The Prolific Galen.

I have only just started James Romm’s LRB review of The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire by Susan Mattern, and I found the first two paragraphs so amazing that I have to share them:

How fortunate you would have been, as a Roman patient of the second century AD, to be attended by Galen, the greatest Greek physician of the age. Galen would have paid housecalls, several times a day if needed, and brought you food. He would have questioned you with earnest concern about the onset and progress of your symptoms. He would have supplied medicines mixed from as many as 64 ingredients. And for all this personal attention, you would not have been charged a fee.

If you were cured – which, to judge by Galen’s own accounts, would have been extremely likely – your recovery might well have been recorded for posterity. Galen loved to discuss successful case histories in his writings, and he was fantastically prolific. A modern tally of his known titles comes to 441, and though most of these works have been lost, the ones that survive still amount to a vast and variegated bibliography. In the prologue to The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire Susan Mattern includes this astounding sentence: ‘The most modern edition of his corpus runs to 22 volumes, including about 150 titles, making up one-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives.’ Galen’s productivity was such that some of his works – On My Own Books and On the Order of My Own Books, for example – were written simply to keep track.

One-eighth of all the classical Greek literature that survives. The mind boggles.


  1. Makes perfect sense. He wasn’t writing literature, he was writing medical texts, which are much more valuable than foreign poetry or tragedies of forgotten gods and heroes. Until, of course, the medical texts become obsolete, but I don’t suppose Galen’s did until, what, the early modern period?

  2. I haven’t read even 1% of 1 of the 22 volumes, even in translation, but I strongly suspect this is the best surviving quotation from Galen: “When people unwittingly eat human flesh, served by unscrupulous restaurant owners and other such people, the similarity to pork is often noted.” (On the Power of Foods 3, quoted in J. C. McKeown, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, p. 161)

  3. It’s even more gobsmacking, if Wiki is right: “So profuse was Galen’s output that the surviving texts represent nearly half of all the extant literature from ancient Greece.” Which would mean that the 22-volume edition only represents a quarter or so of the surviving Galenic corpus.

  4. How big were those volumes?

  5. Assuming Kühn’s volumes are half Greek and half Latin, that would make the total extant Classical Greek corpus about 80,000 pages, which is more than I would have guessed. I wonder how they’re defining “classical” – does anything written in Attic count, into Byzantine times, or is the cutoff point the fall of Rome, or what? (The TLG contains “more than 105 million words”, but that includes practically everything in Greek up until 1453, and some later stuff too.)

  6. I know that the pre-Muslim Persians were interested in Greek thought. Did they tend to read in the original or in translation?

  7. Hat, any chance of adding a Preview button?

    Songdog is working on it, but apparently it’s not a simple matter. I too am nervous at composing my HTML, but of course I can edit it if I get it wrong. I can edit yours too (much more easily than before), so if you screw something up let me know and I’ll fix it.

  8. marie-lucie says

    HTML: Are you unable to just copy-and-paste it, like you do with written text?

  9. Not sure what you mean. If I copy-and-paste, say, the first sentence of the post, I get: “I have only just started James Romm’s LRB review of The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire by Susan Mattern…” If I want the itals and the link, I have to use HTML (i or em and href).

  10. marie-lucie says

    Sorry, perhaps I confuse “HTML” with “URL”?

  11. HTML is the markup language you use to get italics, links, etc.

  12. Thanks LH, I am woefully ignorant about how all those things work.

  13. If you want to preview your text in a crude but helpful way, you can do it like this:

    1) Copy the whole text of your message to the clipboard (Ctrl+A followed by Ctrl+C, or Command+A followed by Command+C on Macs).

    2) Open a new browser tab or window.

    3) Type “data:text/html,” into the address bar (don’t forget the comma).

    4) Paste the copied message into the address bar with Ctrl+V/Command+V.

    5) Press Enter.

    You should now see your message rendered, although it will typically appear in a serif font, and paragraphs marked with blank lines will unfortunately be run together. You can then close the tab or window, or go back to editing your message and repeat the process.

    This definitely works in Firefox and Chrome, and definitely does not work in Internet Exploder. I don’t know about other browsers. If it works on your browser, it will work for all web sites, not just LH.

  14. What’s a “tab”?

  15. Previewing HTML is easy-peasy in Safari. If you’ve got the ‘Develop’ menu (see bottom of ‘Advanced’ Safari preference pane for the check box), you can open a ‘Snippet Editor’. It wouldn’t surprise me if other browsers have a similar gizmo, but I wouldn’t know.

