Pythagoras, the son of Mnesarchus and Pythais, was born on the island of Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor (what is now mostly Turkey), about 569 BC. Pythais was a native of Samos. Mnesarchus was a merchant from Tyre. An apocryphal story says that he brought grain to Samos during a famine and was granted citizenship of Samos out of gratitude.
Pythagoras probably had at least two brothers, perhaps three. Little is known about his childhood. He apparently grew up on Samos, but traveled with his father. It has been said he and his father returned to Tyre on at least one occasion and also traveled to Italy.
He was well educated, learning to read and play the lyre. It is said that while in Tyre, he studied with the Chaldaeans and the learned men of Syria. At home, he was influenced by his teacher, the philosopher, Pherekydes. Another apocryphal tale has him visiting Miletus in his late teenage years to study with Thales. By this time, Thales was a very old man, who probably did not teach Pythagoras a lot, but may have greatly influenced him. Thales's student, Anaximander was giving lectures on Miletus and quite possibly, Pythagoras attended these lectures. Anaximander had great interest in geometry and cosmology, subjects which would strongly influence Pythagoras's own views.
Odyssey to Egypt
The next phase of Pythagoras's life is a bit confusing. Some say he fled Samos for Egypt to escape the tyranny of Polycrates, who has seized control of Samos some years before. There is some evidence, however that there was a friendship between the two men and Pythagoras actually traveled to Egypt with a letter of introduction from Polycrates around 535 BC. There were, at the time, good relations between the two countries. This was to change.
While in Egypt, Pythagoras visited, or at least tried to visit, many of the temples and spoke with a large number of priests and scholars. There are some accounts that indicate he was denied access to all but a few temples. One, however, which he apparently entered, was Diospolis, where he was accepted into the priesthood after completing the rites necessary for admission. While in Egypt, Pythagoras continued his education, especially in mathematics and geometry.
From Egypt in Chains
Ten years after Pythagoras arrived in Egypt, relations between that country and Samos fell apart. Polycrates sent 40 ships to help Cambyses II, the king of Persia, invade Egypt. During this war, Egypt lost and Pythagoras was taken prisoner to Babylon.
Pythagoras wasn't treated as a prisoner of war as we would consider today. He continued his education in mathematics and music and delved into the teachings of the priests, learning their sacred rites. He became extremely proficient in his studies of mathematics and sciences as taught by the Babylonians.
A Return Home - and Separture
Perhaps this, coupled with the deaths of Polycrates and Cambyses, is what allowed him to depart Babylon just five years later. He returned to Samos, which was now under the rule of Darius of Persia. Soon afterwards, he made a brief trip to Crete to study their legal system before returning to Samos to found his own school. It was called the Semicircle, and is still known by that name even today.
The Samians were not very receptive to his teaching method. According to Iamblichus's book, Life of Pythagoras, "He tried to use his symbolic method of teaching which was similar in all respects to the lessons he had learnt in Egypt. The Samians were not very keen on this method and treated him in a rude and improper manner." So, in about 518 BC he departed Samos once again and went to southern Italy.