Stephanus of Alexandria

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Athens, c. 550–555; d. Constantinople, c. 622), philosophy, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, medicine, mathematics. For the original article on Stephanus of Alexandria see DSB, vol. 13.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century the research regarding Stephanus of Alexandria focused on the identification of his personality and the authorship of the works attributed to him, as well as to the edition of his unpublished works. Firstly, Wanda Wolska-Conus (1989, 1992, 1994) has shown that Stephanus of Athens should be identified with Stephanus of Alexandria. The designation Alexandrian does not indicate that this was his native city. It indicates only that, in moving his place of residence and activity to Constantinople, he did so from Alexandria. She has discussed his authorship of several works that we know by title or because they still survive, including his commentaries on Porphyry’s Eisagoge and treatises of the Aristotelian, Hippocratic, and Galenic corpus. According to her, Stephanus’s involvement in the doctrinal politics of his time and the serial transfer of his loyalties between the Caledonians, Monothelites, and Monophysites, cost him his reputation in posterity. Regarded as a traitor by all, he was embraced by none.

Secondly, in their Thèses de Licence Elisabeth Chauvon (1979) and Marie-Chantal Hugo (1987) have edited parts of the unpublished astronomical work of Stephanus of Alexandria, namely his “Commentary on the Handy Tables of Ptolemy.” Thus they have shown both Stephanus’s excellent astronomical knowledge and his virtues as a teacher, which reinforce the tradition of his great reputation as a teacher, especially of the mathematical sciences, the quadrivium.

Finally, Maria Papathanassiou (1990, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1997, 2005, 2006) has focused her research on the authorship of the alchemical and the astrological works traditionally attributed to Stephanus of Alexandria. Based on the analysis of their content she has attempted to elucidate his personality and to reveal his deep philosophical and scientific knowledge, which contributed to his great reputation as “oecumenic teacher.”

According to tradition, Stephanus of Alexandria was the author of the work On the Great and Sacred Art of Making Gold. Many scholars misunderstood and underestimated its importance, criticizing it on account of its rhetorical style and the absence of original scientific ideas. However, as commentary on selected passages of earlier alchemical texts, the work in fact presented its author with an opportunity to demonstrate wide rhetorical prowess, extensive learning, and a significant breadth of philosophical understanding. Its loose structure was the result of Stephanus’s effort to synthesize various ideas from different philosophical theories into a logical sequence and fashion them into a whole, into a single theory able to account for all phenomena.

Leendert G. Westerink’s view (1962, Introd. p. xxiv) that a lack of clarity and logical sequence in combining ideas characterizes Stephanus’s Commentary on the Book 3 of Aristotle’s De anima (published as the third book of Philoponus, De anima, Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca15, 446–607). Henry Blumenthal’s statement that “a curious mixture of Neoplatonic aims and Aristotelian content emerges from Stephanus’s theoria” in the same commentary (Blumenthal, 1982, pp. 56, 244 note 11), and the study of the author of this entry, according to which Stephanus’s alchemical work is deeply influenced by Neoplatonism and especially Damascius’s De principiis(Papathanassiou, 2005), offer additional arguments in favor of Stephanus’s authorship of this work corpus.

The manuscript tradition of the alchemical work clearly indicates that it was greatly appreciated. It survives in fifty-three manuscripts. Six manuscripts were produced between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, and the rest were copied between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. This work greatly influenced the so-called poet-alchemists. The Arabic alchemical corpus attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan cites passages from Stephanus’s work or uses analogous terminology without making direct reference to the Greek source. Moreover the Rosarium philosophicum (a mid-fourteenth-century compilation in Latin), cites and comments on Stephanus.

