BMCR 2024.03.29

Galen: writings on health. Thrasybulus and Health (De sanitate tuenda)

, Galen: writings on health. Thrasybulus and Health (De sanitate tuenda). Cambridge Galen translations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. xxv, 510. ISBN 9781009159517.



This impressive book is the third volume to appear in the Cambridge Galen Translations Series (general editor: Philip J. van der Eijk), after Psychological Writings (2013) and Works on Human Nature, Volume I: Mixtures (De temperamentis (2018)), with six in the pipeline and still more, one may assume, to follow. This English translation of Health,[1] Galen’s opus magnum on what today is called preventive medicine, was preceded, only recently, by Ian Johnston’s for the Loeb series (with facing Greek text)[2] and the older one by Robert Montraville Green.[3] The Loeb also includes the smaller treatise Thrasybulus—a more polemical discussion in favour of the thesis that health maintenance is to be subsumed under medicine rather than gymnastic—as well as the charming little tract On Exercise with a Small Ball, which has not been included in the present volume. Thrasybulus was translated several years ago by Peter Singer himself in his much used but sold-out translation of selected works by Galen.[4]

For a long time, the six books of Health shared in the general neglect of Galen and indeed to a greater degree than other works, in spite of its considerable influence in (early) modern times. Yet this is a work very central to Galen’s system of medicine and its antecedents, both medical and philosophical. Running through Galen’s numerous prescriptions aimed at securing physical well-being is his persistent concern with maintaining the balance between the body’s physical constituents. In doing so, Galen provides invaluable glimpses of daily life, practices and attitudes (e.g. towards old age and children) in the Roman Empire of the 2nd century, albeit one from an elitist, male and urban point of view. This should make it of special interest not only to historians of medicine and philosophy, but to social and cultural historians. The appearance of this rich volume may be expected to mark the end of this neglect among scholars of various ilk. It may also stimulate reflection on contemporary medicine by all those interested in taking their point of view from a much earlier stage of medical thought and practice, less technological but more orientated towards a preventive approach to human health and well-being.

As Singer and Van der Eijk (in his introduction to the entire series, which is here included with some adaptations) argue, the present volume, in keeping with the format chosen for the series in general, offers more than a sparsely annotated translation but aims to provide a fuller presentation of the works concerned—a feature to which I will return. In addition, there are extensive introductions to Galen and his work, to the tradition of ancient works on health, glossaries (Greek-English and English-Greek), indexes, an overview of textual deviations from modern editions as well as a guide to Galen’s works. In a separate section, Singer explains his policy (and dilemmas) as a translator, who faces special challenges when it comes to translating terms for body-parts and diseases, minerals and plants: here one-to-one correspondences are often unavailable to the translator (pp. xviii-xxv). The following Introduction covers many aspects of Galenic medicine, all of which are, in one way or another, relevant to the contents of Health, but almost add up to a comprehensive presentation. Problems of translation receive attention in many notes to the translated text. One welcomes this transparency in a translator, who shares his dilemmas and difficulties, inviting readers to think for themselves.

When Galen transformed from a medical authority into an object of historical scholarship in the later 19th and early 20th century, it was German philologists who first set about producing better editions of his works. Singer bases his translation of Thrasybulus on the edition by Georg Helmreich in volume III of the Teubner Claudii Galeni Scripta Minora (1893) and that of Health on Konrad Koch’s edition in volume V 4.2 of the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum series, which was published in 1923 (also, at the time, by Teubner). Both these editions represent real advances on the texts printed in C.G. Kühn’s still not wholly superseded Opera Omnia edition (Leipzig 1821-1833), but even so, since their editions, a lot of research on the manuscript tradition of Galen has been done in the context of further editorial work on Galenic treatises, leading to some amendments of Helmreich’s and Koch’s view of the MS tradition. This shows that one should not always follow uncritically Helmreich’s heavy reliance on Laurentianus plut. LXXIV, 3 (L) or Koch’s strong preference for Marcianus 276 (M) at the expense of Reginensis 173 (R) and Marcianus 282 (V). The tradition of Thrasybulus, incidentally, gains additional interest because of Galen’s quotations from Plato, which occasionally diverge from the text offered by modern Plato editions. At any rate, Singer has also taken the opportunity to adopt different readings than the above editions—some fifty instances—where this seemed fit (listed on pp. 410-413).

Van der Eijk compares the Cambridge Galen Translations with Sorabji’s Aristotelian Commentators series or the CUP’s series of translations of Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (p. xi), which aim to go beyond translations with a limited use of notes in the customary way: the reader is offered a much fuller form of guidance whereby the notes function more as a commentary without constituting one in the formal sense. (One may also compare the Budé series for Galen, also a work in progress, which provides new editions of the Greek works, with French translation, notes and introductions but does not yet include editions of the works at issue here.) There is a certain tension here: long notes may distract from the text, especially when they morph into interpretive discussion, and may become outdated when new and possibly more convincing interpretations appear with which they could not engage. I felt this worry in the case of the first volume (Galen Psychological Works) to a greater degree than I did in reading the present volume, where the commentary is more factual and the user profits from Singer’s extensive knowledge of Galen’s work. The present volume is the fruit of his protracted engagement with Galen and the treatises presented here in particular. Both for scholars and for a wider audience taking an interest in health maintenance, then and now, this may be the best presentation of Galen’s most relevant work in this area so far.



[1] The standard Latin title De sanitate tuenda (‘On the Preservation of Health’) goes back to the Humanist scholar and physician Thomas Linacre, whose Latin version appeared in Paris in 1521. The original title, however, is ΥΓΙΕΙΝΩΝ ΛΟΓΟΣ: ‘discourse on health-related things (ὐγιεινά).’ ‘Hygiene’ adopted by Green and Johnston clearly is too narrow given the present-day usage of ‘hygiene’, however Greek its credentials. Singer is no doubt right to opt for the broader title Health.

[2] Ian Johnston, ed. tr. Galen, Hygiene, vol. 1 Books I-IV; vol. 2 Books V-VI, Thrasybulus (On Whether Hygiene Belongs to Medicine or Gymnastics), On Exercise with a Small Ball. Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University Press 2018.

[3] R.M. Green, tr. A Translation of Galen’s Hygiene. De Sanitate Tuenda. Springfield Ill: Thomas 1951.

[4] P.N. Singer, tr. introd. notes, Galen, Selected Works. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.