BMCR 2021.06.17

Galen: a thinking doctor in imperial Rome

, Galen: a thinking doctor in imperial Rome. Routledge ancient biographies. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. xi, 201. ISBN 9780367357221 $120.00.


This concise volume presents some of the fruits of Vivian Nutton’s ‘lifetime’s acquaintance with Galen’ (5). The author has been a leading authority in the field of history of medicine, and, especially, of Galenic medicine, for decades, and it can be said without hesitation that he really knows Galen.[1] Over less than 200 pages, he sketches out a biography that offers a far-reaching survey of Galen’s life, medical philosophy and career, and also explores the ongoing impact of his work on the history of medicine into the modern era. The first pages make it clear that the book covers a much broader ground than can be fully addressed in a concise study, and set the goal of the book as whetting the appetite for those readers who are not closely familiar with Galen’s work.

The book contains an introduction, six main chapters, and a summarizing conclusion. The brief introduction sets the scene by reviewing previous scholarship and explains to the reader that the current volume aims to portray ‘what it must have been like to meet and talk to Galen, whether as friend or patient’ (3). To achieve this, the author explores Galen’s writings for personal ideas, opinions, and actions, which he contextualizes within the broader historical background. The subsequent chapters are ordered by wider themes (e.g. Galen the Thinker) and sections dealing with specific problems are clearly marked by sub-headings (e.g. Galenic Pharmacology).

Chapters 1 and 2 provide a concise but informative overview of Galen’s background and chronologically map his medical career. The reader sees strong influences of Greek intellectual culture on Galen as s/he follows him through his studies and medical beginnings to a lucrative career in Rome, where he had spent most of his life.

The following three chapters revolve around themes central to Galen’s medical practice, which, as the author rightly argues, are still relevant to medical practitioners today. The first of these chapters presents Galen as an observer of both the outer and inner worlds. His long travels around the Mediterranean and Italy, for instance, allowed him to observe, and describe, the impact local climates or customs may have had on health. An important part of this chapter, however, focuses on Galen’s ability and eagerness to observe the body. Studying anatomy is essential for the proper practice of medicine in his view, and the author explains how provocative this attitude has been. As part of this chapter the reader is also introduced to those parts of Galen’s texts where his observations have led him to incorrect conclusions about the human body. The second chapter in this block focuses on Galen’s philosophy and discusses his tactics in presenting arguments. Logical thinking is important for assessing the immediate medical situations in Galen’s view, but he was also not shy about using it for sharp critique of anyone else’s opinions. The last chapter dedicated to Galen’s medical practice introduces his ideas about the patient-doctor relationship and considers how his claims of what constitutes an adept doctor projected into his therapies.

The final chapter of the book, Chapter 6, discusses the views different groups of people had of Galen throughout the centuries after his death. In this chapter the author shows how Galen’s influence became recognized or neglected, or even denounced. It becomes clear that each culture since Galen’s times has perceived his writings differently, ultimately affecting the way in which they have been, and still are, read.

Highlighting an especially interesting section or chapter within the book is not an easy task, and, given the book’s overall goal, it is also unnecessary. There simply is something for everyone. For instance, those readers interested in Galen’s early life and education, or social history of medicine more broadly, will appreciate the early chapters. Conversely, those captivated by Galen’s medical practice and philosophy will enjoy the middle part of the book. Also readers with wider interests in the reception of ancient medicine in later periods will find this rich volume to be worth their while. The book will offer all these readers an easy to grasp introduction to Galen and his medical principles, and equip them with further reading so that they can explore their specific topics of interest more in depth.

The book is well presented and organized. Each chapter closes with detailed notes referring to the specific texts discussed and there is also a generous bibliography at the end. In addition, those readers who are new to Galen’s work will appreciate the appendix, in which the author sets out a table of the titles and abbreviations of Galen’s books. This format is easy to navigate and will provide a useful guide to anyone unfamiliar with these texts.

Errors are kept to the absolute minimum, but despite clear and careful editing work, a limited number of typos remain (e.g. 4; 81). There is nothing, however, that would detract from the author’s overall meaning. The text could perhaps be enriched by more direct quotations from Galen’s work, and the author could also have included the original language for those excerpts that he decided to quote (e.g. 67; 102). Having said that, the author discusses plentiful illustrative examples from Galen’s texts, which are all carefully referenced and, thanks to the appendix, easy to follow up even for an inexperienced reader. Since the book is mostly aimed at such an audience, the author can easily be forgiven for this omission.

All in all, the book provides an engaging read throughout and I have no doubt that it will fulfil the author’s wishes of ‘persuading others to dip into some of Galen’s writings’ (6). It will be well enjoyed by students looking for a digestible and informative introduction to Galen as well as by enthusiasts from beyond the academic setting.


[1] E.g., Nutton, V. 2012. Ancient Medicine (2nd Ed.). Oxford: Routledge;
Nutton, V. 2011. Galen: On Problematical Movements. Text, Translation, and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Nutton, V. (ed.). 2002. The Unknown Galen. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Suppl. 77; Nutton, V. 1999. Galen: On My Own Opinions. Text, Translation, and Commentary. Berlin: Akademie Verlag; Nutton, V. 1987. John Caius and the Manuscripts of Galen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Nutton, V. (ed.). 1981. Galen, Problems and Prospects. London: The Wellcome Institute; Nutton, V. 1979. Galen: On Prognosis. Text, Translation, and Commentary. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.