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Theano – A Woman Who Ruled the Pythagoras School

Theano – A Woman Who Ruled the Pythagoras School



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In ancient Greece, it was not very common to see a female scientist. However, history remembers the names of the women who made their mark in those times. One of them was Theano, the wife of the famous Pythagoras.

Researchers still cannot pinpoint what her role was in Pythagoras’ research. The famed mathematician and philosopher is known for his great theories, but did he accomplish his work on his own, or did Theano have a part to play in his discoveries as well?

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, near the coast of Asia Minor. During the 82 years of his life (582 – 500 BC), he founded a school of philosophy, created or described a few very important theories (which became the fundamentals of many sciences) and educated an unknown number of students who continued his work. He was also lucky to have married a woman with an unusual intellect, extraordinary skills to understand the ways of the world, and enough patience to become a scientist.

Pythagoreans celebrate sunrise by Fyodor Bronnikov.

The Scientist’s Muse

Theano was born circa 546 BC, probably on Crete. Traditionally she is known as Theano of Croton. Her early life is not well known, but she is believed to have been a daughter of Brontinus the Orphic. Her father was a member of a religious group focused on the cult of Osiris. This group believed in reincarnation, and it is known that the Pythagoreans were inspired by their philosophy as well. This suggests that Theano may have also motivated her husband in many ways. Moreover, Brontinus and Theano became disciples of Pythagoras.

With time, they became a family as well and Theano had five children, two sons and three daughters, with Pythagoras. One of the sons was named Telauges and their daughters were named Damo, Myria and Arginote. The name of the second son has been forgotten over the years.

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Some researchers suggest that there could be more than one woman now identified as Theano. However, it seems more likely that it was just one person who used different pseudonyms. The real position of Theano in the Pythagorean School is unknown. Some researchers suggest that most of the writings which are known from other ancient books were made by the woman.

On the other hand, the old school of specialists in ancient Greek philosophy suggest that all of the writings which are believed to have been created by Theano were actually written by men, who used her name as a pseudonym. This belief has also been used for all of the writings which were published under the name of Pythagoras.

Many centuries after the death of the master and all of his students, researchers started to realize that there was more than one author in the works said to be written by Pythagoras. The main problem is that none of his original written works have survived until today. They are only known from other writings, including texts by Herodotus, Plato, Athenaeus, Suidas, Diogenes Laertius, Iamblichus, Aristotle, and other later writers.

Image thought to be Theano. ( russellmcneil.blogspot)

The Story of an Ancient Power Couple

When Pythagoras was 18 years old he started to travel the region near the Mediterranean Sea. He was in Babylon, Egypt, Sparta, and Crete – which is where he met his future wife. Pythagoras moved to Croton in Italy around 531 BC. He was 56 and Theano was much younger but she was full of energy and passion for science as well.

Their home also became a place where they established a school focused on philosophy, mathematics, and nature. Apart from this, the famous couple taught techniques of meditation and other studies related to a spiritual life - including self-awareness, self-control, self-esteem, and self-appreciation.

A scene at the Chartres Cathedral shows a philosopher on one of the archivolts over the right door of the west portal. This has been said to depict Pythagoras.

Unfortunately, Pythagoras’ rising power also brought about his death. When his school gained control of the government of Croton local inhabitants decided to destroy it. During the darkest day in Theano's life her husband and many other teachers and students were killed. The school was destroyed and many hoped that Theano would give up and go back to Crete.

Nevertheless, with the support of her children, she stayed on as a leader of the school. At least two of Theano’s daughters helped her during those hard times. Damo is especially remembered for having been responsible for the protection of her father’s writings and the texts of other philosophers who died in the attack as well. Damo was a physician, who followed her research and debated with Euruphon, another famous physician at the time. The greatest discovery reportedly made by Theano and Damo is associated with the human fetus. They discovered that a fetus is only able to survive after seven months of pregnancy.

There is evidence that Pythagoras’ school accepted both men and women. During those times, women had no educational or political rights. They were looked upon as housekeepers, and it was very difficult for them to get an education. The school in Croton was like a paradise for the female intellectuals who went there. One of Pythagoras’ first students was Aristoclea (whose works have been lost). It is believed that at least 28 women studied at the school during the lifetime of the master and his wife. The total number of students was about 300.

The School of Athens.

The Power of a Female Mind

Theano wrote many treatises related to medicine, physics, mathematics, and psychology - especially on themes connected with children. According to reports saved in historical writings, Theano was an author of Cosmology, The Theorem of the Golden Mean , The Theory of Numbers , The Construction of the Universe , On Virtue , and a biography about her husband entitled Life of Pythagoras .

