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.

How much is a sestertius?

Someone recently asserted in my hearing that books were expensive in antiquity.  This led me to wonder how much they sold for.  A look in book 1 of Martial produced a price of 6-10 sesterces (ep. 66), and that 10 sesterces was the dole that a rich man might give his client (ep. 11).  That dole seems to have been daily (Juvenal, Sat. 1), and equivalent to 100 quadrans, translated ‘100 farthings’ by the Victorian translator. 

But how much is a sestertius? 400,000 sesterces was the minimum property requirement of a Roman Knight – the business class.  Somehow I feel that a sestertius cannot have been more than a dollar or two, unless the daily dole was enormous, and the minimum fortunes of a Knight likewise.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?