Letter 43 of the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I, on translating Greek philosophy into Arabic

The newly discovered text of Porphyry, On Principles and Matter, (see yesterday) is actually mentioned in a letter written by the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I.  I find that an English translation of this exists, by Sebastian Brock, “Two letters of the Patriarch Timothy from the late eighth century on translations from Greek,” in: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 9 (1999), 233-46, together with a detailed commentary.  The author consulted several manuscripts to correct the text.

We all know that “Greek science comes to us from the Arabs.”  Christians living in the conquered lands were the translators, so it is interesting to see a letter from one of them.  The “king” referred to below is the Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi.  Apparently Syriac texts of this period all use the term “king” for the caliph.


1.  To the God-loving priest and teacher, Rabban Mar Pethion: Timothy the sinner greets you and hopes to see you.

2.  The royal command required of us to translate the Topika of the philosopher Aristotle from Syriac into the Arabic tongue. This was achieved, with God’s help, through the agency of the teacher Abū Nūh. A small part was done by us as far as the Syriac was concerned, whereas he did it in its entirety, both Syriac and Arabic; the work has already reached a conclusion and has been completed. And although there were some others who were translating this from Greek into Arabic – we have written to inform you how and in what way it happened that all this took place – nevertheless (the king) did not consider it worth even looking at the labours of those other people on the grounds that they were barbaric, not only in phraseology, but also in sense, whether because of the natural difficulty of the subject (hypothesis) – for you are aware of the style (eidos) of the Philosopher in matters of logic, and how and to what extent he infuses obscurity into the beauty of (his) meaning and sense -, or as a result of the lack of training of those who approached such things. For you know the extent and magnitude of the toils (agōnes) and labours such a task requires. But (the king) entirely approved of our labours, all the more so when from time to time he compared the versions with each other.

3.  Let your Eminence sagely ask and enquire whether there is some commentary or scholia by anyone, whether in Syriac or not, to this book, the Topika, or to the Refutation of the Sophists, or to the Rhetorika, or to the Poetika; and if there is, find out by whom and for whom (it was made), and where it is. Enquiries on this should be directed to the Monastery of Mar Mattai – but the enquiries should not be made too eagerly, lest the information, (the purpose of the enquiry) being perceived, be kept hidden, rather than disclosed.

4.  Job the Chalcedonian told me that he has seen a small (number) of scholia on the Topika, but only, he said, on certain chapters. But let your Chastity doubly enquire about scholia or a commentary on these books.

5.  Send us the other volume of Athanasius, so that we can copy it out. We have the first. I think the translation is by Paula, for on the title (kephalaion) of the book the following is inscribed: ‘First volume (pinakidion) of the holy God-clothed Gregory the Theologian, which the Abbas Mar Paula translated from Greek into Syriac in the island of Cyprus’. The revision, so it says, is by Athanasius. So much for this.

6.  Search out, too, for the treatises on the natural principles (lit. heads) of bodies, written by someone of the Platonic school (dogma); it begins: ‘Concerning the natural principle of bodies some have said…’. The first treatise gives the opinion of all the earlier philosophers and sets out the Ideas (ideai) and Platonic Forms. The second treatise begins by speaking of matter (hylē), species (eidos) and negation, following Aristotelian teaching (dogma). (The author) deals with it in five sections, but the treatise is incomplete. Search out to see if these treatises can be found – both what remains from the second treatise, and the rest of what follows on from these.

7.  Search out for a work by a certain philosopher called Nemesius, on the structure of man, which begins: ‘Man is excellently constructed as a rational soul and body…’. He brings the subject to an end in roughly five sections; at the end he promises to deal with the soul, but this second part is missing.

