoreans made enemies. It is said that their enemies turned the city of Croton against them, and many were killed in the process. Some accounts say that Pythagoras died in the attack; others say that he escaped and later starved himself to death. The Pythagoreans lost their power but continued to exist for a while. None of Pythagoras' writings have survived, but accounts of him and his followers are found across ancient Greece.

The Discoveries of Pythagoras

Pythagoras, and his followers, are attributed with several important mathematical and philosophical discoveries. Since there are no direct writings from Pythagoras, it's unclear which of these came from Pythagoras himself and which were made by the Pythagoreans.

In music, Pythagoras is said to have discovered that musical sounds could be translated into mathematical equations and ratios. The fact that string instruments have different size strings to produce different notes is a reflection of this ratio.

The Pythagoreans are also credited with introducing the ideas of liberty and freedom to the politics of southern Italy.

In science, Pythagoras is the first person to have taught that the earth was spherical, not flat, and that it revolved around the sun.

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