The most important of her works is arguably The Theorem of the Golden Mean , which describes the irrational number that appears in many aspects of nature. The construction of the theory is very similar to the geometrical constant pi which was created by Pythagoras. Theano also created a theory about the universe and ten concentric spheres: the Sun, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Earth, Counter-Earth, and the stars. She believed that the stars were unable to move.

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A few pieces of letters of uncertain authorship have survived until now. Researchers believe that the letters were written by Theano’s hand but it is impossible to confirm. Theano’s works were perhaps continued by a woman known from 10th century writings as ''Suda''. She was Theano’s student, who came to her school from Metapontum, a town near Croton. In the analysis of the older texts, it is impossible to separate books said to be by Pythagoras from the writings attributed to Theano and some other authors.

Theano’s Last Days

Pythagoras’ school existed for at least 200 years after the death of the great mathematician. For centuries, historians underestimated the role of women in ancient science. Most of them were only seen in the shadow of their husbands. However, the history of the school of Pythagoras shows that some of them were also scientists and inspirations to men in this field. Theano was one of these women. She died during the 5th century BC and may have been buried near her school.

A drawing commonly associated with Theano. ( mestreacasa)

Her works were perhaps well known by Hypatia of Alexandria and other women who followed the path of science during ancient times. Hopefully more details of her life will be discovered in the future and it will be possible to complete her biography and put her in her rightful place in the pantheon of ancient scientists.


Theano

Theano (born c. 546 B.C.), the wife of the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, ran the Pythagorean school in southern Italy in the late sixth century B.C. following her husband's death. She is credited with having written treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and child psychology. Her most important work is said to have been an elucidation of the principle of the Golden Mean.

Theano's husband, Pythagoras (c. 582--500 B.C.), was inspired one of the most influential sects in the ancient world. Best known for devising the Pythagorean Theorem---which states that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse---Pythagoras was considered the greatest scientist of antiquity by classical Greek scholars and is considered to have been the first mathematician. However, given that Pythagoras lived seven generations before Plato, most of the information about him comes from fairly late sources---a few as late as the third century A.D. Another problem is that some of these sources are of doubtful reliability. However, references to Pythagoras's ideas can be found in earlier writings, including those of Empedocles, Heraclitus, Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle.

Influenced by Her Husband

Theano's husband is believed to have been born on the large island of Samos, just off the coast of Asia Minor. Pythagoras reportedly left the island when he was 18 and began traveling throughout the Mediterranean world to study with a variety of teachers, including Thales in Miletus. According to some accounts, he also spent time in Egypt, Babylon, Crete, and Sparta. He is believed to have moved to the Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy around 531 B.C., at the age of about fifty-six.

In Croton Pythagoras established a quasi-religious society dedicated to mathematical and philosophical speculations about the nature of the universe. He is reported to have taught purification of the spirit through study and proper diet and to have urged self-control and self-awareness through meditative techniques. However, because the Pythagorean community swore its members to secrecy very little about the society was made public during Pythagoras's lifetime.

There is, however, evidence that Pythagoras's academy accepted men and women on an equal basis. By some accounts there were at least 28 women teachers and students in the school, which is said to have eventually numbered some 300 adherents. Concerned with the quasi-religious, quasi-political study of mathematics and philosophy, the academy's religious ideas tended to be mystical, while its approach to natural philosophy was entirely rational.

Peter Gorman, writing in Pythagoras: A Life, cited Porphyry's account of Pythagoras's arrival in Croton. According to Porphyry, Pythagoras was at that time "tall," with "great charm and elegance in his voice." The mathematician reportedly spoke to the council of elders at Croton "with many fine words" and later addressed the school children and, finally, the women. Porphyry added: "One of the women is especially famous, Theano by name."

According to Gorman, Theano was the daughter of the Orphic disciple Brontinus. The Orphics were members of a religious group that centered its beliefs around the death and resurrection symbolism in the Egyptian deity Osiris. The Orphics further believed in reincarnation and an afterlife spent with the gods. Like the Orphics, the Pythagoreans owed many of their beliefs to Egyptian mythologies, so it is not surprising that Brontinus eventually became a disciple of Pythagoras. More significantly for the historical record, he would eventually become Pythagoras's father-in-law.

Brontinus's daughter---and Pythagoras's future wife---Theano also became Pythagoras's student. Pythagoras was reportedly Theano's senior by 36 years. According to Gorman, Theano would later bear Pythagoras a daughter named Damo and a son named Telauges. By other accounts, Pythagoras and Theano had three daughters, Damo, Myria, and Arignote, and two sons.

Theano is said to have eventually become a teacher of mathematics at the school in Croton. Legend has it that Pythagoras ran his school without discrimination based on gender. If true, this policy would have set him apart from his contemporaries, who granted no educational or political rights to women. In Pythagoras's time, women were usually considered property and relegated at best to the roles of housekeeper or spouse.

