Euclid's Elements


The frontispiece of Sir Henry Billingsley's first English version of Euclid's Elements, 1570
Author Euclid, and translators
Language Ancient Greek, translations
Subject Euclidean geometry, elementary number theory
Genre Mathematics
Publication date
circa 300 BC
Pages 13 books, or more in translation with scholia

Euclid's Elements (Ancient Greek: Στοιχεῖα Stoicheia) is a mathematical and geometric treatise consisting of 13 books attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid in Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt circa 300 BC. It is a collection of definitions, postulates (axioms), propositions (theorems and constructions), and mathematical proofs of the propositions. The books cover Euclidean geometry and the ancient Greek version of elementary number theory. The work also includes an algebraic system that has become known as geometric algebra, which is powerful enough to solve many algebraic problems,[1] including the problem of finding the square root of a number.[2] Elements is the second-oldest extant Greek mathematical treatise after Autolycus' On the Moving Sphere,[3] and it is the oldest extant axiomatic deductive treatment of mathematics. It has proven instrumental in the development of logic and modern science. According to Proclus, the term "element" was used to describe a theorem that is all-pervading and helps furnishing proofs of many other theorems. The word element in the Greek language is the same as letter. This suggests that theorems in the Elements should be seen as standing in the same relation to geometry as letters to language. Later commentators give a slightly different meaning to the term element, emphasizing how the propositions have progressed in small steps, and continued to build on previous propositions in a well-defined order.[4]

Euclid's Elements has been referred to as the most successful[5][6] and influential[7] textbook ever written. Being first set in type in Venice in 1482, it is one of the very earliest mathematical works to be printed after the invention of the printing press and was estimated by Carl Benjamin Boyer to be second only to the Bible in the number of editions published,[7] with the number reaching well over one thousand.[8] For centuries, when the quadrivium was included in the curriculum of all university students, knowledge of at least part of Euclid's Elements was required of all students. Not until the 20th century, by which time its content was universally taught through other school textbooks, did it cease to be considered something all educated people had read.[9]


A fragment of Euclid's Elements on part of the Oxyrhynchus papyri

Basis in earlier work

An illumination from a manuscript based on Adelard of Bath's translation of the Elements, circa 1309–1316; Adelard's is the oldest surviving translation of the Elements into Latin, done in the 12th-century work and translated from Arabic.[10]

Scholars believe that the Elements is largely a collection of theorems proven by other mathematicians, supplemented by some original work.

Proclus (412 – 485 AD), a Greek mathematician who lived around seven centuries after Euclid, wrote in his commentary on the Elements: "Euclid, who put together the Elements, collecting many of Eudoxus' theorems, perfecting many of Theaetetus', and also bringing to irrefragable demonstration the things which were only somewhat loosely proved by his predecessors".

Pythagoras (circa 570–495 BCE) was probably the source for most of books I and II, Hippocrates of Chios (circa 470–410 BCE, not the better known Hippocrates of Kos) for book III, and Eudoxus of Cnidus (circa 408–355 BC) for book V, while books IV, VI, XI, and XII probably came from other Pythagorean or Athenian mathematicians.[11] The Elements may have been based on an earlier textbook by Hippocrates of Chios, who also may have originated the use of letters to refer to figures.[12]

Transmission of the text

In the fourth century AD, Theon of Alexandria produced an edition of Euclid which was so widely used that it became the only surviving source until François Peyrard's 1808 discovery at the Vatican of a manuscript not derived from Theon's. This manuscript, the Heiberg manuscript, is from a Byzantine workshop around 900 and is the basis of modern editions.[13] Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 29 is a tiny fragment of an even older manuscript, but only contains the statement of one proposition.

Although known to, for instance, Cicero, no record exists of the text having been translated into Latin prior to Boethius in the fifth or sixth century.[10] The Arabs received the Elements from the Byzantines around 760; this version was translated into Arabic under Harun al Rashid circa 800.[10] The Byzantine scholar Arethas commissioned the copying of one of the extant Greek manuscripts of Euclid in the late ninth century.[14] Although known in Byzantium, the Elements was lost to Western Europe until about 1120, when the English monk Adelard of Bath translated it into Latin from an Arabic translation.[15]

Euclidis – Elementorum libri XV Paris, Hieronymum de Marnef & Guillaume Cavelat, 1573 (second edition after the 1557 ed.); in-8, 350, (2)pp. THOMAS-STANFORD, Early Editions of Euclid's Elements, n°32. Mentioned in T.L. Heath's translation. Private collection Hector Zenil.

