By the great Tetraktys I pray

Lately I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the Pythagoreans, particularly with regard to their connections with the North.

But they were also pretty important in the South. In fact there was a lot of crossover between the Orphic and Pythagorean communities in Magna Graecia and we know that a number of the latter wrote books under Orpheus’ name, especially when their political plans fell apart and the neighboring communities began a systematic purge – indeed they may have thought that such duplicity was the only means of preserving their master’s teachings. (Though, ironically, it is sometimes claimed that Pythagoras was the first author of Orphika.) By and large the Pythagoreans were adherents of metempsychosis and vegetarianism (except in the case of soldiers, athletes and others who required a more robust diet; Pythagoras is said to have sacrificed an ox after making an important mathematical discovery) so when we do see a rare instance of this ascribed to Orpheus and his followers in all probability it’s coming from a Pythagorean source who’s trying to pass or at least an Orphic who was influenced by the Samian’s teachings.

Anyway, here are some quotes that’ll give you a sense of what I mean. 

Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.107

Aristotle says that Orpheus never existed, and it is common opinion that this Orphic poem is by one Cercops, a Pythagorean; but Orpheus, that is, his image as you prefer to say, is frequently present in my spirit.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21.131

To be sure, Onomacritus the Athenian, whose work the poems ascribed to Orpheus are said to be, lived during the reign of the Peisistratids around the time of the fiftieth Olympiad, but Orpheus, who sailed with Heracles, was the teacher of Musaeus. For Amphion preceded the Trojan War by two generations, and Demodocus and Phemius were famous kitharodes after the capture of Troy, the former among the Phaeacians, the latter among the suitors. They say that the oracles ascribed to Musaeus are really by Onomacritus, that the Krater of Orpheus is by Zopyrus of Heraclea, and the Katabasis to Hades is the work of Prodicus the Samian. But Ion of Chios in the Triagmoi says that Pythagoras, too, attributed some of his own works to Orpheus. But Epigenes, in his On the Poetry Ascribed to Orpheus, says that the Katabasis to Hades and the Sacred Discourse are the work of Cercops the Pythagorean and the Robe and Physika, of Brontinus.

Olympiodoros, Commentary on the Phaedo 10.3.13

Plato paraphrases Orpheus everywhere.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.37.4

It is impossible to attribute the discovery of beans to Demeter; whoever has seen the initiation at Eleusis or has read the so-called Orphica knows what I am talking about.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.22.7

I have read verse in which Mousaios receives from the North Wind the gift of flight, but, in my opinion, Onomakritos wrote them, and there are no certainly genuine works of Mousaios except a hymn to Demeter written for the Lykomidae.

Proklos, The Theology of Plato 7.27

Timaios being a Pythagorean follows the Pythagorean principles, though in truth these are Orphic traditions. For what Orpheus delivered mystically through arcane narrations, these Pythagoras learned, being initiated by Aglaophemos in the mystic wisdom which Orpheus derived from his mother Kalliope. For these things Pythagoras says in the Sacred Discourse.

Suidas s.v. Orpheus

Orpheus, of Leibethra in Thrace (the town is below Pieria), son of Oiagros and Kalliope. Oiagros was in the fifth generation after Atlas, by Alkyone, one of his daughters. He lived 11 generations before the Trojan Wars, and they say he was a student of Linos. He lived for 9 generations, though some say 11. He wrote Triasms, but these are also said to be by Ion the tragedian. Among them are the so-called Hierostolica [‘Sacred Missives’]; Klêseis kosmikai [‘Cosmic Calls’]; Neoteuctica; Sacred Speeches in 24 Rhapsodies, but these are said to be by Theognetos the Thessalian, or by the Pythagorean Kerkops; Chrêsmous [‘Oracles’], which are attributed to Onomakritos; Teletas [‘Rites’], though these too are attributed to Onomakritos; among these is the Peri Lithôn Gluphês [‘Concerning Cutting on Stones’], entitled Eighty Stone; Sôtêria [‘Deliverances’], but these are said to be by Timokles the Syracusan or by Persinos the Milesian; Kratêras [‘Mixing Bowls’], said to be by Zopyros; Thronismoi of the Mother and Bakchica, said to be by Nikias of Elea; Eis Haidou Katabasin [‘Descent into Hades’], said to be by Herodikos of Perinthos; Peplon [‘Robe’] and Diktuon [‘Net’], also said to be by Zopyros of Heraclea, though others say Brontinos; an Onomasticon in epic hexameter, a Theogony in epic hexameter; Astronomy, Amokopia, Thuêpolikon, Ôiothutika or Ôioskopika in epic hexameter, Katazôstikon, Hymns, Korubantikon, and Physika [‘Writings on Nature’], which they also attribute to Brontinos.

