I've stumbled upon this (admittedly, pretty old) question on Math.SE. It was proposed there that that question might have been more appropriate for this forum, but I don't believe anybody followed up on it back then. (At least, I searched and couldn't find anything.)

That question was somewhat opinion based, as to whether the successes in sciences may be attributed to the economy of slavery. I don't want to ask the same question. But I am interested to know if in any history literature there are recorded facts of prominent ancient Greek or Roman mathematicians being slave owners. I understand, from browsing thru Wikipedia, that in most cases very little is known about the life of people from those times, such as Euclid or Plato and such. But maybe anyone over here is familiar with better sources that answer this question.

Let me reiterate that I'm interested in facts, in the sense of what's known to modern historians, not in opinions and interpretations.

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    We know next to nothing about lives of ancient mathematicians, at best, the city of origin and the approximate life interval. Nov 15, 2023 at 17:16
  • @MoisheKohan : Yes, that's the impression I got, as I mentioned in my post. But because: (a) I'm not even remotely close to having any expertise in ancient history; and (b) Wikipedia can be great, but can also be very unreliable; — for these two reasons I figured I'd ask. Thank you for your comment confirming what I saw when searching online!
    – zipirovich
    Nov 15, 2023 at 19:09
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    Given the rapid gain in the sciences in the late 19th century and modern era which post date slavery it should be evident that slavery is not a requisite. In order for any progress a society needs a stable food supply, protection, and excess resources so that people can focus on improving rather than subsistence. There are plenty of slave based societies that never developed beyond the small village and subsistence farming suggesting that improved farming methods are key. Nov 15, 2023 at 21:02
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    @Damion Keeling I think you are missing an important point: Progress in science and math requires smart people spending a lot of time on it, and prior to modern times, this meant people with the wealth to get educated and to have leisure time. That would appear to support the idea that slavery may help. But, slavery-based societies through history do not seem to have been very intellectually productive. (Note that I am not saying this about all repressive societies!) So there's more to it than just leisure. It's worth a more subtle analysis.
    – Mark Olson
    Nov 16, 2023 at 0:53
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    @zipirovich Julius Caesar was a wealthy landowner - his debts aside, he would have owned slaves. We know the names of none of them and as far as I'm aware there are no references to his slaves either and he was a lot more famous during his era than any mathematician. Unless a slave did something important there would have been no reason to mention them. It would be akin to a modern biography of a wealthy person telling us what company mowed the lawns and who cleaned the house. The original question sounds like a socialist talking point given the lack of evidence and how easy it is to refute. Nov 17, 2023 at 20:37

3 Answers 3


Yes, because owning slaves was so much the norm in ancient Greece that it would have been surprising if they had not. Biographical details are generally scarce, but we do have Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (hereafter DL – note this isn’t the same person as the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope).

There are also numerous mentions of slaves in Plato’s dialogues which show they were (almost literally) just part of the furniture at the time. One might object that philosophers are not mathematicians, but in antiquity, indeed up to the modern era, boundaries between disciplines were not at all fixed. Many thinkers taught and/or wrote about several fields within science, astronomy, mathematics, cosmology and philosophy. I have deliberately picked out some of the more mathematical.


Math credentials: definitely remembered today for mathematics, although he was much more besides. DL (8.8) says he described himself as a philosopher, in fact.

Slave-owning: DL (8.2) reports a tradition which is also in Herodotus (Hist. 4.95) that Pythagoras owned a slave called Zamolxis. The (typically colourful) Herodotean story relates how he was later freed, became rich, and returned to his home country where he claimed to be immortal and started a sort of cult around himself.


Math credentials: he is said to have brought Egyptian knowledge of mathematics from Egypt, studied astronomy and predicted an eclipse. He was credited in ancient times with one or two theorems, perhaps apocryphally, but it shows mathematics was traditionally regarded as part of his work.

Slave-owning: DL (2.4) and Plato (in Theaetetus) both relate a story about Thales being accompanied by a female slave while stargazing, when he suffered a fall (either on a steep slope or down a well). Her presence is only an incidental detail, but that is the nature of these mentions, precisely because the slaves were so little regarded.


