Category Archives: Alchemists

A look at alchemists themselves.

Fulcanelli and Caseliet

Our podcast on him:

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We take a look at a mysterious 20th century French alchemist: Fulcanelli and his student, Caseliet.

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Johann Conrad Dippel

Our episode on him:


Johann Conrad Dippel is the man behind Frankenstein, Prussian Blue, and an energy drink.

Johann Conrad Dippel (August 10, 1673 – April 25, 1734) was a German pietist theologian, alchemist and physician.

This guy is basically the real-life Dr. Frankenstein, so hold onto your seats.

but was he really? was Dr. Frankenstein a real person? Let’s take a look at Dippel and see.


Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein which is near Mühltal and Darmstadt,

For those that aren’t aware: Castle Frankenstein is a real place about 5km south of Darmstadt. It was built around 1250.

Being born there was enough for him to get the addnendum at school: Franckensteinensis

and at his university: Franckensteina-Strataemontanus. “Frankenstein was (sorta) part of him name.

Okay, so the name is one thing.. what about the “trying to bring people back from the dead” thing? and townsfolk with torches and pitchforks chasing him out of town? Does Dippel meet the critearia?

In fact he was banned from a few countries, for instance Sweden and Russian. But more because of his theology.

Dippel studied theology, philosophy and alchemy at the University of Giessen, obtaining a master’s degree in theology in 1693. He published many theological works under the name Christianus Democritus, and most of them are still preserved.

Circa 1700 he turned to Hermetic studies and alchemy as a key to nature.

His views often didn’t jive with more mainstream theologians. And this is what actually got him banned from whole countries, not anything to do with creating monsters in a lab.. but still. Some thinkers did compare him to the devil, or say he was in league with the devil.

In fact he started to get quite a reputation. And him being pretty secretive, he either encouraged it, or didn’t exactly fight against it.

He was eventually imprisoned for heresy, serving a 7 year sentence.

…okay so he had some weird ideas.

Let’s take a look at his connection to alchemy, because that’s what we do.

Dippel created something called “Dippel’s Oil”, which he claimed was basically the Elixir of Life.

He tried to buy Castle Frankenstein for the formula.

..the offer was turned down.

Dippel’s Oil is basically just a snake oil. Some concoction he threw together from animal parts.

…we’ll get back to “animal parts” in a second.

He did help discover Prussian Blue, a famous pigment, with his oil and potassium carbonate. So it wasn’t totally useless.

And some even claimed that his oil gave an energy boost.. so that’s something.


Okay. Animal Parts.

In addition to alchemy, he was also into anatomy. And here’s where we may get the strongest Frankenstein connection.

Although some myths about him are pretty modern, like blowing up one of the towers of Frankenstein Castle (didn’t happen) and attempting to transfer the soul of one cadaver into another.. which was actually a pretty common experiment at the time.

..So that one is at least possible.

Again, he didn’t dispel any of these rumors and was a recluse. But he wasn’t driven out of town by the townfolk.

But he did disect animals. Avidly.

He made claims of potions for exorcisms.

And that it was possible to transfer the soul from one body to another with a funel. there’s something to the madness.

Later in life he became more and more withdrawn as he became more engrossed and secretive in his experiments, and switched most of his attention to alchemy. Money always being a problem for him.

Which just fed the rumors.

Which he may have wanted because:

rumors that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for secret knowledge, ..since relying on his reputation as a dark sorcerer better enabled him to find audiences with those willing to pay for his knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.

He died at Wittgenstein Castle near Bad Laasphe, probably from a stroke, though some contemporaries suspected poisoning.[12]Ironically, a year before his death, he wrote a pamphlet in which he claimed to have discovered an elixir that would keep him alive until the age 135.

Okay, so how could this have entered Mary Shelley’s mind as she wrote Frankenstein?

  • Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin visited the castle during her travels on the Rhine with Percy Shelley, where they might have heard local stories about Dippel, which by then would have grown legendary and notorious.