Selections from Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras 54-58

Pythagoras and his associates were long held in such admiration in Italy, that many cities invited them to undertake their administration. At last, however, they incurred envy, and a conspiracy was formed against them as follows. Cylon, a Crotonian, who in race, nobility and wealth was the most preeminent, was of a severe, violent and tyrannical disposition, and did not scruple to use the multitude of his followers to compass his ends. As he esteemed himself worthy of whatever was best, he considered it his right to be admitted to Pythagorean fellowship. He therefore went to Pythagoras extolled himself, and desired his conversation. Pythagoras, however, who was accustomed to read in human bodies’ nature and manners the disposition of the man, bade him depart, and go about his business. Cylon, being of a rough and violent disposition, took it as a great affront, and became furious.

He therefore assembled his friends, began to accuse Pythagoras, and conspired against him and his disciples. Pythagoras then went to Delos, to visit the Syrian Pherecydes, formerly his teacher, who was dangerously sick, to nurse him. Pythagoras’s friends then gathered together in the house of Milo the wrestler; and were all stoned and burned when Cylon’s followers set the house on fire. Only two escaped, Archippus and Lysis, according to the account of Neanthes. Lysis took refuge in Greece, with Epaminondas, whose teacher he had formerly been.

But Dicaearchus and other more accurate historians relate that Pythagoras himself was present when this conspiracy bore fruit, for Pherecydes had died before he left Samos. Of his friends, forty who were gathered together in a house were attacked and slain; while others were gradually slain as they came to the city. As his friends were taken, Pythagoras himself first escaped to the Caulonian haven, and thence visited the Locrians. Hearing of his coming, the Locrians sent some old men to their frontiers to intercept him. They said, “Pythagoras, you are wise and of great worth; but as our laws retain nothing reprehensible, we will preserve them intact. Go to some other place, and we will furnish you with any needed necessaries of travel.” Pythagoras turned back, and sailed to Tarentum, where, receiving the same treatment as at Crotona, he went to Metapontum. Everywhere arose great mobs against him, of which even now the inhabitants make mention, calling them the Pythagorean riots, as his followers were called Pythagoreans.

Pythagoras fled to the temple of the Muses, in Metapontum. There he abode forty days, and starving, died. Others however state that his death was due to grief at the loss of all his friends who, when the house in which they were gathered was burned, in order to make a way for their master, they threw themselves into the flames, to make a bridge of safety for him, whereby indeed he escaped. When died the Pythagoreans, with them also died their knowledge, which till then than they had kept secret, except for a few obscure things which were commonly repeated by those who did not understand them. Pythagoras himself left no book; but some little sparks of his philosophy, obscure and difficult, were preserved by the few who were preserved by being scattered, as were Lysis and Archippus.

The Pythagoreans now avoided human society, being lonely, saddened and dispersed. Fearing nevertheless that among men the name of philosophy would be entirely extinguished, and that therefore the Gods would be angry with them, they made abstracts and commentaries. Each man made his own collection of written authorities and his own memories, leaving them wherever he happened to die, charging their wives, sons and daughters to preserve them within their families. This mandate of transmission within each family was obeyed for a long time.

Excerpts from Iamblichos’ Life of Pythagoras

In short, Pythagoras imitated the Orphic mode of writing, and (pious) disposition, the way they honored the Gods representing them as images of brass not resembling our human form, but the divine receptacle of the sphere, because they comprehend and provide for all things, being of a nature and form similar to the universe.

But his divine philosophy and worship was compound, having learned much from the Orphic followers, but much also from the Egyptian priests, the Chaldeans and Magi, the mysteries of Eleusis, Imbrus, Samothracia, and Delos and even the Celtic and Iberian.

Further, Pythagoras conceived that the dominion of the divinities was most efficacious for establishing justice; and from this principle he deduced a hole polity, particular laws and a principle of justice. Thus his basic theology was that we should realize God’s existence, and that his disposition towards the human race is such that he inspects and does not neglect it. This theology was very useful: for we require an inspection that we would not be disposed to resist, such as the inspective government of the divinity, for if divine nature is of this nature, it deserves the empire of the universe. For the Pythagoreans rightly taught that (the natural) man is an animal naturally insolent, and changeable in impulse, desire and passions. He therefore requires an extraordinary inspectionary government of this kind, which may produce some chastening and ordering. They therefore thought that any who recognize their changeableness should never be forgetful of piety towards and worship of divinity. Everyone should pay heed, beneath the divine nature, and that of genii, to his parents and the laws, and obey them unfeignedly and faithfully. In general, they thought it necessary to believe that there is no evil greater than anarchy; since the human race is not naturally adapted to salvation without some guidance. The Pythagoreans also considered it advisable to adhere to the customs and laws of their ancestors, even though somewhat inferior to other regulations. For it is unprofitable and not salutary to evade existing laws, or to be studious of innovation. Pythagoras, therefore, to evince that his life was conformable to his doctrines gave many other specimens of piety to the Gods.

