BMCR 2003.09.03

Galen on the Properties of Foodstuffs. Introduction, Translation and Commentary, with a foreword by John Wilkins

, , Galen on the properties of foodstuffs = De alimentorum facultatibus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xxvi, 206 pages). ISBN 0511064624. $55.00.

The translation of ancient Greek texts is a praiseworthy enterprise that opens these texts and, to some extent, the world in which they were produced, to a wider reading public. In the case of the voluminous writings that the second century physician Galen left behind, it is even more so. Translation of Galen into readable English is an accomplishment that should be welcomed even by scholars with good command of Greek, since the ancient philosophic doctor’s writing style is often convoluted, opaque and ungraceful, belying his often repeated claim that he aimed for clarity.

The modern obsession with diet, which, in its more salutary form, is impressing upon even some historians the importance of food and diet in the understanding of societies, has meant that Galen’s writings on food now have a number of English translations. The present one, coming about three years after Mark Grant’s Galen on Food and Diet, contains the translation of the three books that constitute Galen’s De alimentorum facultatibus, with a foreword by John Wilkins and an introduction and commentary by the translator.

In his foreword to the book, Wilkins says he himself will describe the social and historical background and Galen’s place and importance in it, while the translator, in addition to a faithful rendering of Galen’s text into English will, in his introduction and commentaries describe the physiology of the digestive system as envisaged by Galen and compare this with the understanding of the same by modern medical science. Powell is not only an Honorary Research Fellow in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland but is also a retired physician, a gastroenterologist, and thus eminently qualified for this task.

The translation manages excellently the balance between the need for clarity and the need to express in English the style and the personality of Galen reflected in that style. In comparison with the earlier translation by Grant, mentioned above, the present one may be slightly more successful in conveying the cumbersome character of Galen’s prose, while Grant’s rendering is somewhat smoother in the interest of clarity.

Grant, who is not a physician but a classicist and an expert cook, prefaced his translation of Galen’s three books with translations of five other ancient medical texts, relying on these to give the reader an insight into the way Galen imagined the workings of the digestive system. Powell takes it upon himself to explain Galen’s convoluted and fanciful physiology. His introductory chapters do a very good job of it. They contain a section on the place of food in the medicine of antiquity, one on the notion of ‘regimen’, followed by a discussion of Galen as researcher (on this see more below) and an attempt to explain Galen’s concept of ‘dynamis’, which he translates as ‘properties’ to avoid ambiguities that had attached themselves to the term ‘faculties’, used in earlier literature for the Greek term. Next he discusses Galen’s central concepts of ‘humours’ and ‘qualities’, continuing with a valiant attempt to make the reader understand Galen’s theories on digestion and nutrition, and finally he gives a cursory glance at Galen’s polemics against the Atticizers on the use of language. At the end of his introductory section he gives a very detailed and useful glossary of Galen’s medical and scientific terminology. This excellent preparation for the understanding of the text would have benefited greatly from a description of the human digestive system as it is understood by modern physiology. This, as was mentioned above, was promised at the outset and would have been expected from a translator who is a physician himself.

Instead of showing how alien Galen’s views are to modern science, Powell’s aim often seems to be to rescue Galen and to read into him a glimmering of our present understanding. For example, Galen’s dictum (p. 45) that “it is always the case that everything superfluous in the body runs to the weakest site and produces effect in them according to its own nature” obviously flows from one of the cornerstones of his theory, namely that what is common in all the diseases is ‘plethos’ which is an excess of bad blood, blood mixed with ‘residues’, which, if not excreted, would wander about the body, settle in weak parts and there cause ‘putrefaction’. The commentary on this passage (p. 166) states: “This is an important statement, which is no less true today” and brings the example of osteoarthritis developing on the locus of a previous injury or uric acid being deposited in the joints in gout. The first example instantiates the vulnerability of an already weakened body part, while the second the accumulation of some substance in a body part, but neither has anything more than at most a slight metaphorical relationship to the underlying theory that Galen intended to illustrate, i.e. the effects of ‘bad blood’, blood with unconcocted humours in it, accumulating in some body part and there causing ‘putrefaction’. The observation that weak parts are more prone to further damage is based on common experience and hardly needs medical insight.

I am not faulting Dr. Powell’s efforts to rescue Galen’s image as a brilliant physician who has some wisdom to impart to modern medicine as its forerunner. He is not alone in his efforts; historians of medicine, looking for the roots of their science, have been doing it for a long time. As a result of their work we know a lot about Galen, about his birthplace, his excellent and all-inclusive education, his extensive travels, his experiments and eyewitness observations and his enormous success in Rome. This is summarised in Powell’s introduction. All of it, unfortunately, comes from Galen himself! How much of his autobiography can be believed depends upon a close reading of his often contradictory or grandiose claims and on setting these against what is known of the social and historical context. The task that Wilkins, who is Reader in Greek literature at the University of Exeter, takes up in his foreword is to describe the context in which Galen was writing and the methods he used in attempting to collect and classify foods in the treatise. His chapter is too short to do this task complete justice and his treatment is also based entirely on Galen’s own claims. Wilkins clearly acknowledges that Galen’s omniscience, ostensibly based on research, experiment and field work is a means for him to claim authority and status. But he does not follow the implications of this insight. ‘Auctoritas’ was an age-old Roman aristocratic concept. A man with ‘auctoritas’ was an expert in important aspects of life who could advise and lead others, a repository of wisdom, who was born to rule. To Galen, who was not born into a Roman aristocracy, who came to Rome, like many of his fellow Greeks, to make his fame and fortune among the aristocracy, presenting the image of an omniscient expert, the possessor of ‘auctoritas’ based on unfailing and inexhaustible knowledge, must have been of paramount importance. To keep in mind the possibility that Galen felt a strong need to present himself as an authoritative expert in all things and all fields, from philosophy through medicine to philology, in the extremely competitive world of Greek intellectuals congregating in imperial Rome, may caution against uncritically accepting all of his ponderous pronouncements as results of experiment and autopsy. As both Wilkins and Powell point out, few things are original with Galen, whose research appears to be mostly in the library. Despite this, both Wilkins and Powell emphasize Galen’s research and autopsy. As mentioned above, in his introduction Powell devotes a section to Galen as researcher, but he concentrates his efforts on explaining the factors that may have prevented Galen from making progress in his investigations. The exposition would have benefitted greatly from a more detailed discussion of Galen’s actual methods and how these may have differed from what we today understand as research, experiment and systematic observation in science.

These critical remarks are not meant to lessen the merit of a very useful translation of an important and difficult Greek text and the careful attempt in the introductory chapters and the commentary to clarify the concepts Galen uses in the text.

The book will be of interest to physicians who wish to learn about the ancient history of their art and about the authoritative theories which by their long-reaching influence retarded the development of European medicine for more than a millennium. It will also be useful to students of the fascinating era of intellectual history of the second century, often referred to as the Second Sophistic, of which Galen was a true representative. And, naturally, it will be interesting to students of ancient diet, not least as a catalogue of what could be eaten, or what could be rumored or imagined as eaten around the far-flung empire of the Romans.