  • Shelley references a brief interaction while touring the countryside around Castle Frankenstein with students of the University of Strasbourg, of which Dippel was once a student; these students could have told them stories about the infamous alumnus.

  • In addition, the Shelleys knew several members of the so-called “”Kreis der Empfindsamen,” a literary circle that met in Darmstadt from 1769 to 1773; Castle Frankenstein was frequently used as a location for their public readings, thus making it possible that Dippel’s legends could have come up during conversations between those in the circle and the Shelleys.

  • Miranda Seymour finds it curious that Mary speaks of “gods [making entirely] new men” in her journal so soon after her travels through the regions surrounding Castle Frankenstein; if rumors indeed existed throughout the area that Dippel experimented on cadavers in an attempt to create life, Seymour argues, Mary’s phrasing could be more than merely coincidental. For now, however, the connection remains a subject of an ongoing debate.

There are other arguments for and against Dippel being the source for Frankenstein. I think there’s too much of a correlation to totally ignore it, but I think Shelley also used a mix of stories for her Dr. Frankenstein. there you have it. Dr. Frankenstein was an alchemist… which kinda makes Frankensteins Monster a humonculus. And makes me happy. And that’s it.

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Marie Curie

Our podcast on her:

Marie Curie isn’t really an alchemist, but she did show that “transmutation” does happen in nature. Normally this is out of the scope of The History of Alchemy Podcast, but we took the opportunity to compare modern atomic theory to the one of alchemists.

To make up for us going out of scope we tell how to make gold at the end of the episode. No tricks, really turning mercury into gold using modern science!

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Paul of Taranto

Listen to our podcast episode here:

Paul of Taranto may have been one of the the “Pseudo-Gebers” and had an interesting theory of the composition of metals (basically mercury and sulphur) that would become canon to alchemical theory. It’s interesting for us to see a monk in the 13th century sitting in a lab going for reproducibility.

Sulphur-Mercury theory of metals.

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Baru Urbigerus

Our podcast episode on Urbigerus:

We take a look at one of the alchemical ciphers to understanding Baru Urbigerus’ works.

Baro or Baru Urbigerus was a seventeenth-century writer on alchemy.

He is known for his Aphorismi Urbigerani (1690) This collection of 100aphorisms claims to set out completely the theory of the alchemical work, the preparation of the Philosopher’s Stone.

A shorter collection of 31 aphorisms, contained in it, is known as the Circulatum Minus Urbigeranum

I couldn’t find much of anything of his life, but noted some interesting things in his writings.

For one he was toward the end – or after – the golden age of alchemy, so if anyone would have a chance to summarize all alchemical knowledge – as he claims to do – he’d be in the right time period.

Another thing is that he’s dropped the “al” in alchemy and says chymistry (with a ‘y’.) Not the first, I just wanted to point out that “chymistry” in this case specifically talking about making the philosopher’s stone.

He still talks in the language of alchemy: “Universal Elixir,” “Diana’s Tears,” “The Three Elements”

I wanted to point out that alchemists were alive and well in the so-called “scientific revolution” he stills refer to his process as “hermetic philosophy”

On the other hand his recipe seems to have a fewer metaphors and with some understanding of the vocabulary the directions seem to be more precise and he gives clearer signs along the way that you’ve failed in your experiment. That’s just an impression of mine, but I would make that argument.

Inside the cover of his 100 Aphorisms, there’s a picture.. basically of a few people standing around a tree.

He says that his book can’t be understood by the uninitiated. And since Urbigerus is in a good position at the tail end of the alchemic golden age to wrap up all alchemical knowledge to date, we’ll read you his description of his figure. Urbigerus says that by making the figure of the tree clear, it should be easy to understand his aphorisms.

