Extant ancient writers who get omitted from the handbooks

I was musing last night about Stephen of Alexandria, the philosopher and alchemist at the court of Heraclius.  He was known to contemporaries as the “Universal Philosopher”.  But you will read through the Patrologies in vain to hear about him.  Indeed in what handbook of late antique literature would we find him?

We’re accustomed to the idea that all late Greek literature is ecclesiastical and therefore in the Patrologia Graeca.  But this is untrue.  Technical and scientific and medical works, in particular, are omitted.  There are whole rafts of works, therefore, which certainly never cross my mind and probably don’t feature in the minds of anyone else.  Nor is it a simple matter to translate works of that kind.  Unless you know alchemy, or medicine, how can you make a translation?

Yet how unrealistic this is!  Doesn’t this silence, this omission, give us a quite misleading idea of Greek literature in the period?  What can be done to recover these things from the specialist collections in which they lie, immured and forgotten?

In the 1930’s Sherwood Taylor, the editor of the journal Ambix, translated into English and printed 3 of the 9 lectures of the work of Stephen of Alexandria on alchemy in that journal.  I scanned these, then realised they were in copyright and had to remove them.  But I did compose a Wikipedia article from what I learned, as a sort of bucket in which to dump this info.  Likewise there was a translation of another alchemical work by Zosimos.

Something about the last article made me suspect that he had perhaps translated more.  A visit to the Oxford Museum of Science in Broad Street allowed me to search through his papers, including multiple hand-written and type-written drafts of the first 3 lectures.  There I found a translation of the 4th lecture, unseen by anyone since Taylor’s death, not even by the archivist and tucked inside a packet bound with a pink ribbon.  It was hand-written, unrevised; and, to me, unreadable.  But I got a photocopy which I have at home.  Perhaps one day I’ll have another go at decyphering his handwriting!

1 Response to “Extant ancient writers who get omitted from the handbooks”


  1. Stephen of Alexandria at Roger Pearse

    […] published in early issues of Ambix, a scholarly journal dedicated to early chemistry, before WW2.  I found a first draft of a translation of the fourth among the papers of the translator, in the Oxford Museum of Science in Broad Street.  […]



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