8.  Please search out and copy for us Dionysius in the translation of Athanasius or that of Phokas.

9.  Peace to you and to all the brethren.

The reference to the Porphyry text is in section 6, and this was of course opaque to Dr B. back in 1999.  He tells us that “Job the Chalcedonian” was the Melkite patriarch Job.  “Athanasius” is not the famous bishop of Alexandria but Athanasius II of Balad, the monophysite patriarch who revised an existing translation by Paul of Edessa (“Paula”) into Syriac of the homilies of Gregory Nazianzen (“Gregory the Theologian”).  The same Athanasius and also translated ps.Dionysius the Areopagite, whose translation was itself revised by Phocas of Edessa.  The latter version is still preserved in a number of Syriac manuscripts.  The Nemesius text is De natura hominis (CPG 3550), but only fragments of the Syriac version survive.  The still famous monastery of Mar Mattai near Mosul was then and still is a monophysite monastery.  It was evidently well-stocked with books.  Timothy, as patriarch of the the rival Nestorians, had to conceal that he was the originator of the enquiry.

The letters of Timothy I have all been edited with German translation in the magnificent CSCO series by M. Heimgartner (list of volumes).  The relevant volume is M. Heimgartner, Die Briefe 42 – 58 des Ostsyrischen Patriarchen Timotheos I, CSCO 644 and 645, Peeters (2012).  Sadly I was unable to access this volume, however, but no doubt a PDF exists somewhere.


A lost Greek philosophical text rediscovered in Syriac: Porphyry’s “On Principles and Matter”

The discovery of a lost text from ancient times is not something that happens every day.  Obviously it’s exciting when it does!  Strangely a recent discovery seems to have passed mostly unnoticed.

The text in question is On Principles and Matter, a text written by none other than the famous Porphyry, the late 3rd century neoplatonist philosopher.  He was a disciple of Plotinus, whose Isagoge (Introduction to Logic) was translated into every ancient language.  He is also known as the author of a lost text against the Christians.

The original Greek remains lost, but the work was discovered in a Syriac translation by researcher Yuri Arzhanov of the University of Salzburg.  It then turned out that the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I (778-820 AD) references the work in his Letter 43.

The manuscript was discovered at Deir al-Surian (= “Monastery of the Syrians”), the famous monastery in the Nitrian desert that preserved an enornous haul of Syriac literature, brought to England in 1842 by Archdeacon Tattam.  In recent years there has been a Polish mission at work at the monastery, sponsored by the Levantine Foundation (website seems to be down).  A catalogue of the 48 manuscripts (mostly a single quire) and fragments (some 200+) was published in 2014 by Sebastian Brock and Lucas Van Rompay.[1]  This was inaccessible to me, but thankfully Syriacist Grigory Kessel published a review which is accessible on his Academia page here.  This review tells us quite a bit:

Regrettably, the authors do not give any further information on the history of the remaining Syriac manuscripts. According to Murad Kamil, the manuscripts in fact were found during restoration works (“a few years ago Anba Tawfilus, the bishop of the monastery, when he was repairing a wall, found a case with a number of Syriac mss”). …

Frgm. 27 belongs to the famous codex BL Add. 12150, the oldest dated Syriac manuscript (411); Frgm. 9 comes from the Codex Curetonianus (BL Add. 14451), one of the two known manuscripts of the Old Syriac Gospels; and Frgm. 8 belongs to BL Add. 14528, an early list of biblical lessons. As far as the Patristic texts are concerned, Frgm. 4 belongs to BL Add. 14552, a unique witness of the Homilies on Luke by Cyril of Alexandria. Frgm. 7 once formed a part of BL Add. 12159, which contains the Cathedral Homilies of Severus of Antioch. Two flyleaves attached to the manuscripts Syr. 1, Syr. 9 and Syr. 31 turn out to derive from BL Add. 17270, our only witness of a commentary on the works of Mark the Solitary presumably written by Babai the Great (the text remains unedited).

Murad Kamil was a Coptic scholar who visited the monastery in 1951, and drew up a list of the manuscripts there, but never published it.

