< Retour

This book, edited by the renowned scholar Robert Halleux with the collaboration of Blanche El Gammal, is a long-awaited work and a stepping stone to the completion of the project Textes alchimiques by the Union Académique Internationale.[1] The publishing framework of this project is the series Les alchimistes grecs in the so-called Collection Budé (Collection des universités de France Série grecque). Robert Halleux is also the editor of the first Les alchimistes grecs volume, which is devoted to the alchemical papyri.[2]

The book that I am reviewing here, titled Traités des art et métiers, is a critical edition with translation and commentary of eight short alchemical treatises, all of them already included in the famous edition of the Greek alchemical texts by Berthelot and Ruelle and most of them classified by the those editors in the section «traités techniques».[3] In Halleux’s own words, the reason for this textual selection is as follows:«c’est pourquoi j’ai entrepris d’unifier métallurgie et alchimie en une même expérience et d’analyser, pour le dire en termes marxistes, l’alchimie comme une superstructure théorique des arts et métiers» (p. 10). Perhaps it may be interesting to compare this view with the view of other scholars, who consider the birth of alchemy as the product of two factors: on the one hand, the artisanal knowledge – such as perfume-making, jewellery, metalworking, cloth dyeing – accumulated and refined across the centuries by various cultures (e.g. the Egyptians) and, on the other hand, the Greek natural philosophy and its focus on defining matter and change.[4] The following texts make a clear connection with this first factor, being a rich selection of artisanal techniques: treatises 1‑6 are related in various ways to metalworking, while treatises 7‑8 are focused on jewellery, in particular the production of artificial pearls.

In the introduction (p. 1‑18), Halleux summarises the complex manuscript tradition of the alchemical texts, stressing the importance, for both the order and the exact titles of our treatises, of the famous table of contents (pinax) attested in the ms. Marcianus graecus Z. 299 (M), ff. 2r‑v.[5] Throughout the whole book, Halleux adopts a structure “notice – texte et traduction” for each treatise, followed by a short appendix in a couple of instances (treatises I and II); immediately after the eighth treatise, there is a final section (p. 185‑204) with additional notes on all eight texts. I’ll now briefly describe each treatise, giving more of a general picture than an in-depth analysis.

The title of the first treatise (p. 19‑54) is «Teinture du cuivre inventée chez les Perses».[6] Halleux amend the Greek title with the correction «ἐξευρημένη», referring to βαφή, instead of «ἐξευρημένου», referring to χαλκός and attested both in the manuscripts and in the Berthelot‑Ruelle edition; in any case, this correction is not present in the apparatus criticus of the volume. This first treatise describes the fabrication of the so-called yellow copper, a copper-zinc alloy (i.e. brass). In the notice, Halleux describes the uses of brass in Classical antiquity, the issues with zinc and its minerals, the terms ‘ὀρείχαλκος/orichalcum’ and ‘καδμεία/cadmea’, and the technical procedures («cémentation et fusion réductrice») for the production of brass. Moreover, Halleux also tackles some chronological issues about this recipe/treatise. After the text itself, Halleux writes a section titled «postérité de la recette», in which he describes the brassmaking techniques of the monk Theophilus (here identified with Roger of Helmarshausen), the author of De diversis artibus (XII century A.D.), along with an account by Albertus Magnus (XIII c. A.D.) and a recipe from Compositiones Lucenses (VIII c. A.D.).

The title of the second treatise (p. 55‑78) is «Trempe et fabrication du fer indien».[7] Halleux says (p. 57) that this is the title, taken from the pinax of ms. M, that he has chosen for this treatise; unfortunately, there is no title in the «Texte et Traduction» section, which is probably due to a typo. Furthermore, the first line of Halleux’s Greek text is the title attested in the manuscripts («Βαφὴ τοῦ ἰνδικοῦ σιδήρου, γραφεῖσα τῷ αὐτῷ χρόνῷ»). In the «Notice», Halleux examines the ancient technical knowledge on iron (σίδηρος/ferrum), including what was know as the “best iron” (στόμωμα/acies), possibly steel, located superficially at the edge of well-crafted blades. There is then a section on this «fer indien» (ἰνδικὸς σίδηρος/ferrum indicum), which is probably what we now call Damascus steel (i.e. forged ingots of Wootz steel). After the text itself, Halleux writes a section about a very famous substance in the history of alchemy, the so-called magnesia (μαγνησία γῆ), and its role in metalworking.

The title of the third treatise (p. 79‑87) is «Trempe pour les épées et le outils à tailler la pierre».[8] Here again the title is taken from the pinax of ms. M. This treatise comprises as many as four different recipes, but Halleux gives us here only text and translation, probably due to the similarity of content with the previous treatise. In any case, there are quite a few substantial footnotes, which perhaps could have been rearranged as a Notice or an Annexe.

