All things are numbers, or a visit to Magna Grecia

Magna Grecia – greater Greece – is the name given to the bits of southern Italy that were colonised by the Greeks two and a half thousand years ago. This map shows the main bit in yellow, around the arch of the ‘foot’ of Italy and up into the ‘heel’ and we particularly wanted to see whatever there was to see, in the way of ancient Greek ruins, when we were in Puglia this September.

In the end we visited only two sites, the ones near Metapontum (now called Metaponto) but they were both so interesting we’d like to try again in a few years with better books, better maps, and more time. Still, what I discovered after we’d been – in that frustrating and irritating way that you do when you haven’t done your research thoroughly before you go – was fascinating. ‘Achean’ is one of the resonant collective nouns used by Homer for the main Greek tribal groups of the time, and it seems that it was the Acheans who sailed west across the Adriatic to Italy: as the poet Allan Curnow put it in a different context, “simply by sailing in a new direction/ you could enlarge the world.” Even more interesting, however, was the discovery that Pythagoras taught and died in Metapontum.

Pythagoras! Who amongst us doesn’t remember their first lesson in geometry and a demonstration of Pythagoras’s most famous theorem: that in a right-angled triangle the sum of the area of the square on the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares of the other two sides: that is, a²+b²=c². Mr Long, teaching maths to Form3Latin1, Takapuna Grammar School: I remember it well. The plane diagram looks like this:

Pythagoras! Who famously said that ‘all things are numbers’ and so his ideas live on in the arcane musings of many modern groups researching the phenomena of numbers, many of which you might think are somewhat towards the cult end of belief systems. The Freemasons are the best known of these groups and I speak as a woman whose grandfathers were both Freemasons, to say nothing of a beloved brother-in-law, so there. Pythagoras left no written records of his ideas; it’s all been passed down through the centuries by others.

Pythagoras! Whose tomb in Metapontum was still being shown to visitors when Cicero visited the town, about 500 years after the great philosopher, mathematician and all-round mystic had died – but it’s not there now. The site is about as big as three rugby fields and most of the remaining materials are low to the ground or reconstructed; they include three temple sites and an enormous amphitheatre, and if I’d known about Pythagoras’s connections I’d have laid a bunch of wild flowers in his memory.

6 Responses to “All things are numbers, or a visit to Magna Grecia”

  1. Lucille Says:

    I was up to speed with Pythagoras but they lost me with sine and cosine! My father tried to explain it with ladders against walls but I just didn’t ‘get’ it and I didn’t ‘get’ why I had to ‘get’ it either.

  2. admin Says:

    Ah yes, sine and cosine lost me, too – but I did rather love most of plane geometry. I liked the precision, I think. Like Latin: the rules had a lot of appeal. The use? Not so much.

  3. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Wonderful little insertion of Allen Curnow in this post – I, too, am daily realizing the truth of his words, now that I’m so far from home!

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for that, Elizabeth – it’s such a resonant poem of his, with particular significance for expatriates. (I didn’t know you were one at present.)

  5. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Yes, it certainly spoke to me. I have been an expat for a couple of months now, Belinda, hence the gap in blogging. I have been lucky enough to do a bit of travelling with my partner and now we are settled in London – so our communication is no longer over seas! What a lovely thought.

  6. admin Says:

    Well, welcome to London! How lovely to have another TP in town!

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