Phoenician, Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom: Porphyry of Tyre and Antonius Diogenes on Pythagoras (third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Phoenician, Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom: Porphyry of Tyre and Antonius Diogenes on Pythagoras (third century CE),' Last modified October 13, 2022,

Author: Antonius Diogenes and Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 6-9 (link to full translation)

Comments: Porphyry (third century CE) – at times citing Antonius Diogenes – relates legends regarding Pythagoras’ journeys (supposedly in the sixth century BCE) in pursuit of wisdom, presenting this philosopher as learning from wise men in Arabia, Judea, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Babylonia.

Source of the translation: Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Pythagorean Source Book and Library (Grand Rapid, MI: Phanes Press, 1987 [1920 original]), public domain, with adaptations.


[Pythagoras instructed by Egyptian, Chaldean and Phoenician wise men]

(6) Concerning his teaching, it is said that he learned the mathematical sciences from the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Phoenicians. For since antiquity, the Egyptians excelled in geometry, the Phoenicians in numbers and proportions, and the Chaldeans in astronomy and astrology. He received and learned other secrets concerning rites and worship of the gods and concerning the course of life from the Magians. (7) These accomplishments are generally known, but the rest are less noticed. Moreover, Eudoxos, in the second book of his Description of the Earth, writes that Pythagoras used the greatest purity and was shocked at all bloodshed and killing. Eudoxos writes that Pythagoras not only abstained from animal food, but never in any way approached butchers or hunters.

In his book on illustrious Virtuous Men, Antiphon praises his perseverance while he was in Egypt, saying, “Pythagoras, desiring to become acquainted with the institutions of Egyptian priests and diligently endeavoring to participate in them, requested the tyrant Polykrates [of Samos] to write to his friend and former host Amasis, the king of Egypt, to request that he be trained. Coming to Amasis, he received letters to the priests of Heliopolis, who sent him on to the priests of Memphis, on the pretense that they were the more ancient. On the same pretense, he was sent on from Memphis to Diospolis. (8) From fear of the king, the latter priests dared not make excuses. Thinking that he would give up his aim as a result of great difficulties, they required very hard precepts entirely different from the the Greek way of life. These he performed so readily that he won their admiration, and they permitted him to sacrifice to the gods, and to acquaint himself with all their knowledge, a favour never granted to a foreigner before this.”

(9) Returning to Ionia, he opened a school in his own country, a school which is even now called Pythagoras’s Semicircles, in which the Samians meet to deliberate about matters of common interest. . .

[Pythagoras’ education among Egyptians, Arabians, Chaldeans, and Hebrews, including citation of Antonius Diogenes]

(10) Diogenes, in his treatise about The Unbelievable Things Beyond Thule, has treated Pythagoras’s affairs so carefully that I think his account should not be omitted. He says that the Tyrrhenian Mnesarchos was of the descent group of those at Lemnos, Imbros and Skyros and that he departed from there to visit many cities and various lands. During Pythagoras’ journeys he found an infant lying under a large, tall poplar tree. On approaching, he observed it lay on its back, looking steadily without winking at the sun. In its mouth was a little slender reed, like a pipe through which the child was being nourished by the dew-drops that distilled from the tree. This great wonder prevailed upon him to take the child, believing it to be of a divine origin. The child was fostered by a native of that country, named Androkles, who later on adopted him, and entrusted to him the management of affairs. On becoming wealthy, Mnesarchos educated the boy, naming him Astrasus, and rearing him with his own three sons, Eunestus, Tyrrhenus, and Pythagoras.

(11) Mnesarchos sent the boy [Pythagoras] to a lyre player, a gymnast and a painter. Later he sent him to Anaximander at Miletos, to learn geometry and astronomy. Then Pythagoras visited the Egyptians, the Arabians, the Chaldeans and the Hebrews, from whom he acquired expertise in the interpretation of dreams, and acquired the use of frankincense in the worship of divinities. (12) In Egypt he lived with the priests, and learned the language and wisdom of the Egyptians, and their three kinds of letters, the epistolographic, the hieroglyphic, and symbolic. In one a person imitates the common way of speaking, while the others express the sense of allegory and parable. In Arabia he conferred with the king. In Babylon he associated with the other Chaldeans, especially attaching himself to Zaratos [Zoroaster], by whom he was purified from the pollutions of his past life, and taught the things from which a virtuous man should be free. Likewise he heard lectures about Nature, and the principles of wholes. It was from his stay among these foreigners that Pythagoras acquired the greater part of his wisdom.

. . . (32) Diogenes, explaining Pythagoras’ daily routine of living, relates that he advised all men to avoid ambition and vanity, which chiefly excite envy, and to avoid crowds. He himself held morning conferences at his residence, composing his soul with the music of the lute, and singing certain old paeans of Thales. He also sang verses of Homer and Hesiod, which seemed to soothe the mind. He danced certain dances which he conceived conferred on the body agility and health. He did not take walks too much, but only in company of one or two companions, in temples or sacred groves, selecting the quietest and pleasantest places.”

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