According to some of Pythagoras's earliest biographers, the philosopher and mathematician had other female students besides Theano. One source identifies a woman by the name of Aristoclea as a member of the early community. A third-century A.D. source lists 16 women who belonged to Pythagoras's school. Some historians have argued that the survival of these womens' names so long after Pythagoras's lifetime attests to the importance of women scholars in his school.

After Pythagoras's academy gained control of the local government of Croton, the local populace grew to resent the Pythagorean aristocracy and destroyed the school. The teachers and students were reportedly either killed or exiled. By some accounts Pythagoras himself was killed during this uprising.

Surviving the attack, Theano reportedly ran the dispersed Pythagorean School following her husband's death with the assistance of two of her daughters in fact, one source says that Theano's daughter Damo was responsible for safeguarding her father's writings following his death. Theano has been credited with writing treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and child psychology, and there are reportedly references to her work in the writings of Athenaeus, Suidas, Diogenes Laertius, and Iamblichus.

Theano and her daughters acquired reputations as excellent physicians. According to the Pythagoreans, the human body is a miniature copy of the universe as a whole. In a debate with the physician Euryphon on the nature of fetal development, Theano and her daughters reportedly prevailed with their argument that the fetus is viable after the seventh month.

Offshoots of the Pythagorean academy continued for some 200 years after its founder's death. In the fifth century B.C. there were reportedly still several prominent women members of the Pythagorean school.

There were reportedly many individuals---both teachers and students---living communally at Pythagoras's school. Because all writings were published under Pythagoras's name, it is difficult to determine who was actually responsible for which work. However, given that Theano was a member of the Pythagorean academy, certain facts of her existence can be taken for granted.

There are no surviving written works by any of the Pythagoreans all that is known of them comes from the writings of others, including Plato and Herodotus. Whenever one refers to the writings of Pythagoras or his students, one is in fact referencing a body of work that was done between approximately 585 B.C. and 400 B.C. The discoveries of the Pythagoreans were considered to be the common property of all members of the school, which was organized along the lines of a brotherhood or secret society.

According to one source, Theano's principal works included a Life of Pythagoras, a Cosmology, The Theorem of the Golden Mean, The Theory of Numbers, The Construction of the Universe, and a work titled On Virtue. None of the primary sources that remain, however, reveals anything of her personality.

Theano's most important work is said to have been the principle of the Golden Mean. Like the geometrical constant pi, the Golden Mean is an irrational number that shows up in many relationships in nature. Its decimal value is approximately 1.6180. In geometry, a "golden" rectangle is one whose sides are related by the Golden Mean ratio, for example 13:8. Both the ancient Greeks and Egyptians designed buildings and monuments with proportions based on the Golden Mean. It is now known that some growth patterns observed in nature occur in accordance with the Golden Mean, examples being the spirals in the nautilus shell and the ratio of clockwise to counterclockwise spirals in a sunflower.

In a treatise on the construction of the universe attributed to Theano, she reportedly argues that the universe consists of ten concentric spheres: the Sun, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Earth, Counter-Earth, and the stars. The Sun, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury move in orbit about a central fire. The stars are fixed and are not considered to move. In Theano's theory, the distances between the spheres and the central fire are in the same arithmetic proportion as the intervals in the musical scales.

The Pythagorean mathematical investigations into the relation between numerical ratios and musical intervals reportedly extended to other areas as well. According to one tradition Pythagoras could cure ailing psyches with his music.

In the Pythagorean school, matter was held to be discontinuous. According to Aristotle, the Pythagoreans believed numbers to be the ultimate component of material objects. Because astronomy and music are ultimately reduced to arithmetic and geometry in the Pythagorean framework, even those disciplines were considered to be mathematical subjects. Thus numbers for the Pythagoreans played much the same role that atoms do in modern scientific theory. Significantly, the Pythagorean cosmology, with later modifications by Plato, Eudoxus, and Aristotle, formed the basis of natural philosophy during the Middle Ages.

The confusion surrounding Theano's life is compounded by the existence of a second Pythagorean woman of the same name who reportedly lived in the fourth century B.C. According to a tenth-century source known as the "Suda," this Theano was a Pythagorean woman from Metapontum, a town along the coast of southern Italy not far from Croton.

Based on this Theano's surviving writings, it would appear that women were still influential participants in the Pythagorean school in the fourth century. In fact, a literature directed to female readership had evolved by then. Some historians have speculated, however, that the writings attributed to this Theano were actually written by men, using the name of Pythagoras's wife as a pseudonym.


