Translations of the works of Hero of Alexandria

The appearance of a manuscript of works by the ancient engineer, Hero of Alexandria (ca. 62 AD) online at the British Library led me to look online for an English translation for his Automata.  I had no luck, but I thought that some notes on what he wrote and how we got it might be useful.

Greek texts with German translations exist in W. Schmidt, Heronis Alexandrini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, in 5 volumes, Teubner, 1899 etc.  These are online here.

The mechanical works include: [1]

  • The Pneumatica in 2 books, covering devices powered by compressed air, steam and water. An old English translation exists and is online: The pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, 1851; as does an old French translation.[2]
  • Peri automatopoietikes or Automata, on ways to fake miracles in temples.  An old partial French translation exists: Victor Prou, Les théâtres d’automates en Grèce au IIe siècle avant l’ère chrétienne d’après les Automata d’Héron d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1881: Greek text with French translation of section 2 of the Automata: p. 94-136.  This is online at Remacle.org[3]  An English translation exists: Susan Murphy, “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making,’” History of Technology 17, 1995, pp 1-44; and of selections in Finlay McCourt, “An examination of the mechanisms of movement in Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making’”, in: T. Koetsier &c, Explorations in the history of machines and mechanisms, 2012 (preview).
  • The Mechanica in 3 books survives only in Arabic, in a translation made by Qosta ibn Luka in the 9th century.  In the 17th century Grolius brought back a 16th century manuscript of it from the Orient, thereby making it accessible.  The first full edition and a French translation of this was by the baron Carra de Vaux in 1893.[4]  It covers weight-moving machines.
  • The Dioptra covers instruments for sighting and other purposes.  A partial English translation supposedly exists from 1963[5]
  • The Catoptrica, on mirrors.  Preserved only in Latin.

I also found a mistake in the literature: Drachmann’s Mechanical technology does NOT contain translations of any of his works, but is rather a commentary on the Mechanica (only), albeit with excerpts embedded.[8]  Unfortunately it does not specify which works.

There are also two artillery manuals covering different types of catapult.

  • The Belopoeica.
  • The Cheiroballistra, (=De constructione et mensura manubalistae)

These are both translated into English with facing Greek text and useful notes following in Marsden, E. W.: Greek and Roman artillery: technical treatises. Oxford, 1969, which also includes a useful introduction[9].  It seems that a bunch of these manuals travelled down the centuries together, and I will post on the manuscript tradition.  An 1883 French translation of the second work exists and is online.[10]

Hero also wrote a number of mathematical works.

  • The Metrica in 3 books, on the measurement and division of surfaces and bodies.
  • The Definitiones, on geometrical terms.
  • The Geometrica, the  Stereometrica, and the Peri metron (or On Measures); all on measurement, all revised by later editors.
  • The Geodaesia and Geoponica (=Liber geoponicus) on measurement of land.
  • A commentary on Euclid is extant in substantial quotations in the 10th c. Arabic writer an-Nairizi (=Anaritius), which was composed in Arabic and then translated into Latin.[11]

Some extracts in French are online at Remacle.org.[12]

Hero’s writings, apart from the Belopoeika, are said to have been published with a German translations in Heronis Alexandrini Opera.[13]  This seems to be Herons von Alexandria Mechanik und Katoptrik, herausgegeben und ubersetzt von L. Nix und W. Schmidt (Heronis Alexandrini, Opera quae supersunt omnia, Leipzig, 1900 f.).[14].  I was able to locate a few volumes online: vol.1, 1899; vol.1, supplementum, 1899; vol.2, fasc.1 (backwards!) 1900; vol.3, 1903.  But I think there are five volumes, and obviously we’re missing a lot here.

There is also an article on why Hero thought that automata could be used in temples: Karin Tybjerg, “Wonder-making and philosophical wonder in Hero of Alexandria”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 34 (2003) 443-466 (abstract).

So the sum total of all of this is rather disappointing!  Few of his works have been translated into English, and even the Greek-German critical text, which is out of copyright, is not easily accessible.

It’s worth considering that Hero was a contemporary of the apostles.

UPDATE: I find that an excellent source for these works is here, at http://www.wilbourhall.org/index.html#hero.  All the volumes of the edition are here, often based on versions at Gallica.  In addition an-Nairizi / Anaritius is also there.  The site is somewhat slow, however, but the author has done a great deal of work to make these writers accessible — well done!