Math credentials: the most dubious of these three. He is better regarded as a philosopher of mathematics than an innovator in the field, although geometrical reasoning underpins some of his cosmology (in the Timaeus for example) and mathematics is central to his educational theories (Republic). His contribution to the mathematical debates of his time is contested.

Slave-owning: DL (3.39) says "It is alleged that he said to one of his slaves, 'I would have given you a flogging, had I not been in a passion.'"

Slaves turn up throughout Plato’s dialogues, sometimes with speaking parts, often just mentioned incidentally doing miscellaneous tasks such as fetching and carrying. The best-known is in the Meno, where Socrates demonstrates his theory of innate knowledge by giving a geometry demonstration to a slave-boy. The boy belongs to Meno and not Socrates. Evidence for whether Socrates owned slaves is lacking, although it is said he once refused a gift of some (DL 2.31).


Presumably whenever and where-ever owning slaves has been permissible and/or a cultural norm, mathematicians along with other members of an educated leisure class will have owned slaves. The replies to the original question on Math.SE bear this out for the classical world, and there are many more sources which would paint the same picture.

I'm not aware of equivalent sources for Roman mathematicians. They didn't have as many (if any?) famous mathematicians as the Greeks anyway. But similar results would be expected if they did. As to other times and places, we are similarly bereft of biographical knowledge about the many important mathematicians from the Arab/Islamic world, where slavery was commonplace. In the modern US, an example is 19th century Princeton professor Albert Dod. He had an endowed chair named after him too, but this seems to have been vacant since the death of the last holder in 2018.


The poverty line in Republican Rome was not being able to own one slave. Sulla once qualified as being poor. Later in life he became dictator and very rich. But in his younger years he was anything but.

Many teachers had slave-assistants who helped out with the job, apart from having (a) domestic slave(s) in their apartment or house. One at least, but more well to do teachers had several.

A mathematician is someone with a much better than average education. It is extremely unlikely they did not have slaves.

You won't find any written evidence for that, because that would be too obvious for contemporaries to warrant noting it down. Compare it with owning a car in the USA. Nobody would find it strange or noteworthy if you have a car. In fact, not owning any slaves would be something worth mentioning, especially if they did it voluntarily, like Diogenes.

Diogenes was not a mathematician, but a philosopher. He didn't own anything, or at least try to own as little as possible. He was a very rare exception.

Nearly all Mediterranean societies were slave-based. Some more, others less. Especially the more wealthy people owned many slaves. Mathematicians were no exception.

You're looking for a black cat in a dark room that ain't there.

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    What's the point in bringing up Sulla and Diogenes? What did their lives add to this answer? I don't think you're necessarily wrong, but this answer could certainly use some citations.
    – cmw
    Nov 16, 2023 at 19:33
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    I can see, in a few decades, statues being removed, streets and schools renamed, etc. because someone noticed that the honoured people disgustingly owned and operated vehicles with carbon belching internal combustion engines. Such immoral people don't deserve a place in history. Nov 20, 2023 at 0:13
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    It seems strange to assert there cannot be any evidence. In fact your answer is self-contradictory, because you simultaneously claim to have information about slave-owning at the time (without citing any sources, however). I agree the direct evidence is sparse, but it is not non-existent. Nov 24, 2023 at 22:31

The main assumption in the cited question are false:

I think one of the main reasons is slavery. You need much free time to do mathematics.

This impression is based on the picture of slavery and/or the social relations in later ages, when "the rich" had time for philosophy and sciences, while poor and slaves worked themselves to death in tasks requiring low qualifications. However, this was not the case in Rome or Ancient Greece, where slaves, despite their inferior social status, could be trained and used for many useful tasks, including those involving good knowledge of math. See, e.g., Slavery in ancient Rome:

Epitaphs record at least 55 different jobs a household slave might have, including barber, butler, cook, hairdresser, handmaid (ancilla), launderer, wet nurse or nursery attendant, teacher, secretary, seamstress, accountant, and physician.

(Emphasis is mine.)

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