Scribes removing paganism from Galen’s “On my own opinions”?

In 2005 a bored PhD student, left hanging around the catalogue desk at the Vlatades Monastery in Thessalonika, looked through the catalogue and discovered a previously unknown Greek manuscript of the works of the 2nd century medical writer, Galen.  The Ms. Thessalonicensis Vlatadon 14 contained complete Greek texts of several works previously known only from fragments or translations into Arabic, as well as a new and important work, the Peri Alupias (On Grief), about which I have written elsewhere.

One of the works whose complete Greek text is now accessible is On my own opinions.  Immediately after the prologue, we find that Galen discusses his opinion of the gods, as I learn from an interesting article by A. Pietrobelli.[1]  The passages are also extant in Latin, translating an Arabic version now lost; and in Hebrew, also translating a different Arabic version, also now lost.

The Latin version, made from Arabic, is entitled De sententiis, made at Toledo in the school of Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century AD.  There are five manuscripts of this work, all mutilated at the end.  (Another Latin translation does exist, made from Greek; but it only covers the last two sections of the work, whereas our material is from the beginning.)

The Arabic version, from which the Latin was made, is lost.

Hunain Ibn Ishaq was a 9th century Nestorian Christian writer.  He was commissioned with others to translate Greek technical works into Arabic.  The method used was to translate the Greek texts into Syriac, as there were well-established procedures to do this.  Then the Syriac, a semitic language, could easily be translated on into Arabic.

Hunain tells us, in his work on the translations of Galen,[2] that two Syriac translations of Galen’s On my own opinions existed at that time.  The first was made by “Job”, presumably Job of Edessa[3], the second by Hunain himself for his son Ishaq.  Thabit ibn Qurra then translated the latter version into Arabic.[4]  In addition a 13th century Hebrew translation exists, again made from someArabic version.

But the text has undergone some revision in transmission.  Let’s have a look at the different versions, and see how.  Pietrobelli gives the text and a French translation – I have rendered the latter into English so that we can see what is said.

Here’s the first passage:

Original Greek:

Whether the universe is uncreated or created, whether there is something after it or outside it or indeed nothing, because I say that I am in ignorance faced with such questions, I also do not know of course what is the nature of the creator of all things in the universe, if he is incorporeal or corporeal, and more, in what place he resides.[5]


So I say that I do not know whether the world is created, if there is something outside of it or not. And because I say I do not know these things, so it is clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in this world, whether he is corporeal or incorporeal, nor where he is located, namely the divinity, or rather the power of the divinity. This power is of him whose works are revealed in this world through acts that can only come from a creator. Thus these themselves demonstrate God.[6]


He said: I do not know if the world is created or not, and if there is something else outside of it, or nothing. And as I say that I am ignorant about these things, it is also clear that I do not know about the creator of all things in the world, whether he is a body or incorporeal, nor what is the place of his residence. As for God and the divine powers, that is to say the powers whose activities are manifested in the world, they can only come from the Creator, so they reveal Him and they are attributed to Him.[7]

In this case, the text has been augmented, somewhere along the line.  Somebody has added some extra explanatory text on the end.  Where Galen is ambivalent about the Creator, etc, the editor has firmly asserted the existence of a creator.

Here’s the second:


Is it only about the gods I also affirm that I am in uncertainty, as Protagoras said, or in fact that I say about them that I am ignorant of their essence, while recognizing their existence from their works? For the constitution of living beings is the work of the gods, and also all the warnings that they send, by omens, signs and dreams.[8]


And I will not speak like Pictagoras who denied having any knowledge about them, but I say that I have no knowledge of their essence; but that such powers exist, I know through their works because the organization of living beings is their doing, and they are revealed by divination and dreams.[9]


I do not say of them like Protagoras: “I do not know anything about them,” but I say I do not know what is their essence. That they exist, on the other hand, I know from their activities, and from their activities appear the composition of animals and that which is manifested through divination, omens, and the interpretation of dreams.[10]

These three are more similar – although the name Protagoras has turned into Pictagoras! All the same, the change is subtle.  A question that Galen leaves open becomes a positive statement.

Here’s the third passage adduced by Pietrobelli:


The god who is honoured at home in Pergamum has shown his power and providence on many other occasions but especially on the day he nursed me.

