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Galen's Grief at the Loss of His Personal Library: Rediscovery of a Long Lost Treatise by Galen on Books and Libraries

192 CE
Galenosgruppe (Wiener Dioskurides)

Possibly the earliest manuscript portrait of Galen in this group of physicians in an image from the early 6th century Vienna Dioscurides; Galen is depicted top center.

In 2005 a long lost treatise by the Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire Claudius Galenus (Galen of Pergamon) entitled Περι αλυπιας (On Consolation from Grief) was discovered by scholar Antoine Pietrobelli in the Monastery of the Vlatades (Moni Vlatadon) in Thessaloniki, central Macedonia, Greece. The manuscript, identified as Vlatadon 14, dates from the fifteenth century. In what is known as the first auto-bibliography, Peri ton idion biblion (De Libris propriis liber, On his Own Writings), Galen referred to Περι αλυπιας, but the last evidence of the text was preserved by the 13th century physician and writer Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin, who paraphrased and/or translated extacts of it into Hebrew. Rediscovery of the complete text is considered one of the most spectacular finds ever in ancient literature.

Galen was motivated to write Περι αλυπιας in 192 CE after a large portion of his library, his supply of medicines and medical instruments, and wax molds for the casting of new instruments that he had invented, and other valuable items were destroyed when a devastating fire burned the Temple of Peace (Forum of Vespasian) and nearby storehouses on the Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, where his property was kept. Galen chose to keep his library there because the storehouse also held some of the imperial archives, and was kept under military guard. The fire that destroyed Galen's library also burned all the public libraries on the Palatine Hill.

Galen's Περι αλυπιας provides significant information on the use of the codex form of the book in the second century CE, on the general vulnerability of books and texts, and on the production, copying, dissemination and storage of information, including the operation of Rome's imperial public libraries and Galen's use of them. It also provides information on the "consolation genre" of writings in antiquity, 

Galen's newly discovered text was first translated into English by Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson as "Galen: 'On the Avoidance of Grief,' " Early Christianity 2 (2011) 110-129, from which I quote selections interspersed with my comments:

In the fire Galen lost rare texts, including copies of what might have been autograph manuscripts of ancient grammarians, orators, doctors and philosophers, that were available nowhere else:

" 13 It is, therefore, neither possible to find any of the rare books and the ones ‘nowhere else kept’, nor (possible to find) the common ones sought out for the accuracy of the text . . . which include two Homeric works, the Plato of Panaetius, and many other such works, since those writings – which, in the case of each book, the men after whom the books were named either wrote them or had them copied – were preserved inside (the libraries). And, in fact, copies of books from many ancient grammarians were kept (there), also those of rhetoricians, physicians and philosophers."

He also lost texts which he had personally corrected for new editions:

"14 In addition to these (books) so important and so numerous, I then lost on the same day all the books that, after correction, had been written by me onto a pure text, books with unclear and errant readings throughout the texts – planning to produce my own edition. The writings were worked to (the point of) accuracy so that neither was something added nor words taken away, not even a paragraphos – single or double, or a coronis – (a siglum) appropriately placed between books. What is there to say about the period or comma? As you know, they are very valuable in unclear books, so that one who pays attention to them does not need an interpreter."

He lost books that had been miscatalogued in public libraries, including a work by botanist and successor to Aristotle at the Peripatetic school, Theophrastus:

"16 Further, these things will especially distress [λμπειν] you; I found outside (the libraries on the Palatine) books recorded in the so-called catalogs – some in the libraries on the Palatine and some, on the contrary, which clearly do not belong to the author to whom they are ascribed [i.e., in the catalogs] – neither with respect to style nor thought similar to him [i.e., the author]. I also found [books] of Theophrastus, in particular those on scientific matters 

17– there are also his books on plants expounded in two extended treatises – everyone has them. And, there was the tractate in precise agreement with Aristotle, that I discovered and copied, which is now lost. In the same way, both (the books) of Theophrastus and of some other men of old were not reported in the catalogues, some although recorded in them, are no longer extant. I found, then, many of these in the libraries on the Palatine, but some, on the contrary, I prepared."

On this section Matthew Nicholls, "Galen and Libraries in the Peri Alupias," Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011) 123-42 makes several particularly meaningful points on pp. 135-36, which I quote. (The links are my additions):

"The document to which Galen refers here was probably not a specific catalogue of the Palatine library itself, still less a shelf list in the modern sense: the usual Galenic sense of the adjective καλουμενος is either to flag an unusual technical term, which πιναςι is not, or to refer to a particularly well-known example. It is possible that the Palatine's catalogue was well-known enough to qualify for such a description, but Galen seems to expect his correspondent of the PA, an anonymous friend from his schooldays who was probably still resident in Pergamum, to be familiar with it, so a general reference work with a life outside the Palatine library building seems more likely— Catalogue with a capital C. The Budé commentary identifies it as the Alexandrian catalogue, but another good candidate that fits both descriptions—a work of especial relevance to the books Galen saw in the Palatine library and a book-list well-known enough to have an independent value—is the Catalogue descended from the lists of Aristotle's library drawn up in late Republican Rome by Tyrannio and then Andronicus of Rhodes, which would fit the subject matter of the books discussed above and is confirmed as current in the second century A.D. by Plutarch.

