I am aware of the fact that Euclid's Elements is a compilation of the works of previous Greek mathematicians like Thales, Pythagoras (his school), Eudoxus, Theaetetus, etc. However, I want to know the fate of their original texts. What happened to them? Did the papyrus in which they wrote their texts rot? Did the papyrus rolls burn as they were kept in the Library of Alexandria? Or were they even kept there in the first place? Why don't we have even a papyrus fragment from these mathematicians before Euclid?

Also, please don't be like Euclid. Please mention your sources.


2 Answers 2


While I fully agree about competition of new epitomes of earlier works driving original, more detailed works to extinction (that's how we lost many historical sources and lexicographical works), I would add that the driving force of this competition was economical. Medieval books were a luxury item costing to an order of magnitude as much as an average annual income of a worker, so most secular books that were copied had practical applications, and among those works we could consider arts and sciences most popular were those from the school cirriculum. Euclid had got included in it, but those older authors had not. And BTW, even modern authors don't include much historical details in school textbooks on math.

Regarding the lost works, when stored properly and protected from moisture, papyrus is about as strong as parchment, and in Ancient Egypt 250-year-old unneeded papyri were sometimes considered preserved enough to use again. However, unlike parchment it becomes very fragile if low and high humidity alternate, which is typical for European climate. Fungi (like molds) and insects (like ants) may also destroy the papyrus for the sake of calories. As for the parchment, even though it's more easy to store in European climate, being untanned skin, it's no less nutritiuos to living beings from the size of mice all the way down to bacteria.

Ancient Alexandria in particular is now below sea level due to a very powerful earthquake, but the library dwindled due to lack of financing a century before that.

Also as noted by historians, during the early period of archeology a great deal of excavated papyri were destroyed due to multiple factors.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! This was exactly what i was looking for! However, can you add your sources, so that i can research a bit more in depth. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – user14943
    Sep 2, 2021 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AryaMaroo I think I provided sources (seven hyperlinks) for everything but the school cirriculum (unfortunately, I couldn't find any in reasonable time, and I based my answer on memory). The second paragraph outlines the section of the book linked in it once. $\endgroup$
    – ain92
    Sep 2, 2021 at 23:39

Multiple copies of the works of Euclid's predecessors probably existed. Including similar compilations called Elements. On the opinion of people who did mathematics at the time and after Euclid, his Elements were superior, and they did not care to copy his predecessors. This was sufficient for their work to be lost. There are many ways for a papyrus scroll to be lost (some of them you listed). Papyrus, unlike clay table, is not a durable material. Euclid's original writings were also lost by the way: what we have is much later copies. By the estimates of archeologists, 90% of the literature of Ancient Greece is lost, in the sense that we do not have even later copies. And 99.9% of what survived, survived only in the form of later copies. Few scraps of papyrus found in Egypt, where they were miraculously preserved due to very unusual conditions, do not change this picture.

Ref.: How do we know about Greek mathematics?

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! The answer definitely solves the problem! But, don't we know the exactly what happened to those texts by mathematicians before Euclid? $\endgroup$
    – user14943
    Aug 20, 2021 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ Also, why didn’t the mathematicians after Euclid care to copy the works of Euclid's Predecessors. $\endgroup$
    – user14943
    Aug 20, 2021 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ @AryaMaroo, we only know about earlier texts by oblique comments, in the line of "Euclid wrote Elements, which is a systematization of what came before". Euclid's survived (in hand copies of hand copies of translations of...) because lots of people (i.e., probably in the few thousands) considered the text important. Copying a text like this requires understanding the subject matter (no mean feat when very few can even read and write at all) and spending a year or more of work. Here is a bit of the history of the text. $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Aug 20, 2021 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ @AryaMaroo: Sometimes the right answer is simply "we do not know." For instance, pick your favorite time frame, say, middle of the 2nd century AD and ask "Who copied previous copies of Euclid's elements? Were these people mathematicians in any sense? Did they understand what they copied? Did they copy any other math texts? How did they choose what to copy?" The answer to all these questions is "We do not know." $\endgroup$ Aug 23, 2021 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko Yea, but I mean we don't have any Classical mathematical works even as a copy, and even fragments and summaries from later authors are pretty scarce. As opposed to Hellenistic works like Euclids, where we have more or less complete works from several authors, often from multiple copies. So from that perspective its not really surprising Euclids for-bearers weren't transmitted, since basically all of classical mathematics suffered the same fate. $\endgroup$
    – simplicio
    Dec 7, 2021 at 19:05

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