Learning new things from Ancient Greece

A new school year has started. We hope you enjoy learning and acquiring new knowledge.
Here are a couple of Ancient Greek personalities who have inspired us through times.


Pythagoras. Greek Mathematician. Engraving. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Pythagoras. Greek Mathematician. Engraving.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

The great mathematician Pythagoras was born and brought up in Samos, but in 532 BC the island came under the control of a ruler whose reign, though effective, was too despotic for Pythagoras. He took himself off to Kroton in south Italy, at that time largely occupied by Greek colonists, and established a school of mathematics and philosophy. His followers, mostly from wealthy and powerful families and therefore influential, addressed him as Master, adopted his beliefs and followed the curious taboos by which he conducted his life. It seems strange that a man whose work still forms one of the cornerstones of mathematics could formulate so many bizarre notions (he recognised the voice of a dead friend in the howling of a neighbour’s dog), but genius must be allowed its oddities.


Raphael , School of Athens. Vatican Museum, Rome. ©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Raphael , School of Athens. Vatican Museum, Rome.
©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

In the Hellenistic world the city of Alexandria was a powerhouse of learning, and its intellectual achievements were astonishing. For example, some thinkers realised that the world was spherical, how big it was and its approximate weight. Their theories came close to understanding evolution and a realisation that matter is composed of atoms. A sage called Aristarchos, like Pythagoras a native of Samos, even understood that the earth moves round the sun and not vice versa. Perhaps the greatest of all was the mathematician Euclid. Little is known of his life, but he seems to have been the head of a group of scholars in the reign of Ptolemy I researching in about 300 BC and producing work on which much of modern mathematics and geometry is still based.

Pytheas, Greek explorer

Not all the enormous advances in learning of the Hellenistic age were achieved in the calm of universities. Some were underpinned by information supplied by men of action like Pytheas, a Greek sailor whose home was the colonial city of Massilia (Marseilles). For some years the western Mediterranean had been dominated by the powerful city of Carthage but in 310 BC the Carthaginians were preoccupied by problems in their home town, and Phtheas was able to slip out of the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and turn north, attracted by reports of the valuable tin mines of south-west Britain. He not only circumnavigated Britain, but seems to have gone on as far as Norway and the Baltic, taking readings of latitude as he went. We can only imagine how he must have reacted to the first recorded Greek sighting of an iceberg.