The Porphyry text is found in MS. Deir al-Surian Syr. 27, which contains a number of other texts. Our text is given there without author or title.  However the author calls himself a disciple of Longinus and Plotinus, and comparison with extant fragments of Porphyry leaves no doubt as to the author.  The title is modern.  At least one scholar has wondered whether it is, in fact, not a separate work, but a portion of Porphyry’s lost commentary on Plato’s Timaeus.

A scribal note at the bottom of f.111r indicates that the manuscript was given to the monastery by Abraham b. Zur`a, when he was Coptic patriarch between 975-8 AD.   The patriarch must have brought a number of Syriac manuscripts with him to Egypt.

Dr Arzhanov published the Syriac text with an English translation: Yury Arzhanov, Porphyry, ‘On Principles and Matter’: A Syriac Version of a Lost Greek Text with an English Translation, Introduction, and Glossaries, DeGruyter (2021).  Series: Scientia Graeco-Arabica 34.  It is currently accessible on Archive.org here.

Dr A. also edited a volume of papers about the discovery: Yury Arzhanove (ed.), Porphyry in Syriac: The Treatise ‘On Principles and Matter’ and its place in the Greek, Latin, and Syriac philosophical traditions, DeGruyter (2024).  From the introduction:

In 2021, a previously unknown work by Porphyry of Tyre (d. 301/305 AD) preserved in a Syriac translation was made available to historians of philosophy (Arzhanov 2021). The treatise, which has come down to us without any title, was published as On Principles and Matter (abbreviated as PM). This text not only enlarges our knowledge of the legacy of the most prominent disciple of Plotinus but also serves as an important witness to Platonist discussions of first principles and of Plato’s concept of prime matter in the Timaeus, since it contains extensive quotations from Middle Platonist philosophers (e.g., Atticus and Severus).

Soon after the edition of the PM, Alexandra Michalewski published a review of it in the journal Etudes platoniciennes (Michalewski 2022), stressing the importance of the newly discovered text both for our understanding of Porphyry’s views and for our knowledge of the Middle Platonist interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus. In addition, the French scholar pointed out the similarity between some portions of the PM and the final part (De Silua) of the commentary on the Timaeus composed in Latin in the fourth century AD by Calcidius (see Michalewski 2022, §§19–21). The close proximity between the published Syriac treatise and the Latin text of Calcidius has been established independently by Michael Chase (see his chapter in the present volume).

Parallels between the treatise preserved in Syriac translation and the Latin text of Calcidius turn out to be one of the most important keys to our interpretation of the PM. These parallels further strengthen the attribution of the original Greek text that underlies the PM to Porphyry, since scholars long assumed that the section De Silua in Calcidius’ commentary depended on a work of Plotinus’ disciple. In addition, a number of publications which appeared after the edition of 2021 made apparent the value of the quotations from other philosophers (which mostly belong to the period of Middle Platonism) preserved in the PM (Ge 2022).

The work itself is philosophy, which will appeal mainly to specialists.  But all the same, it is wonderful to have a bit more of antiquity.

  1. [1]Brock, Sebastian, and Lucas Van Rompay, Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts and Fragments in the Library of Deir al-Surian, Wadi al-Natrun (Egypt), Peeters (2014).

The Life of Severus of Antioch – part 7

The pagan Paralios has just been converted after violent Christian-pagan rioting in Alexandria.

Paralios then concerned himself with his two other brothers, who were pagans living at Aphrodisias.  One of them was the scholasticos of the country, and was named Demochares.  The other was called Proclos, and was the sophist of the town.  He wrote a warning letter to them both, in which he recounted all that had happened.  He urged them to immediately turn their minds to the way of repentance and to embrace the cult of the One God, i.e. the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity.

He undertook to teach them from the facts what was the power of Christianity.  He reminded them from history, such as the rebellion of Illos and Pamprepios.