The title of the fourth treatise (p. 88‑127) is «Sur l’argent, le mercure et le cinabre : fabrication».[9] This treatise is a collection of three texts, one about silver, one about mercury, and the third about cinnabar, whose title is taken again from the pinax of ms. M. Berthelot and Ruelle classified these specific texts partly in their first section («Indications générales») and partly in the third («Les œuvres de Zosime»), while the rest of the texts in Halleux’s book was classified by them, as already stated, in the fifth section («Traités techniques»). Halleux discusses a variety of technical topics closely related to the content of these texts: cupellation for argentiferous lead, how a so-called “mercury” (maybe gray arsenic) could have been produced from arsenic minerals (orpiment, realgar), the use of mercury in gold refining (mercury‑gold amalgam), the production of mercury from cinnabar and vice versa the production of artificial cinnabar from mercury and sulphur. Regarding this very last point, the extraction of mercury by crushing cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar and with a copper pestle is indeed described by Theophrastus and Pliny.[10]Halleux rightly points out how the cold extraction of mercury from cinnabar is theoretically possible, albeit slow and inefficient compared to other ancient procedures. Halleux’s opinion is based upon the experimental replication by K. C. Bailey in the ’20s, which was until very recently the only one in literature.[11] In fact, just one year after the publishing of the present volume, another experimental replication of this ancient procedure was successfully completed and the article, which also deals with hot extractions, is now the standard reference for this topic.[12]

The title of the fifth treatise (p. 128‑139) is «Sur la fabrication de moules et des reliefs».[13] This treatise is a collection of five recipes regarding moulds for various uses, such as for minting of coins. The title chosen by Halleux is attested in the pinax, even though here the lesson is τόλων instead of τύπων, while the title in the ms. M is: «Εἰ θέλεις ποιῆσαι φούρμας καὶ τύλους ἀπὸ βροντησίου, ποίει οὕτως» («If you want to make bronze moulds and reliefs, do as such»). Halleux points out that τόλος (not attested in dictionaries) and τύλος (lump, knob or knot) are corrupted readings, both to be emended in τύπος (impression, die, relief, etc.). Another unclear word is βροντήσιον. While the masculine noun βροντήσιος (thundering) is an epithet for Zeus and derives from βροντή (thunder), Halleux rightly prefers the hypothesis that the neuter βροντήσιον could be a transliteration from the latin brundisium/brandisium [aes] (bronze from the city of from βρεντήσιον/Brindisi), which is also attested in both Compositiones ad tingenda musiva and Mappae clavicula (p. 130), and it could also be the etymological root of our ‘bronzo/bronze’.

The title of the sixth treatise (p. 140‑154) is «Sur la diversité de plomb et de feuille d’or»,[14] but the title in the pinax is slightly different: «Περὶ διαφορᾶς μολίβδου καὶ περὶ χρυσοπετάλων» («Sur la diversité de plomb et sur les feuilles d’or»). It’s not clear if Halleux choses one or the other, since the header of the text is: «Sur la diversité du plomb…/Περὶ διαφορᾶς μολίβδου». In any case, this is a collection of four texts on three topics. The first text is a description of four varieties of lead (θαλάσσιος; Σαβιήσιος/Σαβυήσιος; Δελματήσιος;[15] Σαρδιανός) and some of their physical properties (hardness, impurities in the mineral, waste rate in metallurgical processes and so on). Halleux translates «Σαρδιανός μόλιβδος» as «le plomb sarde»,[16] noting also how Sardinian mines produced lead and copper since Roman times (p. 143). Usually, though, the adjective Σαρδόνιος or Σαρδονικός would be used for ‘Sardinian’ and Σαρδιανός would simply mean ‘from the city of Sardes’. For the other difficult term, Σαβιήσιος/Σαβυήσιος, the Lexikon zur byzantinischen Gräzität proposes «aus Savoyen», while Halleux cautiously says that this term «renvoie à un toponyme inconnu» (p. 143) and that Berthelot tentatively proposed «de Sabine».[17] The second text analyses the scrap rate of metal in a lost-wax casting process, while the third and fourth texts are a quantitative analysis regarding the production of gold leaves, which could be used in mosaics, gilding (metal, wood, leather) or chrysography.

The title of the seventh (p. 155‑171) treatise is «Fabrication de la perle ronde selon l’arabe Salmanas».[18] As before, there is a slight discrepancy between the title and the header, which is: «Sur la fabrication de la perle ronde/Περὶ σφαιροειδοῦς χαλάζας ποιήσεως».[19] These last two texts are both about artificial pearls. This Salmanas, an alchemist or maybe a master jeweller, is not otherwise known to us. In the introduction, after a brief historical and biological overview on pearls and oysters, Halleux analyses both the term χάλαζα (‘hailstone’ but also ‘knot or hard lump’) and the various phases of Salmanas’ method, which are summarised as follows: 1) very small pearls are dissolved in lemon juice to form a paste, 2) a mercury-based white compound is then mixed with the previous paste in a precise ratio, 3) the unified compound is then shaped into a certain amount of spheres, which are then coated with silver filings, dried up, polished by friction, and cleaned using the gastric juices of a fish.