I’ll read it to you, since we haven’t really gone over many alchemical writings in themselves before, and I’ll let you be the judge of how understandable it is to the unanitiated:

The Tree is a Supporter of the Motto, ‘Virtus unita fortior’: which, being to be read from the side of the Serpent, representing by the Half-Moon on its Head the Planet, under whose Influence it is born, is to be referred to it according to its particular Motto, which signifies, that, if you take it alone, it can do little or Nothing in our Art, as wanting the Assistance of others. By the Green Dragon is to be understood our first undetermined Matter, comprehending all our Principles, (as is demonstrated by the Half-Moon on its Head, the Sun in its Body, and the Cross on its Tail,) and denoting by its Motto, that it can perform the whole work without being joined with any other created or artificially prepared thing: which is our first way. But this our Dragon, when copulating with our Serpent, is forced to comply with her, degrading it self from its undetermined Being for the production of our second way. Apollo with the Sun on his head, and Diana with the Half-Moon, embracing each other, shew our third way, and the Continuation of our first and second. The River, into which they descend, signifies the State, they must be reduced into, before they can be in a Capacity of being born again, and before in any of our three ways they can be brought to a perfect Spiritualization and Union. Apollo and Diana, coming out of the River in one wonderful Body, Diana having obtained all, represent our Herculean works, ready finished and the beginning of their Conjunction, and by their going to set their foot on firm ground, where she is to sow the noble Fruits for the Procreation, is to be understood the Continuation of their Conjunction, till they are fully united and perfected. In this Scheme also, as well as in our Aphorisms, are mystically exhibited all the principal Points of Faith and Religion, comprised in the Volumes of the Old and New Testament: whence it manifestly appears, that the Contemplation of Nature truly leads to the Comprehension of those heavenly Verities, by which alone we can expect to arrive at the Enjoyment of that blessed Immortality, to which, as to the true and ultimate End of our Creation, all our Endeavours are to be directed.

As you see, many allegories and allusions to religious and mythical figures, but they all stand for ingredients or steps in creating the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone. It’s a great example of an alchemical text with all kinds of hidden meaning. We’ll go over some of those symbols in another episode.


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Hennig Brand

Here’s our podcast on Brand:

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Today’s episode originally aired as part of the History Podcasters Network as a part of a collage show. Hennig Brand is the discoverer of Phosphorus, and we talk about his alchemical experiments in getting to his discovery.

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Zosimos of Panopolis

Here’s my podcast on him:

Zosimos of Panopolis was an Egyptian or Greek alchemist and Gnostic mystic again from around 300 AD.

You could argue he’s the first real alchemist writer we can go to today. He mainly mentions older, more ancient alchemists in his writings, but his writings are the oldest ones to survive to today.

He was born in Panopolis, present day Akhmim in the south of Egypt

He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, of which quotations in the Greek language and translations into Syriac or Arabic are known.

Sometimes he’s written as “Thosimos”, “Dosimos” and “Rimos”. It’s pretty normal for people’s name to change in different writings across cultures. Al-Ghazali became Algazel in western Europe.. not to mention just think of all the latinizations of names like Sedziwoj into Sendivogius, or Jisinksky into Jesenius, etc.

Anyway. Zosimos provided one of the first definitions of alchemy as the study of “the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within bodies.” (from Mendeleyev’s Dream—the Quest for the Elements. )

Hermetic and Gnostic influence: According to the Book of Enoch and the Apocryphon of John:

The fallen angels taught the art of metallurgy to the women they married.

….if you say ancient aliens, I will slap you.

The external processes of metallic transmutation—the transformations of lead and copper into silver and gold—had always to mirror an inner process of purification and redemption.

Which has hermeticism all over it. If you’re not right with the world, the process can’t be either. It’s a reflection. Divine water, or sulfurous water

was used by Greek alchemists (there’s a word that means both in greek)

Zosimos saw it like this:, the alchemical vessel the baptismal font, and the tincturing vapors of mercury and sulphur were purifying waters of baptism, which perfected and redeemed the Gnostic initiate.

also Hermetic image of the krater or mixing bowl, a symbol of the divine mind in which the Hermetic initiate was “baptized” and purified in the course of a visionary ascent through the heavens and into the transcendent realms.