The first printed edition appeared in 1482 (based on Campanus of Novara's 1260 edition),[16] and since then it has been translated into many languages and published in about a thousand different editions. Theon's Greek edition was recovered in 1533. In 1570, John Dee provided a widely respected "Mathematical Preface", along with copious notes and supplementary material, to the first English edition by Henry Billingsley.

Copies of the Greek text still exist, some of which can be found in the Vatican Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The manuscripts available are of variable quality, and invariably incomplete. By careful analysis of the translations and originals, hypotheses have been made about the contents of the original text (copies of which are no longer available).

Ancient texts which refer to the Elements itself, and to other mathematical theories that were current at the time it was written, are also important in this process. Such analyses are conducted by J. L. Heiberg and Sir Thomas Little Heath in their editions of the text.

Also of importance are the scholia, or annotations to the text. These additions, which often distinguished themselves from the main text (depending on the manuscript), gradually accumulated over time as opinions varied upon what was worthy of explanation or further study.


A page with marginalia from the first printed edition of Elements, printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482

The Elements is still considered a masterpiece in the application of logic to mathematics. In historical context, it has proven enormously influential in many areas of science. Scientists Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Sir Isaac Newton were all influenced by the Elements, and applied their knowledge of it to their work. Mathematicians and philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell, have attempted to create their own foundational "Elements" for their respective disciplines, by adopting the axiomatized deductive structures that Euclid's work introduced.

The austere beauty of Euclidean geometry has been seen by many in western culture as a glimpse of an otherworldly system of perfection and certainty. Abraham Lincoln kept a copy of Euclid in his saddlebag, and studied it late at night by lamplight; he related that he said to himself, "You never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father's house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight".[17] Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her sonnet "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare", "O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day, When first the shaft into his vision shone Of light anatomized!". Einstein recalled a copy of the Elements and a magnetic compass as two gifts that had a great influence on him as a boy, referring to the Euclid as the "holy little geometry book".[18]

The success of the Elements is due primarily to its logical presentation of most of the mathematical knowledge available to Euclid. Much of the material is not original to him, although many of the proofs are his. However, Euclid's systematic development of his subject, from a small set of axioms to deep results, and the consistency of his approach throughout the Elements, encouraged its use as a textbook for about 2,000 years. The Elements still influences modern geometry books. Further, its logical axiomatic approach and rigorous proofs remain the cornerstone of mathematics.

Outline of Elements

A proof from Euclid's Elements that, given a line segment, an equilateral triangle exists that includes the segment as one of its sides. The proof is by construction: an equilateral triangle ΑΒΓ is made by drawing circles Δ and Ε centered on the points Α and Β, and taking one intersection of the circles as the third vertex of the triangle.
A fragment of Euclid's Elements found at Oxyrhynchus, which is dated to circa 100 AD. The diagram accompanies Proposition 5 of Book II of the Elements.

Contents of the books

Books 1 through 4 deal with plane geometry:

Books 5 through 10 introduce ratios and proportions:

Books 11 through to 13 deal with spatial geometry:

Euclid's method and style of presentation

  • "To draw a straight line from any point to any point."
  • "To describe a circle with any center and distance."

Euclid, Elements, Book I, Postulates 1 & 3.[19]

An animation showing how Euclid constructed a hexagon (Book IV, Proposition 15). Every two-dimensional figure in the Elements can be constructed using only a compass and straightedge.[19]
Codex Vaticanus 190

Euclid's axiomatic approach and constructive methods were widely influential.

Many of Euclid's propositions were constructive, demonstrating the existence of some figure by detailing the steps he used to construct the object using a compass and straightedge. His constructive approach appears even in his geometry's postulates, as the first and third postulates stating the existence of a line and circle are constructive. Instead of stating that lines and circles exist per his prior definitions, he states that it is possible to 'construct' a line and circle. It also appears that, for him to use a figure in one of his proofs, he needs to construct it in an earlier proposition. For example, he proves the Pythagorean theorem by first inscribing a square on the sides of a right triangle, but only after constructing a square on a given line one proposition earlier.[20]

As was common in ancient mathematical texts, when a proposition needed proof in several different cases, Euclid often proved only one of them (often the most difficult), leaving the others to the reader. Later editors such as Theon often interpolated their own proofs of these cases.