Stephanus’s alchemical work was edited in 1842 by Julius L. Ideler. The text stops actually on page 247,23 (and not on page 253,26), corresponding to the final line of f. 39v of Cod. Marc. gr. 299 (tenth to eleventh centuries). As shown by H. D. Saffrey (1995), this codex suffered both a loss of folios and a gap in its binding which resulted in losing the end of Stephanus’s work. Moreover, study of the work (Papathanassiou, 1996) reveals that, some time earlier than the date of Marc. gr. 299 the text was technically divided into nine lectures and a short letter to Theodorus; the proposed original division is the following:

First Lesson (MSS and Ideler: Lectures 1 and 2),

Letter to Theodorus (: Letter to Theodorus and

Lecture 3),

Second Lesson (: Lecture 4),

Third Lesson (: Lecture 5),

Fourth Lesson (: Lecture 6),

Fifth Lesson (: Lecture 7),

Sixth Lesson (: Lecture 8),

Seventh Lesson (: Lecture 9).

Astronomical Evidence The observation of a particular planetary phenomenon at the time that Stephanus was writing his alchemical work and the known correspondence between planets and metals inspired him to include its description in his text (p. 225,25–32 ed. Ideler). This passage can be understood as describing Constantinople’s (the Byzantine) eastern sky near the horizon at dawn and may be used as a clue to aid in the identification of its author and the date of the composition. If our interpretation of this passage is correct, the only viable celestial phenomenon it could be describing between the seventh and the eleventh centuries would be the one visible from Constantinople and evolving between 26 May and 3 June 617.

It is well known that Stephanus of Alexandria was the author of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, in which he gave his own examples for the calculation of the solar, lunar, and planetary positions, as well as solar and lunar eclipses calculated for the coordinates of Constantinople. As shown by Otto Neugebauer and H. B. Van Hoesen (1959), the dates of calculated examples in the commentary fall in the years 617 to 619. This suggests that during this period Stephanus was in Constantinople and consistently observed and calculated the position of the Sun, the Moon, and the other planets. Had he not been in Constantinople but Alexandria, he would have used the data of Ptolemy’s tables as they are given for the geographical coordinates of Alexandria without converting them into Constantinople’s coordinates. Consequently, the authorship of Stephanus for the alchemical work should be considered genuine.

According to tradition, Stephanus cast the horoscope of the emperor Heraclius and was the author of the Apotelesmatike Pragmateia (astrological treatise) (ed. H. Usener, 1914, pp. 266–289), referring to the Horoscope of Islam. This treatise can be divided into three parts; in the first part (p. 266,5–271,22) the author shows his piousness, explaining that astrological predictions do not contradict God’s omnipotence and asserts firmly that “perfect and true knowledge belongs to god, while men, forming their conjectures on the ground of elements and stars, in part know and in part predict” (271,19–21). In the second part (p. 271, 23–279,13) he explains for what reason and when he cast the horoscope of Islam and he proceeds in a general astrological analysis of it. The third part (p. 279,14–289) includes the predictions about the events that will take place “during the dominion of this nation” (p. 279,15–17). The main argument against the authorship of Stephanus is that the author demonstrated accurate knowledge of the events that transpired during the reign of the successive Arab caliphs from the beginning of Islam until the end of the eighth century. From that point on the predictions are all wrong. Some scholars consider the surviving Apotelesmatike Pragmateia might be the reinvention of a preexisting work by Stephanus on the same topic that is no longer extant. However, if these arguments (based on literary tradition, astrological practice, and relations between the alchemical work and the astrological treatise) are correct, the first and the second parts of the treatise should be considered a genuine work of Stephanus's, whereas the original third part (apart from its end [p. 286, 22–289]) was thoroughly rewritten at the end of the eighth century to fit the events that had already occurred in Islam (Papathanassiou, 1992, 1997, 2006).



Edited by Elisabeth Chauvon. “Étude sur le Commentaire astronomique de Stephanos d’ Alexandrie.” Louvain, France: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1979–1980.

Edited by Marie-Chantal Hugo. “Stéphane d’Alexandrie: Calcul de l’éclipse de Soleil du 4 novembre 617.” Louvain, France: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1987.

Stephani Alexandrini. De Sacra et Magna Arte, de Chrysopoeia. Edited by Julius L. Ideler. Physici et Medici Graeci Minores, II, Leipzig 1842, (Reprint, Hakkert, Amsterdam 1963): 199–253.

