An Incomplete History of the Proverb “Glaukos’ Skill”

Earlier I posted a fragment from Marcellus of Ancyra. In it he discusses a proverb that gets him  a bit riled up.

“The proverb is ‘THE SKILL OF GLAUCUS.’ Wise non-Christians, when they mention this proverb, explain it differently. One says that a certain Glaucus, had become very knowledgeable about a certain art, which was the most wonderful of many, and which perished simultaneously with him on the sea, since no one learned of it. Another, bearing witness to the highest ability in music attained by Glaucus, say that he fabricated four discs and that tapping them in harmony made a perfect symphony of sound—this is what he says the proverb is about. Still another person thinks that laying among the offerings to Alyattes was a krater and a stand for the krater, a production of Glaucus of Chios. Yet another says that Glaucus dedicated a bronze tripod to Delphi, and after he finished this work and he struck it soundly, the feet and the part laid above them—along the crown at the top of the cauldron and the rods which were fastened along the middle—all sounded out with the noise of a lyre. And yet another interpreter holds that the proverb is spoken about a certain Glaucus who earned the reputation of having done too much.”

ἔστιν δὲ ΓΛΑΥΚΟΥ ΤΕΧΝΗ. ταύτης οἱ ἔξωθεν σοφοὶ τῆς παροιμίας μνημονεύσαντες διαφόρως αὐτὴν ἐξηγήσαντο. ὁ μὲν γὰρ αὐτῶν τις ἔφη, Γλαῦκόν  τινα ἐπιστήμονα τέχνης τινὸς γεγονότα † πολλῶν οὖσαν θαυμασιωτάτην, ἀπολέσθαι ἅμα ἐκείνῳ κατὰ θάλατταν, μηδενός πω διακηκοότος αὐτῆς. ἕτερος δέ, τὴν ἐπ’ ἄκρον μουσικῆς ἐμπειρίαν μαρτυρήσας τῷ Γλαύκῳ, τοὺς κατασκευασθέντας ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ δίσκους χαλκοῦς φησιν τέσσαρας, πρὸς τὸ ἐμμελῆ τινα τῆς κρούσεως τὴν συμφωνίαν τῶν φθόγγων ἀποτελεῖν· ἔνθεν τε εἰρῆσθαι τὴν παροιμίαν. ἄλλος δέ τις ᾿Αλυαττικῶν ἀναθημάτων φησὶν ἀνακεῖσθαι κρατῆρα καὶ ὑποκρατήριον θαυμά-σιον, Γλαύκου Χίου ποίημα. ἕτερος δέ, Γλαῦκον αὐτὸν ἀναθεῖναι εἰς Δελφοὺς τρίποδα χαλκοῦν, οὕτω δημιουργήσαντα τοῖς † παχέως τε κρουομένου, τούς τε πόδας, ἐφ’ ὧν βέβηκεν, καὶ τὸ ἄνω περικείμενον καὶ τὴν στεφάνην τὴν ἐπὶ τοῦ λέβητος καὶ τὰς ῥάβδους διὰ μέσου τεταγμένας φθέγγεσθαι λύρας φωνῇ. καὶ αὖθις ἕτερος, ἀπὸ Γλαύκου τινὸς δόξαντός τι πλέον πεποιηκέναι εἰρῆσθαι τὴν παροιμίαν.


Marcellus’ strange and somewhat begrudging explanation of the proverb “Glaukos’ Skill” likely responds to traditions that attribute the proverbs origins differently and also interpret it in different ways with one group saying it indicates things done with ease and another saying the opposite.

Herodotus and Plato seem to be the first to mention Glaukos, but neither uses the proverb in a clear way.

Herodotus 1.25-26 (5th Century BCE)

Aluattês the Lydian lived as king 57 years after defeating the Milesians in war. When he recovered from a disease a second time he sent from his home to Delphi a great silver krater and the welded iron crater-seat, a wondrous sight among the rest of the dedications at Delphi. It was a creation of Glaukos who alone of all men figured out the welding of iron.”