Euclid's presentation was limited by the mathematical ideas and notations in common currency in his era, and this causes the treatment to seem awkward to the modern reader in some places. For example, there was no notion of an angle greater than two right angles,[21] the number 1 was sometimes treated separately from other positive integers, and as multiplication was treated geometrically he did not use the product of more than 3 different numbers. The geometrical treatment of number theory may have been because the alternative would have been the extremely awkward Alexandrian system of numerals.[22]

The presentation of each result is given in a stylized form, which, although not invented by Euclid, is recognized as typically classical. It has six different parts: First is the 'enunciation', which states the result in general terms (i.e., the statement of the proposition). Then comes the 'setting-out', which gives the figure and denotes particular geometrical objects by letters. Next comes the 'definition' or 'specification', which restates the enunciation in terms of the particular figure. Then the 'construction' or 'machinery' follows. Here, the original figure is extended to forward the proof. Then, the 'proof' itself follows. Finally, the 'conclusion' connects the proof to the enunciation by stating the specific conclusions drawn in the proof, in the general terms of the enunciation.[23]

No indication is given of the method of reasoning that led to the result, although the Data does provide instruction about how to approach the types of problems encountered in the first four books of the Elements.[24] Some scholars have tried to find fault in Euclid's use of figures in his proofs, accusing him of writing proofs that depended on the specific figures drawn rather than the general underlying logic, especially concerning Proposition II of Book I. However, Euclid's original proof of this proposition, is general, valid, and does not depend on the figure used as an example to illustrate one given configuration.[25]


Euclid's list of axioms in the Elements was not exhaustive, but represented the principles that were the most important. His proofs often invoke axiomatic notions which were not originally presented in his list of axioms. Later editors have interpolated Euclid's implicit axiomatic assumptions in the list of formal axioms.[26]

For example, in the first construction of Book 1, Euclid used a premise that was neither postulated nor proved: that two circles with centers at the distance of their radius will intersect in two points.[27] Later, in the fourth construction, he used superposition (moving the triangles on top of each other) to prove that if two sides and their angles are equal, then they are congruent; during these considerations he uses some properties of superposition, but these properties are not described explicitly in the treatise. If superposition is to be considered a valid method of geometric proof, all of geometry would be full of such proofs. For example, propositions I.1  I.3 can be proved trivially by using superposition.[28]

Mathematician and historian W. W. Rouse Ball put the criticisms in perspective, remarking that "the fact that for two thousand years [the Elements] was the usual text-book on the subject raises a strong presumption that it is not unsuitable for that purpose."[29]


It was not uncommon in ancient time to attribute to celebrated authors works that were not written by them. It is by these means that the apocryphal books XIV and XV of the Elements were sometimes included in the collection.[30] The spurious Book XIV was probably written by Hypsicles on the basis of a treatise by Apollonius. The book continues Euclid's comparison of regular solids inscribed in spheres, with the chief result being that the ratio of the surfaces of the dodecahedron and icosahedron inscribed in the same sphere is the same as the ratio of their volumes, the ratio being

The spurious Book XV was probably written, at least in part, by Isidore of Miletus. This book covers topics such as counting the number of edges and solid angles in the regular solids, and finding the measure of dihedral angles of faces that meet at an edge.[30]


The Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (left) and the Chinese mathematician Xu Guangqi (right) published the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements (幾何原本) in 1607.