Visions Zosimos had these dreams about alchemy. Heavily symbolic and weird.

All right. So Zosimos meets Ion, the founder of the Sabian religion. Ion fights Zosimos with a sword, impales him, disembowels him, pulls the skin off of his head, and burns the pieces of his body on an altar so they are transmutated from body to spirit.. that’s one way of doing alchemy…

Then Ion cries blood and horribly melts into “the opposite of himself, into a mutilated anthroparion” …Indiana Jones meets True Blood.

Then Zosimos wakes up and ponders this and goes back to sleep.

Back at the alter, someone is being boiled alive. And the boiled guy says “ “The sight that you see is the entrance, and the exit, and the transformation … Those who seek to obtain the art (or moral perfection) enter here, and become spirits by escaping from the body”

He keeps waking up during all this and ponders what they mean. Maybe.. human distillation, like water. Transmutation of the body and soul etc.

And goes back to sleep and dreams of a “place of punishments” where all who enter immediately burst into flames and submit themselves to an “unendurable torment.”

Alchemist Symbolism One thing that strikes me when reading medieval alchemist’s documents are the utterly bizarre pictures and symbolism. Zosimos mentions tons of these and they became stables in alchemist’s circles:

the snake eating itself. Snake in a circle eating its tail. This symbolized the unity of everything (think back to our neo-platonism podcast, that’s no coincidence)

he mentions 7 a lot. At one point 15 stairs is “7 stairs up, the 8th is the sphere of fixed stars (the divine part of the cosmos) and 7 stairs back down) …7 stairs being the planets and sun/moon deal. But by now you know that, if -unlike pete- you’ve been paying attention on this podcast.

Mirrors: rather than to see a reflection of the material self, contemplate the divine self (neo-platonism) ..but he meant it more in a gnostic sense of the holy spirit

Letters of the (greek) alphabet had symbolic meaning.. that I’m not going to get into because wow. Well, okay.. let me give you an example: “Round Omega is the bipartite letter, the one that in terms of material language belongs to the seventh planetary zone, that of Kronos. For in terms of the immaterial it is something else altogether, something inexplicable, which only Nikotheos the hidden knows. In material terms Omega is what he calls Ocean the birth and seed of all gods.” (Jackson’s translation, Zosimos of Panopolis On the Letter Omega, 29.)

Jewish Metallurgy Zosimus furthermore is the first known alchemist to write about Jewish metallurgical techniques, and he incorporates Jewish religious ideas into his writings. Julius Ruska proposed that Zosimus may have been Jewish, but scholars generally agree that there is not enough evidence to support this claim. (See Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists, 56.) is clear he had respect for j.m., distillation and mysticism and tried to show it being in agreement with egyptian thought.

Natural vs unnatural alchemy astrology plays a role in alchemy (as it usually does) in Zosimos’ case it’s to do with “timely tinctures” i.e. doing certain things at certain times in sync with the moon, or zodiac etc.

If this sounds familiar it is. It goes way back:

For example Mesopotamian glass-making recipes dating from 1300–1100 BCE contain instructions for the astrological timing of various procedures. We seem to bring this up in almost every episode, and I guess an episode on astrology is due soon.

But for those interested in the detail here: Zosimos believed that demons only had knowledge of a very specific part of the cosmos (in which they lived) but the creator had knowledge of the whole. So by timing your works, so it doesn’t coincide with the demons the work can be greater. Summary in general, what interested me about Zosimos is his interesting take on alchemy. It was straight metallurgy, but with the addition of “contemplating nature” as you’re smelting. So it had a spiritual component to it. By following your basic neoplatonic/hermetic/gnostic concepts of meditation and contemplation of the divine, he believed you can get a better result. Bibliography:

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Tycho Brahe

The podcast on Tycho Brahe and Johannes Keppler

for more on Kepler, see Johannes Kepler

Tycho Brahe, (14 December 1546 – 24 October 1601)

The notes for the podcast are some 12 pages (the podcast was 90 mins) so it’ll take me a bit to clean them up for this page.


