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Babylonian Mathematics

Our first knowledge of mankind's use of mathematics comes from the Egyptians and Babylonians. Both civilizations developed mathematics that was similar in some ways but also very different in others.

Some basic facts about ancient Babylon.

Babylonian Mathematics

In mathematics, the Babylonians were somewhat more advanced than the Egyptians.

For enumeration the Babylonians used two symbols.


All numbers were forms from these symbols.



Note the notation was positional and sexigesimal:



tex2html_wrap_inline280 There is no clear reason why the Babylonians selected the sexigesimal system. It was possibly selected in the interest of metrology, this according to Theon of Alexandria, a commentator of the fourth century A.D.: i.e. the values 2,3,5,10,12,15,20, and 30 all divide 60.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 Remnants still exist today with time and angular measurement. In fact the Babylonians used a 24 hour clock, with 60 minute hours, and 60 second minutes.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 Because of the large base, multiplication was carried out with the aide of a table.

A positional fault??? Which is it?


  1. There is no ``gap" designator.
  2. There is a true floating point -- its location is undetermined except from context.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 The ``gap" problem was overcome by the time of Alexander the Great, rather late in the game for the Chaldeans.

We use the notation:


The values tex2html_wrap_inline290 are all integers.



This number was found on the Old Babylonian Tablet (Yale Collection #7289) and is a very high precision estimate of tex2html_wrap_inline292 .

The exact value of tex2html_wrap_inline292 , to 8 decimal places is = 1.41421356.

Fractions. Generally the only fractions permitted were such as


because the sexigesimal expression was known.

Irregular fractions such as tex2html_wrap_inline298 , etc are generally not used.

A table of all products equal to sixty has been found.


The table is also used for reciprocals. For example,



tex2html_wrap_inline280 Two tablets found at Senkerah on the Euphrates in 1854 date from 2000 B.C. They give squares of the numbers up to 59 and cubes up to 32. The Babylonians used the formula


to assist in multiplication.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 Division relied on multiplication, i.e.


There apparently was no long division.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 The Babylonians knew some approximations of irregular fractions.


However, they do not appear to have noticed infinite periodic expansions.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 They seemed to have an elementary knowledge of logarithms.

Square Roots Recall the approximation of tex2html_wrap_inline292 . How did they get it? There are two possibilities:


The product of 30 by 1;24,51,10 is precisely 42;25,35.

Method of the mean.

  1. Take tex2html_wrap_inline324 as an initial approximation.
  2. Idea: If tex2html_wrap_inline326 then tex2html_wrap_inline328
  3. So take


  4. Repeat the process.
Example. Take tex2html_wrap_inline332 . Then we have


Now carry out this process in sexigesimal, begining with tex2html_wrap_inline334. Remember to us Babylonian arithmetic. Using full decimal arithmetic will not give the value 1;25,51,10. Use Babylonian arithmetic.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 Note: tex2html_wrap_inline338 was commonly used as a brief, rough and ready, approximation.

Pythagorean Triples

tex2html_wrap_inline280 The Plimpton 322 tablet dates from about 1700 BC.

If appears to have the left section broken away. What was found has numbers tabulated as follows.


What it means.




How did they determine these. Assuming they knew the Pythagorean relation tex2html_wrap_inline356 , divide by b to get


Choose u+v and find u-v in the table of reciprocals.

Example. Take u+v=2;15. Then u-v=0;26,60 Solve for u and v to get


Multiply by an appropriate integer to clear the fraction. We get a=65, c=97. So b=72. This is line 5 of the table.

It is tempting to think that there must have been known general principles, nothing short of a theory, but all that has been discovered are tablets of specific numbers and worked problems.

O. Neugebauer and A. Sachs. Mathematical Cuneiform Texts. Amer. Oriental Series 29. American Oriental Society, New Haven, 1945

E. M. Bruins. On Plimpton 322, Pythagorean numbers in Babylonian mathematics. Afdeling Naturkunde, Proc. 52 (149), 629-632.

Solving Quadratics

Problem. Solve x(x+p)=q.

Solution. Set y=x+p Then we have the system


This gives


All three forms


are solved similarly. The third is solve by equating it to the nonlinear system, tex2html_wrap_inline384 . Moreover, all three date back 4,000 years!

Solving Cubics

tex2html_wrap_inline280 The Babylonians must have had extraordinary manipulative skills and as well a maturity and flexibility of algebraic skills.

Solving linear systems.



Solution. Select tex2html_wrap_inline396 such that


So, tex2html_wrap_inline400 . Now make the model


We get


So, d=300 and thus


Can you generalize this algorithm to arbitrary systems??!!

Circular Measurement

Generally, the Babylonians used tex2html_wrap_inline408 for practical computation. But, in 1936 at Susa (captured by Alexander the Great in 331B.C.), a number of tablets with significant geometric results were unearthed.

tex2html_wrap_inline280 One tablet compares the areas and the squares of the sides of the regular polygons of three to seven sides. For example


This gives an effective tex2html_wrap_inline414 (Not bad.)


There are two forms for the volume of a frustum


The second is correct, the first is not.

There are many geometric problems in the cunieform texts. For example, the Babylonians were aware that

Babylonian Mathematics

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Next: About this document

Don Allen
Tue Jan 28 09:43:40 CST 1997