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.

The Greek texts, with German translations, are all available 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[3]  An English translation supposedly exists: Susan Murphy, “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making,'” History of Technology 17, 1995, pp 1-44;[4] 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). Update (2020): F. Grillo’s Hero of Alexandria’s Automata: A critical edition and translation, diss (Glasgow), 2019 (online here).
  •  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.[5]  It covers weight-moving machines.
  •  The Dioptra covers instruments for sighting and other purposes.  A partial English translation supposedly exists from 1963[6]
  •  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.[9]  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[10].  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.[11]

Hero also wrote a number of mathematical works.

  • The Metrica in 3 books, on the measurement and division of surfaces and bodies.  There is an English translation of all three books in “Codex Constantinopolitanus Palatii Veteris, edited by E.M.Bruins”, volume 3, Brill (1964), starting at page 182.

  • 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.[12]

Some extracts in French are online at[13]

Hero’s writings, apart from the Belopoeika, were published with a German translations in Heronis Alexandrini Opera.[14]  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.).[15].  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 may have been a contemporary of the apostles, or at least late first century, although his dates are vague.

UPDATE: I find that an excellent source for these works is here, at  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!

UPDATE 7th April 2016:  I have learned this week of a volume containing significant English translations from the works of Hero of Alexandria.  It is Morris R. Cohen and Israel E. Drabkin, A Source Book in Greek Science, Harvard, 1958.

  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]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]So Koetiser, p.198History of Technology is not a journal, but a book series. It was and is published by Mansell of London, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.  A list of volumes is here.  A copy of this volume exists at Sydney University Library.
  5. [5]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 here:
  6. [7]
  7. [8]
  8. [6]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.[7]; 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.[8]1888: online at
  9. [9]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.”
  10. [10]I had access to the book on Friday 25/11/11.
  11. [11]Victor Prou, La chirobaliste d’Héron d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1883: online at
  12. [12]Eleanor Dickey, Ancient Greek scholarship, p.60: “For editions and translations see Mansfield 1998, 26 n.90”
  13. [13]
  14. [14]Pamela O. Long, Openness, secrecy, authorship: technical arts and the culture of knowledge, 2001, p.258, n.56.
  15. [15]A. I. Sabra, Theories of light from Descartes to Newton, 1981, p.70, n.4