  1. [1] F. N. Magill and Christian J. Moose, Dictionary of World Biography: The ancient world, 2003. There is a Google books preview of the section on Hero, starting on p.514.
  2. [2] http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/pneumatiques.htm
  3. [3] http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/theatre.htm
  4. [4] W. R. Laird, S. Roux: Mechanics and natural philosophy before the scientific revolution, 2008. p.197; Heron d’Alexandrie, Les Mechaniques, 1894 (Google books).  Online at Remacle.org here: http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/table.htm
  5. [6]
  6. [7]
  7. [5] This annoyingly vague information from F. N. Magill, Dictionary of World Biography 1, p.514; p.517 refers to A.G. Drachmann, The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: a study of the literary sources, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963, as containing “translations of Hero’s mechanical writings”.  This is probably what Magill was referring to.[6]; a translation of a portion in M.J. Taunton Lewis, Surveying instruments of Greece and Rome, Cambridge, 2001, p.259-62;  and a French translation by Victor Prou is online.[7]1888: online at http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/dioptre.htm
  8. [8] Magill and Moose,  p.517: Drachmann, Aage Gerhardt, The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: a study of the literary sources. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963: “Contains translations of Hero’s mechanical writings, with useful running commentary.”
  9. [9] I had access to the book on Friday 25/11/11.
  10. [10] Victor Prou, La chirobaliste d’Héron d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1883: online at remacle.org: http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heronalexandrie/chirobaliste.htm.
  11. [11] Eleanor Dickey, Ancient Greek scholarship, p.60: “For editions and translations see Mansfield 1998, 26 n.90″
  12. [12] http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/fragments.htm
  13. [13] Pamela O. Long, Openness, secrecy, authorship: technical arts and the culture of knowledge, 2001, p.258, n.56.
  14. [14] A. I. Sabra, Theories of light from Descartes to Newton, 1981, p.70, n.4

17 Responses to “Translations of the works of Hero of Alexandria”


  1. JB Piggin

    Leichter’s Wilbour Hall index is quite remarkable. I had not seen it before: thank you for pointing it out. His efforts have much in common with your own excellent work.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I’ve seen it before, and then forgotten about it. The man is a hero, in truth. As I found out myself yesterday, just to assemble all the texts of Hero of Alexandria is not a trivial task; and he has done it for author after author. Yet nobody seems to be aware of his work!

    I hope it’s archived at Archive.org!

  3. Maureen

    There seems to be a strain of Greek thought (heck, pagan thought in many religions) that if you do something spectacularly evocative, you can invoke the gods to become present in a place or to an individual worshipper. In that case, temple automata would have been a great improvement in worship technology.

    OTOH, it may be that Hero thought of his work as just providing wonders and sightseeing draws for temples. A lot of Greek temples had curiosities to give people value for pilgrimage, or because temples were a good place to donate curious and wonderful things.

    These thoughts may be total BS, and I haven’t read Hero at all. But the History Channel show about Hero was so nasty, it made me sure he must have had Higher Motives.

  4. Roger Pearse

    This is an interesting point. We should perhaps not be too quick to impose a modern — indeed a Reformation — outlook on what was going on. “Worship technology” is a nice phrase for what may have been intended!

    Hero is unreadable, as far as I can tell. Too technical and specialised.

  5. A manuscript collation of Pappus of Alexandria at Roger Pearse

    [...] ancient engineer Hero of Alexandria.  Hero wrote ca. 62 AD, and I gave a bibliography of his works here.  So I thought that I would see what I could find.  More later! Tags: Information access, [...]

  6. Eric Sowell

    I saw note today of some new manuscripts posted by the British Library. I looked through them and one caught my eye because of your post.

    http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_5604

    I don’t know much about Hero (though he sounds interesting). The Wikipedia entry says his Geoponica is known only in fragments. Well, if the British Library is right about its classification (probably more likely than Wikipedia), there is now more extant than just fragments. The ms apparently has 20 books (all?) of it.

    Know anything about this work?

  7. Roger Pearse

    Well, you know what I know, which isn’t much. It seems to be ridiculously difficult to obtain information about Greek technical literature.

    The above post is what I got hold of. Although I admit that I rather skipped over the mathematical works — it was the automata that I was interested in — but the list came from here (the first reference in the post). On the other hand I can find little associating Hero with a “Geoponica” at all.

    There is a very long article in the Realencyclopadie. It is, unfortunately, too long and too German for my eyes at this hour of night. I did see a section suggesting that the Geodaesia and Geoponica were edited as fragments.

    I see that 20 books of Geoponica were edited in 1658 by Janus Cornuarius. I don’t know if that is the same work. But it seems that this is a Byzantine compilation (there’s a Wikipedia article full of hearsay here).

    It is very good to see these manuscripts coming online at the BL, thanks to Juan Garces and the Stavros Niarchos foundation. If only we could download them in PDF form!

  8. Will

    Helped me write my first college paper! Thanks so much!

  9. Roger Pearse

    Glad to help. But remember … copying stuff off the web will get you clobbered unless it’s just the start, not the end, of your research. Your prof uses Google too!