Most precise measurements of the skies of the time. Wrote about supernovas, comets. Combined the geometric Copernican system with the Ptolemaic system (known as the Tychonic system)

Influenced by:

Claudius Ptolemy

Rudolf’s Prague




1% of all danish wealth

observatory on a danish island: Uraniborg, one of the very first buildings ever built (at least in europe and in modern times) to have astronomical observation as a major criteria built into its blueprint

and an alchemist’s lab in the cellar

Lost part of his nose in a duel with Manderup Parsberg over the legitimacy over a mathematical formula.

Pete will briefly talk about fencing duels of the time.

nose make-up: gol-silver, copper, bronze (exhumation)

He had predicted some bad event in a horoscope

at the time in india the pottery guild was doing skin grafts (because cutting off of part of the nose was punishment for prostitution) …but not in europe

For centuries, it was common knowledge that the nose was made of gold and silver, however in

an exhumation in June 24, 1901, green was discovered around his nose on his skull, and was therefore theorized that it also contained copper.. and most likely he had more than one.. a precious metal one (which would have been very heave) for special occasions, and otherwise a copper one..

BUT, the most recent exhumation in exhumed in 2010, analyzed a small bone fragment and declared it was brass.. still could have had more than one prosthetic nose

he kept it in place with glue.

his house on hven (very cool, with an alchemist’s lab.. but too awesome to go into) had cables going to each of his student’s rooms attached to bells to summon them. When guests came he’d make his students “magically appear” by whispering on of their names. He’s pull the cord when no one noticed, waited till the student was near the door on his way in then whisper their name right before they entered.

uraniborg, his observatories (plural on this island were awesome… huge things. By far the best of his time. Built into the structure of his villa and satelite observatories…….stjerneborg

he had a dwarf jester named Jepp

The most awesome of all stories.

Had a tame moose (actually an elk) that was meant for a nobleman in Kasel, but died by drinking too much beer and fell down some stairs.

named the sextant?

mix of ptolemaic and copernican tables was normal at the time (mix of old and new science)

but this began to change with:

1572 super nova

describes a super nova, now named SN 1572,  in the constellation Cassiopeia

Because it had been maintained since antiquity that the world beyond the Moon’s orbit was eternally unchangeable (celestial immutability was a fundamental axiom of the Aristotelian world-view), other observers held that the phenomenon was something in the terrestrial sphere below the Moon.

tycho quote (from ferguson’s tycho & kepler)

i doubted no longer. in truth, it was the greatest wonder that has ever shown itself in the whole of nature since the beginning of the worlkd, or in any case as great as when the sun was stopped by joshua’s prayers”

  • he coined the term “nova” in his book de stella nova.. though we now classify it as a supernova.. so when you hear nova or supernova being used, you know who to thank.

  • he almost didn’t publish, because he was a nobleman.. but when he saw how inept other descriptions of it were (a comet closer than the moon, which ptolemaic system would allow) he finally published.

  • also had obstacles when preparing to lecture


1006 (unobserved in europe) chinese called it a ‘guest star’

1572, tycho’s

and 1604, johannes kepler’s

none since

rejected copernicus’ moving earth theory

(no stellar parallax)

tychonic system:

All planets revolve around the sun, but the sun and moon revolve around the earth.

again, this comes back to parallax.

horoscope for prince christian (denmark)

71 pages.. but if the royal clock is as much as 4 mins off at the time of birth then it’s useless

to make a long story short, when this christian became king, he didn’t take as kindly to him as his father did… both him and brahe had egos that got in the way and brahe ended up packing his stuff into a caravan and left his Island of Hven.. and then slowly left Denmark.

Around here is when he first received a copy of a book by young district mathematician named [Johannes Kepler]().

Kepler and Brahe in Prague

Graz was no place for a Lutheran like Kepler… Frederik II instituted the catholic counter-reformation and made life very hard for protestants. Kepler started looking around for another place of employment not long after Brahe first read his book.