Theano – A Woman Who Ruled the Pythagoras School - History


No. 2797: THEANO

John Lienhard presents Aymará Boggiano

Today, the first known woman mathematician and something more. The University of Houston's College of Engineering and the Department of Hispanic Studies present this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was looking into The Pythagoreans the other day when I found an article by María Salmeron about the earliest woman mathematician. In the sixth century BC in Crotona southern Italy lived Pythagoras, the well-known mathematician, and philosopher. We know him well for the theorem that bears his name but, what about his life?

Pythagoras was the founder of a secret society dedicated to study of philosophy and mathematics. Teano was a young disciple, 30 years his junior and one of the brightest within the society. There they met, and even though there&rsquove been discussions about their relationship, we believe they married, worked together, and had several children.


The Pythagoreans followed a strict code of silence

Under the rule of the Pythagorean Society all material property was shared, and knowledge belonged to everyone. Men and women had the same rights and all knowledge was kept in secret. Surely, it was their decision to keep knowledge in secret, what prevents us from finding out about their life and identifying the true authors of the writings they produced.

Even so, several treaties in math, physics and medicine are attributed to Theano including the one on the Golden Section. The number (&Phi) PHI, it is a constant proportion &mdash a rectangle with a strange property. If you cut off a square with sides equal to the short side, what's left over is a small rectangle with the same shape as the original one. Ever since Theano, we've looked upon this rectangle as the perfect shape. In nature, the spirals of a mollusk shell and flower petals evolve out of that shape. Architects have based designs on its proportions down through the centuries it has been used as a mathematical expression of beauty.

Theano&rsquos Pythagorean society was an exception, the rest of the Greek society was far from being homogeneous in its acceptance of women. In Athens the presence of women in public meetings was outlawed. Luckily for Theano in Crotona men and women were seen as equals. There were also men like Pythagoras and much later Plato who defended and accepted women as equals in science.


Teano

And so it is that the story of Theano is left behind as well as the acceptance of her contributions by Pythagoras and the other members of the society. Conveniently, their theorems and writings are proven, accepted and studied, but not their philosophy about the feminine contributions.

A revolt against the authority of the Pythagorean society led Pythagoras to suffer a violent death. After the tragedy it was precisely Theano who took charge of the order and spread the mathematical knowledge, and Pythagorean wisdom and doctrines with the help of her children and other members.

So Theano becomes the first known woman mathematician in history. She appears alongside and almost at the same time as Pythagoras who in addition to being the father of mathematics becomes the first feminist mathematician.

I'm Aymara Boggiano, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This episode was originally written in Spanish (TEANO ) and then translated in English. The references below stem from the original episode and are in Spanish. They are followed by references in English provided by the translator.

Salmerón, María A. "Teano y la ciencia pitagórica." La Ciencia y el Hombre. XXIII.2 (2010) accessed 28 Feb. 2012. http://www.uv.mx/cienciahombre/revistae/vol23num2/articulos/teano/

Figueiras, Lourdes, María Molero, et al. Género y Matemáticas. Madrid: Editorial Síntesis, 1998. 111. (Revista de Divulgación Científica de la Universidad Veracruzana)

The number Phi (&Phi)


John Lienhard, author of these series offers the above illustration and the following explanation for the Golden Section: &ldquoThe ratio of sides of the Golden Section rectangle, often noted as Phi (&Phi = ), is the difference between the lengths of its sides, along with its short length that would form another rectangle of exactly the same shape."

This site: http://www.iessandoval.net/sandoval/aplica/activi_mate/actividades/teano/marco_teano.htm
contains videos about Teano and the search for harmony, including one that shows the division of the Golden Proportion.

More on Teano and an explanation for the Golden proportion: http://matematicas.lunadelasierra.org/mujeres/exposicion/teano/

Teano and her daughters:
https://sites.google.com/site/laruecadeaspasia/1-escuela-pitagorica/3-theano-de-crotona-damo-myia-y-arignote-de-crotona

There is a digital copy of the book of Diogenes Laercio, The 8th book: Biography of Pithagoras that can be read here. It contains information about Theano.

There is also a funny explanation of the Golden Proportion in a Disney video: &ldquoDonald Duck in the World of Mathematics&rdquo it&rsquos available in Amazon.

The Pythagoreans illustration: http://www.hermes-press.com/pythagoras_index.htm de Norman D. Livergood


Translator&rsquos references:

In Wikipedia see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

A golden rectangle with longer side a, and shorter side b, when placed adjacent to a square with sides of length a, will produce a similar golden rectangle with longer side a + b and shorter side a. This illustrates the relationship:

This site: http://www.goldennumber.net/goldsect.htm is completely dedicated to &ldquoPhi: The Golden Number&rdquo and &ldquoit&rsquos pervasive appearance in life and the universe&rdquo

More on the Golden Section:
http://www.maths.surrey.ac.uk/hosted-sites/R.Knott/Fibonacci/phi2DGeomTrig.html

There is not much information about Theano in English. Here are a couple of them:
The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science has some information.

