By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

This article has been superseded by a more up-to-date article by Kathleen McIlvenna at

Island of Samos

This is the island of philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras and of Aristarchus, who lived 300 years later, when Samos was under control of first the Egyptians and later the Syrians; he is famous for being the first proponent of a heliocentric system of planets and stars. The island is physically attractive, with a backbone of mountains reaching to nearly 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. There are wooded pine forests on the mountain slopes, vineyards below, and sandy coves for bathing at the seashore. The island has been less spoiled by tourism than many others. We can still see islanders tending herds of goats or carting their produce to market on the backs of donkeys.

The ancient capital of Samos, formerly Tigani, was renamed Pythagorio in 1955, in honor of the island’s famous native son. There is a tiny museum in the town hall, space shared with the mayor’s offices, but nothing within is about Pythagoras-all we have is his bust on a pedestal outside. An adjacent street is named for Aristarchus, but there are no plaques to proclaim his espousal of heliocentricity or to explain how he came to the idea. All we can do is to wander around the island, imagining the astronomer doing likewise, dreaming up new geometrical methods for measuring distances and sizes of the objects he saw in skies. Strangely enough, our imagination gets some help, for on a hill above Pythagorio is the Tunnel of Eupalinus, 3,385 feet (1,026 m) in length and tall enough for a man to stand within it. It was built during the reign of the island’s most ambitious ruler, polycrates, not long after the time of Pythagoras. It used to have pipes on the floor to carry water to the town from springs on the other side of the hill. The digging was done by two teams of workers, one from each side, and they met properly in the middle. Pretty good geometry for 525 B.C.!

Also relevant to our story is a short drive or taxi ride east from the town of Samos, to the Strait of Mykali, for here we see the Turkish mainland not much over a mile (2 km) away, almost within swimming distance. And at this point we are but 33 miles (50 km) from Miletus, the earliest of all sources of Greek scientific philosophy. Samos may be formally an island in the geographic sense, but at the time of Pythagoras it was far from insular in its intellectual life, being always in close communication with the mainland coastal cities. Today we have Greeks on one side of the Strait and Turks on the other, and not much love between them, but back then it was all Greek-the center of Greek civilization, in fact, for the age of Pericles in Athens was still some decades away.