  16. Dearieme: A browser sub-window. Try typing Ctrl+T/Command+T, which should open a new tab in most browsers. Failing that, a new window can usually be opened with Ctrl+N/Command+N. If your mouse has a wheel, clicking on a link with the wheel rather than the left button will typically open the link in a new tab.

    Matt F: I haven’t seen anything like it, but I don’t use Macs (for one thing, I hate the user interface) and so have no experience with Safari. Searching the Chrome and Firefox “stores” (here, perhaps, in the sense of storage facilities, since nothing is sold) turns up nothing useful.

  17. John Cowan: If you want to preview your text . . .

    Terrific! Thanks!

    This site shows how to type right into the address bar and have it show in the browser window. Doesn’t work for me in Firefox, but it does in Chrome.

  18. J. W. Brewer says

    I agree that in order to say that the surviving works of Galen are X% of “classical Greek” anything you need to define your terms and there is no particularly obvious stopping point (and obviously the later your stopping point the bigger your denominator and thus the smaller your %age). There is a coherent sense in which in which the idealized modern notion of “Ancient Greece” is really limited to something that ended before 300 B.C. (death of Alexander in political/historical terms, death of Aristotle in textual terms), following which there is something murky called the Hellenistic period in which people wrote stuff in Greek in much greater (surviving) volume but of less canonicity/numinosity and then something called the Roman Empire during which some considerable number of people (even including Roman Emperors!) for some reason persisted writing stuff in Greek even though any Anglophone schoolboy could have told them that Latin is an easier language to learn. The latest Greek author in the Loeb series seems to be Procopius, but the 6th century seems pretty darn late to be “classical” and including him and not going all the way forward to, oh I don’t know, Anna Comnena six full centuries later seems like a fairly arbitrary line-drawing exercise. (The latest Latin author seems to be Bede, who is imho far too late to be anyone’s credible candidate for “last of the ancients”; maybe stopping w/ Boethius would have been more coherent?)

  19. So maybe Galen was the First Blogger.

  20. The latest Latin author seems to be Bede

    Chronographia tripartita. Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana. Historia Francorum qui ceperunt Iherusalem. Gesta danorum. Summa theologica. De vulgari eloquentia. Apophthegmatum opus. De augmentis scientiarum. Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. Systema naturæ. Prodromus florae Novae Hollandiae. Lingua Latina per se illustrata.

  21. The, dare I say, ‘classical’ way to test html is to create a file with the text and markup and save it as ascii or text only. Name, or rename, the file to end with .html or .htm and open it with your favorite browser.

    WordPress installations may filter out the markup so even if it looks good in your browser doesn’t mean it will come through when you enter it here. A preview button would be good and most WordPress sites have one. Even nicer is the system at Languagelog where the preview appears as you type.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Sorry, make that, to be more explicit, “the latest Latin author deemed ‘classical’ enough to be published in the ‘Loeb Classical Library.'” Harv. Univ. Pr. also publishes similar facing-page translations of much later Latin texts, just not in the Loeb series. For example, they’ve got a volume scheduled for publication this coming spring that’s an anthology of late 16th century Latin poems celebrating the outcome of the Battle of Lepanto, most of which has supposedly never been Englished. Obviously those poets all had non-Latin (although in many/most instances Romance) L1’s. I’m not sure if Bede is the only Loeb Latin author for whom Latin was clearly not his L1.

  23. des von bladet says

    There’s an episode of the excellent BBC radio programme In Our Time on Galen, for those who can handle the listenings.

  24. Alon Lischinsky says

    @J. W. Brewer:

    There is a coherent sense in which in which the idealized modern notion of “Ancient Greece” is really limited to something that ended before 300 B.C. (death of Alexander in political/historical terms, death of Aristotle in textual terms), following which there is something murky called the Hellenistic period

    Loeb seems to consider Hellenistic Greek part of their Classical range; their volume 508 covers a number of post-Alexandrian authors, including the delightful Parthenius.

    I think a more sensible division separates the (mostly) L1 Ancient and Hellenistic writers, from the (mostly) L2 Church Fathers, who wrote in a heavily Hebrew-influenced Greek.

  25. Galen may have been prolific, but is it really clear that every text that is ascribed to Galen is really by him? I’d assume that there are a lot of cases where medicinal texts written by others were later ascribed to Galen to give them greater authority.