᾿Αλυάττης δὲ ὁ Λυδὸς τὸν πρὸς Μιλησίους πόλεμον διενείκας μετέπειτα τελευτᾷ, βασιλεύσας ἔτεα ἑπτὰ καὶ πεντήκοντα. ᾿Ανέθηκε δὲ ἐκφυγὼν τὴν νοῦσον δεύτερος οὗτος τῆς οἰκίης ταύτης ἐς Δελφοὺς κρητῆρά τε ἀργύρεον μέγαν καὶ ὑποκρητηρίδιον σιδήρεον κολλητόν, θέης ἄξιον  διὰ πάντων τῶν ἐν Δελφοῖσι ἀναθημάτων, Γλαύκου τοῦ Χίου ποίημα, ὃς μοῦνος δὴ πάντων ἀνθρώπων σιδήρου κόλλησιν ἐξεῦρε.

Plato, Phaedo, 108d-e (4th Century BCE)

“Surely, Simmias, even Glaukos’ skill doesn’t seem necessary to explain what this is. But, to show that it is true seems harder to me even than Glaukos’ skill could manage—and perhaps I would not be able and even if I knew how, my life, Simmias, does not seem long enough for this argument. But, nevertheless, nothing prevents me from explaining the shape of the earth, as I believe it to be, along with its places.”

᾿Αλλὰ μέντοι, ὦ Σιμμία, οὐχ ἡ Γλαύκου τέχνη γέ μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι διηγήσασθαι ἅ γ’ ἐστίν· ὡς μέντοι ἀληθῆ, χαλεπώτερόν μοι φαίνεται ἢ κατὰ τὴν Γλαύκου τέχνην, καὶ ἅμα μὲν ἐγὼ ἴσως οὐδ’ ἂν οἷός τε εἴην, ἅμα δέ, εἰ καὶ ἠπιστάμην, ὁ βίος μοι δοκεῖ ὁ ἐμός, ὦ Σιμμία, τῷ μήκει τοῦ λόγου οὐκ ἐξαρκεῖν. τὴν μέντοι ἰδέαν τῆς γῆς οἵαν πέπεισμαι εἶναι, καὶ τοὺς τόπους αὐτῆς οὐδέν με κωλύει λέγειν.

Starting in the lat 1st, early 2nd Centuries BCE we are off and running. I will just present the record and let readers mull it all over.

Diogenianus, (2nd Century CE)

“Glaukos’ Skill”: A proverb about things completed without ease. It comes from Glaukos of Samos who was the first to discover the welding of iron. Or, it is a proverb about the fabrication of things with technical skill.”

Γλαύκου τέχνη: ἐπὶ τῶν μὴ ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων. ᾿Απὸ Γλαύκου Σαμίου, ὃς πρῶτον κόλλησιν ἐφεῦρε σιδήρου. ῍Η ἐπὶ τῶν τεχνικῶς κατεσκευασμένων.

Zenobius, Proverbs (2nd Century CE)

“Glaukos’ Skill”: This is a proverb for things accomplished easily or those completed meticulously and skillfully. For a certain Hippasos prepared four bronze disks in such a way that their diameters were the same but the thickness of the first disk was a third as large as the second, half again as large as the third, and double the fourth, and when they struck together they sounded a symphony. It is said that Glaukos was the first to examine the sounds of the discs.”

Γλαύκου τέχνη: ἢ ἐπὶ τῶν ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων, ἢ ἐπὶ τῶν πάνυ ἐπιμελῶς καὶ ἐντέχνως εἰργασμένων. ῞Ιππασος γάρ τις κατεσκεύασε χαλκοῦς τέτταρας δίσκους

οὕτως, ὥστε τὰς μὲν διαμέτρους αὐτῶν ἴσας ὑπάρχειν, τὸ δὲ τοῦ πρώτου δίσκου πάχος ἐπίτριτον μὲν τοῦ δευτέρου, ἡμιόλιον δὲ τοῦ τρίτου, διπλάσιον δὲ τοῦ τετάρτου, καὶ κρουομένους ἐπιτελεῖν συμφωνίαν τινά. Καὶ λέγεται Γλαῦκον ἰδεῖν τοὺς ἐπῖ τῶν δίσκων φθόγγους πρῶτον.

