1902 Encyclopedia > Algebra > History of Algebra - Diophantus of Alexandria (fl. 360 A.D.)

(Part 3)


(ii) Diophantus of Alexandria (fl. 360 A.D.)

About the middle of the 4th century of the Christian era, a period when the mathematical sciences were on the decline, and their cultivators, instead of producing original works of genius contented themselves with commentaries on the works of their more illustrious predecessors, there was a valuable addition made to the fabric of ancient learning.

This was the treatise of Diophantus on arithmetic, consisting originally of thirteen books, of which only the first six, and an incomplete book on polygonal numbers, supposed to be the thirteenth, have descended to our times.

This precious fragment does not exhibit anything like a complete treatise on algebra. It lays, however, an excellent foundation of the science, and the author, after applying his method to the solution of simple and quadratic equations, such as to "find two numbers of which the sum and the sum or difference of the squares are given," proceeds to a peculiar class of arithmetical questions, which belong to what is now called the indeterminate analysis.

Diophantus may have been the inventor of the Greek algebra, but it is more likely that its principles were not unknown before his time; and that, taking the science in the state in which he found it as the basis of his labours, he enriched it with new applications. The elegant solutions of Diophantus show that he possessed great address in the particular branch of which he treated, and that he was able to resolve determinate equations of the second degree. Probably this was the greatest extent to which the science had been carried among the Greeks. Indeed, in no country did it pass this limit it had been transplanted into Italy on the revival of learning.

The celebrated Hypatia, the daughter of Theon, composed a commentary on the work of Diophantus. This, however, is now lost, as well as a similar treatise, on the Conics of Apollonius, by this illustrious and illfated lady, who, as is commonly known, fell a sacrifice to the fury of a fanatical mob about the beginning of the 5th century.

About the middle of the 16th century, the work of Diophantus above referred to, written in the Greek language, was discovered at Rome in the Vatican library, having probably been brought there from Greece when the Turks possessed themselves of Constantinople. A Latin translation, without the original text, was given to the world by Xylander in 1575; and a more complete translation, by bachet de Mezeriac (one of the earliest members of the French Academy), accompanied by a commentary, appeared in 1621. Bachet was eminently skillful in the indeterminate analysis, and therefore well qualified for the work he had undertaken; but the text of Diophantus was so much injured, that he was frequently obliged to guess the meaning of the author, or supply the deficiency. At a later period, the celebrated French mathematician Fermat supplemented the commentary of Bachet by notes of his own on the writings of the Greek algebraist. These are extremely valuable, on account of Fermat's profound knowledge of this particular branch of analysis. This edition, the best which exists, appeared in 1670.

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