“Do you remember,” he said to them, “how many sacrifices we offered, as pagans, in Caria, to the gods of the pagans, when we asked them, these pretended gods, while dissecting the entrails and examining them by magic, to tell us whether, with Illos and Pamprepios and all those who rebelled with them, we would vanquish the emperor Zeno, of pious memory?  We received a multitude of oracles together with promises that the emperor Zeno would be unable to resist their sudden attack, and that the moment had come when Christianity would disintegrate and disappear, and when pagan worship would resume.   However the event showed that these oracles were false, just as happened with those given by Apollo to Croesus and to Pyrrhus the Epirote.”

He continued, “You know the following facts.  When we sacrificed afterwards, in those places outside the city, we were left deprived of any sign, any vision, any response, although previously we had become used to experiencing some illusion of this kind.   Plagued with confusion, we searched and asked ourselves what this meant.  We changed the place of sacrifice.  In spite of this these so-called gods remained mute and their worship without any effect.  Also, we thought that they were angry with us, and the idea eventually came to us that perhaps someone with us was privately opposed to what we were doing.  So we questioned each other and asked if we were all of the same opinion.  We then found that a young man had made the sign of the cross in the name of Christ, and that he that by this rendered our effort vain and our sacrifices ineffective, these so-called gods often fleeing from the name [of Christ] and the sign of the cross.  We did not know how to explain this.  Asclepiodotus and the other fornicators and magicians then set themselves to investigate.  One of them thought that he had imagined a solution to the problem and said, “The cross is a sign which indicates that a man has died a violent death.  So it is reasonable that the gods abhor figures of that sort.”

After reminding his brothers of these facts in the letter that he sent them, Paralios, the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, added, “And if that is true, my brothers, and if these gods run away from anything that reminds and shows them that people have died a violent death, why, in the mysteries of the Sun, do the so-called gods not appear to the initiates until the priest produces a sword stained with the blood of a man who has died a violent death?  Also the friends of the truth can testify by this that the sign of the cross made on his forehead by a young man showed that the so-called gods were nothing.  On the other hand, invoking the name of Jesus Christ, that this is the invocation of God and that it inspires fear in the wicked demons, showed that he who fled could be conquered.[1]  The violent murder of men was much sought-after by the gods of the pagans, because they are wicked demons.  They are like their father the devil, about whom our Saviour said, ‘He was a murderer from the beginning.’  It is for this reason that they only consent to make their revelations at the sight of a man who has been killed violently as a result of their machinations, and which facilitates their oracles.  It is again for this reason that they ordered that men should be sacrificed to them, as say those who have told the story of their belief, and even Porphyry, who rages against the truth.”

It is by these stories and warnings that Paralios sought to divert his brothers from error, under the inspiration of the great Stephen and of his [Paralios’] brother Athanasius.  He himself applied himself with such eagerness to the divine philosophy that many of the young students imitated him and embraced the monastic life in the convent of the admirable Stephen, who took them all into the threads of the apostolic teaching.  John also had the pleasure of enjoying his friendship.   Each of them is today a director in the convent, and equal in virtue to his predecessors, one of whom became the adjutant (βοηθός) of the cohort (τάξις) of the Prefect of Egypt, the other cultivated true philosophy, after having studied medicine and secular philosophy to a remarkable degree.  The great Stephen was the teacher of men of this standard.

When, after some time, Stephen, the common teacher of us all, was returned to God, Paralios returned with his brother Athanasius to Caria, to convert his brothers.  He founded there a Christian community, whose direction he relinquished, as was right, to his brother and his father.  A little time later he departed for “the eternal tents” and was received into the bosom of Abraham.  Athanasius lived for some time longer.  He also baptised many pagans in Caria, and by his conduct caused many people to become zealous, then he rejoined the divine Stephen and Paralios, who was their common pupil, and came to the end and the happiness reserved for those who have conquered in the faith of Christ.