"Even if Galen is not talking of a catalogue with a particular relevance to the Palatine library, his testimony is important, the first clear reference to a Roman library user actually consulting a catalogue in the conduct of his research. Such a catalogue, tracing its roots back to Callimachus' homonymous Alexandrian Pinakes, was supposed to give a comprehensive list of works by a given author or in a given field; for its use in a library context we can compare Quintilian's conclusion to a long list of Greek poets with an airy reference to a similar-sounding type of document. . . .

"Galen seems to have been able to consult this Catalogue within the Palatine library, comparing its contents to the shelf-holdings. The copy he used for that purpose have been his own or the library's (in which case one might have expected it to be rather more accurate). His working assumption seems to have been that the books on the shelves of the Palatine library would reflect the lists in the catalogue, so that both would ideally be complete testaments of the outputs of the authors they house. It is the exceptions to this assumption that exercise Galen; in his excitement at finding a 'lost' work by an important author—one on the shelf but not in the Catalogue—or at proving the Catalogue's identification wrong by his analysis of a unique book, Galen is consciously presenting himself as the heir to the to Alexandrian (and Pergamene) library scholars of the Hellenistic age. . . ."

Galen went to great trouble to copy of some these texts because the papyrus rolls were deteriorating as a result of the humid climate. It has long been known that papyrus may be preserved for centuries in dry climates such as the Egyptian desert, but deteriorates rapidly with humidity:

"19 These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be un-rolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, it is stifling."

The timing of the fire was exceptionally unfortunate because Galen had had all of his works duplicated as was planning to move copies of everything to his home in Campania in a short time:

"21 For all (of my works) intended for publication were already transcribed in duplicate, not counting those that were to remain in Rome. On the one hand, my friends at home [i.e., Pergamum] were requesting that all of the works composed by me be sent to them in order that they may place (them) in a public library – just as, in fact, some other (friends) already placed many of my works in other cities – and, on the other hand, I was planning to have copies of everything in Campania.

"22 For this reason,then, there were duplicates of all of my (works), excluding those that were to remain in Rome, as I said.

"23a So, the fire broke out at the end of winter. I planned, at the beginning of summer, to transport to Campania both those (works) that were meant to remain there [i.e. , at Campania] and those that were to be sent to Asia when the Etesian winds blow." 

Besides his own works which he lost, Galen lost invaluable medical recipes that no one else had, recorded in parchment codices. After the poet Martial's reference (84-86 CE) to the codex form of the book, this is the earliest reference to the codex book that I have seen:

"31 What then, you will say, is even greater than all the things mentioned that might be able to cause distress? Well, I will tell you this: I was entrusted with the possession of the most remarkable medical recipes, such as no one else in the entire Roman world (possessed) – fortune, in part, contributing to this and I myself, in part, contributing equally.

"32 In fact, two-fold fortune granted me each (of the recipe collections) along the way. The first of which is as follows: A certain rich man of those around me hastened to find knowledge concerning effective medications, with the result that he purchased some recipes in the amount of more than one hundred gold coins. He set about this task in such a way as to purchase not only all the recipes that were held in esteem by (physicians) today in Asia, but also by those (physicians) of the past.

 "33 These medical recipes were preserved with the utmost care, in two parchment codices that a certain one of the heirs – himself most dear to me – gave to me of his own accord without being asked." 

Pertinent to Περι αλυπιας, a chapter entitled "Galen's Library" by Vivian Nutton published in Gill, Whitmarsh and Wilkins (eds.) Galen and the World of Knowledge (2009) is of considerable interest. From it I quote a brief section that appeared on pp. 20-21:

"It is clear that Galen's library must have been enormous. It is not just that he wrote so many titles; many of his treatises were in several books, each occupying a single book roll, so that one must imagine at least six or seven hundred rolls containing his own writings alone. In addition shorthand writers took down his words and copied out whatever other treatises he wanted for his own purposes. It is very likely that his was among the largest ancient collections of medical books, along with that of that voracious reader, the Elder Pliny, but any attempt to place Galen and others, along a spectrum of medical bibliophiles is doomed to failure. Both Celsus, the author of On Medicine, and Rufus of Ephesus were men of considerable learning, but establishing their sources is far from easy, and next to impossible for other doctors. Papyrological and archaeological evidence for medical libraries is ambiguous at best. . . . Galen's own comments about the books available to his less fortunate colleagues imply that they owned a mere handful of books. He recommends epitomes of his own more voluminous writings as more suitable for those who had neither the time nor the inclination to involve themselves with long and complicated expositions. His demands in On Examinations for a basic knowledge of a canon of distinguished authorities from the past presume that any competent physician would have a substantial library, but it is also clear from surviving tracts that much of this 'essential learning' could be gained from handbooks and summaries of one kind or another. But undoubtedly there were other healers with substantial resources, even if, as Galen complains, they did not spend as much as he did on books. . . ."

In July 2019 I found an account by Veronique Boudon-Millot in Roger that provides additional details on how Antoine Pietrobeilli found the manuscript of Περι αλυπιας in the library of the monastery of the Vlatades at Thessaonica. That account was posted in June 2011.

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