The pain of being Galen; plagiarism in the ancient world

I’ve been looking at P. N. Singer’s Galen: Selected Works, which contains English translations of several of his works.  Now most of us are not interested in ancient medicine, but two of the works are interesting to students of the transmission of texts.  I refer, of course, to On my own books and The order of my own books.  Perhaps an excerpt from the start might whet the appetite?

The validity of your advice regarding the cataloguing of my extant books, Bassus, has been proved by events. I was recently in the Sandalarium, the area of Rome with the largest concentration of booksellers, where I witnessed a dispute as to whether a certain book for sale was by me or someone else. The book bore the title: Galen the doctor. Someone had bought the book under the impression that it was one of mine; someone else—a man of letters—struck by the odd form of the title, desired to know the book’s subject. On reading the first two lines he immediately tore up the inscription, saying simply: ‘This is not Galen’s language—the title is false.’ Now, the man in question had been schooled in the fundamental early education which Greek children always used to be given by teachers of grammar and rhetoric. Many of those who embark on a career in medicine or philosophy these days cannot even read properly, yet they frequent lectures on the greatest and most beautiful field of human endeavour, that is, the knowledge provided by philosophy and medicine.

This kind of laziness existed many years ago too, when I was a young man, but it had not yet reached the extreme state it has now. For this reason—and also because my books have been subject to all sorts of mutilations, whereby people in different countries publish different texts under their own names, with all sorts of cuts, additions, and alterations—I decided it would be best, first to explain the cause of these mutilations, and secondly to give an account of the content of each of my genuine works. Well, as for the fact of my books being published by many people under their own names, my dearest Bassus, you know the reason yourself: it is that they were given without inscription to friends or pupils, having been written with no thought for publication, but simply at the request of those individuals, who had desired a written record of lectures they had attended. When in the course of time some of these individuals died, their successors came into possession of the writings, liked them, and began to pass them off as their own. [...] Taking them from their owners, they returned to their own countries, and after a short space of time began to perform the demonstrations in them, each in some different way. All these were eventually caught, and many of those who then recovered the works affixed my name to them. They then discovered discrepancies between these and copies in the possession of other individuals, and so sent them to me with the request that I correct them.

Since, then, as I have stated above, they were written not for publication but to fit the particular attainments and needs of those who had requested them, it follows naturally that some of them are rather extended, while others are compressed; and their styles, and indeed the actual theoretical content, vary in their completeness. Those works which were written for the parties mentioned above would obviously be neither complete nor perfectly accurate in their teaching. That was not their requirement—nor would such individuals have been able to learn the whole subject-matter accurately until they had first reached a certain basic level. Some of my predecessors gave such works the title of Outlines, others Sketches, or Introductions, Synopses, or Guides. I simply gave them to my pupils without any such inscription, and it is for that reason that when they later fell into other hands, they were given a number of different titles by different persons. Those which were sent back to me for correction I decided to inscribe with the title ‘for beginners’; and it is with these works that I shall begin.

1. Works written during the first stay in Rome

I myself did not possess copies of all those works which I had dictated to young men at the beginning of their studies, or in some cases presented to friends at their request; but when I came to Rome for the second time they were, as I have mentioned, sent to me for correction, and at that point I affixed titles including the words ‘for beginners’—Sects for beginners, for example, which should be the first book to be read by students of the art of medicine. …

I give this opening section at more length than I might, because Singer’s readable translation is now out of print and thereby inaccessible.  It is commanding substantial prices second-hand, suggesting a reprint is overdue (come on, OUP!).  But I was able to borrow a copy easily enough — it was published in the “Oxford World’s Classics” series, which is in many general libraries. 

Singer’s preface itself is a valuable introduction to ancient medicine, and a valuable corrective to the ideas that we tend to have of a doctor and his social role, based on how things are today.  The need to earn a living, to impress, to gather paying students, to build a reputation — all these were part of the equipment of the successful philosopher, and a doctor was merely a specialised philosopher.

The way in which technical works were passed around is clearly different in some respects to the process whereby literary works circulated.  But even so, doesn’t it give an interesting picture of Roman life!

1 Response to “The pain of being Galen; plagiarism in the ancient world”


  1. Galen, “On my own books” — the translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq at Roger Pearse

    [...] One of the most revealing works is On my own works (De libris propriis).  I gave some extracts from this here.  [...]



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