nLab cyclic group

Cyclic groups

Cyclic groups


A cyclic group is a quotient group of the free group on the singleton.

Generally, we consider a cyclic group as a group, that is without specifying which element comprises the generating singleton. But see Ring structure below.


There is (up to isomorphism) one cyclic group for every natural number nn, denoted

n/n. \mathbb{Z}_n \coloneqq \mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z} \,.

For n>0n \gt 0, the order (cardinality) of n\mathbb{Z}_n is nn (so finite); for n=0n = 0, which is the group of integers

0 \mathbb{Z}_0 \coloneqq \mathbb{Z}

the order is countable but infinite.

If we identify the free group on the singleton with the additive group \mathbb{Z} of integers, then the infinite cyclic group is \mathbb{Z} itself, while the finite cyclic group of order nn is /n\mathbb{Z}/n, that is \mathbb{Z} modulo (the normal subgroup generated by) the integer nn. Of course, \mathbb{Z} itself is also /0\mathbb{Z}/0. One could also consider /n\mathbb{Z}/n for negative nn, but this is the same as /|n|\mathbb{Z}/{|n|}.

The cyclic group of order nn may also be identified with a subgroup of the multiplicative group of complex numbers (or algebraic numbers): the group of nnth roots of 11. For n=0n = 0, we may pick any non-zero complex number (or even something else) that is not a root of 11 (but there is no standard choice) and take the subgroup generated by it.

Dedicated entries exist for:


Besides ‘/n\mathbb{Z}/n’, the cyclic group of order nn may also be denoted in other ways: some more complicated variation of ‘/n\mathbb{Z}/n’ (to put ‘the [normal] subgroup generated by’ explicitly in the notation), or else the simplified form ‘ n\mathbb{Z}_n’ (which however conflicts with notation for the nn-adic integers). When written multiplicatively, it may be denoted ‘Z nZ_n’ (note the font change) or ‘C nC_n’; either letter here stands for ‘cyclic’ in one language or another. (It is a coincidence that the German words ‘Zahl’, which gives us ‘\mathbb{Z}’, and ‘zyklisch’, which gives us ‘ZZ’, begin with the same letter.)

Besides ‘\mathbb{Z}’, the infinite cyclic group may also be denoted in other ways: some variation of ‘(,+)(\mathbb{Z},+)’ to indicate that we are using addition of integers, or any of the above notations with either ‘00’ or ‘\infty’ in place of ‘nn’ (depending on whether we think of it as \mathbb{Z} modulo 00 or the cyclic group with order \infty).

When written additively, the notation for the elements of a cyclic group are usually just the notation for integers; for the finite cyclic group of order nn, we use the natural number less than nn. In the finite case, we may also use brackets or some other notation to indicate equivalence classes. When written multiplicatively, any letter (’ee’, ‘xx’, ‘aa’, ‘ξ\xi’, etc) may be taken to stand for the generating element; then any other element is a power of this generator. When thought of as a multiplicative group of complex numbers, one generator is e 2iπ/n\mathrm{e}^{2\mathrm{i}\pi/n}, and the notation may reflect that.


Ring structure

Let AA be a cyclic group, and let xx be a generator of AA. Then there is a unique ring structure on AA (making the original group the additive group of the ring) such that xx is the multiplicative identity 11.

If we identify AA with the additive group /n\mathbb{Z}/n and pick (the equivalence class of) the integer 11 for xx, then the resulting ring is precisely the quotient ring /n\mathbb{Z}/n.

In this way, a cyclic group equipped with the extra structure of a generator is the same thing (in the sense that their groupoids are equivalent) as a ring with the extra property that the underlying additive group is cyclic.

For n>0n \gt 0, the number of ring structures on the cyclic group /n\mathbb{Z}/n, which is the same as the number of generators, is ϕ(n)\phi(n), the Euler totient? of nn; the generators are those ii that are relatively prime to nn. While ϕ(1)=1\phi(1) = 1, otherwise ϕ(n)>1\phi(n) \gt 1 (another way to see that we have a structure and not just a property). For \mathbb{Z} itself, there are two ring structures, since 11 and 1-1 are the generators (and these are relatively prime to 00).