For a short bio see: http://www.women-philosophers.com/Theano.html

For information about her writings: Mary Beard. Woman as a Force in History. 1946 &ndash Go to Woman as a Force in History scroll down to the section called: &ldquoBeginnings of Western Social Philosophy&rdquo

This episode was first aired on June 5, 2012


Theano

Peter Gorman, writing in Pythagoras: A Life, cited Porphyry's account of Pythagoras's arrival in Croton. According to Porphyry, Pythagoras was at that time "tall," with "great charm and elegance in his voice." The mathematician reportedly spoke to the council of elders at Croton "with many fine words" and later addressed the school children and, finally, the women. Porphyry added: "One of the women is especially famous, Theano by name."

According to Gorman, Theano was the daughter of the Orphic disciple Brontinus. The Orphics were members of a religious group that centered its beliefs around the death and resurrection symbolism in the Egyptian deity Osiris. The Orphics further believed in reincarnation and an afterlife spent with the gods. Like the Orphics, the Pythagoreans owed many of their beliefs to Egyptian mythologies, so it is not surprising that Brontinus eventually became a disciple of Pythagoras. More significantly for the historical record, he would eventually become Pythagoras's father-in-law.

Brontinus's daughter—and Pythagoras's future wife— Theano also became Pythagoras's student. Pythagoras was reportedly Theano's senior by 36 years. According to Gorman, Theano would later bear Pythagoras a daughter named Damo and a son named Telauges. By other accounts, Pythagoras and Theano had three daughters, Damo, Myria, and Arignote, and two sons.

Theano is said to have eventually become a teacher of mathematics at the school in Croton. Legend has it that Pythagoras ran his school without discrimination based on gender. If true, this policy would have set him apart from his contemporaries, who granted no educational or political rights to women. In Pythagoras's time, women were usually considered property and relegated at best to the roles of housekeeper or spouse.

According to some of Pythagoras's earliest biographers, the philosopher and mathematician had other female students besides Theano. One source identifies a woman by the name of Aristoclea as a member of the early community. A third-century A.D. source lists 16 women who belonged to Pythagoras's school. Some historians have argued that the survival of these womens' names so long after Pythagoras's lifetime attests to the importance of women scholars in his school.


Theano of Croton And The Pythagorean Women Of Ancient Greece

2500 years ago, in a small but soon to be revered town in Southern Italy, a group of men and women gathered, united by the proposition that the universe is, at its base, Numbers. They were called the Pythagoreans, and their society would last for a millennium while their mathematical discoveries will be part of every geometry textbook in every school for as long as there are humans to read them. And at the center of that society lay two people – Pythagoras himself, and a woman named Theano.

Theano was one of seventeen early women Pythagoreans mentioned by name in the historical record, and the only one about whom we have anything approaching definite to say. For between the foundational Pythagoreans and us lie a number of bedeviling filters and documentational chasms. Firstly, the cult of silence that formed a central part of Pythagorean practice meant that few of the early practitioners set their thoughts to paper. Secondly, the appropriation of Pythagoreanism by later Platonic philosophers who cavalierly recast its origin in their own image means that we have to tread carefully in separating Pythagorean thought as it has come down to us from its various Platonic encrustments. Thirdly, the 5th century BCE breakup of the Pythagoreans into two rival camps (the Aphorists and Scientists) and their mutual decimation by an increasingly suspicious Greek society makes it difficult to determine the full content of that first generation of thinkers. And lastly, the catastrophic loss of ancient sources during the Christian Era has reduced the original texts of those rare early Pythagoreans who did write down their thoughts to lists of titles recalled in sources from centuries later.

With so many conspiring sources muddying the historical waters, it’s a wonder we know anything at all of Pythagoras and his generation, but some basics seem assured. That women were welcome to practice Pythagorean philosophy and to attain some renown thereby is clear from the number of sources listing their names and works.

The problem comes when we start speculating on the contents of their work for, to a Pythagorean, “philosophy” meant a good deal more than it does to modern ears. An ancient philosopher pondered questions of ethics, metaphysics, natural science, rhetoric, and mathematics as part of their calling, and a Pythagorean philosopher in particular was a mixture of mathematician, theologist, and ethicist which is difficult to separate into its component parts.

When Pythagoras journeyed through the Egyptian and Babylonian Empires seeking wisdom, he came in contact with principles of reincarnation, lifestyle, and the sacredness of Number that he would bring back to Greece and fashion into an influential new philosophy that preached silence, lack of ostentation, a simple diet, the migration of the soul between bodies, the eternal recurrence of all things, and the basic numerical nature of the world. In devotion to this last point, the early Pythagoreans pushed the envelope of Greek arithmetic and geometry, including work on triangular and polygonal numbers, the classification of odd and even numbers, the arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic means, the nature of the irrational, and of course the Pythagorean Theorem.

