Books, libraries, codices and punctuation in Rome in Galen’s “Peri Alupias”

Galen’s Peri Alupias, (On the Avoidance of Grief), contains many interesting statements about the destruction of libraries in the fire.  The following excerpts are from the translation by Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson 1, of the fire and its aftermath.

6. Likewise, it is no (longer possible to have) the books – corrected versions, copies by my hand (of the works) of ancient men, and those (works) composed by me …

12b. In fact, the most terrible thing – in addition to the destruction of the books – has escaped you: hope of recovery no longer remains because all the libraries on the Palatine burned on that day.

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, the Callinia, Atticiana, Pedoucinia and certainly the Aristarcheia, 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.

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 – 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.

15 Such items included the books of Theophrastus, Aristotle, Eudemus, Clitomachus, Phanias, most of Chrysippus’ and all of the old physicians’.

16. Further, these things will especially distress 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.

18.  In fact, those on the Palatine were destroyed on the same day as mine; the fire not only destroyed the storehouses on the Sacred Way, but also, before them, the (libraries) by the Temple of Peace, and afterwards, both those on the Palatine and the so-called “Tiberian House” in which there was also a library full of many other books; but some, on the contrary – on account of the negligence of those continually robbing (them) …… – at the time I first went up to Rome, were on the verge of destruction.

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 unrolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, it is stifling.

20. The treatise on Attic nouns [i.e., a dictionary] will also probably distress you, especially all the common terms and nouns. There are two parts, as you know, one from the Old Comedy and the other from the prose writers. But, luckily, some copies of the latter had been brought to Campania. If, in fact, those at Rome had burned two months later, the copies of all of my works would then have arrived in Campania.

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.

23b–24a. Fortune, then, ambushed me by taking away many others of my books, and, above all, the treatise on nouns [i.e., a dictionary] that I excerpted from the whole of Old Comedy, from which, as you know, Didymus (Chalcenterus) had previously explained both the common and all the rare (terms) in fifty books, from which I prepared an epitome in six thousand lines. …

29–30 None of these things, then – although there were many (books) both useful and difficult-to-find – troubled me, not even the destruction of my commentaries, being of two types. Some were adapted so as to be useful also to others. Some were for me alone, although having the same provision for memory. Then there were many summaries, synopses of a great number of medical and philosophical books. But not even these things distressed me.

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, …

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.

What an invaluable discovery this work is!  The translators tell us:

The letter-treatise, dated to 193, was discovered as codex images on a CD-ROM in January 2005 in Vlatadon Monastery Thessaloniki. The manuscript, Vlatadon 14, is of immense value to scholars of antiquity. As Vivian Nutton rightly observes, “The discovery in 2005 by a French research student of Vlatadon 14 in a monastic library in Thessalonica must rank with one of the most spectacular finds ever of ancient literature” … 

A footnote indicates:

According to private correspondence, the work of Jouanna, Boudon-Millot and Pietrobelli was performed without access to the manuscript, but from a CD-ROM copy of microfilm.

Nutton’s statement is undoubtedly true.  Even from the limited excerpts above, we can see how much this tells us about ancient Rome.  The description of the decaying library in the Domus Tiberiana, where the papyrus rolls were stuck together by damp, is precious all by itself.  Fronto, indeed, tells us 2 that the curator could be bribed:

… in the afternoon we came home. I to my books: so taking off my boots and doffing my dress I passed nearly two hours on my couch, reading Cato’s speech On the property of Pulchra, and another in which he impeached a tribune. “Ho,” you cry to your boy, “go as last as you can and fetch me those speeches from the libraries of Apollo!” It is no use your sending, for those volumes, among others, have followed me here.  So you must get round the librarian of Tiberius’s library: a little douceur will be necessary, in which he and I can go shares when I come back to town.

Note also the reference in Galen to codices, containing the receipes for various medicines.  We all know of Martial’s reference to the codex, but here we see it being used for technical works, and the material — parchment — specified.

Clare Rothschild and Trevor Thompson has done us all a favour by making this translation.  It highlights how important this work is.  If only it was online!

1. Rothschild, Clare K.; Thompson, Trevor W., Galen: “On the Avoidance of Grief”, “Early Christianity”, 2011, pp. 110-129 (20).
2. Ad M. Caesar. iv, 5 (Naber, p.68) Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1, p.179

8 Responses to “Books, libraries, codices and punctuation in Rome in Galen’s “Peri Alupias””


  1. ikokki

    This website has an article (in Greek) on the Vlatadon Monastery
    http://www.orthodoxia.gr/show.cfm?id=1129&obcatid=3
    Those who do not read Greek can always use Google Translate. I remember reading at BMCR that today most new text discoveries of new texts are made at anthology manuscripts that have not been combed enough. The Vlatadon codex looks like a typical case. The monastery was lucky enough (due to geographical location) to survive the great fire of Thessaloniki of 1917 that destroyed the entire lower town. It is a great day to scholarship when a “new” text is discovered but considering the size and (document) quality of texts now discovered, it is safe to say that major large works of literature are not likely to be recovered in the future. The Palatine fires were only an early occurrence of a process that ended with typography.

  2. Bill Thayer

    Piggybacking on the previous comment: we can’t be too sanguine about typography putting an end to the loss of books. There are a number of works once extant in print that there is no trace of today; and a few whose survival was very tenuous, hanging by a single printed exemplar, now gone — someone will remind me what I’m thinking of, I think I actually have it onsite, but memory working none too good this morning.

    At any rate, the survival of information is best insured by casting it upon the waters. This is the main reason I’m unhappy about museums and libraries hoarding stuff and making it difficult of access, and publishers extending copyright by a variety of unsavory tricks. We only have to look at the Library of Alexandria, the Library of Louvain (twice), the Bagdad Museum, the fire at Rennes, and many other similar instances of centralized collections being destroyed: the salvation of information is the old Benedictine way — copying and recopying and making it freely and widely available.

  3. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much for this insightful comment. I wasn’t actually aware that we have lost works that had been printed. But I suppose it must happen.

    Likewise putting stuff online is no guarantee. The UK government is firmly under the thumb of the big publishers, who seem to think no further than the possibility of a profit. The EU states are all getting together to “regulate” the internet right now, with Sarkozy in the chair. Such regulation must force things offline and back into the shadows, possibly disastrously.

    The only way, as you say, to ensure preservation is many copies.

  4. White Man

    Even something as recent as early movie films are now without a single copy. The nitrocellulose film was extremely flammable and it simply wasn’t safe to warehouse it in collections.

  5. Roger Pearse

    But thanks to Disney, it’s all under copyright, so anyone who copies it commits an offence!

  6. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for your link and comment ikokki – that is really rather interesting.

    I think a lot of collections have not really been catalogued. There should be plenty still out there!

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