[Math Lair] Greco-Roman Mathematics History

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Starting around 200 B.C. and continuing for the next two centuries or so, the Romans built a Mediterranean empire that included many of the former Greek city-states, capturing, among many other cities, Syracuse in 212 B.C., Corinth in 146 B.C., and Alexandria in 48 B.C. While the various wars resulted in some disruption in Greek mathematical research, several notable mathematicians arose afterwards.

The western half of the Roman empire, where Roman culture prevailed, was generally uninterested in theoretical mathematics. Most mathematical work of significance was Greek in character and came from the Greek east. Alexandria, in Egypt, was the intellectual heart of the empire; over the centuries, several first-rate mathematicians such as Hero, Ptolemy, and Diophantus worked there. Even the best Roman mathematical work, as exemplified by Vitruvius at the start of the imperial period and by Boethius after the end of the western empire, is of significantly lower quality than that of Greek mathematicians of the same time period.

Here is a timeline of important events and mathematicians during the Greco-Roman period:

48 B.C.
Julius Caesar captures Alexandria; the Library of Alexandria may have been destroyed at this time.
46 B.C.
Julius Caesar gives the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes the task of reforming the calendar.
50 A.D.
Hero (or Heron) does work in the fields of physics, mathematics, and mechanics. He is also the discoverer of Heron's formula.
150 A.D.
Ptolemy writes the Almagest, which dealt with his theory of planetary motion.
ca. 250 A.D.
Diophantus formulates methods of solving Diophantine equations.
300 A.D.
Pappus compiles and comments on many theorems.
390 A.D.
Theon (335–400) and his daughter Hypatia (355–415) collaborate on mathematical and astronomical work.
391 A.D.
The Serapeum at Alexandria is destroyed.
415 A.D.
Hypatia is murdered.
470 A.D.
Proclus (412–485) teaches mathematics at the Platonic Academy in Athens and writes mathematical commentaries such as his Commentary on Euclid.
529 A.D.
Roman Emperor Justinian closes the Platonic Academy.

View a note on these timelines.

After the third century A.D., interest in mathematics and science declined. This decline may have been caused by the persecution of some pagan philosophers, or it may have been that men who previously would have studied philosophy or science instead wrote Christian literature. Furthermore, the Empire-wide economic decline that began in the third century resulted in fewer upper-class people with leisure to spend their time doing mathematics.

After the closure of the Platonic Academy in 529, which in a way marks the end of a tradition founded over 1,100 years previously by Thales, there is virtually no significant mathematical work in Christian Europe for almost a millennium, until the fifteenth century. Perhaps the sole exception to this stagnation is Fibonacci's work in the 13th century. The continuation of the Greek scientific tradition is found in the Arab world.

You may also be interested in the Ionic number system, or in Roman numerals.

Mathematics timeline

Sources used (see bibliography page for titles corresponding to numbers): 14.