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Cover of Pappus's Mathematicae Collectiones, translated by Federico Commandino (1589).

Pappus of Alexandria (Greek Πάππος ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς) (c. 290 – c. 350) was one of the last great Greek mathematicians of antiquity, known for his Synagoge or Collection (c. 340), and for Pappus's Theorem in projective geometry. Nothing is known of his life, except (from his own writings) that he had a son named Hermodorus, and was a teacher in Alexandria.[1]

Collection, his best-known work, is a compendium of mathematics in eight volumes, the bulk of which survives. It covers a wide range of topics, including geometry, recreational mathematics, doubling the cube, polygons and polyhedra.



Pappus flourished in the 4th century A.D. In a period of general stagnation in mathematical studies, he stands out as a remarkable exception. How far he was above his contemporaries, how little appreciated or understood by them, is shown by the absence of references to him in other Greek writers, and by the fact that his work had no effect in arresting the decay of mathematical science. In this respect the fate of Pappus strikingly resembles that of Diophantus.


In his extant writings, Pappus gives no indication of the date of the authors whose treatises he makes use of, or of the time (but see below) at which he himself wrote. If we had no other information, we should only know that he was later than Ptolemy (died c. 168 AD), whom he quotes, and earlier than Proclus (born c. 411 AD), who quotes him.

The Suda (a 10th century Byzantine Greek encyclopedia of known inaccuracy) states that Pappus was of the same age as Theon of Alexandria, who flourished in the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (372–395 AD). A different date is given by a marginal note to a late 10th century manuscript (a copy of a chronological table by the same Theon), which states, next to an entry on Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305 AD), that "at that time wrote Pappus".

However, a real date comes from the dating of a solar eclipse mentioned by Pappus himself, when in his commentary on the Almagest he calculates "the place and time of conjunction which gave rise to the eclipse in Tybi in 1068 after Nabonassar". This works out as October 18, 320 AD, and so we can finally say that Pappus flourished c. 320 AD.


The great work of Pappus, in eight books and entitled Synagoge or Collection, we possess only in an incomplete form, the first book being lost, and the rest having suffered considerably. The Suda enumerates other works of Pappus. Pappus also wrote commentaries on Euclid's Elements (of which fragments are preserved in Proclus and the Scholia, while that on the tenth Book has been found in an Arabic MS.), and on Ptolemy's Ἁρμονικά (Harmonika).


The characteristics of Pappus's Collection are that it contains an account, systematically arranged, of the most important results obtained by his predecessors, and, secondly, notes explanatory of, or extending, previous discoveries. These discoveries form, in fact, a text upon which Pappus enlarges discursively. Very valuable are the systematic introductions to the various books which set forth clearly in outline the contents and the general scope of the subjects to be treated. From these introductions we are able to judge of the style of Pappus's writing, which is excellent and even elegant the moment he is free from the shackles of mathematical formulae and expressions. At the same time, his characteristic exactness makes his collection a most admirable substitute for the texts of the many valuable treatises of earlier mathematicians of which time has deprived us. We proceed to summarize briefly the contents of that portion of the Collection which has survived, mentioning separately certain propositions which seem to be among the most important.

We can only conjecture that the lost Book I, like Book II, was concerned with arithmetic, Book III being clearly introduced as beginning a new subject.

The whole of Book II (the former part of which is lost, the existing fragment beginning in the middle of the 14th proposition) related to a system of multiplication due to Apollonius of Perga.

Book III contains geometrical problems, plane and solid. It may be divided into five sections:

  1. On the famous problem of finding two mean proportionals between two given lines, which arose from that of duplicating the cube, reduced by Hippocrates of Chios to the former. Pappus gives several solutions of this problem, including a method of making successive approximations to the solution, the significance of which he apparently failed to appreciate; he adds his own solution of the more general problem of finding geometrically the side of a cube whose content is in any given ratio to that of a given one.
  2. On the arithmetic, geometric and harmonic means between two straight lines, and the problem of representing all three in one and the same geometrical figure. This serves as an introduction to a general theory of means, of which Pappus distinguishes ten kinds, and gives a table representing examples of each in whole numbers.
  3. On a curious problem suggested by Euclid I.21.
  4. On the inscribing of each of the five regular polyhedra in a sphere.
  5. An addition by a later writer on another solution of the first problem of the book.