At sea, I experienced not only the providence, but also the power of the Dioscuri.

In fact, I do not think it is wrong for men to be ignorant of the essence of the gods, although I decided to honour them by following the ancient custom, in the manner of Socrates who advised people to obey the precepts of Pythios.

That is my position regarding the gods.[11]


Concerning the works of God in us … † †[12] they appeared by his power, because he nursed me once through an illness I had and because he manifests himself at sea in delivering those who are about to be wrecked thanks to the signs that they see and those who firmly believe in their salvation. That clearly indicates an admirable power that I have myself experienced. And I do not see what is harmful for men if they ignore the essence of divinity, and I see that I must accept and follow the law on this point and accept what Socrates prescribed who expressed himself quite strongly on this subject.

That’s what I have to say about the deity.[13]


And among the actions of God, blessed and praised be He, which reveal his power and his providence for his creatures, there is the fact that He healed me from an illness I had, and what can be seen at sea after the rescue of those who embark on the ships; after believing they will be shipwrecked and drowned, <they are saved> by the signs that they see and that they believe and by which they are saved. This gives a clear indication of a great power, and I do not think that does harm to people if they do not know what is the essence of the divine powers. That’s why I think I need to exalt and praise them, as religion ordains.[14]

The differences here are considerable.  Galen’s own text acknowledges the favour of Asclepius, the  god of Pergamum, Galen’s home city; of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, and the teachings of Apollo (Pythios).  All this pagan material has been removed, in favour of acknowledgement of the intervention of God.

Furthermore, the Hebrew reveals yet more intervention  – “God, praised and blessed be He” has a  distinctly Islamic flavour.

What are we to make of all this?

The changes may have been made at any point in the transmission.  Without a general knowledge of changes of this kind in the Arabic translation movement, we cannot say if any of this reflects the Greek text before Hunain and Job; or is conventional, in Syriac translations; or is their own work, in adapting a medical textbook for the needs of a capricious Muslim despot; or is the work of later Arabic editors, or indeed of the Latin and Hebrew translators in Europe.  But somewhere along the line, someone got creative.

The changes, in fairness, are mild.  They adjust paganism to monotheism, and remove an irrelevant irritant for the reader.  They are probably no worse than some modern editors are doing to old but politically incorrect childrens’ classics like Biggles.

All the same, it does highlight that the transmission of texts is sometimes less than faithful, on ideological grounds.  It would be most interesting to see if there is any general pattern available in the data.  I suspect that there might be.

