In Raphael's fresco The School of Athens, Pythagoras is shown writing in a book as a young man presents him with a tablet showing a diagrammatic representation of a lyre above a drawing of the sacred tetractys.[1]

Pythagoreanism originated in the 6th century BC, based on the teachings and beliefs held by Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans. Pythagoras established the first Pythagorean community in Crotone, Italy. Early Pythagorean communities spread throughout Magna Graecia.

Pythagoras’ death and disputes about his teachings led to the development of two philosophical traditions within Pythagoreanism. The akousmatikoi were superseded in the 4th century BC as a significant mendicant school of philosophy by the Cynics. The mathēmatikoi philosophers were absorbed into the Platonic school in the 4th century BC.

Following the political instability in the Magna Graecia, some Pythagorean philosophers fled to mainland Greece while others regrouped in Rhegium. By about 400 BC the majority of Pythagorean philosophers had left Italy. Pythagorean ideas exercised a marked influence on Plato and through him, on all of Western philosophy. Many of the surviving sources on Pythagoras originate with Aristotle and the philosophers of the Peripatetic school.

As a philosophic tradition, Pythagoreanism was revived in the 1st century BC, giving rise to Neopythagoreanism. The worship of Pythagoras continued in Italy and as a religious community Pythagoreans appear to have survived as part of, or deeply influenced, the Bacchic cults and Orphism.


The Plimpton 322 tablet records Pythagorean triples from Babylonian times.[2]
Animation demonstrating the simplest Pythagorean triple, 32 + 42 = 52.

Pythagoras was already in ancient times well known for the mathematical achievement of the Pythagorean theorem.[3] Pythagoras had discovered that "in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the other two sides". In ancient times Pythagoras was also noted for his discovery that music had mathematical foundations. Antique sources that credit Pythagoras as the philosopher who first discovered music intervals also credit him as the inventor of the monochord, a straight rod on which a string and a movable bridge could be used to demonstrate the relationship of musical intervals.[4]

Much of the surviving sources on Pythagoras originate with Aristotle and the philosophers of the Peripatetic school, which founded histographical academic traditions such as biography, doxography and the history of science. The surviving 5th century BC sources on Pythagoras and early Pythagoreanism are void of supernatural elements. While surviving 4th century BC sources on Pythagoreas' teachings introduced legend and fable. Philosophers who discussed Pythagoreanism, such as Anaximander, Andron of Ephesus, Heraclides and Neanthes had access to historical written sources as well as the oral tradition about Pythagoreanism, which by the 4th century BC was in decline. Neopythagorean philosophers, who authored many of the surviving sources on Pythagoreanism, continued the tradition of legend and fantasy.[5]

The earliest surviving ancient source on Pythagoras and his followers is a satire by Xenophanes, on the Pythagorean beliefs on the transmigration of souls.[6] Xenophanes wrote of Pythagoras that:

Once they say that he was passing by when a puppy was being whipped,

And he took pity and said:

"Stop! Do not beat it! For it is the soul of a friend

That I recognized when I heard it giving tongue."[6]

In a surviving fragment from Heraclitus, Pythagoras and his followers are described as follows:

Pythagoras, the son of Mnesarchus, practised inquiry beyond all other men and selecting of these writings made for himself a wisdom or made a wisdom of his own: a polymathy, an imposture.[7]

Two other surviving fragments of ancient sources on Pythagoras are by Ion of Chios and Empedocles. Both were born in the 490s, after Pythagoras' death. By that time he was known as a sage and his fame had spread throughout Greece.[8] According to Ion, Pythagoras was:

... distinguished for his many virtue and modesty, even in death has a life which is pleasing to his soul, if Pythagoras the wise truly achieved knowledge and understanding beyond that of all men.[9]

Empedocles described Pythagoras as "a man of surpassing knowledge, master especially of all kinds of wise works, who had acquired the upmost wealth of understanding."[10] In the 4th century BC the Sophist Alcidamas wrote that Pythagoras was widely honored by Italians.[11]

Today scholars typically distinguish two periods of Pythagoreanism: early-Pythagoreanism, from the 6th till the 5th century BC, and late-Pythagoreanism, from the 4th till the 3rd century BC.[12] The Spartan colony of Taranto in Italy became the home for many practitioners of Pythagoreanism and later for Neopythagorean philosophers. Pythagoras had also lived in Crotone and Metaponto, both were Achaean colonies.[13] Early-Pythagorean sects lived in Croton and throughout Magna Graecia. They espoused to a rigorous life of the intellect and strict rules on diet, clothing and behavior. Their burial rites were tied to their belief in the immortality of the soul.[12]

Early-Pythagorean sects were closed societies and new Pythagoreans were chosen based on merit and discipline. Ancient sources record that early-Pythagoreans underwent a five year initiation period of listening to the teachings (akousmata) in silence. Initiates could through a test become members of the inner circle. However, Pythagoreans could also leave the community if they wished.[14] Iamblichus listed 235 Pythagoreans by name, among them 17 women who he described as the "most famous" women practitioners of Pythagoreanism. It was customary that family members became Pythagoreans, as Pythagoreanism developed into a philosophic traditions that entailed rules for everyday life and Pythagoreans were bound by secrets. The home of a Pythagorean was known as the site of mysteries.[15]

Pythagoras had been born on the island of Samos at around 570 BC and left his homeland at around 530 BC in opposition to the policies of Polycrates. Before settling in Croton, Pythagoras had traveled throughout Egypt and Babylonia. In Croton, Pythagoras established the first Pythagorean community, described as a secret society, and attained political influence. In the early 5th century BC Croton acquired great military and economic importance. Pythagoras emphasized moderation, piety, respect for elders and of the state, and advocated a monogamous family structure. The Croton Council appointed him to official positions. Among others Pythagoras was in charge of education in the city. His influence as political reformer reputably extended to other Greek colonies in southern Italy and in Sicily. Pythagoras died shortly after an arson attack on the Pythagorean meeting place in Croton.[16]

The anti-Pythagorean attacks in c. 500 BC were headed by Cylon of Croton.[16] After these initial attacks and the death of Pythagoras, Pythagorean communities in Croton and elsewhere continued to flourish. At around 450 BC attacks on Pythagorean communities were carried out across Magna Graecia. In Croton, a house were Pythagoreans gathered was set on fire and all but two of the Pythagorean philosophers burned alive. Pythagorean meeting places in other cities were also attacked and philosophic leaders killed. These attacks occurred in the context of widespread violence and destruction in Magna Graecia. Following the political instability in the region, some Pythagorean philosophers fled to mainland Greece while others regrouped in Rhegium. By about 400 BC the majority of Pythagorean philosophers had left Italy. Archytas remained in Italy and ancient sources record that he was visited there by young Plato in the early 4th century BC. The Pythagorean schools and societies died out from the 4th century BC. Pythagorean philosophers continued to practice, albeit no organized communities were established.[16]

According to surviving sources by the Neopythagorean philosopher Nicomachus, Philolaus was the successor of Pythagoras.[17] According to Cicero (de Orat. III 34.139), Philolaus was teacher of Archytas.[18] According to the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus, Archytas in turn became the head of the Pythagorean school about a century after the Pythagoras' death.[19] Philolaus and Eurytus are identified by Aristoxenus as teachers of the last generation of Pythagoreans.[18]

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