Theon of Alexandria was one of the most eminent mathematicians and astronomers of late antiquity and the father of Hypatia. His edition of Euclid’s Elements was used by mathematicians for over a thousand years after it supplanted all others, including the original. Theon simplified some of Euclid’s proofs and added new proofs of his own.
Theon of Alexandria was born in the first half of the fourth century, most probably around 335 AD in the Greco-Roman city of Alexandria, Egypt. His name is pronounced Thee-on, the ‘Th’ sound as in ‘thank’ rather than in ‘them.’
Like most educated people in the Eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity, Theon was a Greek speaker.
No details of Theon’s parents or education survive. We do not know what he looked like.
Theon was head of the Mouseion, an academy that taught Neoplatonist philosophy. Like other intellectuals of his era, Theon seems to have made no outstanding breakthroughs – he was principally a teacher.
Lifetimes of Selected Greek Scientists and Philosophers after the Golden Age
Theon’s Edition of Euclid’s Elements
Theon wrote a new ‘student edition’ of Euclid’s Elements that became the go-to version for centuries to come. Editions based on Theon’s were the only ones known until an edition predating his was found in the Vatican Library in 1808. Theon’s edition had reigned for over a thousand years.
Theon corrected hundreds of years of scribal errors – all books then were handwritten copies – and simplified Euclid’s original work to assist his students. For example, if he felt any of Euclid’s proofs were too short he inserted extra lines of reasoning to make it easier for his students to follow Euclid’s logic.
By comparing Theon’s copy with the older Vatican edition we see that Theon went as far as replacing some of Euclid’s proofs with his own proofs. Indeed, in a commentary he wrote on Ptolemy’s Almagest, Theon mentions he added a proof to the Elements:
Theon recorded observations from Alexandria of the solar eclipse on June 16, 364 AD and the lunar eclipse on November 25 of the same year.
Revising the Almagest
Theon remolded Ptolemy’s great astronomical work Almagest to make it more understandable for his students. He carried out his reworking in association with his closest academic colleague, his daughter Hypatia.
Theon authored a systematic work on the theory and use of the astrolabe: On the Small Astrolabe. The word astrolabe comes from two Greek words meaning ‘to follow the stars.’
The first astrolabe – a spherical astrolabe, more commonly called an armillary sphere – was invented by Eratosthenes in the third century BC.
Hipparchus, who was one of the greatest of all ancient scientists, realized that by using stereographic projection from three dimensions into two dimensions he could produce a more portable version of the spherical astrolabe. This was the small astrolabe described by Theon.
Although Theon’s work on the small astrolabe no longer exists, it was the basis of later works such as that by John Philoponus which carried the knowledge to later astronomers.
In earlier times, the Greeks had built truly awe-inspiring mechanical devices, including astronomical computers. Unfortunately, this remarkable technology was lost to future generations.
Personal Details and The End
We do not know Theon’s wife’s name. Hypatia was his daughter. He may also have had a son, Epiphanius. We know this because Theon made a dedication to him, addressing him as “my dear son” in his commentary to Book IV of Ptolemy’s Almagest. However, Theon uses the word Greek word teknon for son. In addition to meaning a biological son, teknon may also indicate paternal feelings to someone who is not a true son – for example a student at his school in whom he took particular pride.
As a Neoplatonist, Theon believed the ultimate fate of his soul would be a union with the divine.
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Sir Thomas Heath
The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements
Dover Publications, New York, 1956
Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times
Oxford University Press, New York, 1972
A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy
Springer Science & Business Media, 2004
3D representation of heavens from Earth and stereographic projection of 3D to 2D by Michele Invernizzi, DensityDesign Research Lab, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Exploded view of small astrolabe by Elrond under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.