Amen to that.   Such a picture of student life and conversion might be paralleled in our universities today, where the course of many a godly life is given the shape and direction that it will follow in later life.

Paralios may have begun in two minds, but he ended up a part of the great movement of mankind, to use life wisely, towards Christ our Saviour; a movement which is found in every age and nation, and of which I too am a humble member.

An interesting point in the letter of Paralios; he refers to Porphyry’s book against the Christians.  Is this evidence that it was still in wide circulation at this time, ca. 500?  It had been condemned by Constantine in 325, but this must have had no effect since Theodosius II reissues the edict in 448.  We need not suppose that the Theodosian edict had any more effect that Constantine’s; for late emperors had great difficulty in getting their laws put into force without local support.  Perhaps it was still circulating, and being read with interest, in Alexandria in 500 AD?

  1. [1]The French translator comments that the end of this sentence is obscure, and embarassed the Syrian who annotated the Life.

Let’s do that jargon thing, Mr. Porphyry

I’ve started translating Porphyry’s Ad Gaurum, on how unborn babies get souls.  It uses quite a few technical terms, and although I have Festugiere’s French translation to hand, examination of the Greek is unavoidable, and puzzling over what each word means likewise.

Porphyry begins his treatise thus:

In general, men of learning and almost all physicians have wondered whether it is necessary to consider embryos [1] as living beings, or whether they have merely a vegetative [2] life.  The real character of living beings is perception [3] and impulses [4].  Vegetative beings are those which have the functions of nutrition and growth without the accompaniment of perception and impulses.  Therefore, since embryos, in their behaviour, show no imagination or impulses,  and are governed only by the functions of growth and nutrition, as evidenced by observation in each case, it is necessary to admit that embryos are similar to plants, or equivalent to plants. 

Now all four words marked with notes seem to be  technical terms. 

Note 1, ’embryo’, is ἔμβρυον, which Festugiere renders “embryo” but I suspect means specifically “unborn baby”.  (Am I alone in detesting the word and use of the term ‘foetus’ to refer to such?)

Note 2, ‘vegetative’, is φυτικός, plant-like, which I have so far treated with “vegetative”.  But I wonder if there is a better word to use?

Note 3, ‘perception’, is αἴσθησις , or perhaps judgement, discernment, rendered as “sensibility” by Festugiere (shades of Jane Austen!).  I’m not happy that I understand what is being said here.

Note 4, ‘impulses’, is ὁρμῇ, which Festugiere renders as l’impulsion.  Amusingly this is rendered in NT Greek as “assault”, and with a range of meanings in LSJ.

Then I discovered this version of a Bryn Mawr review of Luc Brisson, Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, Jean-Luc Solère (ed.), L’Embryon: formation et animation. Antiquité grecque et latine, traditions hèbraïque, chrétienne et islamique. Histoire des doctrines de l’Antiquité classique 38.   Paris, 2008.

[Véronique Boudon-Millot] first reviews the widely differing views of [Galen’s] predecessors (Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) and pays attention to the almost insoluble translation problems as far as terms like Greek kuêma (embryo) and embruon (foetus) are concerned. She finally argues that in Galen’s (and others’) view an embryo does have life from the beginning but that is a form of life ‘in potency‘ that only gradually develops into life in the full sense of the word. Stages in that development are, e.g., the beginning of heartbeat and of movements, and the final stage is of course breathing that is only reached at birth.  …

Next, Tiziano Dorandi discusses the textual history of Ad Gaurum, a work formerly attributed to Galen, but since Kalbfleisch’s edition of 1895 to Porphyry. This important treatise is wholly dedicated to the question of how an embryo is ensouled, but has been preserved in only one manuscript. Dorandi traces the indirect tradition of the text in the form of quotations and paraphrases in later authors such as John Philoponus and Michael Psellus and assesses their value as textual witnesses.

