Diophantus of Alexandria (b. between 200 and 214, d. between 284 and 298 AD), sometimes called "the father of algebra", was a Greek mathematician of the Hellenistic period. He is the author of a series of classical mathematical books called Arithmetica and worked with equations which we now call Diophantine equations; the method to solve those problems is now called Diophantine analysis. The study of Diophantine equations is one of the central areas of number theory. The findings and works of Diophantus have influenced mathematics greatly and caused many other questions to arise. The most famous of these is Fermat's Last Theorem. Diophantus also made advances in mathematical notation and was the first Hellenistic mathematician who frankly recognized fractions as numbers.

Little is known about the life of Diophantus. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, probably from between 200 and 214 to 284 or 298 AD. Most scholars consider Diophantus to have been a Greek, though it has been suggested that he may have been a non-Greek, possibly a "Hellenized Babylonian," Jewish or Chaldean. Almost everything we know about Diophantus comes from a single 5th century Greek anthology, which is a collection of number games and strategy puzzles. Here is one of the puzzles:

This puzzle reveals that Diophantus lived to be about 84 years old. We cannot be sure if this puzzle is accurate or not.

The Arithmetica is the major work of Diophantus and the most prominent work on algebra in Greek mathematics. It is a collection of problems giving numerical solutions of both determinate and indeterminate equations. Of the original thirteen books of which Arithmetica consisted only six have survived, though there are some who believe that four Arab books discovered in 1968 are also by Diophantus. Some Diophantine problems from Arithmetica have been found in Arabic sources.

After Diophantus's death, the Dark Ages began, spreading a shadow on math and science, and causing knowledge of Diophantus and the Arithmetica to be lost in Europe for about 1500 years. Possibly the only reason that some of his work has survived is that many Arab scholars studied his works and preserved this knowledge for later generations. In 1463 German mathematician Regiomontanus wrote: "No one has yet translated from the Greek into Latin the thirteen Books of Diophantus, in which the very flower of the whole of arithmetic lies hidden . . . ."

The first Latin translation of Arithmetica was by Bombelli who translated much of the work in 1570 but it was never published. Bombelli did however borrow many of Diophantus's problems for his own book Algebra. The editio princeps of Arithmetica was published in 1575 by Xylander. The most famous Latin translation of Arithmetica was by Bachet in 1621 which was the first translation of Arithmetica available to the public.

Margin Writing by Fermat and Planudes

The 1621 edition of Arithmetica by Bombelli gained fame after Pierre de Fermat wrote his famous "Last Theorem" in the margins of his copy:

"If an integer n is greater than 2, then an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c. I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain."

Fermat's proof was never found, and the problem of finding a proof for the theorem went unsolved for centuries. A proof was finally found in 1994 by Andrew Wiles after working on it for seven years. It is believed that Fermat did not actually have the proof he claimed to have. Although the original copy in which Fermat wrote this is lost today, Fermat's son edited the next edition of Diophantus, published in 1670. Even though the text is otherwise inferior to the 1621 edition, Fermat's annotations - including his famous "Last Theorem" - were printed in this version. Fermat was not the first mathematician so moved to write in his own marginal notes to Diophantus; the Byzantine mathematician Maximus Planudes had written "Thy soul, Diophantus, be with Satan because of the difficulty of your theorems" next to the same problem.

Other Works

Diophantus did not just write Arithmetica, but very few of his other works have survived.

The Porisms

Diophantus himself refers to a work which consists of a collection of lemmas called The Porisms (or Porismata), but this book is entirely lost. Many scholars and researchers believe that The Porisms may have actually been a section included inside Arithmetica or indeed may have been the rest of Arithmetica.

Although the Porisms is lost we do know three lemmas contained in The Porisms since Diophantus refers to them in the Arithmetica. One such lemma is that the difference of the cubes of two rational numbers is equal to the sum of the cubes of two other rational numbers.

On Polygonal Numbers and Geometric Elements

Diophantus is also known to have written on polygonal numbers. Fragments of one of Diophantus' books on polygonal numbers, a topic of great interest to Pythagoras and his followers, has survived. An extant work called Preliminaries to the Geometric Elements, which has been attributed to Hero of Alexandria, has been studied recently and it is suggested that the attribution to Hero is incorrect, and that the work is actually by Diophantus.


Diophantus' work has had a large influence in history. Editions of Arithmetica exerted a profound influence on the development of algebra in Europe in the late sixteenth and through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Diophantus and his works have also influenced Arab mathematics and were of great fame among Arab mathematicians. Diophantus' work created a foundation for work on algebra and in fact much of advanced mathematics is based on algebra. As far as we know Diophantus did not affect the lands of the Orient much and how much he affected India is a matter of debate.

The Father of Algebra?

Diophantus is often called “the father of algebra" because he contributed greatly to number theory, mathematical notation, and because Arithmetica contains the earliest known use of syncopated notation. However, it seems that many of the methods for solving linear and quadratic equations used by Diophantus go back to Babylonian mathematics. For this reason mathematical historian Kurt Vogel writes: “Diophantus was not, as he has often been called, the father of algebra. Nevertheless, his remarkable, if unsystematic, collection of indeterminate problems is a singular achievement that was not fully appreciated and further developed until much later.” According to some historians of mathematics, like Florian Cajori, Diophantus got the first knowledge of algebra from India, although other historians disagree.

Diophantine Analysis

Today Diophantine analysis is the area of study where integral (whole number) solutions are sought for equations, and Diophantine equations are polynomial equations with integral coefficients to which only integral solutions are sought. It is usually rather difficult to tell whether a given Diophantine equation is solvable. Most of the problems in Arithmetica lead to quadratic equations. Diophantus looked at 3 different types of quadratic equations. The reason why there were three cases to Diophantus, while today we have only one case, is that he did not have any notion for zero and he avoided negative coefficients by considering the given numbers a,b,c to all be positive in each of the three cases above.

Diophantus was always satisfied with a rational solution and did not require a whole number which means he accepted fractions as solutions to his problems. Diophantus considered negative or irrational square root solutions "useless", "meaningless", and even "absurd". To give one specific example, he calls the equation 4 = 4x + 20 'absurd' because it would lead to a negative value for x. One solution was all he looked for in a quadratic equation. There is no evidence that suggests Diophantus even realized that there could be two solutions to a quadratic equation. He also considered simultaneous quadratic equations.

Mathematical Notation

Diophantus made important advances in mathematical notation. He was the first person to use algebraic notation and symbolism. Before him everyone wrote out equations completely. Diophantus introduced an algebraic symbolism that used an abridged notation for frequently occurring operations, and an abbreviation for the unknown and for the powers of the unknown. Mathematical historian Kurt Vogel states:

Although Diophantus made important advances in symbolism, he still lacked the necessary notation to express more general methods. This caused his work to be more concerned with particular problems rather than general situations. Some of the limitations of Diophantus' notation are that he only had notation for one unknown and, when problems involved more than a single unknown, Diophantus was reduced to expressing "first unknown", "second unknown", etc. in words. He also lacked a symbol for a general number n. Algebra still had a long way to go before very general problems could be written down and solved succinctly.