Those who were called Cylonians continued to plot against the Pythagoreans, and to exhibit the most virulent malevolence. Nevertheless for a time this enmity was subdued by the Pythagoreans’ probity, and also by the vote of the citizens, who entrusted the whole of the city affairs to their management.

At length, however, the Cylonians became so hostile to the men, as they were called, that they set fire to Milo’s residence, where were assembled all the Pythagoreans, holding a council of war. All were burnt, except two, Archippus and Lysis, who escaped through their bodily vigor. As no public notice was taken of this calamity, the Pythagoreans ceased to pay any further attention to public affairs, which was due to two causes: the cities’s negligence, and through the loss of those men most qualified to govern. Both of the saved Pythagoreans were Tarentines, and Archippus returned home. Lysis resenting the public neglect went into Greece, residing in the Achian Peloponnesus. Stimulated by an ardent desire, he migrated to Thebes, where he had as disciple Epaminondas, who spoke of his teacher as his father. There Lysis died.

Except Archytas of Tarentum, the rest of the Pythagoreans departed from Italy, and dwelt together in Rhegium. The most celebrated were Phantos, Echecrates, Polymnastus, and Diocrates, who were Phlyasians; and Xenophilus Chalcidensis of Thrace. But in course of time, as the administration of public affairs went from bad to worse, these Pythagoreans nevertheless preserved their pristine manners and disciplines; yet soon the sect began to fail, till they nobly perished. This is the account by Aristoxenus.

Nichomachus agrees with Aristoxenus, except that he dates the plot against the Pythagoreans during Pythagoras’s journey to Delos, to nurse his preceptor Pherecydes the Syrian, who was then afflicted with the morbus pedicularis, and after his death performed the funeral rites. Then those who had been rejected by the Pythagoreans, and to whom monuments had been raised, as if they were dead, attacked them, and committed them all to the flames. Afterwards they were overwhelmed by the Italians with stones, and thrown out of the house unburied. Then science died in the breasts of its possessors, having by them been preserved as something mystic and incommunicable. Only such things as were difficult to be understood, and which were not expounded, were preserved in the memory of those who were outside of the sect, except a few things, which certain Pythagoreans, who at that time happened to be in foreign, lands, preserved as sparks of science very obscure, and of difficult investigation. These men being solitary, and dejected at this calamity, were scattered in different places retaining no longer public influence. They lived alone in solitary places, wherever they found any; each preferred association with himself to that with any other person.

Fearing however lest the name of philosophy should be entirely exterminated from among mankind, and that they should, on this account incur the indignation of the Gods, by suffering so great a gift of theirs to perish, they made an arrangement of certain commentaries and symbols, gathered the writings of the more ancient Pythagoreans, and of such things as they remembered. These relics each left at his death to his son, or daughter, or wife, with a strict injunction not to alienate from the family. This was carried out for some time and the relics were transmitted in succession to their posterity.

Since Apollonius dissents in a certain place regarding these particulars, and adds many things that we have not mentioned, we must record his account of the plot against the Pythagoreans. He says that from childhood Pythagoras had aroused envy. So long as he conversed with all that came to him, he was pleasing to all; but when he restricted his intercourse to his disciples the general peoples’ good opinion of him was altered.

Their leaders, as well as the common folk were offended by the Pythagoreans’ actions, which were unusual, and the people interpreted that peculiarity as a reflection on theirs. The Pythagoreans’ kindred were indignant that they associated with none, their parents excepted; that they shared in common their possessions to the exclusion of their kindred, whom they treated as strangers. These personal motives turned the general opposition into active hostility. Hippasus, Diodorus and Theages united in insisting that the assembly and the magistracy should be opened to every citizen, and that the rulers should be responsible to elected representatives of the people. This was opposed by the Pythagoreans Alcimachus, Dimachus, Meton and Democides, and opposed changes in the inherited constitution. They were however defeated, and were formally accused in a popular as assembly by two orators, the aristocrat Cylon, and the plebeian Ninon. These two planned their speeches together, the first and longer one being made by Cylon, while Nino concluded by pretending that he had penetrated the Pythagorean mysteries, and that he had gathered and written out such particular as were calculated to criminate the Pythagoreans, and a scribe he gave to read a book which was entitled the Sacred Discourse.