Gwenaëlle Aubry also focuses on Ad Gaurum but deals only with its concept of epitêdeiotês: the embryo is said to be a plant in actu but also a living being in potency kat’ epitêdeiotêta, which she translates by ‘according to receptivity.’ “Si l’on peut, selon Porphyre, dire de l’embryon qu’il est animal en-puissance, c’est donc en un tout autre sens que celui qu’ entend Aristote: ce n’est pas parce qu’il serait capable, déja comme embryon, et à un certain stade de son evolution, de developper par lui-même les facultés distinctives de l’animal, mais parce qu’il est, à la naissance, et à terme seulement, apte à recevoir l’âme animal” (155).  …

Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, too, like Dorandi, deals with the Byzantine reception history of Porphyry’s Ad Gaurum, especially in John Philoponus (who uses it as one of his sources for opposite arguments), Michael Psellus (who by and large agrees with Porphyry), and the 14th century anonymous author of Hermippus sive de astrologia (who combats Porphyry’s embryological ideas). There is some overlap with Dorandi’s piece here, but only to a limited degree, for Congourdeau is more interested in the Byzantines’ philosophical argumentation than in their value for textual criticism.

Who says you can’t find useful technical information on the web?  Now if only I could find the book online!  But sadly I don’t know where French-speaking pirates hang out.  I’m not sure, in truth, that my French would be quite equal to so technical a discussion anyway; for all these essays are in French.  But even this review has given me something.


Porphyry Ad Gaurum in Festugiere’s translation

The volume of Festugiere, La Revelation d’Hermes Trismegiste III, which contains a French version of Porphyry Ad Gaurum, has arrived!  My local library is open late on Tuesdays, and I drove into town and collected it. 

All I’ve read so far is the opening portion of the prologue, in which Porphyry argues that unborn children and newborn babies are properly vegetables in nature, rather than living sentient beings.  I fear we all know what motive lies behind such an argument — a defence, against Christian criticism, of the evil pagan practices of procuring abortion and infanticide.    Dehumanising those whom we propose to treat in an inhumane manner is a standard method whereby men who are set on evil deeds attempt to quiet their consciences.

Still, it should make for an interesting read.  There is no English translation.  Festugiere’s translation is clear and accessible.  I may run it over into English.  First I need to explore the volume a  bit  more, and see what else he says about it. 

It also contains a translation of Iamblichus On the Soul, a work about which I know nothing.  Iamblichus was the he-witch who successfully played on the gullibility of Julian the Apostate and lured him to practice theurgy, or so I believe we are told by Libanius.


From my diary

Lots of emails yesterday and today.

Firstly and most importantly, the PDF containing Eusebius has come back.  This should be the last, final version.  I will check it over at the weekend — otherwise the translator will lynch me — but that means the book is done.  The next stage will be creating a cover, sending it off to Lightning Source, and stuff like that.  I expect to get some free time in 2 weeks, so it may work out quite nicely.  Many thanks indeed to Bob the typesetter!

An email reached me from the translator of Michael the Syrian, asking what a “sar” or “saros” might be.  These terms occur in the Babylonian history of Berossus, as a measure of time.  Berossus is lost, but the Chronicle of Eusebius quotes it, and so these curious terms drift down the centuries.  I offered my best suggestion, and a selection of materials that I gathered on the subject.  Eusebius reckons that a “sar” is 3,600 years, but I suspect it was 18 years.

Another email arrived from a translator, and we may do the Ad Gaurum of Porphyry, on the creation of the soul.  I need to look again at the text and work out a price, and reply (probably tomorrow).


Porphyry’s introduction to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos

I’m thinking of commissioning a translation of Porphyry’s Introduction to the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy.  It’s 44 pages of the CCAG volume 5, and I estimate it’s worth $1,000 to me.  The work will require knowledge of the technical vocabulary of ancient astrological texts, so I’ve asked a scholar with knowledge in this area whether he knows anyone who’d be interested and competent.  It will be interesting to see if there is.

