Jean Jacques Barthélemy (1716-1795) French writer and numismatist, was born on the 20th of January 1716 at Cassis, in Provence. He was educated first at the college of the Oratory in Marseilles, and afterwards at that of the Jesuits in the same city. While studying for the priesthood, which he intended to join, he devoted much attention to oriental languages, and was introduced by his friend M. Gary of Marseilles to the study of classical antiquities, particularly in the department of numismatics. In 1744 he went to Paris with a letter of introduction to M. Gros de Boze, perpetual secretary of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres and keeper of the royal collection of medals. He became assistant to de Boze, on whose death (1753) he became keeper of the medals. In 1755 he accompanied the French ambassador, M. de Stainville, afterwards duc de Choiseul, to Italy, where he spent three years in archaeological research. Choiseul had a great regard for Barthélemy, and on his return to France, Barthélemy became an inmate of his house, and received valuable preferments from his patron. In 1789, after the publication of his Voyage du jeune Anacharsis, he was elected a member of the French Academy. During the Revolution Barthélemy was arrested as an aristocrat.
The Committee of Public Safety, however, were no sooner informed by the duchess of Choiseul of the arrest, than they gave orders for his immediate release, and in 1793 he was nominated librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He refused this post but resumed his old functions as keeper of medals, and enriched the national collection by many valuable accessions. Barthélemy died on the 30th of April 1795.
Barthélemy was the author of a number of learned works on antiquarian subjects, but the great work on which his fame rests is Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce, vers le milieu du quatrième siècle avant l'ère chrétienne (4 vols., 1787). He had begun it in 1757 and had been working on it for thirty years. The hero, a young Scythian descended from the famous philosopher Anacharsis, is supposed to repair to Greece for instruction in his early youth, and after making the tour of her republics, colonies and islands, to return to his native country and write this book in his old age, after the Macedonian hero had overturned the Persian empire. In the manner of modern travellers, he gives an account of the customs, government and antiquities of the country he is supposed to have visited; a copious introduction supplies whatever may be wanting in respect to historical details; whilst various dissertations on the music of the Greeks, on the literature of the Athenians, and on the economy, pursuits, ruling passions, manners and customs of the surrounding states supply ample information on the subjects of which they treat.
Modern scholarship has superseded most of the details in the Voyage, but the author himself did not imagine his book to be a register of accurately ascertained facts; he rather intended to afford to his countrymen, in an interesting form, some knowledge of Greek civilization. The Charicles of W. A. Becker is an attempt in a similar direction, but, though superior in scholarship, it wants the charm of style of the Anacharsis.
Barthélémy's correspondence with Paolo Paciaudi, chiefly on antiquarian subjects, was edited with the Correspondance inédite du comte de Caylus in 1877 by Ch. Nisard; his letters to the comte de Caylus were published by Antoine Serieys as Voyage en Italie (1801); and his letters to Mme du Deffand, with whom he was on intimate terms, in the Correspondance complète de Mme du Deffand avec la duchesse de Choiseul, l'abbé Barthélemy et M. Craufurt (3 vols., 1866), edited by the marquis de Sainte-Aulaire. See also Mémoires sur la vie de l'abbé Barthélemy, écrits par lui-même (1824), with a notice by Lalande. His oeuvres complètes (4 vols. 1821), contain a notice by Villenave.