Olympiodorus of Alexandria

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(b. Alexandria, Egypt, ca. 495-505; d. after 565)

natural philosophy, astrology, alchemy. For the original article on Olympiodorus of Alexandria see DSB, vol. 10.

The conflation of two Olympiodoruses to which the original DSB article subscribed stems from a treatise, variously titled “The Alexandrian Philosopher Olympiodorus on the Book Kat’energeian (On the action or According to the action) by Zosimus and on the Sayings of Hermes and the Philosophers” and “The Philosopher Olympiodorus to Petasius, King of Armenia, on the Divine and Sacred Art of the Philosophical Stone.” The question of the historical identification of this alchemist named Olympiodorus has been discussed at great length. At first, he was identified with Olympiodorus the historian of Thebes, an opinion shared by a large number of specialists including Marcelin Berthelot. Paul Tannery introduced a series of objections to this identification, and he concluded that the person in question was, on the contrary, Olympiodorus the Neoplatonic commentator of Aristotle.

Life and Works . Neoplatonic philosopher and a student of Ammonius, Olympiodorus taught Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in Alexandria during the second half of the sixth century. A pagan and a defender of Hellenism, he had as successors Christians such as David (Elias) and Stephanus. Three of his Platonic commentaries are still extant—on the Alcibiades I, on the Gorgias, and on the Phaedo—and two commentaries on Aristotle, the first on the Categories (which contains the usual Prolegomena to the philosophy of Aristotle) and the other on the Meteorology as well as some fragments on the De interpretatione. The only one of his works that can be dated with certainty is the commentary to the Meteorology, because Olympiodorus mentions in it (52, 31) a comet that supposedly appeared in 565. To Olympiodorus has also been attributed (and probably rightly so) an anonymous commentary on the astrological work (Eisagôgica) of Paul of Alexandria, though others have identified the presumed author as Heliodorus.

For a long time, specialists considered Olympiodorus’s exegetical activity to lack originality and to be empty of philosophic content. However, he aroused interest from methodological and historical points of view. Indeed, the form of his commentaries, structured according to a certain number of lessons (praxeis), with each one containing a general explanation (theôria) and the particular explanation of a section of text (generally designated by lexis), was considered to be his only truly original contribution to Neoplatonic exegesis. In other respects, Olympiodorus’s work is a rich source of information on the cultural conditions and the educational methods of sixth-century Alexandria. It has only been very recently, in the wake of a revival of interest in this author and his commentaries, that he is beginning to be rehabilitated as a thinker or, at least, as an interpreter of Plato and of Aristotle.

In conformity with the tradition of the Alexandrian school, Olympiodorus was interested in Aristotle’s logic and in his natural philosophy. His commentary on the Meteorology in particular is a work of extreme interest for the history of science. Olympiodorus completed and fixed the Aristotelian classifications of meteorological and chemical phenomena, thus carrying out an immense work of systematizing notions that were sometimes barely sketched out by Aristotle, such as that of the “chemical analysis” (diagnôsis) of homogeneous bodies in Book Four. He participated in the debates by commentators on difficult and problematic points in Aristotle’s work, as on the theory of vision, on the modality of the heating of air by the sun’s rays, and on the origin of the saltiness of the sea. Finally, he conveyed much information on the state of the sciences and techniques of his era, such as mathematics, optics, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, and metallurgy. As for his commentary on Book Four, the first treatise on “chemistry” in Antiquity, Olympiodorus’s systematic work is fundamental: He contributed significantly to constituting a new field of inquiry on the properties, the states, and the transformations of sublunary material. His commentary would be the one most frequently consulted not only by Arab and Renaissance authors but also by Greek and medieval alchemists.

Disputed Commentary . Indeed, one of the most interesting texts of the corpus of the Greek alchemists bears the name of Olympiodorus. In the principal manuscript of the corpus, the Marcianus Graecus299 (M), this treatise is titled: “The Alexandrian Philosopher Olympiodorus on the Book Kat’energeian (On the action or According to the action) by Zosimus and on the Sayings of Hermes and the Philosophers.” Other manuscripts give it a different title: “The Philosopher Olympiodorus to Petasius, King of Armenia, on the Divine and Sacred Art of the Philosophical Stone.” At first identified with Olympiodorus of Thebes, opinions are now divided between the attribution of this treatise to Olympiodorus the Neoplatonist or to a homonymous Olympiodorus or to a pseudepigraph.