Stephanus Philosophus. Lectio prima Peri chrysopoieias. Graece et latine cum notis crit. primus ed. Ch. Gf. Gruner, Jenae 1777, in J. G. Th. Graesse, Trésor de livres rares et précieux, 8 vols. (Kuntze-Dresde, 1859–1869). 6 (1865) 492.

Edited by Hermann Usener. Kleine Schriften, Band III, Teubner, Leipzig 1914, 247–321 (Xiv. De Stephano Alexandrino, 1879): 266–289. In Greek.


Blumenthal, Henry. “John Philoponus and Stephanus of Alexandria: Two Neoplatonic Christian Commentators on Aristotle?” Studies in Neoplatonism Ancient and Modern. Vol. 3: Neoplatonism and Christian Thought. Edited by D. J. O’Meara. International Society for Neoplatonic Studies (1982): 54–63, 244–246 (notes).

Jensen, Ingeborg Hammer. “Die älteste Alchymie.” Kgl. Danske Vidensk. Selsk., Hist.-filol. Medd. (Copenhagen) 4, no. 2 (1921): 8–9, 146–159.

Lumpe, Adolf. “Stephanos von Alexandrien und Kaiser Heraclius.” Classical and Mediaeval Dissertationes 9 (1973): 150–159.

———. “Stephanos von Alexandria (Stephanus Philosophus).” Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, Band X (1995): Spalten 1406–1409.

Neugebauer, Otto. A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. 3 vols. Berlin: Springer, 1975. Vol. 2: 1045–1051.

Neugebauer, Otto, and H. B. Van Hoesen. “Greek Horoscopes.”Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 48 (1959): 158–160, 190.

Papathanassiou, Maria. “Stephanus of Alexandria: Pharmaceutical Notions and Cosmology in His Alchemical work.” Ambix37, no. 3 (1990): 121–133; 38, no. 2 (1991): 112 (addenda).

———. Stephanus von Alexandreia und sein alchemistisches Werk. PhD diss., Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, 1992.

———. “Stephanus of Alexandria: On the Structure and Date of His Alchemical Work.” Medicina nei secoli 8, no. 2 (1996): 247–266.

———. “Stephanus of Alexandria: Apotelesmatike pragmateia, or The Horoscope of Islam.” In Oi epistimes ston helliniko khoro. Athens: Kentro Neoellinikon Ereunon, Ethniko Idryma Ereunon, 1997, 107–117. In Greek.

———. “L’œuvre alchimique de Stéphanos d’Alexandrie: Structure et transformations de la matière, unité et pluralité, l’énigme des philosophes.” In L’alchimie et ses racines philosophiques. La tradition grecque et la tradition arabe, edited by Cristina Viano, 113–133. Collection Histoire des Idées et des Doctrines 32. Paris: Vrin, 2005.

———. “Stephanos of Alexandria: A Famous Byzantine Scholar, Alchemist and Astrologer.” In The Occult Sciences in Byzantium, edited by Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroudi, 163–203. Geneva: La Pomme d’Or, 2006.

Pingree, David. “Classical und Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia.” Dunbarton Oaks Papers 43 (1989): 227–239.

Saffrey, H. D. “Historique et description du manuscript alchimique de Venise Marcianus Graecus 299.” In Alchimie: art, histoire et mythes, edited by Didier Kahn and Sylvain Matton, 1–10. Paris: S.E.H.A., 1995.

Tihon, Anne. “L’astronomie Byzantine (du Ve au XVe siècle).” Byzantion 51 (1981): 603–624.

Ullmann, Manfred. Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1972, pp. 189–190.

Vancourt, Raymond. Les derniers commentateurs Alexandrins d’ Aristote: L’ École d’ Olympiodore, Étienne d’ Alexandrie. Lille, France: Thèse, 1941.

Westerink, Leendert G. Anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1962, pp. xxiv–xxv.