Brahe sent his own book to people in Rudolf II’s court with the wish to present one to Rudolf in person. Which worked out great because Rudolf couldn’t wait to meet him and sent an invitation for him to come to Bohemia, with a salary and land grant to set up shop.

Before he came to prague whipped up some medicines to give Rudolf as a gift, including one for the plague.

He was shown Belvedere, but Brahe said it would be too small to set up his instruments.

then the emperor offered him (benatky) observatory and “chemical laboratory”

Benatky is the czech word for ‘Venice’ since, when it floods it’s surrounded by water.

His wage was:

1000 schock a year = 2000 Taler, 26000 krowns, or 60 000 kreuzer, 360 000 denars.

grossknecht 10 a year and a kindermädchen 1 a year

This is higher than many barons and counts made in Bohemia, and Rudolf decided this should also be retroactive since the time that Brahe left his services at the King of Denmark.

When the Emperor Rudolf required of tycho to be at court twice a day, he stayed at the golden griffin (on one of my old tours) within sight of the castle. His duties mainly involved advice based on horoscopes. And while Tycho did believe in this (probably more than Kepler) he thought this boring and tedious. Another thing is that Tycho believed that free will trumped the influence of the planets by a long shot.. so predicting battles was ludicrous.. but Rudolf believed in it strongly and he was paying the bills.

Eventually Kepler lived a few blocks further from the castle.. where now a statue of brahe and kepler stands.

Tycho mounted some of his instruments on the balconies of the Belvedere and used it as an observatory. (the same he had turned down on his way into Prague)

According to hasner, kepler was there when he died and it was brahe’s dying wish for kepler to finsh his model (theory)

In fact there had been trust issues between Brahe and Kepler in the beginning, but Brahe soon realized that if he wanted to see his Tychonian model of the solar system finished and published he would have to trust kepler to finish it after his death.

From here on out they worked together, for which they are now famous.

bladder issues (kepler’s party story)

Just outside the castle he was invited to a banquet. It was considered rude to rise from the table before the host. this one simple rule killed poor Tycho. He ate and drank heavily, but refused to break etiquette. By the time he got home he couldn’t urinate anymore. He tried for days, but eventually died some 5 days later. On his last night, his delirium stopped his suffering.. and over and over he said “let me not seem to have lived in vain”

he’s buried in tyn. he was in a magnificient casket in a procession

Tycho-Keplerian geocentrism

Tycho had an alternative theory to copernicus’ helio centric model:

The stars don’t move, therefore the earth is standing still “no parallax” (not detected until 1838century did we have exact enough telescopes to measure the stars movement.. the stars are just so much further away than they thought at the time)

plus the earth is too big and sluggish to move ( since it’s moving in “Aether” or “Quintessence”;)

and if the earth is not moving, it’s clear the sun is revolving around the earth..

BUT tycho’s observation (some of the best at the time) clearly showed the planets revolving around the sun.



The crater Tycho on the Moon is named after him, as is the crater Tycho Brahe on Mars. The Tycho Brahe Planetarium in Copenhagen is also named after him.

HEAT1X-TYCHO BRAHE is the name of a manned private spacecraft to be launched by Copenhagen Suborbitals. Other things named after him include a bar inZagreb and a ferry operating between Sweden and Denmark.


Kitty Ferguson’s Tycho & Kepler Josef Hasner’s Tycho Brahe und J. Kepler in Prag – a german book printed in prague in 1873

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Bishop Synesius of Cyrene

Our podcast episode on him:

A commentator on Pseudo-Democritus and Bishop in what is now Libya.

Also see Neo-Platonism

Interesting snippets:

the earliest known reference to a hydrometer

Bishop, even though he was neo-platonic

Synesius (c. 373 – c. 414), was a Greek bishop of Ptolemais (Modern day Libya) after 410,


Synesius was born of wealthy parents, who claimed descent from Spartan kings who founded Cyrene, at Balagrae (Bayda now) near Cyrene (also in Libya) between 370 and 375.

