BMCR 2014.01.29

Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman World

, Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii, 334. ISBN 9780199767670 $29.95.

Mattern Preview

Boudon-Millot Table of Contents

One of these books begins with a story about stinky cheese. The other begins with the perfumes of Asia. This contrast does not say anything about the quality of the works; both books offer an accessible, well-written biography of the physician Galen resting on a solid foundation of scholarship. Both authors, as we shall see, find similar solutions to a difficulty that inevitably arises when anyone attempts to write a biography of a figure from the ancient world. Their opening anecdotes, however, may reveal their different attitudes toward the person who is their subject.

Susan Mattern begins with an anecdote about Galen: on the spur of the moment one day, he compounded a remedy for gout from some especially ripe cheese that happened to be at hand. A faint wrinkling of the nose can be detected from time to time in Mattern’s approach to Galen. His defects of character, she writes, “will be obvious even to the casual reader” of her book; “he might be diagnosed with a personality disorder, once megalomania, today narcissism” (4). Mattern is far from alone in finding Galen hard to like, but she is fair to him even so: she goes out of her way to place his personality in the context of the hyper-competitive intellectual culture of the Second Sophistic, and she demonstrates his admirable qualities: drive, intellectual curiosity, self-discipline, outstanding powers of observation, and (but here one might argue) “a profound understanding of human nature” (4).

Boudon-Millot, on the other hand, gives us a Galen who is almost likable. From a passage in which the physician reviews the properties of different kinds of honey ( Antid. 1.4), she derives a picture of Galen, resident in Rome, nostalgically recalling the smell of thyme and oregano on the hills of his native Asia Minor (16). Galen twice describes his sudden departure from Rome in 166, first in On Prognosis ( Praecog. 9) and again, twenty years later, in On My Own Books ( Libr. Prop. 1). The two accounts differ markedly, both in rhetoric and in the motive that Galen claims for his actions. Boudon-Millot takes him at his word and reconciles both explanations. Faced with the growing hatred of his colleagues and the beginnings of an epidemic, Galen acted on a plan that he had long contemplated and returned to his native Pergamum.1 Contrast Mattern: it is “difficult to make sense” of Galen’s account of his motives (188); he is “possibly disingenuous” or at least his “feelings were probably mixed” (189).

Although both books are firmly anchored in their authors’ deep knowledge of scholarship on Galen and ancient medicine, it is possible to detect slight differences in their intended audiences. Mattern writes for a general audience, and her book reminded me in many ways of Adrienne Mayor’s best-selling biography of Mithradates.2 This audience will admire the way in which Mattern wrings as much as she can from the few anecdotes available about Galen’s life. Her Roman world is full of color and stink, and her past is very much a foreign country. Sometimes exoticism and vividness come at the cost of slight exaggeration or loss of nuance, as seems to happen, for example, in Mattern’s dramatic account of Galen’s refutation of two Erasistrateans who insisted that the aorta contained no blood ( Anat. Admin. 7.16). Galen’s students put up 1,000 denarii as a stake, and one after another Galen’s two opponents bungled the vivisection. Finally the master applied his scalpel and demonstrated that the animal’s great artery contained blood. Mattern highlights the strangeness of this tale. “The implication . . . that he [Galen] or his students could be found wandering the streets of Rome with a small herd of farm animals, a huge supply of silver coins . . . a stash of medical equipment and an entourage of assistants, friends, and supporters, ready to truss and vivisect their victims on a moment’s notice and presumably splashing spectators and the city’s streets with gore, may seem far-fetched, but it is hard to see how else to interpret this passage” (160). Nothing in Galen’s account, however, requires us to suppose that this Sophistic contest took place spontaneously, out-of-doors, or on a single day. Mattern is appropriately cautious (the contests “seem improvised and informal” and “probably happened in a public place”), but her picture of Galen and his students, tunics hitched up and fingers on scalpels, bad boys cruising the streets of Rome just looking for a competitive vivisection, owes more to the need to enliven her narrative than to the ancient evidence.