  1. [1] The material for this article is found in A. Pietrobelli, “Galien agnostique: un texte caviardé par la tradition,” Revue des Études Greques 126 (2013), 103-135.
  2. [2] Details here.  John Lamoreaux has since made an English translation, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq on His Galen Translations, BYU (2015).
  3. [3] Pietrobelli suggests alternatively a “Job le tacheté” of whom I can discover absolutely nothing – in Lamoreaux’s translation, Job is Job of Edessa.
  4. [4] Pietrobelli states that both Syriac versions were translated into Arabic, the first by Thabit ibn Qurra, the second by Isa ibn Yahya, a disciple of Hunain; Lamoreaux gives the passage as: “What He Believes by Way of Opinion [B113]  This book consists of a single volume. In it he describes what is known and what is not known. Job has translated it into Syriac. <I translated it into Syriac> for my son Ishaq. Thabit translated it into Arabic for Abu Jafar Muhammad Ibn Musa.” and “A adds: Isa Ibn Yahya translated it into Arabic, which Ishaq collated with the original and corrected, for Abd Allah Ibn Ishaq. “
  5. [5] Que l’univers soit incréé ou créé, qu’il y ait quelque chose après lui au dehors ou bien rien, parce que j’affirme être dans l’ignorance face à de telles questions, j’ignore aussi évidemment quelle est la nature du créateur de toutes choses dans l’univers, s’il est incorporel ou corporel, et bien davantage, en quel lieu il réside.
  6. [6] J’affirme donc ne pas savoir si le monde est créé, s’il existe quelque chose à l’extérieur de lui ou pas. Et parce que je dis que je ne sais pas ces choses, il est donc clair que je ne sais pas, à propos du créateur de toutes les choses qui sont dans ce monde, s’il est corporel ou incorporel ni où il est situé, à savoir la divinité, ou plutôt le pouvoir de la divinité. Ce pouvoir est de ceux dont les oeuvres sont révélées dans ce monde par les actes qui ne peuvent provenir que d’un créateur. Ainsi ils indiquent eux-mêmes Dieu.
  7. [7] Il dit : j’ignore si le monde est créé ou pas, et s’il y a quelque chose d’autre en dehors de lui ou rien. Et puisque je dis être ignorant sur ces choses, il est aussi évident que j’ignore, à propos du créateur de toutes les choses qui sont dans le monde, s’il est un corps ou incorporel  ni quel est le lieu de son séjour.  Quant à Dieu et aux pouvoirs divins, c’est-à-dire les pouvoirs dont les activités se manifestent dans le monde, ils ne peuvent que provenir du Créateur, c’est pourquoi ils Le révèlent et ils Lui sont attribuées. 
  8. [8] Est-ce donc qu’au sujet des dieux j’affirme également que je suis dans l’incertitude, comme Protagoras le disait, ou bien qu’à leur sujet j’affirme être ignorant de leur essence, tout en reconnaissant leur existence d’après leurs oeuvres?  Car c’est l’oeuvre des dieux que la constitution des êtres vivants, ainsi que tous les avertissements qu’ils envoient par des présages, des signes ou des songes.
  9. [9] Et je ne parlerai pas comme Pictagoras qui niait avoir une connaissance à leur sujet, mais j’affirme que je n’ai aucune connaissance de leur essence; mais que ces pouvoirs existent, je le sais à travers leurs oeuvres parce que l’organisation des êtres vivants est leur fait et qu’ils sont révélés par la divination et les rêves.
  10. [10] Je ne dis pas d’eux comme Protagoras : « Je ne sais rien du tout à leur sujet », mais je dis que j’ignore quelle est leur essence. Qu’ils existent en revanche, je le sais d’après leurs activités et à leurs activités appartiennent la composition des animaux et ce qui se manifeste à travers la divination, les augures et l’interprétation des rêves.
  11. [11] Le dieu qui est honoré chez moi à Pergame a montré sa puissance et sa providence en bien d’autres occasions mais particulièrement le jour où il me soigna. En mer, j’ai fait l’expérience non seulement de la providence, mais aussi de la puissance des Dioscures. Non vraiment, je ne pense pas que cela fasse du tort aux hommes d’être ignorants de l’essence des dieux, bien que je sois décidé à les honorer en suivant la coutume ancestrale, à la façon de Socrate qui conseillait d’obéir aux préceptes de Pythios. Voilà ma position en ce qui concerne les dieux.
  12. [12] Note 25. V. Nutton proposes to restore the text thus : “Concerning the workings of God in us +having come+ into deep trouble, +how much clearer+ have they appeared in their power!”
  13. [13] En ce qui concerne les oeuvres de Dieu en nous †…† elles sont apparues par son pouvoir, parce qu’il me soigna une fois d’une maladie que j’avais et parce qu’il se manifeste en mer en délivrant ceux qui sont sur le point de faire naufrage grâce à des signes qu’ils aperçoivent et qui leur font croire fermement à leur salut. Voilà qui indique manifestement un pouvoir admirable don’t j’ai moi-même fait l’expérience.  Et je ne vois pas ce qu’il y a de nuisible pour les hommes s’ils ignorent l’essence de la divinité et je vois que je dois revendiquer et suivre la loi sur ce point et accepter ce qu’a prescrit Socrate qui s’est exprimé assez fermement sur ce sujet. Voilà ce que j’ai à dire sur la divinité.
  14. [14] Et parmi les actions de Dieu, béni et loué soit-Il, qui révèlent son pouvoir et sa providence pour les créatures, il y a le fait qu’Il m’a guéri d’une maladie que j’avais et ce qui peut être vu en mer d’après le sauvetage de ceux qui s’embarquent dans des navires; après avoir cru faire naufrage et couler, <ils sont sauvés> par le signe qu’ils voient et auquel ils croient et par lequel ils sont sauvés. Cela donne une indication claire d’un pouvoir merveilleux, et je ne pense pas que cela fasse du tort aux gens s’ils ne savent pas quelle est l’essence des pouvoirs divins. C’est pourquoi je pense que je dois les exalter et les louer, comme l’ordonne la religion.

