Susan P. Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.

Not commonly does one come across a work of scholarship that is an active pleasure to read: indeed, the pleasure most often won from reading history is a kind of grim satisfaction at having wrested some prize of new information from stolid, thickly-detailed prose. Mattern’s book is decidedly of the former rather than the latter sort: her mastery of her material is never in doubt, but her presentation, while never less than learned, is engagingly conversational.

Galen is a difficult topic for any scholar to address. He may well have written over 600 individual treatises – at least one list of known Galenic and Pseudo-Galen writings runs to 441 titles – of which more than 100 survive – over three million words. Kühn’s 19th century edition of Galen is still the most complete, and runs to 22 volumes. Though Galen wrote entirely in Greek, and there is no evidence that – despite dwelling at Rome much of his life – he ever learned another language, his work has been transmitted through various manuscript traditions, and to be a complete Galenist, one needs not only Greek, but also Latin, Syriac, and Classical Arabic. It’s a massive undertaking, and Mattern herself, as she says, when she refers to texts transmitted only through Arabic, is working from modern translations of the manuscripts.

Mattern has already written one book on Galen, Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing. This biography is revealing both about Galen and the world in which he lived, but Mattern never lets sympathy or enthusiasm lead her beyond the limits of the evidence: rather, she’s very clear about what isn’t known (a lot, including whether Galen ever had a spouse, children, students in a direct tradition, and whether he died aged seventy or aged eighty-seven – as the Arab tradition has it) compared to what is. Within the limits of that material, this is a surprisingly compelling biography.

And there is some really interesting incidental material – for example, about the fire in 192 that destroyed Galen’s library, including some of his own work not yet given out for circulation: it consumed the area around the Temple of Peace, in which area were important archives and expensive storerooms hired by wealthy men like Galen to keep their books and IOUs and some of their expensive positions.

(And it transpires Galen met Aelius Aristides – I had not known, previously, that their timelines aligned, but it seems they were acquainted in passing.)

It’s excellent history. Complete with animal vivisection. And plague. Well-recommended.