Scholia in Platonem, Phd 108

“The proverb is applied to things that are not accomplished easily or to things accomplished meticulously and skillfully….

[the scholia presents in the first half Zenobius’ account nearly verbatim]

“…And it is reported that Glaukos once he noted the sounds of the disks was the first to try to use them and from this affair even to this day it is said that this is called “Glaukos’ skill”. Aristoxenos covers these things in his On Listening to Music and Nikokles does as well in his work On Spectacle. There is also the skill of letters which has been attributed to Glaukos of Samos from which this proverb may also derive. This is the one who invented the welding of iron, according to Herodotus”

ση<μείωσαι> πα<ροιμίαν> ἐπὶ τῶν μὴ ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων ἤτοι ἐπὶ τῶν πάνυ ἐπιμελῶς καὶ ἐντέχνως εἰργασμένων. ῞Ιππασος γάρ τις…


καὶ λέγεται Γλαῦκον ἰδόντα τοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν δίσκων φθόγγους πρῶτον ἐγχειρῆσαι δι’ αὐτῶν χειρουργεῖν, καὶ ἀπὸ ταύτης τῆς πραγματείας ἔτι καὶ νῦν λέγεσθαι τὴν καλουμένην Γλαύκου τέχνην. μέμνηται δὲ τούτων ᾿Αριστόξενος περὶ τῆς μουσικῆς ἀκροάσεως (FHG II 288, 77) καὶ <Νι>κοκλῆς ἐν τῷ περὶ θεωρίας· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἑτέρα τέχνη γραμμάτων, ἣν ἀνατιθέασιν Γλαύκῳ Σαμίῳ, ἀφ’ ἧς ἴσως καὶ ἡ παροιμία διεδόθη. οὗτος δὲ καὶ σιδήρου κόλλησιν εὗρεν, ὥς φησιν ῾Ηρόδοτος (I 25).


Plutarch, Alexandrian Proverbs (2nd Century CE)

“Not by Glaukos’ skill: This is a proverb applied to things done well even though they are difficult to figure out. For there was a certain Glaukos from Samos, a craftsman who was the first to invent the welding of iron.”

Οὐχ ἡ Γλαύκου τέχνη: ἐπὶ τῶν εὖ εἰργασμένων καὶ δυςκατανοήτων. Γλαῦκος γάρ τις ἐγένετο Σάμιος δημιουργὸς, ὃς πρῶτος σιδήρου κόλλησιν ἐξεῦρεν.


Hesychius, 5th Century CE 

“Glaukos’ skill”: A proverb about things completed easily. Dionysodôrus says that this is about the welding of iron. For Glaukos of Khios invented iron-welding.”

Γλαύκου τέχνη· παροιμία ἐπὶ τῶν ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων·Διονυσόδωρος δὲ τὴν περὶ τὸν σίδηρον κόλλησιν· Γλαῦκος γὰρ Χῖος σιδήρου κόλλησιν εὗρεν (Plat. Phaed. 108d)


Suda (at gamma 247, s.v. Γλαὺξ ἵπταται)

“And there is also a proverb: “Glaukos’ skill”, applied to thing that are accomplished easily. This is drawn from Glaukos of Samos who was the first to develop the welding of iron.

καὶ ἑτέρα παροιμία· Γλαύκου τέχνη, ἐπὶ τῶν ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων· ἀπὸ Γλαύκου τινὸς Σαμίου, ὃς πρῶτος σιδήρου κόλλησιν ἐξεῦρεν.


Apostol. Michael (15th Century CE)

“Glaukos’ skill”: A proverb used of things completed with difficulty. Or it refers to things completed meticulously and with great skill. For Glaukos is the one who invented the welding of iron. And he was from Khios.”

Γλαύκου τέχνη: ἐπὶ τῶν μὴ ῥᾳδίως κατεργαζομένων. ἢ ἐπὶ τῶν πάνυ ἐπιμελῶς καὶ ἐντέχνως εἰργασμένων· ἐπειδὴ οὗτος εὗρε σιδήρου κόλλησιν, Χῖος ὤν.

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