(b. Thebes. Egypt, ca. 360-385; d. after 425)
The earliest known event in the life of Olympiodorus is a mission in 412 for Emperor Honorius to Donatus, leader of the Huns. About 415 he was in Athens; and about 423 he went to Egypt, where he visited Nubia, Thebes, Talmis, Syene (now Aswan), the oasis of Siwa, and the priests of Isis at Philae. He probably lived at times in Byzantium, Ravenna, and Rome; and he knew the latter city well. He was not a Christian. At At hens. Olympiodorus associated with the Sophists and was a friend of the grammarian Philtatius. He was personally acquainted with Valerius, the prefect of Thrace. He called himself a poet (ποιητής), a word that is sometimes interpreted as “alchemist.”
Olympiodorus is known primarily for his Greek history, Meterials for History, a continuation of the work of Eunapius (d. after 414). The original work, covering the period from 407–425. is preserved only in fragments in the Bibliotheca of Photius, the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople. Olympiodorus’ history is dedicated to the Emperor Theodosius II and describes in twenty-two books the history of the Western Empire from the seventh consulship of Honorius to the accession of Valentinian Ill. The work is an impartial and interesting commentary by an educated observer who had firsthand knowledge of the troubled decades of the early fifth century.
Certain authorities, such as Berthelot and Lippmann, credit Olympiodorus of Thebes with being the author of a Greek work on alchemy entitled variously “The Philosopher Olympiodorus to Pelasius, King of Armenia, on the Divine and Sacred Art” and “The Alexandrian Philosopher Olympiodorus on the Book of Deeds by Zosimus and on the Sayings of Hermes and the Philosophers.” The work is quite extensive, with a wealth of disconnected quotations; some of those from Zosimus of Panopolis (late third century) are new. The author presents a very confused and poor explanation of alchemy and display’s little practical understanding of his subject. although there is considerable alchemical imagery with Gnostic and Egyptian influence and language. He attempts to draw parallels between the views of the great alchemists and the views of such philosophers as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Parmenides, and Xenophanes on the origin of matter. He cites the many books of the ancients that were to he found in the Ptolemaic library at Alexandria, written in allegory, with the words having a mystical, double sense which only the initiate can understand. There is little mention of alchemical apparatus. Among his alchemical predecessors he mentions Agathodaemon, Chimes, Maria the Jewess, and Synesius.
Other authorities, especially Hammer-Jensen, consider the author of this alchemical work to have been a Neoplatonic philosopher of the sixth century known as Olympiodorus of Alexandria. The author of commentaries on the works of Plato and Aristotle, this Olympiodorus is much esteemed as an interpreter of Plato.
I. Original Works. The work on alchemy is found in Marcellin P. E. Berthelot, Collection des anciens aichemistes grecs, 3 vols. (Paris, 1887–1888; Osnabrück, 1967), II, 69–106, III, 75–115. The excerpts from Olympiodorus’ historical work, as preserved by Photius, are published in Ludwig A. Dindorf, Historici graeci minores, I (Leipzig, 1870), 450–472.
II. Secondary Literature. See M. P. E. Berthelot, Les origines de l’alchimie (Paris, 1885), 191–199 and passim; and Introduction á l’étude de la chimie des anciens et du moyen ège (Paris, 1889; Brussels, 1966), passim; Walter Haedicke, “Olympiodoros” no. 11, in Pauly Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertums-wissenschaft, 1st ser.; XVIII, pt. I (Stuttgart, 1939), cols. 201–207; Ingeborg Hammer-Jensen, Die alteste Alchemie, Meddelelser fra den K. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Hist-fil. Meddel., IV, no. 2 (Copenhagen, 1921); Arthur J. Hopkins, Alchemy, child of Greek Philosophy (New York, 1967), 77; Edmund O. von Lippmann, Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie, I (Berlin, 1919), 96–102; Riess, “Alchemie,” in Pauly-Wissowa, 1st ser., I (Stuttgart, 1894), col. 1349; and George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 389.
Karl H. Dannenfeldt