———. “The Greek Commentaries on Plato’s Phaedo.” Vol. 1 on Olympiodorus Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie 92. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1976, pp. 20–23.

Wolska-Conus, Wanda. “Stéphanos d’Athènes et Stéphanos d’Alexandrie. Essai d’identification et de biographie.” Revue des études byzantines 47 (1989): 5–89.

———. “Les Commentaires de Stéphanos d’Athènes au Prognosticon et aux Aphorismes d’Hippocrate: De Galien à la pratique scolaire alexandrine.” Revue des études byzantines50 (1992): 5–86.

———. “Stéphanos d’Athènes (Stéphanos d’Alexandrie) et Théophile le Prôtospathaire, commentateurs des Aphorismes d’Hippocrate sont-ils indépendents l’un de l’autre?” Revue des études byzantines 52 (1994): 5–68.

Maria K. Papathanassiou

Stephanus (or Stephen) of Alexandria

views updated Jun 27 2018


(fl. first half of seventh century a.d.),

philosophy, mathematics,astronomy, alchemy.

Stephanus was a public lecturer in Constantinople at the court of Emperor Heraclius (A.D. 610–641). Although primarily a mathematician, he apparently also taught philosophy, astronomy, and music in addition to arithmetic and geometry. Commentaries on Aristotle have come down to us under his name, but Stephanus is also reported to have written on other subjects, including astronomy. He has been identified, probably incorrectly, by some authorities with Stephanus of Athens, a medical writer; and commentaries on Galen and Hippocrates have been attributed to both these authors. The Opusculum apotelesmaticum, ascribed to Stephanus of Alexandria but probably dating from the eighth century, deals with Islam in astrological terms.

Considerable attention has been given to a long Greek treatise on alchemy, De chrysopoeia, which has been ascribed to Stephanus and which was much praised by later alchemists. Consisting of nine mystical lectures, this uncritical, rhetorical, and theoretical document gives no evidence of experimental work. Indeed, in the first lecture the author writes, “Put away the material theory so that you may be deemed worthy to see the hidden mystery with your intellectual eyes.” The work may be dated later than the seventh century, but it is mentioned in an Arabic bibliography of A.D. 987, Kitāb–al–Fithrist, where the author is known as Stephanus the Elder, who is said to have “translated for Khālid ibn Yāzid alchemical and other works.” This Umayyad prince, much interested in science and especially alchemy, died in A.D. 704.


I. Original Works. See Demoritus Abderita, De arte magna, sive de rebus naturalibus. Nec non Synesii,et Pelagii, et Stephani Alexandri, et Michaelis Pselli in eundem commentaria, Dominic Pizimentus, ed. (Padua, 1573); “De chrysopoeia,” Julius L. ldeler, ed., in Physici et medici graeci minores. II (Berlin, 1842), 199–253; Opusculum apotelesmaticum, Hermann Usener, ed. (Bonn, 1879); “In librum Aristotelis de interpretatione commentarium,” Michael Hayduck, ed., in Commentaria in Aristotelem graeca, XVIII, 3 (Berlin, 1885); “Anonymi et Stephani in artem rhetoricam commentaria,” H. Rabe, ed., ibid., XXI, 2 (Berlin, 1896); and “The Alchemical Works of Stephanos of Alexandria,” trans. and commentary by F. Sherwood Taylor, in Ambix, the Journal of the Society for Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry, 1 (1937), 116–139; 2 (1938), 38–49.

II.Secibdary Literature. See Marcellin P. E. Berthelot, Les origines de l’alchemie (Paris, 1885), 199–201 and passim; Introduction áétude de la chimie des anciens et du moyen age (Paris, 1938), 287–301 and passim; Lucien Leclerc, Histoire de la médecine arabe (Paris 1876; New York, 1961); Hermann Usener, De Stephano Alexandrino (Bonn, 1880); Edmund O. von Lippmann, Enstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie (Berlin, 1919), 103–105; and George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 472–473.

Karl H. Dannenfeldt

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