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  4. λιθάργυρος

var.dim. λιθαργύρεον

Lat. lithargyros, plumbum ustum


Litharge of lead. Protoxide of lead (PbO) prepared by exposing melted lead to a current of air. Also litharge of lead.A metal drug obtained from lead-flakes and effective against inflamed wounds thanks to its disinfectant properties. The medicament belongs to a kind of poultice that had to be applied locally to the affected area as a bandage made of folded pieces of linen and soaked in some ointment. The appropriate form was that of a compress. It gets its name from the Greek word λιθάργυρος, for rock silver, because the mineral was produced when metallurgists separated silver from lead ores.


1-2. Etymology – General Linguistic Section.

From Classical Greek λιθάργυρος, spume or foam of silver. From lithos, a stone + argyros, silver.

Dioscorides lists the properties of litharge as astringent, softening, cooling, and of particular use in the preparation pf plasters. Cf. Mat. med. V 87.1–2 = III 57.15–58.8 Wellmann: λιθάργυρος· ἡ μέν τιϲ ἐκ τῆς μολυβδίτιδος καλουμένης ἄμμου γεννᾶται, χωνευομένης ἄχρι τῆς τελείας ἐκπυρώϲεως, ἡ δὲ ἐξ ἀργύρου ἡ δὲ ἐκ μολύβδου (...) πλείϲτη γὰρ ἐν τοῖϲ τόποις ‹τούτοις› γεννᾶται μολυβῶν ἐλασμάτων ἐκφλογουμένων. καλεῖται δὲ ἡ μὲν ξανθὴ καὶ στίλβουϲα χρυϲῖτις, ἥτις ἐστὶ κρείττων, ἡ δὲ πελιὰ ἀργυρῖτις, ἡ δὲ ἐκ τοῦ ἀργύρου ϲκαλαυθρῖτις. δύναμιν δὲ ἔχει ϲτυπτικήν, μαλακτικήν, ψυκτικήν κτλ.: "Some spuma argenti or forth of silver is made from sand called molibditis blown in a furnace until perfectly fired. Some is made from silver and some of lead.... The best is a yellow glittering sort called chrysitis; ... it is astringent and softening, filling up hollownesses, repressing abnormal growths of flesh and forming new skins, as well as being cooling, and closing the pores"). Disocorides points out that the litharge (spuma argenti lat.) was extracted from the lead-ore dust by treating the flakes, molten and baked in special kilns. In Egypt, lead-oxide preparations, such as minium, were mostly of local provenance, cf. R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology VIII, Leiden 1971, 209 ff. They were usually employed as yellowish or reddish pigments (A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, rev. by J.R. Harris [London 41962] 243–4). As a lead monoxide, the refined product obtained from the ore, was an astringent mineral drug of common usage in ancient pharmacopoeia, it was especially used for disinfecting injuries and reducing abnormal formations, cf. Gal. Simpl. IX 16 (XII 224.11–225.1 K) περὶ λιθαργύρου. λιθάργυρος ξηραίνει μὲν ὥσπερ καὶ τἄλλα πάντα τὰ μεταλλικά τε καὶ γεώδη καὶ λιθώδη φάρμακα, μετριώτατά γε μὴν τοῦτο ποιεῖ. καὶ κατὰ τὰς ἄλλας δὲ ποιότητάς τε καὶ δυνάμεις ἐν τῷ μέϲῳ πώϲ ἐϲτιν, οὔτε θερμαίνουσα σαφῶϲ οὔτε ψύχουσα καὶ τοῦ στύφειν τε καὶ ἀπορρύπτειν μετρίως μετέχει. διὸ καὶ τῶν σαρκωτικῶν φαρμάκων, ἃ μετρίωϲ ἐδείχθη ῥυπτικὰ, λείπεται καὶ τῶν συναγόντων δὲ καὶ στυφόντων.

Eye medicaments: Aetius VII 106 (CMG VIII.2, p. 371): Κολλύριον ὁ διὰ τοῦ λιθαργύρου, ὃν Αὔγουστον καλοῦσι. λιθαργύρου κεκαυμένου κτλ.

3. Abbreviation(s) in the papyri

GMP I 11, l. 12 λιθαργυ(ρ-); GMP II 5, l. 23 λιθα̣[ργύ]ρ̣[ο]υ̣; PSI X 1180, II, 44 λιθαργύ(ρoυ); III 11 λιθαργ(ύρoυ).

B. TESTIMONIA - A selection of representative sources

They often occurred in inflammations, most likely in the anal region (cf. Celsus, Med. VI 18.8a [CML I, p. 295.5–6 Marx] condyloma autem est tuberculum, quod ex quadam inflammatione nasci). In medical papyri, this product is used in ophthalmic remedies and poultices. Together with psimithion, a lead carbonate, it is included among the ingredients of a specific anal remedy which was traced back to Herophilus (fl. 330–20/260–50), according to Andromachus ap. Gal. Comp. sec. loc. IX 6 (XIII 308 K) = Herophilus, 259 von Staden (ἑδρικὴ ὡς Ἡρόφιλος).


During the first century AD both Dioscorides of Anazarbos (Mat. med. V 87) and Pliny the Elder (XXXIII § 110) discuss the preparation of lithargyros.

Litharge is prepared by exposing melted lead, at a high temperature, to a current of air from a pair of blast-bellows, which blows off the oxide formed on the surface of the metal into a recipient, where it solidifies in minute scales. It is a protoxide of lead, containing one equivalent of lead and one of oxygen. Sensible and Chemical Properties. This oxide is in small, shining scales, of a yellowish colour usually tinged with red, inodorous and tasteless, fusible and at a high temperature volatilizable, and reducible by heat with charcoal to the metallic state. For practical purposes it may be considered insoluble, though it is said that one part is dissolved by 7000 parts of water. It is wholly dissolved by dilute nitric acid, and is blackened by hydrosulphuric acid. On exposure to the air, it slowly absorbs carbonic acid, and therefore usually contains a little carbonate of lead. Litharge is capable of producing the peculiar effects of lead upon the system, whether taken into the stomach, or inhaled, in the state of vapour or of powder, into the lungs. But it is never used internally. Locally it has the ordinary sedative properties of the metal. It was valued as a drying agent in cleaning impurities and cicatrising skin-wounds.

Medical Uses. It has sometimes been used, sprinkled, in fine powder, on the surface of ulcers; but its almost exclusive employment at present is as an ingredient in various officinal preparations, for which it is very important. I shall notice here those which are considered under no other head.


GAZZA II, 102-103; P.Mich. XVII 758, A.11 and B.14 with commentary; SCHELLER-FRIEBOES, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, p. 595; NIELSEN 1974, p. 54 s.v. plumbum ustum.

Mary Oikonomakou, Herman Mussche, Doris Vanhove, Thilo Rehren, Litharge from Laurion. A medical and metallurgical commodity from South Attika, in  L'antiquité classique  68 (1999),  pp. 299-308.

Litharge from Laurion. A medical and metallurgical commodity from South Attika 


E. CPGM reference(s)

GMP I 11.12; GMP II 5, iii, 23; PSI X 1180, II, 44; III 11; P.Mich. XVII 758, A.11 and B.14; P.Ross.Georg V 52.7; SB XIV 12142.13.

E. DDbDP reference(s)

P.Michael. 36.1; P.Princ III 155.3.


Isabella Andorlini

Accepted term: 09-Mar-2015