In the year 393 (when he was 20) he went with his brother Euoptius to Alexandria, where he became an enthusiastic Neoplatonist and disciple of Hypatia. Between 395 and 399 he spent some time in Athens. In addition to being a bishop, he’s now mostly known for his philosophic ideas and poetry.

In 398 he was chosen as an envoy to the imperial court in Constantinople by Cyrene and the whole Pentapolis. He went to the capital in occasion of the delivery of the aurum coronarium and his task was to obtain tax remissions for his country. In Constantinople he obtained the patronage of the powerful praetorian prefect Aurelianus. Synesius composed and addressed to Emperor Arcadius a speech entitled De regno, full of topical advice as to the studies of a wise ruler, but also containing a bold statement that the emperor’s first priority must be a war on corruption and a war on interpenetration of barbarians in Byzantine army.

His three years’ stay in Constantinople was rough; it was there where he had free time to write some of his works.

Aurelianus succeeded in granting him the tax remission for Cyrene and the Pentapolis and the exemption from curial obligations for him, but then he fell in disgrace and Synesius lost everything. Later Aurelian returned in power, restoring his own grants to Synesius. The poet, then, composed Aegyptus sive de providentia, an allegory in which the good Osiris and the evil Typhon, who represent Aurelian and the Goth Gainas (ministers under Arcadius), strive for mastery, and the question of the divine permission of evil is handled.

In 402, during an earthquake, Synesius left Constantinople to return to Cyrene. Along the road he passed through Alexandria, where he returned in 403. Here he married and lived, before returning at Cyrene in 405. The following years were busy, for Synesius. His major concern was the organisation of the defence of the Pentapolis from the yearly attacks of neighbouring tribes.

In 410 Synesius, whose Christianity had until then been by no means very pronounced, was popularly chosen to be bishop of Ptolemais, and, after long hesitation on personal and doctrinal grounds, he ultimately accepted the office thus thrust upon him, being consecrated by Theophilus at Alexandria. One personal difficulty at least was obviated by his being allowed to retain his wife, to whom he was much attached; but as regarded orthodoxy he expressly stipulated for personal freedom to dissent on the questions of the soul’s creation, a literal resurrection, and the final destruction of the world, while at the same time he agreed to make some concession to popular views in his public teaching. His tenure of the bishopric was troubled not only by domestic bereavements (his three sons died, the first two in 411 and the third in 413) but also by the barbarian invasions of the country (in repelling which he proved himself a capable military organizer) and by conflicts with the praeses Andronicus, whom he excommunicated for interfering with the Church’s right of asylum. The date of his death is unknown; it is usually given as c. 414, because he appears to have been unaware of the violent death of Hypatia (his mentor mentioned before).

His many-sided activity, as shown especially in his letters, and his loosely mediating position between Neoplatonism and Christianity, make him a subject of fascinating interest. His scientific interests are attested by his letter to Hypatia, in which occurs the earliest known reference to a hydrometer, and by a work on alchemy in the form of a commentary on pseudo-Democritus.


Among the publications of this period are a treatise On an Astrolabe that he constructed for a friend in Constantinople, an amusing speech In Praise of Baldness (a reply to In praise of hair by Dio Chrysostom). He also published an essay On Dio Chrysostom, a late first-century sophist-philosopher like Synesius, who uses this essay to explain his cultural ideal. His main work in these years, however, was The Egyptian tale, or On Providence, published in 402. It is a romanticized account of his trip to Constantinople, in which two of Arcadius’ ministers are likened to the Egyptian gods Osiris and Seth. In “On an Astrolabe” he makes it clear that arithmatic and astronomy are to be considered absolute truths (he’s a fan of Pythagoras” and hopes to kindle a love of astrology to gain knowldedge.

The earliest known reference to a hydrometer A hydrometer is an instrument used to measure the specific gravity (or relative density) of liquids; that is, the ratio of the density of the liquid to the density of water.

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