Pythagoras considered that Homer deserved to be praised for calling a king the shepherd of the people which implied approval of aristocracy, in which the rulers are few, while the implication is that the rest of men are like cattle. Enmity was required to beans, because they were used in voting; inasmuch as the Pythagoreans selected office holders by appointment. To rule should be an object of desire, for it is better to be a bull for one day only, than for all one’s life to be an ox. While other states’ constitutions might be laudable, yet it would be advisable to use only that which is known to oneself.

In short, Ninon showed that their philosophy was a conspiracy against democracy: and advised the people to listen to the defendants, that they would never have been admitted into the assembly if the Pythagoreans’ council had to depend for admission on the Session of a thousand men, that they should not allow speech to those who, had used their utmost to prevent speech by others.

The people must remember that when they raised their right hands to vote, or even count their votes, this their right hand was constructively rejected by the Pythagoreans, who were Aristocrats. It was also disgraceful that the Crotonian masses who had conquered thirty myriads of men at the river Tracis should be outweighed by a thousandth part of the same number through sedition in the city itself.

Through these calumnies Ninon so exasperated his hearers that a few days after a multitude assembled intending to attack the Pythagoreans as they were sacrificing to the Muses in a house near the temple of Apollo. Foreseeing this, the Pythagoreans fled to an inn, while Democedes with the youths retired to Plataea. The partisans of the new constitution decreed an accusation against Democedes of inciting the to capture power, putting a price of thirty talents on his head, dead or alive. A battle ensued, and the victor, Theages was given the talents promised by the city. The city’s evils spread to the whole region, and the exiles were arrested even in Tarentum, Metapontum and Caulonia. The envoys from these cities that came to Crotona to get the charges were, according to the Crotonian record, bribed, with the result that the exiles were condemned as guilty, and driven out further. The Crotonians then expelled from the city all who were dissatisfied with the existing regime; banishing along with them all their families, on the two-fold pretext that impiety was unbearable, and that the children should not be separated from their parents. They then repudiated the debts, and redistributed the lands.

Many years after, when Dinarchus and his associates had been slain in another battle, and when Litagus, the chief leader of the sedition were dead, pity and repentance induced the citizens to recall from exile what remained of the Pythagoreans. They therefore sent for from messengers from Achaia who were to come to an agreement with the exiles, and file their oaths (of loyalty to the existing Crotonian regime?) at Delphi. The Pythagoreans who returned from exile were about sixty in number, not to mention the aged among whom were some physicians and dieticians on original lines. When these Pythagoreans returned, they were welcomed by the crowds, who silenced dissenters by announcing that the regime was ended. Then the Thurians invaded the country, and the Pythagoreans were sent to procure assistance but they perished in battle, mutually defending each other. So thoroughly had the city become Pythagoreanized that beside the public praise, they performed a public sacrifice in the temple of the Muses which had originally been built at the instigation of Pythagoras.

That is all of the attack on the Pythagoreans

7 thoughts on “By the great Tetraktys I pray

  1. Any direct links between the Tetraktys and Hermes? Aside from the number four. I know Hermes has a presence in Pythagoreanism through Pythagoras being the reincarnation of a son of Hermes.


    1. Maybe? My knowledge of Pythagoreanism isn’t as deep or wide as Orphism, and I tend to ignore all of the number-mysticism stuff unless it’s somehow relevant.


  2. It’s too bad more of those works–which is to say, any of them–mentioned in the Suda attributed to Orpheus have not survived. If one were to formulate a wish from some tricksy faerie or other supernatural creature, one could do far worse than to wish that all sources referred to or drawn upon by the compilers of the Suda were once again available…damn these monotheist bibliophobes!

    And, I see that like Battlestar Galactica, Pythagoras and his followers also had trouble with one Cylon. ;)


    1. Oh, no kidding. There’s not much I wouldn’t willingly trade for just a few of those books – hell, I’d even accept thorough summaries.

      I’m not sure the paucity of our knowledge of ancient literature is entirely due to bibliophobes. While there was certainly censorship, violence and destruction (enacted by both state and church) a lot of it simply came down to demand. Bookmaking was expensive and laborious; therefore monks and scribes only worked on texts that had popularity and value. Obviously this means Christian books in a Christian society (along with the classical canon) but even during Pagan times a lot of obscure works were disappearing. If only the Romans had invented the printing press!


      1. While I definitely agree that we can’t put it all down to that, I suspect that Orphic matters were very appealing and popular to pre-Christian folks (one doesn’t amass pseudepigrapha as extensive as that attributed to him without being popular!), and due to the mystical and prophetic essence of the material, it would have been more apt to be censored than not.

        Time travel and a really good scanner would be good substitutes for actually having the works, too. ;)


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