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Alchemy in Greek and Roman times

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Distillation equipment designed by Zosimos according to a Byzantine manuscript
Distillation equipment designed by Zosimos according to a Byzantine manuscript

Although medieval and ancient alchemy shares many common elements, it is difficult to find a clear continuity between the Greco-Roman and medieval traditions. One of the main differences is that the first one was based mainly on philosophical subjects and hermeticism, while the second one valued higher the experimental contact with the surrounding matter. However, was this really the case? What do we owe to the Greco-Roman alchemists? What does alchemy have to do with the monetary unification of Emperor Diocletian? The answer is in the article below.

Empedocles (490–430 BCE), Plato (427–347 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) are considered to be among the first “alchemists” in the Greek world. They all believed that all matter is composed of four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water, and ether. A student at Aristotle’s school, Theoprastus, did not fully agree with the teachings of his master. He pointed out the problem with fire—it needs fuel to maintain it; it is created unnaturally. Moreover, in his works, he mentioned recipes for synthetic stones and pigments.

The most famous persons involved in alchemy in ancient times were Mary known as the Jewess, Cleopatra and Zosimos. According to them, the most important part of alchemy was the imitation (“production”) of gold. The last of them was born in Upper Egypt. He wrote down about 28 books on chemical subjects. In them, he described a variety of methods, such as: distillation, sublimation, filtration. He was particularly interested in the change of colour of precious metals. He also described that mercury and arsenic compounds cause copper objects to change colour to silver. Zosimos tried to give alchemy scientific features. In his works, he described the theoretical foundations of his art and was an opponent of magic. Due to the fact that he was active at the turn of the 4th century AD, he certainly witnessed the burning of a large part of the books “written by the Egyptians devoted to the chemistry of silver and gold” by Emperor Diocletian in 297–98 CE. This event was part of a change in monetary policy in Ancient Rome.

Mary the Jewess developed a method of gently heating substances by heating a container with steam (water bath). She also worked on various types of alembics and devices for the condensation of steam. To this day her name has been immortalised in the French term for this process—bain-marie.

Associated with Mary’s school was the alchemist, Cleopatra. She dealt mainly with the chemistry of precious metals—gold, silver, and mercury. In her works, there is also one of the oldest representations of a uroboros—a snake eating its own tail (later a symbol of “cosmic power”, alchemy and pharmacy). In her descriptions of distillation equipment, she often referred to symbolism related to female sexuality. In addition, she was probably proficient in the isolation of poisons and the production of cosmetics (perfumes, ointments).

A summary of the thoughts and discoveries of the Greek period was the Corpus alchemicum graecum, compiled by a Byzantine scribe in the early 11th century. It contains extracts from 24 books dating from the second to the eighth century. The oldest of these, Physika kai mystika, by pseudo-Democritus, describes typical recipes for various preparations and the frustrations of an apprentice who lamented that his master had died before passing on to him all the secrets of alchemy. This alchemist perceived chemical processes in mystical terms, wrote that “nature constrains nature” and “nature defeats nature”—sentences unambiguously referring to “internal” transformations.

In Corpus Hermeticum there are also other works, partly referring to Gnosticism. He sees the beginnings of alchemy itself in the revelation by the angel Amniael of the knowledge of the transformation of metals to Isis.

Author: Aleksander K. Smakosz
  • T. Keyser, Alchemy in the Ancient World: From Science to Magic. Illinois Classical Studies, 1990, 15(2), 353-378
  • M. Principe, The secrets of alchemy, Chicago 2012
  • Sherwood Taylor, The visions of Zosimos. Ambix, 1937, 1(1), 88-92

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