Currently in print

Free versions

See also


  1. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 372
  2. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 409
  3. Boyer (1991). "Euclid of Alexandria". p. 101. With the exception of the Sphere of Autolycus, surviving work by Euclid are the oldest Greek mathematical treatises extant; yet of what Euclid wrote more than half has been lost, Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 114
  5. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece (2006) by Nigel Guy Wilson, page 278. Published by Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. Quote:"Euclid's Elements subsequently became the basis of all mathematical education, not only in the Roman and Byzantine periods, but right down to the mid-20th century, and it could be argued that it is the most successful textbook ever written."
  6. Boyer (1991). "Euclid of Alexandria". p. 100. As teachers at the school he called a band of leading scholars, among whom was the author of the most fabulously successful mathematics textbook ever written – the Elements (Stoichia) of Euclid. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. 1 2 Boyer (1991). "Euclid of Alexandria". p. 119. The Elements of Euclid not only was the earliest major Greek mathematical work to come down to us, but also the most influential textbook of all times. [...]The first printed versions of the Elements appeared at Venice in 1482, one of the very earliest of mathematical books to be set in type; it has been estimated that since then at least a thousand editions have been published. Perhaps no book other than the Bible can boast so many editions, and certainly no mathematical work has had an influence comparable with that of Euclid's Elements. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. The Historical Roots of Elementary Mathematics by Lucas Nicolaas Hendrik Bunt, Phillip S. Jones, Jack D. Bedient (1988), page 142. Dover publications. Quote:"the Elements became known to Western Europe via the Arabs and the Moors. There, the Elements became the foundation of mathematical education. More than 1000 editions of the Elements are known. In all probability, it is, next to the Bible, the most widely spread book in the civilization of the Western world."
  9. From the introduction by Amit Hagar to Euclid and His Modern Rivals by Lewis Carroll (2009, Barnes & Noble) pg. xxviii:
    Geometry emerged as an indispensable part of the standard education of the English gentleman in the eighteenth century; by the Victorian period it was also becoming an important part of the education of artisans, children at Board Schools, colonial subjects and, to a rather lesser degree, women. ... The standard textbook for this purpose was none other than Euclid's The Elements.
  10. 1 2 3 Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. p. 212.
  11. W.W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, 4th ed., 1908, p. 54
  12. Ball, p. 38
  13. The Earliest Surviving Manuscript Closest to Euclid's Original Text (Circa 850); an image of one page
  14. L.D. Reynolds and Nigel G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 2nd. ed. (Oxford, 1974) p. 57
  15. One older work claims Adelard disguised himself as a Muslim student to obtain a copy in Muslim Córdoba (Rouse Ball, p. 165). However, more recent biographical work has turned up no clear documentation that Adelard ever went to Muslim-ruled Spain, although he spent time in Norman-ruled Sicily and Crusader-ruled Antioch, both of which had Arabic-speaking populations. Charles Burnett, Adelard of Bath: Conversations with his Nephew (Cambridge, 1999); Charles Burnett, Adelard of Bath (University of London, 1987).
  16. Busard, H.L.L. (2005). "Introduction to the Text". Campanus of Novara and Euclid's Elements. I. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 978-3-515-08645-5.
  17. Henry Ketcham, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, at Project Gutenberg,
  18. Dudley Herschbach, "Einstein as a Student," Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, page 3, web: HarvardChem-Einstein-PDF: about Max Talmud visited on Thursdays for six years.
  19. 1 2 Hartshorne 2000, p. 18.
  20. Hartshorne 2000, pp. 18–20.
  21. Ball, p. 55
  22. Ball, pp. 58, 127
  23. Heath (1963), p. 216
  24. Ball, p. 54
  25. Godfried Toussaint, "A new look at Euclid's second proposition," The Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 12–23.
  26. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 62
  27. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 242
  28. Heath (1956) (vol. 1), p. 249
  29. Ball (1960) p. 55.
  30. 1 2 Boyer (1991). "Euclid of Alexandria". pp. 118–119. In ancient times it was not uncommon to attribute to a celebrated author works that were not by him; thus, some versions of Euclid's Elements include a fourteenth and even a fifteenth book, both shown by later scholars to be apocryphal. The so-called Book XIV continues Euclid's comparison of the regular solids inscribed in a sphere, the chief results being that the ratio of the surfaces of the dodecahedron and icosahedron inscribed in the same sphere is the same as the ratio of their volumes, the ratio being that of the edge of the cube to the edge of the icosahedron, that is, . It is thought that this book may have been composed by Hypsicles on the basis of a treatise (now lost) by Apollonius comparing the dodecahedron and icosahedron. [...] The spurious Book XV, which is inferior, is thought to have been (at least in part) the work of Isidore of Miletus (fl. ca. A.D. 532), architect of the cathedral of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) at Constantinople. This book also deals with the regular solids, counting the number of edges and solid angles in the solids, and finding the measures of the dihedral angles of faces meeting at an edge. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  31. Alexanderson & Greenwalt 2012, pg. 163
  32. K. V. Sarma (1997), Helaine Selin, ed., Encyclopaedia of the history of science, technology, and medicine in non-western cultures, Springer, pp. 460–461, ISBN 978-0-7923-4066-9
  33. JNUL Digitized Book Repository
  34. available online, second edition 2007 commented by Petr Vopěnka
  35. "Euclid's 'Elements' Redux". Euclid's 'Elements' Redux. starrhorse. Retrieved 4 October 2016.
  36. "Euclid's 'Elements' Redux". Euclid's 'Elements' Redux. starrhorse. Retrieved 4 October 2016.


(3 vols.): ISBN 0-486-60088-2 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-486-60089-0 (vol. 2), ISBN 0-486-60090-4 (vol. 3). Heath's authoritative translation plus extensive historical research and detailed commentary throughout the text.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Euclid's Elements
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elements of Euclid.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/27/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.