Who among the Pythagoreans was responsible for which advances has been lost to time, and even the ascription of the Pythagorean Theorem to Pythagoras is more a matter of tradition than certainty. Theano comes down to us as the most eminent of the women Pythagoreans, but which mathematical areas she worked upon, it is at present impossible to say. But here is what we know…

Most sources say that Theano was the wife of Pythagoras and the daughter of Brontinus, but some hold that she was the wife of Brontinus and a gifted student of Pythagoras. The most detailed account, that of Iamblichos (

325 CE) in his Vita Pythagorica, has her as Brontinus’s wife, but the fragmentary mentions of her in Eusebios of Caesaerea (4th c.), Theodoretos of Kyrrha (5th c.), and Timaios of Tauromenion (3rd c. BCE) all have her as Pythagoras’s wife, while Diogenes Laertius (3rd c.) says, eh, coulda been one, coulda been the other. Modern scholars are divided on the issue, with some maintaining that the confusion has arisen because there were in fact two people named Theano whose lives got conflated with the passage of time.

Those who say she was married to Pythagoras claim that, after his death, the Pythagoreans were held together by her and her children Telauges, Myia, and Mnesarchos, thereby creating the first link of continuity that would allow Pythagoreanism to exist as a virtual secret society for a thousand years.

Lukianos of Samosata referred to her in the 2nd century BCE as “the daughter of Pythagorean wisdom.” Areios Didymos, one century later, asserted that she was the “first Pythagorean woman to philosophize and write poetry,” while Censorinus wrote some 400 years after that, placing her authority next to that of Aristotle on a question of natal periods. Our first hint of what she might have written doesn’t emerge until Suda’s Lexikon of the 10th century CE, some 1500 years after her death. The titles he mentions are Of Pythagoras, Of Virtue (for Hippodamos of Thurium), Apophthegmata of a Pythagorean, and Advice for Women.

Of the contents of the two Pythagorean volumes we can only speculate, but we do have three letters purported to have been written by Theano, two common anecdotes from her life, and three further letters of a more dubious provenance to get a sense perhaps of her style.

The three letters are missives of advice sent to friends, and thus contain no mathematics. What they do contain is a blunderbuss of Pythagorean life counseling – reprimanding one friend for spoiling her children with luxuries when austerity and a love of the life of the mind are most likely to produce good children, advising another to treat her servants with kindness and consideration and avoid unnecessary luxury, and pushing a third to react with an air of calm to her husband’s infidelity because men are essentially short-sighted sexual fools from whom not much is to be expected.

The two anecdotes are repeated constantly in the sources, which is endlessly aggravating. “Hey, future generations, which would you rather have, accounts of the mathematical insights of the early Pythagorean women or this one story about Theano’s elbow? I can’t hear you, because you don’t exist yet, so I’m going to assume the elbow thing and go ahead and throw the rest of this stuff on the fire. You’re welcome.”

Theano was walking along one day when her elbow came uncovered. Somebody commented that it was a beautiful elbow. She said, “Yes, but not a public one!”

The other anecdote is a similar two line exchange. Somebody asks Theano how long after sex it takes a woman to become pure. She supposedly answered, “With your husband, instantly, with somebody else, never.”

I have my doubts on those two – among the dubiously attributed letters by Theano and other women Pythagoreans there is an awful lot of, “A woman’s job is to please her husband,” which doesn’t seem to jibe with the daring communal intellectual spirit of early Pythagoreanism, but which does jibe perfectly with the Christian Platonism tasked with transmitting the heritage of ancient Greece and which often transmuted it in the process.

At this far remove, with so few sources at our disposal, it is simply impossible to say what among the histories, whispers, letters, and anecdotes counts as the “real” Theano. What is true is that, once upon a Greece, a group of men and women gathered, spurred on by love of intellectual exchange, and the association that they formed was so compelling it stretched over centuries and millennia to prod us forward with its example. Here was Pythagoras, and there Theano, philosophers both, the heirs of Egypt and parents of us all.

Lead image: Illustration showing Pythagoras teaching a class of women from “The Story Of The Greatest Nations”, by Charles Horne and Edward Ellis, 1913 via Wikimedia, creative commons.

