Posted on: 27 January 2015

Digital Rare Book:
Diophantus of Alexandria - A study in the history of Greek algebra
By Sir Thomas L. Heath
Published by University Press in Cambridge - 1910

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How the myth of Greek origins for Indian mathematics really began...

"During the fifteenth century Italian humanists eagerly started collecting editions of Greek mathematics. One of the most industrious was Cardinal Bessarion who lived in Venice. By his death in 1472 he had accumulated over five hundred Greek manuscripts (Rose, 1975, 44-46 and 90-109). Regiomon- tanus, who had befriended Bessarion, began to study these Greek texts around 1463, including Diophantus’ Arithmetica. He reported his find of the six books of the Arithmetica in a letter to Giovanni Bianchini (Curtze, 1902, 256-7). By then he was well-acquainted with the Arabic algebra. He owned a copy of the manuscript on algebra by al-Khw ̄arizm ̄i, possibly from his own pen (MS. Plimpton 188). Highly receptive to influences between traditions, he immedi- ately conjectured a relation. In his Oratio, a series of lectures at the University of Padua in 1464, he introduced the idea that Arabic algebra descended from Diophantus’ Arithmetica (Regiomontanus, 1537). This heralded the initiation of a myth cultivated by humanists for centuries. Diophantus, first considered to be the source of inspiration for Arabic algebra, became the alleged origin of European algebra. Several humanist writers such as Ramus, chose to neglect or reject the Arabic roots of Renaissance algebra altogether (Høyrup, 1998). As a matter of fact, Diophantus had almost no impact on European mathematical practice before the late sixteenth century. Diophantus inspired authors on algebra such as Stevin, Bombelli and Vi`ete because by then symbolic algebra was well established.

By overrating the importance of Diophantus and downgrading the achievements of Arabic algebra, humanist writers created a new mythical identity of European mathematics.

Suddenly Greek mathematics became European mathematics. However, most Greek sources were unavailable before the sixteenth century. In fact, Greek mathematics was more foreign to the European mathematical practice than Arabic mathematics was; the latter was slowly but surely appropriated with the abacus tradition. Ironically, the medieval qualitative arithmetic, which was a genuine European tradition, became completely forgotten.

Only later, European historians learned about ancient Indian mathematics and what they learned was strongly influenced by the humanist mathematical tradition."

(Extract from The Reception of Ancient Indian Mathematics by Western Historians written by Albrecht Heeffer).

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