The point of the translation is to reduce by one the number of untranslated works of Porphyry.  I have some doubts whether the content will be of much interest, but the sum is relatively small, and the enquiry is worth making.

UPDATE: A commenter tells me that it was translated last year by Andrea Laurel Gehrz, An Introduction to the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy, Moira Press, 2010, here.  So I will cancel this commission.

UPDATE: And a second commenter tells me that it was translated again (!) last year by James Holden and published by the American Federation of Astrologers, together with a lexicon of technical terms by Serapio (who?) here:

This book contains a translation of the Introduction to the Tetrabiblos written by famous third century philosopher Porphyry. It is a sort of Astrological Dictionary, defining most of the technical terms used by the Greek astrologers of the Classical Period. The volume also contains a translation of the short treatise on astrological technical terms by Serapio of Alexandria.

About the translator: James Herschel Holden, M.A. is the Research Director of the American Federation of Astrologers and has been especially interested in Classical and Medieval astrological works.

Usefully the comment also gives this list of translations of ancient astrologers, which reviews both volumes:

Holden is technically more correct than Gehrz. The Greek original in fact flows (or so I presume) more or less as Holden has rendered it.  … Holden’s translation is not idiomatic to modern English speakers. With Holden’s translation we struggle to understand what Porphyry has (presumably) stated clearly. We are additionally hobbled by Holden’s refusal to fully translate. We are left with “kollesis” as well as the presumably atypical use of the word, “application“. Much of what Holden has translated is very nearly gibberish. We come now to the Gehrz translation, which rings with clarity.

The site is a non-scholarly one.  But it is useful to know that a translation exists of Firmicus Maternus’ Matheseos.  It is interesting to learn of Dorotheus of Sidon, a 1st century AD verse astrologer, whose work exists in Persian translation!  Rhetorius is then listed:

Rhetorius the Egyptian seems to have lived around 505 AD; he compiled a valuable compendium of the works of Antiochus & Porphry, with excerpts from Vettius Valens & some other earlier writers. His book seems to have been entitled, From the Treasury of Antiochus, an Explanation & Narration of the Whole Art of Astrology. A number of chapters are nearly identical to chapters in Porphyry’s Introduction. This probably indicates that both Rhetorius & Porphyry independently borrowed those chapters from Antiochus of Athens.

For Serapio, we get this:

The identity of Seraphio, his dates, are unknown. It is speculated he lived in the first century BC or AD, which is rather vague, and that his book (more like a monograph) was compiled around 1000 AD, perhaps, again, by Demophilus.

Which is a little baffling.  Then there are a couple of translations of Manilius (1st c. AD) including the Loeb, and then of Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, one of which is also a Loeb.


Porphyry, Ad Gaurum

In my last post I mentioned some works by Porphyry which have not been translated into English.  One of these was the Ad Gaurum, on how the soul enters the unborn child.  The text was edited: K. Kalbfleisch, Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin; Philosophische-historische Klasse, 1895 p. 33-62.  That is one of those infuriating German series which have both a scientific and a scholarly sub-class.  Even in paper form, it tends to be hard to find the right volume!  Inter-Library Loans get it wrong.  And so forth.

Since it was published in 1895, it should be out of copyright.  But I cannot find it online.  (UPDATE: It’s here)  But I then found this page from the IRHT in France.  Apparently the text is preserved in a single manuscript, Cod. Supp. gr. 635, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale.  And there have been three translations, one in French and two in German:

  • À Gauros. « Sur la manière dont l’embryon reçoit l’âme », par A. J. Festugière, La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, t. III, Les doctrines de l’âme, Paris, 1953, Appendice II, p. 265-302.
  • Porphyrios, Die Beseelung der Embryonen, par K. Limburg, Diss. Köln, 1975.
  • Grundfragen der Embryonalentwicklung aus der Sicht eines Neuplatonikers : Übersetzung und Bearbeitung der Schrift des Porphyrios « Über die Beseelung der Embryonen », par U. Jurisch, Diss. med. Erlangen-Nürnberg 1991.

