BMCR 2001.04.23

Galen on Food and Diet

, , Galen on food and diet. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (ix, 214 pages). ISBN 0203170458. $25.99.

After his very useful translation of the books on diet from the medical compilations of Oribasius ( Dieting for an Emperor, Leiden: 1997), Mark Grant has now turned his considerable skills as a translator and interpreter of ancient diet and cuisine to a number of Galen’s treatises concerning food.

Galen, the Greek physician who lived in the Roman empire of the Antonine age, cast a long shadow over European medicine, retarding its development, one may well argue, for a millennium or more. Through his voluminous writings his conceptualization of the body in health and disease, together with the methods of healing he championed, governed medical thought and practice up to the very recent past. A survey of present day popular literature on diet and health, on the hotly claimed powers of various foods to prevent or cause cancer or provide protection against aging and other ills, would make one think that we still are in the grip of the famous Greek philosophic physician. All the more timely and useful is Grant’s attempt to make Galen’s writing on food accessible for those who cannot read Greek.

In the Introduction Grant places Galen in the historical context in which he lived and produced his works. After a short sketch of Galen’s life, this chapter discusses Galen’s place in ancient medicine, his relationship to the Hippocratic tradition, and the place and importance of diet in both medical theory and therapeutic practice. Grant’s appraisal of Galen’s importance in his own time is heavily dependent on the Pergamene physician’s own evaluation of himself, and he was not noted for modesty!

The major dietetic treatises of Galen are the three books contained under the title On the Powers of Food, but since these would be completely beyond comprehension or misinterpreted if read with a modern conception of the physiology and anatomy of the human body, Grant prefaces these with translation of other treatises, well chosen for the purpose of enabling the reader to enter into an alien mindset, one that created an imaginary inner world of the human body, whose necessary but extremely labile equilibrium is constantly and dangerously exposed to both internal and external forces. Once the reader grasps this strange theory of how the body was believed to function, he/she might grasp more easily the importance of fine and minute distinctions concerning the ‘powers’ of foods, the ‘temperaments’ of bodies and all the interactions of these with age, gender, seasons of the year, and other factors. One may then begin to see how complex the healing art was and how the increasing complexity of the arcane knowledge informed medical practice and how it bolstered the self respect of the medical profession. Chapter 2 is a translation of On the Humors, which is now believed not to be Galen’s own work, but it is a rather faithful rendering of the humoral theory.

The following chapters enlarge on the theory of the humors: On Black Bile details the importance of maintaining the balance of the humors in the body; On Uneven Bad Temperament describes the consequences of any loss of this balance; On the Causes of Disease specifies the diseases that follow and discusses them against a different dimension, that of ‘quality’ i.e. whether the diseases are ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘wet’ or ‘dry’.

The treatise On Barley Soup is the last of these works that are included in the book in order to provide an understanding of Galen’s reasoning. This last one also provides some insights into the Greek doctor’s personality, his highly elevated self-appraisal and his polemical style.

The last three chapters translate Galen’s three books On the Powers of Food. The first book deals mainly with grains (some vegetables), the second mostly with vegetables and fruits and the third with meat and other animal products. Since the purpose is to describe the ‘powers’ of food, it should be understood that Galen is discussing food as therapeutic tool. Food that is ‘average in power’ is just food, it cannot be used as medicine. The power of food, however, is not an absolute quality, it has to be related carefully to the powers or temperament of the individual stomach and intestines, the condition of which may vary according to the owner’s nature, age, gender, life-style, etc. Consequently, a good doctor cannot give general advice, his task and expertise is in fitting the appropriate food to each and every body in each and every condition a body may find itself.

A translator’s job is never an easy one, especially when confronting Galen’s text. This reviewer has only admiration and respect for Grant’s effort and his success in his undertaking, since she once tried her hand at translating On the Powers of Food and found the task most unrewarding. Galen often remarks that he does not aim at a refined Attic style, he writes in common, everyday Greek, for he wants to be clearly understood. His writing is often heavy, opaque and ungraceful. Added to this, the doctor’s attempt to make his skill appear as a highly developed art which only a very few can master, based on theories that even the ‘best doctors’ among his contemporaries often failed to understand, makes rendering it into a readable English, very difficult. On the other hand, paraphrasing Galen, in order to put it into a more stylish English, would carry the danger of interpretation influenced by a more modern mentality, or just by an urge to make some sense of a text that may not have made very much sense to the common reader even when it was written. Grant’s translation keeps very close to the Greek, letting both Galen’s ideas and his argumentative self-aggrandizing persona come through the text. There are a few places where he substitutes a more understandable concept, for example, using ‘digestion’ for Galen’s pepsis; these do not seem to mislead the reader too far.

The book will be very useful for students of both ancient medicine and diet. The wide range of foodstuffs, especially meat, that Galen reviews in his treatises should make some historians of Greco-Roman diet rethink the common dogma that people around the ancient Mediterranean lived mostly on a vegetarian diet, while only the wealthy few were able to afford meat. This slim volume will be appreciated even by scholars who could read it in Greek, but who, like the present reviewer, fail to see the beauty in Galen’s prose. It is increasingly recognized today that food and diet are important aspects of culture and that understanding a society’s food related customs and ideas contributes in important ways to the understanding of its social and cultural history. It is hoped that Grant will continue his work on ancient texts on food and diet, making more of these easily available to students of the ancient world.