  10. S. Murphy

    There is an English translation of the full text automatopoietikes in the 1995 volume of *History of Science*. There’s another, partial translation of it – whose author and publisher I forget, but iirc, it’s in the bibliography of the *History of Science* article.
    Great to see people interested in Heron.

    Maureen – I’ve thought that to, that maybe the devices weren’t meant to fool people – or maybe it was expected that somewould be fooled – but most would find that the special effects helped their worship, or entertained them as tourists.

  11. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much for the details of the translation. I’ve just been looking for it, but I can’t find any trace it. Could you possibly give me the exact reference, so that I could order a copy via ILL? (I presume “History of Science” is a journal? — The words are too widely used for a Google search to help me much). It is useful to know of the other translation: if you do recall the details please let me know.

    Hero ought to be very widely known. It is crazy that he is not.

    It’s certainly possible that the thought-processes were different from those we imagine today. Anachronism is always the main risk in discussing ancient religion.

  12. S. Murphy

    Yes, *History of Science* is an annual volume – apparently, they started publishing online as well as in print in the 2000s, but haven’t uploaded anything earlier. IIRC, it was “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making,’” *History of Science, Vol 17, 1995, pp 1-44. Author’s name is Susan Murphy. It was originally my MA paper (1994, Univ of Texas at Austin). I was a better Latinist than Hellenist, so I’m sure you’ll find parts that could have been done better.
    I don’t have my copy handy, or I’d check for the details of the other translation. I’m sure I listed it in the biblio. As best I recall, it was from the turn of the last century – my advisor discovered it when I was about halfway done; I was sort of relieved to find that the translator had only been interested in one part of the text.

  13. JB Piggin

    From all of us who don’t read Greek, thank you so much, Susan. I did some digging and found the ISSN of History of Technology is 0307-5451, which makes it easier to search for in libraries.

    There also seems to be yet another translation into English, by Finlay McCourt (partly on Google Books). Looking for your article in Google Scholar also throws up a link to work by Karin Tybjerg which seems to explore what Hero’s intentions were. The whole thing is a fascinating topic: it would be wonderful if an English translation were online.

  14. Roger Pearse

    Thank you so much, Susan! You did the world a great favour in translating this text. The first translation of any text is the hardest; no subsequent translator ever has to do anything like as much work. (Apparently it is quite common for the later translators to ‘justify’ making a new one by rubbishing their predecessors; which, if so, is sad).

    And a technical work is the hardest of all, which is why most ancient technical works have never been translated. Because, in addition to all the difficulties that assail someone who works on any text from antiquity – language, culture, ms. tradition – there is the special difficulty of understanding whatever technical tradition and technology is involved. And it will usually be the case that little is known about it. As I say, I am very grateful that you had a crack at it.

    May I ask what led you to choose Hero’s work?

    Finding that another translation exists part-way through — that must have been a bad moment! I’ve had that happen, and it always feels awful. We ought to try and find out what this is, tho, because it must be out of copyright and so possible to get it online.

  15. Roger Pearse

    Thank you, JB, for these links! This is invaluable. I have updated the post accordingly. What a pity that the Tybjerg article is inaccessible; it sounds very interesting, and I’d like to know how we should understand Hero’s work.

  16. S. Murphy

    JB, Roger, thanks for the kind words. Finlay McCourt’s article was pretty interesting – I’d like to read the whole thing, vice the +2 pages-2 pages google redaction.
    He cites my translation, but only to dismiss it as ‘less than ideal, because it doesn’t engage the mechanical issues.’ (A fair complaint. It was an entry-level project; I was developing an interest in the history of technology, and thinking that maybe I could specialize in that area within the field of classics; but for various reasons, I never got that far.) Tybjerg appears to have really interesting idea- that Hero was trying emphasize ‘wonder-making’ to add an intellectually respectable aspect to the field of mechanics – not generally a modern problem. (Although I have known math majors who dismissed theoretical Physics as ‘merely applied Mathematics!’) These links are really rekindling my interst in Hero, so JB, let me add my thanks for the links!
    Roger – re the older translation – I’m sure it’s a hundred years old. I don’t have my copy of HoT vol 15, or the electrons (on 3.5 inch floppy) at hand; I’ll see if I can get it looked up or sent and see if that other translation is in the bibliography.

  17. Roger Pearse

    Of course McCourt could devote attention to those issues — a necessary task — because you had already done the heavy lifting. I do wish one could read more than a couple of pages also. I agree about Tybjerg – I shall get hold of that article sometime.

    When I was at college, we used to say that those who could do Maths, did Maths; those who thought they could do Maths, did Physics; and those of us who knew jolly well that we couldn’t do Maths, did Chemistry. (I believe there were some people asking “What’s Maths”, and they read Biology; but of course one didn’t treat such people as real scientists).



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