Galen on the origins of soap

I stumbled across an interesting claim this afternoon, in the Wikipedia article on soap, which I traced to a 1960 textbook on the history of Greek fire (!) by a certain J.R. Partington.[1]

The origin of the name sapo has been much discussed. Some think it is from the German saipjo, others from the English sepe (still used in Scotland), passing by way of Batavia to Gaul. Blumner says true soap was unknown to the ancients, Pliny’s sapo being a pomade made from unsaponified fat and alkali. When true soap was first made by boiling fats or oils with causticised lye seems to be unknown, but the use of causticised lye in making soap (σάπων) is mentioned by Galen,[145] perhaps from Asklepiades junior (c. A.D. 100), who says it is made from the fat of oxen, goats, or wethers, and causticised lye (sapo conficitur ex sevo bulbulo, vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce). Galen says that the best soap was the German, since it was purest and in some ways the most fatty, that of the Gauls being next best, and that it acted as a medicine and removed all impurity from the body and from clothing. This is the first certain mention of the use of soap as a detergent. Galen [146] says soap is a better detergent than soda (λίτρον). If the mention of Gallic soap in Oreibasios [147] is from Rufus of Ephesus (c. A.D. 100) this would precede Galen’s in a Greek writer. Zosimos the alchemist [148] (c. A.D. 250) mentions both soap (σαπώνιον) and soap-making (σαπωναρικὲ τέκνη).

Sadly I was unable to access the page of the preview with the footnotes (p.333), so I couldn’t get Partington’s references.  I do not know where we might find the statements by Zosimos, therefore.

But a search on the Latin text of Galen, or rather “Asclepiades Junior” – why Latin? – produced some interesting results.  A volume from 1817 quoted that text exactly, and rather more of it:[2]

Sapo conficitur ex sevo bubulo vel caprino, aut vervecino, et lixivio cum calce; quod optimum judicamus Germanicum; est enim mundissimum et veluti pinguissimum, deinde Gallicum. Verum omnis sapo acriter ralaxare potest, et omnem sordem de corpore abstergere, vel de pannis, et exsiccare similiter ut nitrum vel aphronitrum, mittitur et in caustica. (Soap is made from ox, goat or sheep’s tallow, and lye with lime; the best we think is the German [soap]; for it is the purest and almost the fattest, then the Gallic [soap].  Indeed soap can quickly loosen everything, and wipe away all muck from the body, or from clothes, and likewise dry up like nitre/soda or African nitre/sodium carbonate, and is also used as a caustic.) De simplicibus medicaminibus, p. 90. G.

In another book, ascribed to Galen, the greater part of which is taken from Aetius, and of which a Latin translation only remains, De dynamidiis, p. 28. G, according to Gesner’s edition stands: Recipe saponem spatarenticum, and p. 31. C, emplastrum de sapone spathulgno. These epithets, in my opinion, signified soap which was so soft that it could be spread.

But what is Galen’s De simplicibus medicaminibus?  It is unknown to the standard 20-volume edition of Galen’s works by Kuhn.[3]  Fortunately the answer is not far to seek – it is the title of an early printed edition of a pseudo-Galenic work, the Alphabet of Galen, recently edited and translated by Nicholas Everett.[4]  The editio princeps of this text was printed by Diomedes Bonardus under the title Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum, and in the 16th century in the Opera Omnia of Galen[5] as Liber Galieni de simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum.  Likewise I learn that De dynamidiis is also ps.Galenic, and also addressed to the same Paternianus, Paterninus or Paternus – Everett’s introduction is excellent on all these.

De simplicibus medicinis is listed in Fichtner’s modern Galen bibliography as #139: “Ad Paternum = De simplicibus medicinis ad Paternianum = Liber pigmentorum = De simplicibus medicaminibus ad Paternianum = Alfabetum Galieni” and “Nicht bei Kühn; Pseudo-Galen”.  Likewise De dynamidiis appears as #219, also spurious.[6]

But what of this editor “Gesner”?  He turns out to be the 16th century editor Conrad Gessner.  Curiously his edition includes a page listing Galenic spuria, and among them, De simplicibus medicinis![7]  His edition of the work is here, and we quickly see that the book is a list of simple things like aloe, etc.  Unsurprisingly we find a section De sapone here, and the entire entry is as above.

