Olympiodorus of Thebes

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(b. Thebes, Egypt, ca. 360-385; d. after 425), history, geography. For the original article on Olympiodorus see DSB, vol. 10.

Photius reported that Olympiodorus defined himself as a “professional poet” (Phot., Ibid. 166, 6: poiêtês to epitêdeuma), a term that at the time could designate a writer of either artistic poetry or of prose in the general sense. Certain scholars, attributing to poiêtês (Lat. operator) the very specific sense of “alchemist” as is found in Greek texts on alchemy, believed him to be the author of a work contained in the Corpus of Greek alchemists, entitled “The Alexandrian Philosopher Olympiodorus on the Book Kat’energeian by Zosimus and on the Sayings of Hermes and the Philosophers.” This attribution—propagated, among other sources, by the single original DSB entry on “Olympiodorus”—is now regarded as false, and the name of the alchemist must be associated instead with that of Olympiodorus of Alexandria, the Neoplatonic commentator of Plato and of Artistotle (see the entry “Olympiodorus of Alexandria”).

Life . 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, 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 Athens, Olympiodorus associated with the Sophists and was a friend of the grammarian Philtatius. He was personally acquainted with Valerius, the prefect of Thrace.

Olympiodorus is author of a Greek history, a continuation of the work of Eunapius. The original work, covering the period from 407–425, is preserved only in fragments. The principal source is the Bibliotheca of Photius, the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople. Another source is the New History of Zosimus (fl. 490–510). Olympiodorus’s 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 III.

More than a history organized around a narrative thread, the work of Olympiodorus presents itself as the objective commentary of an eyewitness to the troubled events that characterized the beginning of the fifth century. Olympiodorus stated that he did not intend to produce a history but that his aim is to furnish “material” for a history (Phot., Bibl. Cod. 80, p. 166, 10). The objectivity and the independence of judgment that he exhibited distinguish his work from that of other historians and made it most interesting for the modern reader. Similarly, the numerous geographic and anthropological digressions that accompany the exposition of what are properly historic facts are of great interest for the history of science. Olympiodorus described the places, the climates, and the peoples that he encountered during his travels. He also related some wondrous phenomena, fantastic stories, and incidents of magic (Phot., Ibid. 171= fr. 16 Blockley). In particular, when it is a question of controversial subjects such as the route of Odysseus’s voyage (Phot., Ibid. 186, 1=fr. 42 Blockley), Olympiodorus stated that he has compared the opinions of other authors, thus showing that he made use of a methodological practice similar to what is known as the status quaestionis.



Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum IV. Edited by Karl Muller. 57–68. Paris: 1851.

Historici graeci minores I, edited by Ludwig A. Dindorf, 450–472. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1870. The excerpts from Olympiodorus’s historical work, as preserved by Photius, are published here and in Muller.

The Fragmentary Classicising Historian of the Later Roman Empire. Eunapius, Olympiodorus, Priscus and Malchius, 2 vols. Edited by R.C. Blockley, vol. II, 152–220. Liverpool, U.K.: F. Cairns, 1981–1983.


Haedicke, Walter. “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. 201-207. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1949.

Thompson, E. A. “Olympiodoros of Thebes.” Classical Quarterly 38 (1944): 43–52.

Cristina Viano