FURTHER READING: We are fortunate to have all the ancient fragments about Theano and the women Pythagoreans gathered in one easily obtainable source: Theano: Briefe einer antiken Philosophin. It’s a Reclam edition, so it’s very convenient for travel, and contains the original Greek and Latin next to the German translations. For more on the Pythagoreans and what we actually know about them, Penguin has a nice volume, Early Greek Philosophy, that includes sections on Pythagoras and the two schools emerging from him. On the math side, Sir Thomas Heath’s classic 2 volume A History of Greek Mathematics (1921) is just a through and through classic of mathematical history.

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 1, 2 and 3.


History of Scientific Women

Theano of Crotone is the name given to perhaps two Pythagorean philosophers. She has been called the pupil, daughter and wife of Pythagoras, although others made her the wife of Brontinus. Her place of birth and the identity of her father are just as uncertain, leading some authors to suggest that there was more than one person whose details have become merged (these are sometimes referred to as Theano I and Theano II). A few fragments and letters ascribed to her have survived which are of uncertain authorship.

Theano not only worked in the areas of physics, medicine and child psychology, but was an astronomer/mathematician in her own right. Her work on the theorem of the Golden Mean (still in use today) and the corresponding Golden Rectangle are considered to be her most important contribution [Reference: "The Hidden Giants" by Sethanne Howard].

The writings attributed to Theano were: Pythagorean Apophthegms, Female Advice, On Virtue, On Piety, On Pythagoras, Philosophical Commentaries, and Letters. None of these writings have survived except a few fragments and letters of uncertain authorship. Attempts have been made to assign some of these fragments and letters to the original Theano (Theano I) and some to a later Theano (Theano II), but it is likely that they are all pseudonymous fictions of later writers, which attempt to apply Pythagorean philosophy to a woman's life. The surviving fragment of On Piety concerns a Pythagorean analogy between numbers and objects the various surviving letters deal with domestic concerns: how a woman should bring up children, how she should treat servants, and how she should behave virtuously towards her husband.

According to Mary Ritter Beard, Theano told Hippodamus of Thurium (may be Hippodamus of Miletus, who according to Aristotle planned the city of Thurium in 440 BC), the treatise On Virtue contains the doctrine of the Golden Mean.

According to Thesleff, Stobaeus, and Heeren, Theano wrote in On Piety: "I have learned that many of the Greeks believe Pythagoras said all things are generated from number. The very assertion poses a difficulty: How can things which do not exist even be conceived to generate? But he did not say that all things come to be from number rather, in accordance with number - on the grounds that order in the primary sense is in number and it is by participation in order that a first and a second and the rest sequentially are assigned to things which are counted."


Theano of Crotonac. 546 BCEEarly Pythagorean, Virtue Ethics, Number Theory

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Theano was the daughter of Brontinus, a physician and an Orphic disciple She was born in Crotona c. 546 BCE.

She was educated. She was a fine mathematician who later in life wrote a treatise describing the 'Golden Mean". She was very interested in ideas and when Pythagoras came to Samos, she went to hear him.

She and Pythagoras married although she was 36 years his junior. They had 5 children: three daughters (Damo, Myia and Arignote) and two sons ( Mnesarchus and Telauges).

She taught mathematics in Samos and Croton and is said to be the author of the treatise on the Golden Mean, an important concept in mathematics. the 'Golden Mean' is found in nature and used in both art and architecture.

After Pythagoras' death she became the head of Pythagoras' school and, with the help of her daughters,(Damo, Myria and Arignote) all of whom were philosophers and one of her sons, she continued the Pythagorean school of wisdom. She and her children not only kept the school and its doctrines alive, they were central to the spread of Pythagorean thought. Some would say that without the work of Theano after his death, Pythagoras's ideas and the Pythagorean Brotherhood would probably not have had as much influence in the ancient world around the Mediterranean.

References to to her and her work can be found in Athenaeus, Suidas, Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus.

Diogenes mentions that she left writings, but he does not mention their titles. There are several interesting letters published under her name in the Aldine Collection of Greek Epistles (1499 )but more recent scholarship has shown that there were not likely to have been written by Theano.

These continued to be published, however, and if you do a search you will find them in:

  • Collection Cujacius, Aurel. Allob. 1606
  • Gale’s Opuscula Mythologica 1671
  • Wolf’s Mulierum Graecarum Fragmenta, 1739
  • Conrad Orelli’s Socratis et Socraticorum, Pythagorae et Pythagoreorum, quae ferunter Epistolae 1815

Suidas claims that is another woman with this same name. . also a Pythagorean . who wrote works on Pythagoras, on Virtue addressed to Hippodamus of Thuriurn. . but most scholars believe that this is really an account of this Theano.

It appears that she corresponded with Callisto, on child psychology and the best way to bring up a family.

"After the death of Pythagoras, which occurred at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the fifth century B.C., Theano, carried on the central school of the Order. just how many daughters she and Pythagoras had is a matter of guessing but some of them seem to be well established in the records – women who, as teachers, writers, and missionaries, disseminated the philosophy of their parents."