So this is indeed the source of the material given by Partington.  It is not by Galen, nor can he have used it.  It’s from a medieval handbook, at least in its current form, and attributed to Galen in general handbooks which are repeated uncritically throughout the 19th century.

Everett considers that the text incorporates a great deal of ancient medical knowledge.  No doubt it does, like many a medieval text;  but its value as evidence for the use of soap in Galen’s time, or indeed that of Asclepiades Junior, must be negligible.

The main mystery remaining is why Partington attributes the material to Asclepiades Pharmacion, known as Asclepiades Junior (ca. 100 AD).  This attribution is our only other possible reason to consider this material ancient.

It would be good to check the other references in Partington.

Update: A kind correspondent has now sent me the page of references, and I have decided that Partington is not quite as culpable as I first thought!  I have revised the post accordingly.

Now Partington does indeed give extra references, which are as follows:

145.  De compos. med. sec. loc., ii; Kuhn, xii, 586. (i.e. this is Galen)
146.  Method. medend., vii; Kuhn, x, 569. (and this)
147.  Synopseos, iii; in Stephanus, Medicae artis principes, 1567, 53.  (This is Oreibasios)
148.  Berthelot, Collection des anciens Alchemistes Grecs, 1888, vol. ii, 142.3, 143.7.  (This is Zosimos; French translation around here).

Interestingly there is no reference for the material from ps.Galen, although we have tracked it down above.

But let’s now look at those references in Galen and see what the man himself has to say.

Galen, De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos, book 2, in Kuhn xii, p.586, mentions a pound of “sapo” (“saponis libram unam”) as an ingredient, 3 lines from the bottom.  My limited knowledge of Latin words for lye does not allow me to find the reference to it in here, however.  Is there one?

Galen, De Methodo Medendi, book 8 (at least in my copy of Kuhn) of 14, p.569, does indeed contain a reference to “sapo”: “But it is also called soap [sapo/sapon] by those who want to clean most effectively.”  The discussion is about various types of “material for cleansing” the body before bathing, and references caustics like nitre and aphronitre.  The idea of soap is certainly here, if not the specifics, and it is contrasted with nitre / soda.

But is this evidence for soap in Galen’s time?

  1. [1] J.R. Partington, A history of Greek fire and gunpowder, JHU Press, 1960, p.307.
  2. [2] Johann Beckmann, A history of inventions and discoveries, tr. by W. Johnston. Vol. 1-3; 4, 2nd ed, vol. 3, London: Longman &c, 1817, p.225.
  3. [3] Everett, p.11.
  4. [4] Nicholas Everett, The Alphabet of Galen: Pharmacy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages : a Critical Edition of the Latin Text with English Translation and Commentary, University of Toronto, 2012. See p.13-14.
  5. [5] Published in Latin by Junta in 1522, 1528, 1565 and 1586; also in Charterius in 1679 – see Everett p.11.
  6. [6] Online here.
  7. [7] Galeno Ascripti Libri, in Omnia Quae Extant, Froben, 1562. Online at Google books here.

An extract from Galen’s “De Compositione Medicamentorum Secundum Locus”

Another interesting snippet from Dorandi[1] is a piece of a work by the 2nd century medical writer Galen.

Galen’s works fill 20 huge volumes in the standard edition by Kuhn.  Few indeed have ever been translated.  Yet they contain interesting snippets on the history of books.

Dorandi gives us the text and a French translation of a portion of De Compositione Medicamentorum Secundum Locus,  i.e. The compounding of medicines according to place.  An Arabic version exists of this work, I learn. Galen issued the first two books of the work, but the other volumes he kept to himself, in his lockup on the Via Sacra in Rome.  Unluckily a fire broke out in 192 AD, and the whole area was destroyed, including Galen’s possessions.  His friends pressed him to rewrite the lost books, and he did so.

Here is what Galen says, in the preface to the new version:

This treatise I have written once already.  The first two books had been put into circulation, but I had left my own copies of them, with the others, in my store-room situated on the Via Sacra, and there they were when the Temple of Peace and the great libraries of the Palatine were entirely destroyed by the fire.  Because of this catastrophe, the works of numerous authors were destroyed, whatever I had and was kept in the store-room in question.  On their own admission, some of my Roman friends only possessed a copy of the first two books.  When my friends pressed me to rewrite the same treatise, it seemed necessary to me to signal the books put into circulation previously, in case someone should obtain them by accident and enquire why I had composed twice a work on the same subject.

