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Early Greek Alchemy, Patronage and Innovation in Late Antiquity

  • Author(s): Dufault, Olivier
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Public License
Abstract

Early Greek alchemy, Patronage and Innovation in Late Antiquity provides an example of the innovative power of ancient scholarly patronage by looking at a key moment in the creation of the Greek alchemical tradition.

New evidence on scholarly patronage under the Roman empire can be garnered by analyzing the descriptions of learned magoi in several texts from the second to the fourth century CE. Since a common use of the term magos connoted flatterer-like figures (kolakes), it is likely that the figures of “learned sorcerers” found in texts such as Lucian’s Philopseudes and the apocryphal Acts of Peter captured the notion that some client scholars exerted undue influence over patrons.

The first known author of alchemical commentaries, Zosimus of Panopolis (c. 300 CE), presented himself neither as a magos nor as an alchemist. In his treatises, he rather appears as a Christian scholar and the client of a rich woman named Theosebeia. In three polemical letters to his patroness, Zosimus attempted to discredit rival specialists of alchemy by describing them as magoi and demon-worshippers and by equating their techniques with Egyptian temple practice. In a subtler attempt to edge out his competitors, Zosimus pointed to their limited education and suggested that true alchemy could only be acquired by a meticulous interpretation of Greek alchemical texts.

Extant evidence thus suggests that alchemical texts were first introduced among other Greek scholarly traditions when Zosimus annexed Egyptian temple rituals into the ambit of paideia thanks to the support and venue provided by his patroness.

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