  26. J. W. Brewer says

    Indeed, gives information on the considerable corpus of “pseudo-Galenica” (with no doubt changes over time in scholarly views as to the authenticity vel non of a particular work ascribed to Galen in medieval MSS). I don’t know whether Romm excluded those works from his percentage calculations

  27. Even nicer is the system at Languagelog where the preview appears as you type.

    Songdog and I looked at that plugin, but it hasn’t been updated in years, and isn’t compatible with this spiffy new release of WordPress. Ditto for the recently commented-on posts plugin, which is why I developed the current workaround (simple, really, four lines of shell and 22 lines of Perl, code available on request).

  28. J. W. Brewer says

    The entire surviving corpus of pre-death-of-Alexander Greek is really quite small, and using that as a cut-off would be a very recent perspective. By that I mean that the Greek authors I read in translation in college in large freshman-survey non-specialist classes were all from that early period (Homer, the Three Tragedy Guys, Aristophanes-to-lighten-the-mood, Plato, Aristotle, couple-fragments-each-of-a-half-dozen-pre-Socratics – if I’d taken a different non-specialist class I would have also gotten Thucydides), and I believe that That Was No Accident, but reflects the standard view of “Humanities” or “Western Civ” in recent generations. Whereas by contrast a hundred years ago (when the Loeb was getting underway) at least some later authors (e.g. Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius) would have, I think, been more commonly read by non-specialists as basic-Western-Civ canon than they are now. FWIW the Loeb currently has only four volumes of Galen but ten of Hippocrates . . . They also have some of the Greek Fathers, but a minimal and seemingly haphazard selection (Basil but not Chrysostom, for example). But it’s not a closed set and who knows what they might have in the pipeline for the next decade or two given adequate funding.

  29. That Was No Accident, but reflects the standard view of “Humanities” or “Western Civ” in recent generations

    I think that’s right, and it’s a pity, as some of those later authors are very much worth reading, e.g. Lucian. This may be slowly changing, though; in classicist circles there’s been a recentish resurgence of interest in the so-called Second Sophistic.

  30. Yes, Lucian is wonderful; I’ve got the first three OCT volumes (Libelli 1 to 68), and would have gotten more if the unpleasant little bookstore on Astor Place where I was buying them hadn’t gone out of business (deservedly, since they treated customers like crooks). He should definitely be part of Greek curricula — he’s a lot more fun to read than, say, Xenophon.

  31. You “would have gotten more”? There’s only one more to get, and Volume IV lists at $80 ($69.13 at Amazon).
    For those who want the Greek and English, the new Loebolus site ( has the first seven Loeb volumes as slow-to-load but easy-to-read PDFs. (The eighth and last is presumably still in copyright, which is too bad: it includes Lucian’s amusing little verse tragedy on Gout.)

  32. There’s only one more to get, and Volume IV lists at $80 ($69.13 at Amazon).

    See, the unpleasant little bookstore was selling them at $20 a pop, which is why it was patronized despite their unpleasantness — their prices, like their attitudes, were remnants of an earlier and surlier, but cheaper, era. No way I’d pay $80 for anything, let alone a Greek text I would be unlikely to actually read.

  33. Harv. Univ. Pr. also publishes similar facing-page translations of much later Latin texts, just not in the Loeb series.

    HUP has not one but two series fitting this description: the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library and the I Tatti Renaissance Library. I have a couple of books from each series and they do an admirably Loeb-like job in my opinion.

    (Posting mainly because I want more people to buy these books and keep publishing like this alive.)

  34. Another very welcome newcomer is the Clay Sanskrit Library.

    The Loebs are a treasure; in my opinion, they’re the single best way to learn Latin or Greek once you have a basic grasp of the grammar. Reading through a Loeb at a walking pace, with glances at the facing-page translation as needed, is the closest thing to an immersion course in an ancient language you’re likely to get.

  35. Addendum: Sadly, the Clay Sanskrit Library has already gone bust (as the page in TR’s link indicates). They were indeed great, but it’s unfortunate that they didn’t have enough time/money to get key texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata finished. The Murty Classical Library of India has plans to pick up the slack, but they haven’t published anything yet (even though Rupert Snell’s “Bihārī: the seven hundred poems” was supposed to come out in 2013, harrumph.)

  36. Galen is little read or cared about because his surviving works are mainly medical texts which are 1. Outdated and 2. don’t interest many. The first book of On the Natural Faculties does include refutations of sophists, Heraclitus and Anaxagoras so he clearly had a more expansive input into philosophy even if he isn’t remembered for it. My book says he also wrote huge volumes of philosophic works including commentaries on Plato’s Timaeus but they are lost.

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