Galen wrote elsewhere about this fire and the permanent losses he suffered, in the letter Peri Alupias, i.e. On Grief, which was rediscovered a decade ago by a PhD student left waiting for a book for a tedious time, alone in the Vlatadon monastery in Thessalonica, with nothing more exciting to do than read the rare Greek catalogue of the monastery’s holdings.

But it is nice to see another mention of it in his works.

  1. [1] T. Dorandi, Le stylet et la tablette, Les belles lettres, 2000, p.141.

Galen on Jews and Christians

The Roman medical writer Galen (d. 199 AD) refers to Jewish or Christian ideas in six places in his works.

Some of the works of Galen involved no longer exist in Greek, and the Arabic translation has to be used.  In some cases the Arabic translation also has perished — although we know from Hunayn Ibn Ishaq that he translated it — and all we have is quotations in later writers.

Unfortunately Walzer, who published a monograph on the subject in 1949[1] did so in a very confused manner.  It was nearly impossible to work out from his text what precisely he was giving us, and from where.  Nor was it possible to see what the context of the quotations was.

It was as part of this process that I encountered Ibn Abi Usaibia, and was led to put an English translation online.

I have now transcribed these six passages, organised the material in a logical manner, looked up material that Walzer did not include, and compiled a web page of it all.

The result is here.  I hope it will be useful.

  1. [1] R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, Oxford, 1949.

Galen: what the Arab knew and we only discovered in 2006

I’m still OCR-ing the English translation of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s dictionary of medical writers.  But I have just come across the following line, in a list of Galen’s books:

In his book “The Negation of Grief” he says that many of his books and much of his valuable furniture were burnt in the royal storehouses in Rome.

Some of the books that were destroyed were manuscripts of Aristotle; others were manuscripts of Anaxagoras and Andromachus which he had corrected under the guidance of his teachers and of people who had studied them with Plato (he had traveled to a distant city for this purpose). He mentions many other things lost in that fire, but they are too numerous to be indicated here.

Al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik says: “Among Galen’s books that were burnt were Rufus’ on theriacs and poisons, the treatment of poisoned people and the composition of drugs (according to disease and time) and — dearest to him — the books written on white silk, with black covers, for which he had paid a high price.”

 This is a reference to the previously unknown Peri Alupias, (On grief) only rediscovered quite by accident very recently in the monastery of Vlatadon in Thessalonica in 2006.  Yet clearly in the 13th century Ibn Abi Usaibia knew the work.  It’s a good summary, too, as these extracts make plain.

Where there is one lost work, of course, there might be more.  But my efforts to get a copy of the catalogue of Vlatadon — from 1918, if I remember rightly — were all in vain.  Librarians blithered about possible copyright, drat them.  These people are paid from money exacted from the poor to make stuff accessible, but do they do it?  Do they heck!

From my diary – translation projects and other things

The July sales figures (through Amazon) for Eusebius’ book on differences between the gospels (and how to resolve them) have arrived and are encouraging.  I still haven’t launched an online marketing campaign, yet we sold more in July than in June.  Interestingly most of these seem to have been hardbacks.  The purchasers certainly got a good deal — those hardbacks are impressive! — but I wouldn’t have expected that.

I’ve had another attempt at my project to translate Cyril of Alexandria’s Apologeticus ad imperatorem.  A sample couple of pages have arrived from the translator, and I passed them to Andrew Eastbourne for comment.  His verdict was decidely negative, unfortunately, which is a great pity.  But I need to read his review in detail, which I won’t do this evening.

The postman brought me a large parcel containing two volumes which together make up Brockelmann’s Supplement 1 to his history of Arabic literature.  I created these for personal use from a rather poor PDF, making sure they had wide margins, and the results are more than satisfactory.

While looking at the Greenhill papers on Galen — mentioned in yesterday’s post — I noticed that in several cases the books had been (re)bound, interleaved with blank pages, so that notes might be made on them.  Perhaps I should try doing the same with some of these PDFs!