Of Book IV the title and preface have been lost, so that the program has to be gathered from the book itself. At the beginning is the well-known generalization of Euclid I.47, then follow various theorems on the circle, leading up to the problem of the construction of a circle which shall circumscribe three given circles, touching each other two and two. This and several other propositions on contact, e.g. cases of circles touching one another and inscribed in the figure made of three semicircles and known as arbelos ("shoemakers knife") form the first division of the book; Pappus turns then to a consideration of certain properties of Archimedes's spiral, the conchoid of Nicomedes (already mentioned in Book I as supplying a method of doubling the cube), and the curve discovered most probably by Hippias of Elis about 420 B.C., and known by the name, τετραγωνισμός, or quadratrix. Proposition 30 describes the construction of a curve of double curvature called by Pappus the helix on a sphere; it is described by a point moving uniformly along the arc of a great circle, which itself turns about its diameter uniformly, the point describing a quadrant and the great circle a complete revolution in the same time. The area of the surface included between this curve and its base is found – the first known instance of a quadrature of a curved surface. The rest of the book treats of the trisection of an angle, and the solution of more general problems of the same kind by means of the quadratrix and spiral. In one solution of the former problem is the first recorded use of the property of a conic (a hyperbola) with reference to the focus and directrix.

In Book V, after an interesting preface concerning regular polygons, and containing remarks upon the hexagonal form of the cells of honeycombs, Pappus addresses himself to the comparison of the areas of different plane figures which have all the same perimeter (following Zenodorus's treatise on this subject), and of the volumes of different solid figures which have all the same superficial area, and, lastly, a comparison of the five regular solids of Plato. Incidentally Pappus describes the thirteen other polyhedra bounded by equilateral and equiangular but not similar polygons, discovered by Archimedes, and finds, by a method recalling that of Archimedes, the surface and volume of a sphere.

According to the preface, Book VI is intended to resolve difficulties occurring in the so-called "lesser astronomical works" (μίκρός άστρονομούμενος), i.e. works other than the Almagest. It accordingly comments on the Sphaerica of Theodosius, the Moving Sphere of Autolycus, Theodosius's book on Day and Night, the treatise of Aristarchus On the Size and Distances of the Sun and Moon, and Euclid's Optics and Phaenomena.

The preface of Book VII explains the terms analysis and synthesis, and the distinction between theorem and problem. Pappus then enumerates works of Euclid, Apollonius, Aristaeus and Eratosthenes, thirty-three books in all, the substance of which he intends to give, with the lemmas necessary for their elucidation. With the mention of the Porisms of Euclid we have an account of the relation of porism to theorem and problem. In the same preface is included (a) the famous problem known by Pappus's name, often enunciated thus: Having given a number of straight lines, to find the geometric locus of a point such that the lengths of the perpendiculars upon, or (more generally) the lines drawn from it obliquely at given inclinations to, the given lines satisfy the condition that the product of certain of them may bear a constant ratio to the product of the remaining ones; (Pappus does not express it in this form but by means of composition of ratios, saying that if the ratio is given which is compounded of the ratios of pairs one of one set and one of another of the lines so drawn, and of the ratio of the odd one, if any, to a given straight line, the point will lie on a curve given in position); (b) the theorems which were rediscovered by and named after Paul Guldin, but appear to have been discovered by Pappus himself.

Book VII contains also

  1. under the head of the De Sectione Determinata of Apollonius, lemmas which, closely examined, are seen to be cases of the involution of six points;
  2. important lemmas on the Porisms of Euclid;
  3. a lemma upon the Surface Loci of Euclid which states that the locus of a point such that its distance from a given point bears a constant ratio to its distance from a given straight line is a conic, and is followed by proofs that the conic is a parabola, ellipse, or hyperbola according as the constant ratio is equal to, less than or greater than 1 (the first recorded proofs of the properties, which do not appear in Apollonius).

Lastly, Book VIII treats principally of mechanics, the properties of the center of gravity, and some mechanical powers. Interspersed are some questions of pure geometry. Proposition 14 shows how to draw an ellipse through five given points, and Prop. 15 gives a simple construction for the axes of an ellipse when a pair of conjugate diameters are given.


Although Pappus's Theorem usually refers to Pappus's hexagon theorem, it may also refer to Pappus's centroid theorem.

He also gives his name to the Pappus chain, and to the Pappus configuration and Pappus graph arising from his hexagon theorem.


  1. ^ Pierre Dedron, J. Itard (1959) Mathematics And Mathematicians, Vol. 1, p.149 (trans. Judith V. Field) (Transworld Student Library, 1974)


  • Pappus of Alexandria Encyclopædia Britannica.
  • The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography (Helicon Publishing, 2004) "Pappus of Alexandria (lived c. AD 200-350) Greek mathematician, astronomer, and geographer whose chief importance lies in his commentaries on the mathematical work of his predecessors."
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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