16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths

Pythagoras writing in a book, from Raphael’s School of Athens, Rome, 1511. Wikimedia Commons


Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495BC) is a name that makes bored schoolchildren around the world, forced to learn his theories about triangles, groan. However, remembering him as the triangle-man does the extensive and influential work of this great man a disservice. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, the son of a gem-engraver or wealthy merchant, and left around 530 BC, either to escape the numerous responsibilities he had as an in-demand philosopher or because he disagreed with the tyranny of the ruler, Polycrates. On Samos, Pythagoras lived in a secret cave to study in silence and founded the ‘semicircle’ school.

This school was rather monastic in character, with members swearing an oath to Pythagoras and studying philosophy and religion communally. One of his most influential doctrines was metempsychosis, the belief that the soul is immortal and passes to another body after death. He is also attributed with the discovery that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations, known as the ‘harmony of the spheres’. And let us remember his most famous contribution to mathematics: the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

There were understandably many who wished to join the Pythagorean Brotherhood and to study with such a brilliant man. However, in 495 BC he refused to allow Kylon, a nobleman, enter his school. Kylon responded by rousing an angry mob, which chased Pythagoras to a bean field. Ethically, Pythagoras refused to eat beans or even to crush them, as he thought they resembled a human fetus. Thus he refused to flee through the field, lest he damage a single bean. The angry mob caught up with him, hesitating in contemplation of a single bean, and stabbed him to death.