This practice of interleaving is something that you never see today; yet I remember talking to an academic who told me that the late L.D.Reynolds, editor of Texts and Transmissions, had a copy of his own book made for him with interleaved blank pages by Oxford University Press so that he could scribble notes in it.  Clearly it is still possible.

The Royal College of Physicians library wrote back to me today about those Greenhill papers, containing stuff on Galen’s works in Arabic.  They don’t allow photocopying of material more than a century old — and who can blame them? — but they do allow the use of digital cameras.  Good for them!  They’re closed until 15th August, but I must look at getting down there and browsing the material.

I’ve also been reading Walzer’s book Galen on Jews and Christians.  It’s a curious performance, but I am learning some interesting things from it.  A post will doubtless be forthcoming in due course.  The most interesting thing that I have seen so far is that all the passages are extant in Arabic translation, but two of them are only extant in Arabic.  Walzer seems to think that no question of authenticity arises, which seems surprising given the tendency of Arabic authors to elaborate, but doubtless he will explain why.

Last night I did some more work on my version of Brockelmann’s remarks on early Arabic writers about Mohammed (and, when it’s 25C in your bedroom and very humid, you’re not going to be sleeping, so why not use the time?).  I also started searching for web versions, and found some.  I will include links to these in the final version.  I did discover that the Digital Library of India held copies of the journal Islamic Culture, which in 1927 and 1928 has some important articles on this subject.  I just wish their site was quicker and easier to use!  For Arabic culture, the publications in India in the 19th century are important, and I suspect few of us have ever visited the DLI site or downloaded its curious download tool.

Today I was able to discover that Guillaume’s English translation of ibn Ishak is online in page images.  This evening I hope to download it.  The book is a reconstruction of this lost early biography, based on quotations in Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari.

Finally, and on a lighter note, I have just checked my inbox, and received a job advert for a contract IT support engineer role in Afghanistan, paying about average UK rates.  Length of contract is 20 months. 

Evidently I need to be nicer to recruitment agents when they phone.  Who knew that one of them was trying to get me shot!

Not obtaining the catalogue of the manuscripts of Vlatadon in Thessalonika

Back in early June, I ordered, from the French National Library in Paris, by email, a photocopy of the hard-to-find catalogue of the manuscripts of the monastery of Vlatadon in Thessalonika.  It was published in 1918.   This is the library, remember, that had a manuscript of the works of Galen, containing his Peri Alupias (On grief) in which he describes the burning of the libraries of Rome in 194 AD, and also containing complete texts of two other works important for bibliography.  What else might be there?

Today I had a letter — yes, on paper — from that institution.  It only took them 6 weeks.  I presumed that it was a bill. 

Far from it.  It was a letter declining to make a copy, because the work is “in copyright” and demanding that I produce evidence of permission to copy from the publisher or author.

I don’t believe that Greece in 1918 had copyright laws.  At least, it probably did not.  I’m quite sure that the author is dead, and so unable to give me permission.  Probably the printer has long since gone out of business.  In the USA all books before 1923 are out of copyright anyway.  And they don’t say how they “know” that it is in copyright.  I don’t know that, and it seems rather unlikely to me that an author publishing in the 19th century died after 1941, which is the limit even under euro-copyright.

All this the BNF must have known.  So … this is just a jobsworth being difficult.  I imagine that I am the first person in a century to ask to see this obscure item, and instead of supplying it they have waited 6 weeks to make difficulties.  Shame on them.

This, dear readers, is what we all had to go through to get the tools of scholarship, before Google Books.  Let us all give thanks that, for English books at least, the power of the petty bureaucrat and jobsworth to obstruct research has been drastically reduced!

How the lost “Peri Alupias” by Galen was found

I have received an email from Veronique Boudon-Millot telling the story of how this lost work was found.  I have made an English translation of what she says, and, by permission, give the relevant portion here.


Thank you for your email, your encouragement and enthusiasm, which Greek studies need now more than ever.

Since you ask me about the circumstances of the discovery, I can tell you that it was one of my PhD students, Antoine Pietrobelli (now a lecturer at the university of Reims) who started it.  In January 2005 I sent him, in preparation for his thesis — an edition of the commentary of Galen on Hippocrates’  Treatment for acute illnesses — to the library of the monastery of the Vlatades at Thessalonica to consult the microfilms of the manuscripts of Mount Athos which are kept there, and which concern his text.