Boudon-Millot, perhaps because she has a slightly different readership in mind, takes a more refined view of Galen’s anatomical demonstrations. She draws a distinction (137) between the mostly private, fairly frequent dissections conducted for a small audience of patrons, students, and colleagues, and the much less common public vivisections. These theatrical presentations of anatomical skill and knowledge, she holds, required advance planning—those animals had to be obtained, fed, and housed for the several days that the performance ran—and extensive rehearsal on dead victims. Boudon-Millot spares hardly a word for the vivisected animals: the screams of the ape whose intestines Galen removed from the abdominal cavity and then restored simply add to the performance.3 In making essentially the same point, Mattern highlights Galen’s ruthlessness and the animals’ suffering: “He drowned animals, starved them, inflicted unimaginable suffering by vivisecting them, without hesitation or apparent remorse; the pain, and the animal’s screams, were part of the show” (154).

Boudon-Millot’s relative restraint suggests a different view of her audience. Her implied readers take a cooler, more detached approach to the ancient world than Mattern’s; it is more familiar to them, and they do not need to be impressed by its strangeness and horror. Further, an endnote a page in length will not drive them to some less demanding book. Boudon-Millot, that is, writes for a professional or academic audience—an M.D. or a Ph.D. in history, let’s say, who want to know something about Galen. Her book is longer than Mattern’s and richer in detail, but clearly superior only in its treatment of Galenic reception. Mattern writes for enthusiastic non-academic readers, undergraduates perhaps, who need an introduction to imperial Rome along with their biography of Galen and who will not look at notes unless they are at the bottom of the page. Both kinds of popularization are necessary and difficult, and both these authors do it well; I am tempted to suggest that Mattern has chosen the harder task.

Galen’s writings include two intellectual biographies, On My Own Books ( Libr. Propr. and On the Order of My Own Books ( Ord. Libr. Propr), the recently re-discovered memoir-like Avoiding Distress ( Ind.), and personal anecdotes scattered through the rest of a corpus that makes up about ten per cent of surviving Greek literature. Mattern and Boudon-Millot nevertheless face the challenge that confronts anyone who attempts to write a biography of a figure from the ancient world: what we know about them, when we know anything at all, is not what we want to know. The biographer wants accurate chronology, an account of childhood and youth and of the events of adulthood, and insight into the development of the subject: how did he (or she) become the person known to history? None of this can be known with certainty for Galen. Even the date of his death must be inferred.4

Mattern and Boudon-Millot find similar solutions to this challenge. Both authors situate their subject in the social and intellectual world of the high Roman Empire; Mattern’s book, in fact, could almost serve as an introduction to the world of the Second Sophistic. To the extent that Galen is representative of this world, probabilities can substitute for certainty and give color and shading to the basic contours of a life; thus Galen probably did rent a house on his arrival in Rome (Boudon-Millot 122), and those who witnessed Galen’s revival of a comatose patient probably did express their amazement (Mattern 242). Phrases like “must have been” and “ il n’est pas impossible ” pepper these books. Where chronology is uncertain, also, both Mattern and Boudon-Millot organize material by theme. Boudon-Millot, for example, discusses Galen’s travels in pursuit of knowledge in a single chapter (“À la découverte du monde,” 103-119), even though they must have taken place over many decades. In a series of chapters, Mattern combines biographical material with emphasis on some aspect of Galen’s doctrine and practice; Galen’s early career in Rome, for example, serves as a framework on which to organize his practice of anatomy (“Anatomy and Boethus,” 139-186).

We are lucky to have two excellent new biographies of Galen that complement but do not substitute for each other. Boudon-Millot’s work supplants her 83-page précis of Galen’s life in the first volume of the Budé Galen,5 and Mattern’s is now the liveliest introduction to Galen in English. Buy and read them both. Recommend Boudon-Millot to your colleagues in other departments and give Mattern to your undergraduates.


1. “Confronté à la haine croissante de ses collégues et aux débuts d’une épidémie qui s’annonçait comme particuliérement virulente, Galien n’a sans doute pas advantage hésité à mettre à execution un dessein mûri de longue date” (165).

2. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Greatest Enemy (Princeton 2011).

3. Ce dernier [c.à-d. le singe] qui était bien évidemment vivant devait, par ses hurlements, ajouter encore au spectacle (90).

4. A clear account at V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London: Routledge 2004), 226-7, and Boudon-Millot 241-244.

5. Galien: Introduction Générale (Paris: Les Belles Lettres 2007, vii-xc. In that work, as she says, Boudon-Millot concentrates on those events in Galen’s life to which precise dates may be assigned and confines herself to “la simple evocation des episodes moins connus pour lesquels linformation nous fait défaut” (vii).