The author presented his commentary as a work of both exegesis and doxography. Its originality lies in its explicit claim that Greek philosophy, and especially pre-Socratic philosophy, is the epistemological foundation of transmutation. Indeed, toward the middle of the commentary, Olympiodorus laid out the opinions of nine pre-Socratics (Melissus, Parmenides, Thales, Diogenes, Heracleitus, Hippasus, Xenophanes, Anaximenes, and Anaximander) on the unique principle of things and then sketched a comparison between these positions and those of the principal masters of the art of transmutation (Zosimus, Chymes, Agathodaimon, and Hermes). In other respects, the structure of this treatise remains overall rather discontinuous and incomplete. It has neither preface nor conclusion, it begins and ends ex abrupto. The most coherent part is found at the beginning. The author commented on a sentence of Zosimus dealing with the extraction of gold, and he followed the typical pattern of Olympiodorus the commentator: First the lemma, the phrase of Zosimus to be commented upon, then a general explanation (theôria) and next the detailed exegesis of the terms (lexis). As for the rest, the treatise consists of a collection of excerpta from ancient authors concerning the principal notions and operations of the art of alchemy, accompanied by commentaries among which can be found other excerpts of Zosimus.

Numerous reasons favor attributing this alchemical work to Olympiodorus the Neoplatonist. First, one can exclude the hypothesis of dealing with a homonym, for the title clearly attributes this treatise to Olympiodorus “philosopher of Alexandria,” a philosopher also designated in the alchemical corpus as an “exegete of Plato and Aristotle” and the author of “vast commentaries.” Moreover, this author showed that he knew Aristotle well or at least that he came from a milieu in which the Aristotelian system and terminology were thoroughly assimilated. His commentary shows characteristic traits of Neoplatonic exegesis, such as the theme of the apparent obscurity of the language of philosophers, identification of the object of research with a unique principle, the very structure of the doxography dedicated to this principle. Finally, one can spot in it doctrinal and terminological convergences that are evident in both the commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorology and in other works of Olympiodorus the Neoplatonist.

Nevertheless, because of the discontinuity and the composite character of this alchemical commentary, the identification of Olympiodorus the alchemist with Olympiodorus the Neoplatonic commentator remains a delicate operation that calls for more precision. Indeed, if one compares this text in its present state with the commentaries of Olympiodorus on Plato and Aristotle still extant, as though they were works presenting the same level of completeness, the result could only be unfavorable to the identification of these two figures. In order to support the identification of the two, one must suppose that a lost work written in a more structured form was the source of the alchemical commentary than available. One can then suppose that the present text consists of extracts of a lost alchemical work by Olympiodorus the Neoplatonist (perhaps of a complete commentary on Zosimus’s book On the Action) arranged by a copyist, or even that the latter copied a work of Olympiodorus up to a certain point, and then added a series of unstructured notes on the principal alchemical operations, accompanied by excerpta from other alchemical authors and, probably, from other works by Olympiodorus himself.



Commentaries on Plato

Olympiodori In Platonis Gorgiam Commentaria. Edited by Leendert G. Westerink. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1970.

The Greek Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo, vol.I: Olympiodorus. Edited by Leendert G. Westerink. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1976.

Commentary on Plato's Gorgias. Translated with full notes by Robin Jackson, Kimon Lycos, and Harold Tarrant with an introduction by Harold Tarrant. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Commentaries on Aristotle

Olympiodori in Aristotelis Meteora Commentaria, edited by Wilhelm Stüve. Berlin: G. Remieri, 1900. (= CAG12.2)

Olympiodori Prolegomena et in Categorias Commentarium, edited by Adolf Busse Berlin: G. Remieri, 1902. (= CAG12.1)

Heliodori in Paulum Alexandrium commentarium. Edited by Ae. Boer, Otto Neugebauer, and David Pingree. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1962. This includes the anonymous commentary on Paul of Alexandria.

Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs[Collection of Ancient Greek Alchemists], 3 vols. Edited by Marcellin Berthelot and Ch. E. Ruelle. Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887–1888. Reprinted Osnabruck, 1967, II, 69–106; III, 75–115. This includes the alchemical work attributed to Olympiodorus.

De interpretatione. In Anonymous Commentary on Aristotle's De interpretatione (Codex Parisinus Graecus 2064), edited by Leonardo Taran, pp. 25–41. Meisenheim am Glan: A. Hain, 1978. These are fragments of the commentary on this text.

Commentary on Book IV (French). In La matière des choses Le livre IV des Météorologiques d’Aristote, et son interprétation par Olympiodore [The Matter of Things. Book IV of Aristotle’s Meteorology and Its Interpretation by Olympiodorus, with the Revised Greek Text and an Unpublished Translation of His Commentary to Book IV], edited by Cristina Viano. Paris: J. Vrin, 2006.


Berthelot, Marcellin. Les Origines de l’alchimie[The Origins of Alchemy]. Paris, 1885, pp.191–195.

Beutler, Rudolf. “Olympiodoros.” In Encyclopaedie der classischen Altertums-Wissenschaft[Encyclopedia of Ancient Classical Science] (13), 18, 2, edited by August F. von Pauly, Georg Wissowa, Wilhelm Kroll, et. al, pp. 207-228. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1949.

Brisson, Luc. “Le corps ‘dionysiaque.’ L’anthropogonie décrite dans le Commentaire sur le Phédon de Platon(1, par. 3–6) attribuée à Olympiodore est-elle Orphique?” [“The ‘Dionysiac’ Body. The Anthropogenesis Described in the Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo (1, par. 3–6) attributed to Olympiodorus: Is It Orphic?”]. In Sophiês Maiêtores. Hommage à Jean Pépin [Writings In Honor of Jean Pépin], edited by Marie-Odile Goulet-Caze, Goulven Madec, and Denis O’Brien, pp. 481–499. Paris: Institut d’Etudes Augustiniennes, 1992.

Letrouit, Jean. “Datation d’Olympiodore l’Alchimiste” [Dating of Olympiodorus the Alchemist]. Emerita 58 (1990): 289–292.

Saffrey, Henri D. “Olympiodoros d’Alexandrie” [Olympiodorus of Alexandria]. In Dictionnaire des Philosophes antiques[Dictionary of Ancient Philosophers], IV, directed by Richard Goulet, pp. 769–771. Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 2006.

_____.Olympiodoros d’Alexandrie l’alchimiste” [Olympiodorus of Alexandria the Alchemist]. In Dictionnaire des Philosophes antiques[Dictionary of Ancient Philosophers], IV, edited by Richard Goulet, p. 768. Paris: Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 2006.

Tannery, Paul. “Un fragment d’Anaximène dans Olympiodore le Chimiste” [A Fragment of Anaximenes in Olympiodorus the Chemist], Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 1 [Archives for the History of Philosophy] (1888), pp. 314–321

Viano, Cristina. “Olympiodore l’alchimiste et les Présocratiques. Une doxographie de l’unité (De arte Sacra, § 18–27)” (“Olympiodorus the Alchemist and the Pre-Socratics. A Doxography of Unity, De arte Sacra, § 18–27”) in Alchimie: Art, Histoire et Mythes (Alchemy: Art, History and Myths), edited by Didier Kahn and Sylvain Matton, pp. 95–150. Paris: Société d’étude de l’histoire de l’alchimie., Colloque international, 1995.

Warnon, Jean. Le commentaire attribué à Héliodore sur les Eisagogika de Paul d’Alexandrie (The Commentary Attributed to Heliodorus on the Eisagogika of Paul of Alexandria). 192–217. Louvain: Travaux de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université Catholique, 1967.

Westerink, Leendert G. “Ein astrologisches Kolleg aus dem Jahre 564” [A Lecture on Astrology from the Year 564], Byzantinische Zeitschrift(Byzantine Journal) 64 (1971), p. 6–21. Reprinted in Texts and Studies in Neoplatonismus and Byzantine Literature, Amsterdam, 1980, pp. 279–294.

Cristina Viano