The German translations were both in dissertations.  I’m not sure how to access continental dissertations, I must say.

The page refers to the need to examine the manuscript under ultra-violet light because of water damage.  It all seems to be notes for a forthcoming text and translation, directed by Luc Brisson, which will be more extensive than the Festugière translation (which they refer to as excellent).

Apparently Porphyry makes use of material from Genesis in the book.  If so, it is really remarkable that the work has escaped attention.

UPDATE: The Festugiere book is still for sale.  Three volumes, $150.  Now that’s what I call a barrier to learning!


From my diary

So much literature remains inaccessible.

Last night I was thinking about the works of Porphyry.  He is a well-known figure, the arch-enemy of the Christian writers of the early 4th century, and the hero of those moderns who share his animosities.  Most of his output is undoubtedly lost. 

Yet more survives than we might suppose.  One reason we tend to think only of a handful of texts — the Letter to Marcella, the 4 books On Abstinence, the fragments of Against the Christians, the Life of Plotinus, the Life of Pythagoras, the Isagoge — is that these are what exists in English.

The other night I became aware that his Introduction to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos existed, and had even been printed, in the Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum V.4.  I quickly found that no English translation existed.  Last night I set out to explore what existed in other modern languages.

A German text and translation of his commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics does exist.  How interesting a work on ancient musical theory might be I do not know — although we might guess!  But in the process I came across a page on my own site, which I had long forgotten — Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie’s list of Porphyry’s works.

The list is not  much good — no bibliography — except that it does give a good idea of what did exist and what does.  The extant works are marked with an asterisk.  But what about all these extant works? —

  • Question and Answer to the Aristotelian Categories.
  • To Gauros Concerning the Way in which foetuses are Animated.
  • Concerning Prosody (modulation in pitch).
  • On the Harmonics of Ptolemy.
  • An Introduction to The Astronomy of Ptolemy — the CCAG text

The list gives no indication as to where the texts might be found, nor whether any translations existed.  Two of the works are plainly about music, and so probably of limited interest.

I wondered whether there was anything online at Remacle.org, that marvellous collection of French translations.  They did indeed have quite a few French translations of “Porphyre“.  But it seemed to be much the same selection as I have.

Even the fragments of the books Against the Christians are not really online.  My own attempt at this was never completed.

Porphyry is very popular with the sort of writer who doesn’t like Christianity.  But I could wish that these writers praised him less, and translated him more.  It is rather absurd, after all, that the best collection of his works is held on a site dedicated to patristics!   I’m sure Eusebius and the others who wrote Contra Porphyrium would be amused, and gratified to see their enemy embalmed amongst the footnotes of the church.  Porphyry himself, I suspect, might utter a phoenician curse!


Porphyry on astrology

I’ve become aware that the 3rd century anti-Christian writer Porphyry of Tyre wrote at least some work on astrology.  This seems to be very obscure, tho, and I’m not quite sure what exists.  Nothing seems to exist in translation.  I did come across a reference to Porphyry, Introduction to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos (CCAG vol. 5 part 4, 212); but there may be others.  The CCAG is the Catalogus codicum astrologorum graecorum — a catalogue of astrological manuscripts, in which the editors have helpfully printed excerpts.

Vol. 5 part 4 is online, and the index at the back reveals what looks like a full text — pages 185-229, no less, 44 pages in 55 chapters.  It’s been edited from half a dozen manuscripts, and had been published before back in the renaissance.  5 lines is 43 words = 8.6 words/line, 31 lines a page = 267 words/page, 44 pages = 11,748 words, which at 10c a word comes out at $1,175 to translate … if I knew anyone who was interested and capable in what must require a serious understanding of Greek astrological terminology.

Tempting, tho!