Fundamental theorem of cyclic groups

For nn \in \mathbb{N}, there is precisely one subgroup of the cyclic group /n\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{N} of order dd \in \mathbb{N} for each factor of dd in nn, and this is the subgroup generated by n/d/nn/d \in \mathbb{Z} \to \mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z}.

Moreover, the lattice of subgroups of /n\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z} is equivalently the dual of the lattice of natural numbers n\leq n ordered by divisibility.

(e.g Aluffi 09, pages 83-84)

This is a special case of the fundamental theorem of finitely generated abelian groups. See there for more.

Relation to finite abelian groups


Every finite abelian group is a direct sum of abelian groups over cyclic groups.

See at finite abelian group for details.

Group cohomology

For discussion of the group cohomology of cyclic groups see

For example, relevant for Dijkgraaf-Witten theory is the fact:

H grp 3(/n,U(1))/n. H^3_{grp}\big(\mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z}, U(1)\big) \;\simeq\; \mathbb{Z}/n\mathbb{Z} \,.

Linear representations

We discuss some of the representation theory of cyclic groups.


(irreducible real linear representations of cyclic groups)

For nn \in \mathbb{N}, n2n \geq 2, the isomorphism classes of irreducible real linear representations of the cyclic group /n\mathbb{Z}/n are given by precisely the following:

  1. the 1-dimensional trivial representation 1\mathbf{1};

  2. the 1-dimensional sign representation 1 sgn\mathbf{1}_{sgn};

  3. the 2-dimensional standard representations 2 k\mathbf{2}_k of rotations in the Euclidean plane by angles that are integer multiples of 2πk/n2 \pi k/n, for kk \in \mathbb{N}, 0<k<n/20 \lt k \lt n/2;

    hence the restricted representations of the defining real rep of SO(2) under the subgroup inclusions /nSO(2)\mathbb{Z}/n \hookrightarrow SO(2), hence the representations generated by real 2×22 \times 2 trigonometric matrices of the form

    ρ 2 k(1)=(cos(θ) sin(θ) sin(θ) cos(θ))AAwithθ=2πkn, \rho_{\mathbf{2}_k}(1) \;=\; \left( \array{ cos(\theta) & -sin(\theta) \\ sin(\theta) & \phantom{-}cos(\theta) } \right) \phantom{AA} \text{with} \; \theta = 2 \pi \tfrac{k}{n} \,,

(For k=n/2k = n/2 the corresponding 2d representation is the direct sum of two copies of the sign representation: 2 n/21 sgn1 sgn\mathbf{2}_{n/2} \simeq \mathbf{1}_{sgn} \oplus \mathbf{1}_{sgn}, and hence not irreducible. Moreover, for k>n/2k \gt n/2 we have that 2 k\mathbf{2}_{k} is irreducible, but isomorphic to 2 nk2 k\mathbf{2}_{n-k} \simeq \mathbf{2}_{-k}).

In summary:

Rep irr(/n) /={1,1 sgn,2 k|0<k<n/2} Rep^{irr}_{\mathbb{R}} \big( \mathbb{Z}/n \big)_{/\sim} \;=\; \big\{ \mathbf{1}, \mathbf{1}_{sgn}, \mathbf{2}_k \;\vert\; 0 \lt k \lt n/2 \big\}

(e.g. tom Dieck 09 (1.1.6), (1.1.8))


Historical discussion of the cyclic group in the context of the classification of finite rotation groups:

  • Felix Klein, chapter I.3 of: Vorlesungen über das Ikosaeder und die Auflösung der Gleichungen vom fünften Grade, 1884, translated as Lectures on the Icosahedron and the Resolution of Equations of Degree Five by George Morrice 1888, online version

Textbook accounts:

Further review:

  • Philippe B. Laval, Cyclic groups [pdf]

On the fundamental theorem of cyclic groups:

  • Joseph A. Gallian, Fundamental Theorem of Cyclic Groups, Contemporary Abstract Algebra, p. 77, (2010)

On the group cohomology of cyclic groups with coefficients in cyclic groups:

Last revised on June 22, 2023 at 11:36:11. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.