While waiting for the microfilms to be brought to him, he had the idea of consulting the catalogue of the manuscripts of Vlatadon published by Eustratiades in 1918, which had a very limited circulation.  This catalogue only contains a single medical manuscript (our Vlatadon 14 of Galen) and the remainder are exclusively patristic manuscripts.  The catalogue of Eustratiades has thus remained unknown to medical specialists.  In this catalogue, the Vlatadon 14 is very rapidly described: none of the treatises of Galen present in the manuscript are described, and in particular the Do not be grieved has been omitted.

After locating the Vlatadon 14 in the catalogue, my student Antione Pietrobelli sent me an email the same evening asking whether this manuscript was known, or whether he had made a discovery.  But as the manuscript did not contain his treatise, the Commentary of Galen on the treatment of acute illnesses, and as he had to return soon to France, he did not have time to see it.

On this news I went myself to Thessalonica to see the manuscript.  Unfortunately I was only allowed to see the microfilm, and, so far, despite much effort, several requests, and two visits to the site, I have not been permitted to examine the manuscript directly … <snip>

So I began to read the microfilm, and noted that the catalogue of Eustratiades is very incomplete, and that manuscript contains many more treatises than are indicated by Eustratiades in his catalogue.  And above all, I discovered the entirely new treatise Do not be grieved, the title of which was already well known to me thanks to Galen’s treatise On his own books, which I was editing at that time and where the physician of Pergamum mentions it.

I should add that the Vlatadon 14 likewise preserves for us the complete text of the two bibliographic treatises by Galen, On the order of his own books, and On his own books, of which I have since also prepared an edition in the CUF series (2007), because the only Greek manuscript available hitherto (the Ambrosianus Q 3 sup.) is very seriously lacunose for those treatises.  The Vlatadon 14 also contains the complete Greek text of Galen’s On his own opinions (De propriis placitis) which Nutton edited in the CMG series from the Arab-Latin translation, all that was known hitherto.  The Vlatadon 14 is thus a new and very important witness for 4 texts of Galen which were either thought lost, or known only in a very lacunose form.

There!  You know everything!

Thank you for your interest and your attention.

Very cordially,

Véronique Boudon-Millot

That is very interesting indeed, and I am grateful to Dr. Boudon-Millot for permission to give that information here.

It is a reminder that, when we are in any little-known library, we must always see if there is anything we can find in the catalogue that might be interesting.  There are treasures to be had, it seems.  We have only to look!

UPDATE: Dr Boudon-Millot added a postscript which clarifies a couple of things:

There is one thing to correct, and the error is mine.  The Vlatadon 14, contrary to what I wrote, does indeed contain the Treatment of serious illnesses by Galen.  But it isn’t an important witness for the edition of the text, and wasn’t significant for A. Pietrobelli for his thesis.  In fact Pietrobelli’s stay at Thessalonica was complete, he was obliged to leave the next day, and didn’t have the time to examine the manuscript in detail.

Thank you again!

The Vlatadon library in Thessalonika

I have had an email back from Veronique Boudon-Millot today, giving the story of how the lost text by Galen, Peri Alupias (On consolation for grief) was found.  It’s very interesting, and I have asked for permission to translate it and place it here. 

She also mentions that Vlatadon 14, the manuscript that contained the new work, also contains the first complete copies of Galen’s On my own books and On the order of my own books, the two works most interesting to non-medical specialists, as evidence for the transmission of texts in the 2nd century AD.  The only previously known copy of the Greek was the Ambrosianus Q 3 sup. in Milan, which has many gaps in the text.  Those gaps previously had, perforce, to be filled from Hunain ibn Ishaq’s Arabic translation, itself extant only in a single forgotten manuscript in the obscure library of Mashhad in Iran.

A key factor in the discovery is that the Vlatadon collection catalogue is itself very obscure and little known.  It was published by S. Eustratiades in 1918.  There is no copy in the United Kingdom, but there is a copy in the French National Library in Paris.  It’s about 136 pages, but ms. 14 is the only medical text.  The remainder are patristic.  And that is exciting!  For if the collection is that little known, who knows what it might contain?!

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