Galen and His Books


by Dr Lee T. Pearcy, Bryn Mawr College


Imagine that you have gathered your furniture, your computer, your precious possessions, perhaps art you have made, your journal or your family photographs, all the things that cannot be replaced, and locked them in a rented storage facility that, you are assured, is fireproof and guarded by soldiers. Now imagine that the unthinkable happens. The storage facility has caught fire, and everything that you put there has been destroyed. Would you grieve at the loss?


In a.d. 192 fire broke out near the center of Rome and quickly spread to the Temple of Peace next to the Forum. The great building’s wooden superstructure and the artworks and treasures displayed inside went up in flames. The Forum itself and the Temple of Vesta were soon burning, and the fire even spread to the imperial palaces on the Palatine. A century earlier the emperor Domitian had built a huge complex of warehouses next to the Temple of Peace to store pepper and other imported spices. These too were caught up in the blaze, and fragrant smoke spread over the city.


Private citizens could rent space in these warehouses, the Horrea Piperataria or Pepper Warehouse and the Horrea Vespasiani next to it. The physician Galen had rented one of these storage rooms. It contained, he tells us, not only gold and silver, silverware, and financial documents—Galen was a wealthy man—but also things that were far more important to him: his books, including many rare and irreplaceable volumes; large quantities of expensive, hard to find ingredients for medicines; and medical instruments, along with wax models of instruments that he had invented. Other professional and learned men had also rented space in the warehouses, and some of them were prostrated by grief at their losses; one of them, the literary scholar Philippides, committed suicide when he learned that his books had been lost. Yet Galen seemed unaffected by the loss of so many of his most valuable possessions. How, his friends wondered, was he able to remain so unmoved? They were not surprised that he bore the loss of money, financial documents, and treasured furniture so calmly; what astonished them was that he could endure the loss of his books and professional equipment.


We know all this because Galen answered his friends in a treatise called On the Avoidance of Grief, and because in 2005, Antoine Pietrobelli, a young scholar investigating manuscripts in the Vlatadon monastery in Thessaloniki, found the treatise miscataloged in a collection of Galen’s autobiographical writings. Galen mentions On the Avoidance of Grief in one of his other works, On My Own Books, but it had not been heard of since the thirteenth century, when a physician named Joseph ibn Aknin translated bits of it into Arabic. The first printed edition, edited by the French scholar Véronique Boudon-Millot and Pietrobelli, was published in 2007.


Books were important to Galen. He wrote a lot—or rather, dictated a lot to his slave secretaries. His surviving writings run to more than 20,000 pages in the most nearly complete modern edition and amount to about ten per cent of all ancient Greek literature before a.d. 350. As the example of On the Avoidance of Grief shows, new or newly rediscovered works continue to add to this total. During his lifetime he was a famous physician, consulted by leading families in Rome and by the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and his writings made him even more influential after his death. Galen, in fact, may be the most important physician between Hippocrates in the fifth century b.c. and William Harvey in the seventeenth century a.d. His ideas shaped the study of medicine in Europe until Harvey’s lifetime and beyond; in fact, that 20,000-page modern edition, published between 1821 and 1833, has an index that shows it was intended for the use of physicians, not classical scholars. Galen’s ideas, as filtered by the great Persian scholar Ibn Sina (980–1037) remain the foundation of Yunani or Unani (that is, “Ionian” or Greek) medicine, a major tradition in the modern Islamic world.


Galen thought of himself as a physician before all else, and if I had been ill in the second century, I would have wanted him at my bedside. Despite this, many of his writings are philosophical or linguistic in nature, because, as he explains in his short book, The Best Physician is Also a Philosopher, he believed that medicine was philosophy in action. Galen never wrote an autobiography in the strict sense, but he tells us a great deal about himself along the way to talking about medicine and philosophy; On the Avoidance of Grief, for example, uses Galen’s story of how he responded to the loss of his property as a springboard to launch into a philosophical account of the arguments in favor of suppressing emotion. One thing that we learn is that he was not very good at suppressing emotion, or at least some kinds of emotion.


Galen was intensely competitive. He delights in telling stories about cases where he was called in after all other physicians had given up or occasions when he was able to score a victory in debate. Once, after his treatise On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body had gained a reputation, a rumor went around the city that in it he had described anatomical structures that could not be seen in dissection. At first, he tells us, “my only response was contemptuous amusement,” but soon his friends (he says) begged him to give a public demonstration of his skill and knowledge. He refused, but his rivals kept going to the Temple of Peace, where people interested in learned matters met, and making fun of him. Finally Galen gave in, hired a hall, and over several days gave a demonstration that was part anatomical lesson, part medical history lecture, and part theatre. Books were part of the act. Galen piled the books of all the writers on anatomy in front of him and challenged the audience to name a part of the body; Galen would then dissect it—using animals, not human cadavers—and show how his description differed from those of his predecessors. Needless to say, Galen succeeded—and got another book, the now lost Lycus’ Ignorance in Anatomy, out of the experience. (He tells the story in chapter 2 of On My Own Books.)


Galen was not the only one to delight in public intellectual competition; in fact, his competitive streak puts him firmly in the context of the cultural movement called the Second Sophistic. Galen was born in a.d. 129 and died sometime in the first decades of the third century. During his lifetime public intellectuals or “sophists” dominated public life in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman world. Sophists were celebrities, rhetorical rock stars who wielded rhetoric, the art of speaking in public, like a weapon in their public performances. Galen belongs in their company.


No one would now consult Galen’s writings for medical advice, but modern-day philosophers and historians of philosophy have rediscovered him as a philosopher and scientist who belongs in the company of Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Archimedes. His vivid accounts of his practice bring the high Roman Empire to life. Finally, Galen himself provokes a response from readers. From his pages he emerges as competitive, cranky, disciplined, humorless, and self-absorbed—not, for most readers, a likable man, but without question a great physician and philosopher.






Fortunately we now have two excellent biographical introductions to Galen, one in English and one in French: Susan P. Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford 2013) and Véronique Boudon-Millot, Galien de Pergame: un médecin grec à Rome (Paris 2012); I reviewed both at Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.29 (online at Galen: Selected Works, translated by P. N. Singer in the Oxford World’s Classics series (1997) contains a useful choice from Galen’s works, including On My Own Books and The Best Physician is Also a Philosopher. A translation of On the Avoidance of Grief can be found in Galen: Psychological Writings, a volume in the new Cambridge Galen Translations, edited by P. N. Singer (2013). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Galen,”, gives a good introduction to Galen as a philosopher. On Galen and the Second Sophistic, the chapter on Galen in G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969) remains useful. For ancient medicine in general, see G. Majno, The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (1975) and V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine (2004).