Source : Mary Beard. Woman as a Force in History. 1946

Her principal works are: "Life of Pythagoras", "Cosmology", "Theorem of the Golden Mean", "Theory of numbers" and "On Virtue":

Here is a brief article in pdf format about the Golden Mean

Sources and Resources:

Mary Beard. Woman as a Force in History. 1946 - for information about Theano's writings. See: Woman as a Force in History

The Encyclopedia of World Biography offers this biography of Theano

Theano of Crotona is one ofmore than 100 women featured in A History of Women Philosophers photo album, and is one of more than 40 women featured in


Theano – A Woman Who Ruled the Pythagoras School - History

Fred M. Moore, Jr. Union Grand Council Knights of Pythagoras

The period around 500-600 B.C. was extraordinary for the number of men whose thought would profoundly affect the world from that time forward.

In India, Prince Siddhartha was becoming the Gautama Buddha. In China, it was the time of Lao-tse and Confucius. In the western world, it was the time of Pythagoras.

In our modern perspective on "history", everything before Plato and Aristotle is murky, and even semi-mythic. We tend to see everything before the rise of Periclean Athens as primitive an arrogant and fallacious perspective. Pythagoras, some seven generations before Plato, was a philosopher/scientist in a line of teaching already thousands of years old, the Orphic tradition.

The major names we know from this ancient line are Orpheus (semi-mythological), Hermes Trismegistus of Egypt (legendary), Pythagoras, (historical personage), and Plato. The classic writers regarded Orpheus as the greatest spiritual master, Pythagoras the greatest scientist, and Plato the greatest philosopher in this line of teaching.

From our perspective we see the historical Pythagoras as an originator, but it would be more accurate to see him as the inheritor of a very ancient body of teaching, as is demonstrated in his own biography Most of his life was spent traveling, studying the accumulated wisdom of the ancient world from Egypt to India.

We can trace his path fairly accurately from Roman and Greek sources. Pythagoras left his birth island of Samos (in the third year of the 53rd Olympiad), at the age of 18, to spend the next 40 years studying with the greatest teachers of all schools in the ancient world. He spent 22 years in Egypt, and another 12 years in Babylon. He also studied in India, and with teachers in Crete and Sparta.

It was not until the age of 56 (in the 62nd Olympiad) that Pythagoras settled in the Italian city of Crotona. Crotona was one of the many Greek colonies around the northern Mediterranean, the autonomous cities of Magna Graecia.

In Crotona he established his Academy and its religious-scientific- philosophical-political movement, the secret wisdom school known as the Pythagorean Brotherhood. The Academy was to endure, in some form, for approximately 200 years after Pythagoras' death.

At about the same time Pythagoras married for the first time. His wife Theano was the daughter of Pythagoras' most famous disciple, Milo of Crotona, from whose house Pythagoras managed his school. (Men and women were admitted to the Academy on an equal basis, and Theano was a disciple at the Academy in her own right. Pythagoras' father-in-law and eminent disciple, Milo of Crotona, was the most famous wrestler of antiquity, winner of six Olympic Games.)

Pythagoras and Theano had seven children, four girls and three boys. After the murder of Pythagoras, Theano took over management of the Academy and one of the daughters, Damo, was entrusted with preserving, and keeping secret, her father's writings.

The Pythagorean Brotherhood was the archetypal Secret Society, whose inner teachings were available only to the initiates. It was a severe and authoritarian discipline. For the first five years of apprenticeship the applicants were not permitted to speak or to ask questions. Their teacher spoke to them from the other side of a curtain. When students, male or female, were initiated into the esoteric inner school, they joined an active dialogue "behind the curtain."

The body of Pythagorean teaching is known through the writings of others. Only two preserved letters are believed to have been directly written by Pythagoras. The wisdom of the initiates was never intended as public knowledge.

It was probably resentment of this elitist discipline of the Brotherhood that led to Pythagoras' murder at 80. The most frequent story goes that the richest, most powerful citizen of Crotona, named Cylon, applied to Pythagoras for discipleship, and was refused for reasons of bad personal character -- specifically, being "of a harsh, violent, turbulent Humor."

Enraged by the rejection, Cylon assembled a small private army. Waiting until a meeting at the disciple Milo's house, Cylo's thugs set the house afire, killing Pythagoras and forty of his disciples. This was in the 4th year of the 70th Olympiad, after Pythagoras had lived in Crotona for 20 years.

Other sources claim Pythagoras' murder was a simple political assassination, owing to the enormous political influence the Brotherhood had acquired in the colonies of Magna Graecia.


Watch the video: What is Theano philosopher?, Explain Theano philosopher, Define Theano philosopher (August 2022).