The title of the eighth and last treatise (p. 172‑184) is «Décapage et brillantage des perles».[20] This treatise comprises sixteen recipes and the chosen title is the first part of the title of the first recipe, which is in full: «Σμῆξις καὶ λάμπρυνσις μαργάρων ᾗ πολλάκις ὁ δεδωκὼς ἔλεγε χρῆσθαι» («Décapage et brillantage des perles. Celui qui l’a transmis a dit qu’il s’en est servi souvent»). Halleux points out how the vocabulary used in these recipes has on the one hand no Arabicisms, so probably no connections at all to the previous treatise, and on the other hand resembles the famous Stockholm papyrus (P. Holm. = TM 64429),[21] regarding ingredients and procedures.

In the end, I would like to mention a small yet persistent typo (p. 13) that is also present in the edition of Zosimus by Michele Mertens.[22] In each of these books, the number of chapters attributed to the so-called philosopher Christianos, a Byzantine alchemical author, is said to be thirty-five, although in the Greek text of the pinax of ms. M there is a «λʹ» (thirty) and, in fact, the chapters are reputed to be thirty.[23]

Overalll, this book is truly a valuable addition for any scholar interested in the history of alchemy and metallurgy, edited by one of the leading experts on these fields.


Marco Bellini, ALMA MATER STUDIORUM, Università di Bologna.

Publié dans le fascicule 1 tome 125, 2023, p. 187-191.


[1]. http://www.unionacademique.org/fr/projects/2/textes-alchimiques.

[2]. R. Halleux ed., Papyrus de Leyde, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes. Vol. 1. Les Alchimistes grecs, Paris 1981.

[3]. Cf. M. Berthelot, C.-E Ruelle eds., Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs. Texte grec : avec variantes, notes et index. Vol. 2., Paris 1888 (henceforth cited as CAAG2), p. 321-393.

[4]. Cf. L. M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago-London 2013, p. 13.

[5]. For the most recent contribution on this philological topic, cf. A. M. Roberts, « Framing a Middle Byzantine Alchemical Codex », DOP 73, 2019.

[6]. «Βαφὴ τοῦ παρὰ Πέρσαις ἐξευρημένου χαλκοῦ γραφεῖσα ἀπὸ ἀρχῆς Φιλίππου»; cf. CAAG2, V.iv, p. 346, l. 1-347, l. 7.

[7]. «βαφὴ καὶ ποίησις τοῦ ἰνδικοῦ σιδήρου»; cf. CAAG2, V.v, p. 347, l. 8-348, l. 7.

[8]. «βαφὴ πρὸς ξίφη καὶ ἐργαλεῖα λαξευτικά»; cf. CAAG2, V.iii, pp. 342, l. 19-345, l. 23.

[9]. «Περὶ ἀσήμου καὶ ὑδραργύρου καὶ κινναβάρεως ποίησις»; cf. CAAG2, I.xvi, p. 36, l. 19–37, l. 16, I.XVII, p. 37, l. 17-38, l. 12, III.xlv, p. 220, l. 17-222, l. 17.

[10]. Cf. Thphr., Lap. 60 and Plin., Nat. XXXIII, 123.

[11]. Cf. K. C. Bailey, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on Chemical Subjects, Vol. 1. London 1929, p. 223.

[12]. Cf. M. Marchini et al. «Exploring the ancient chemistry of mercury», PNAS 119, 2022.

[13]. «Περὶ φουρμῶν καὶ τύπων ποιήσεως»; cf. CAAG2, V.xvi, p. 375, l. 9-377, l. 6.

[14]. « Περὶ διαφορᾶς μολίβδου καὶ χρυσοπετάλου »; cf. CAAG2, V.xvii, p. 377, l. 7-379, l. 23.

[15]. There is «δελμασήσιος» on p. 142, which I believe is a typo.

[16]. Berthelot translates in a similar fashion, cf. M. Berthelot, C.-E Ruelle eds. Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs. Traduction : avec notes, commentaire, tables et index. Vol. 3, Paris 1888 (henceforth cited as CAAG3), p. 362.

[17]. CAAG3, p. 362, n. 3.

[18]. «Μέθοδος δι’ ἧς ἀποτελεῖται ἡ σφαιροειδὴς χάλαζα κατασκευασθεῖσα παρὰ τοῦ ἐν τεχνουργίᾳ περιβοήτου Ἄραβος τοῦ Σαλμανᾶ»; f. CAAG2, V.viii, p. 364, l. 5-367, l. 26.

[19]. Maybe it is a typo for χαλάζης.

[20]. «Σμῆξις καὶ λάμπρυνσις μαργάρων»; cf. CAAG2, V.ix, p. 368, l. 1-371, l. 23.

[21]. Cf. R. Halleux, op. cit., n. 10-13, p. 113-114, n. 18, p. 116, n. 22-23, p. 117, n. 25, p. 118, n. 60, p.126.

[22]. Cf. Zosime de Panopolis. Mémoires authentiques, M. Mertens ed., Les Alchimistes grecs. tome IV 1e partie, Paris 2002 (henceforth cited as ZosMA), p. XXV.

[23]. Cf. J. Letrouit, « Chronologie des alchimistes grecs » dans D. Kahn, S. Matton eds., Alchimie : art, histoire et mythe. Actes du 1er Colloque international de la Société d’Étude de l’Histoire de l’Alchimie, Paris-Milan 1995, p. 62.