Galen, “On my own books” — the translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq

The second century medical writer Galen left behind such a vast array of works that it has been estimated that around 20% of the surviving volume of ancient Greek was written by him!  I’m not sure where this estimate comes from, but it is a remarkable amount.

Ancient medical texts are a specialised interest.  Our interest here is more with what Galen has to say about ancient books, libraries, manuscripts, the book trade and the process of copying.  He does, in fact, have a great deal to say on these subjects.

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

But today I gained access to a rather interesting volume: Vivian Nutton (ed.) The unknown Galen (2002) — a collection of papers from a colloquium on texts of Galen not in the massive 20 volume 19th century edition by Kuhn.  Nutton writes engagingly, and I shall have things to say about the book on Monday, I suspect.

But what I wanted to see was a paper by Veronique Boudon, Galen’s “On my own books”: new material from Meshed, Rida, tibb. 5223, on p.9-18.

De libris propriis reaches us only in a single Greek manuscript, Milan Ambrosianus graecus 659 (=A).  This is a paper manuscript of the 14th century, some 272 folios long.  It contains 14 works by Galen, and De libris propriis occupies f. 187r-197r.  An equally interesting work, bibliographically, follows: On the order of my own works, f.197r-200r.  But examination of the gatherings in the manuscript reveals that a bi-folium has been lost at some point.  The manuscript was written on quaternions.  The outermost bifolium of quaternion 24 is lost.  Quaternion 24 currently includes folios 193-198.  So there should be an extra folio before f.193, and another after 198.  In short, we have lost two pages from each of these useful works, or the equivalent of about 4 pages of Kuhn’s edition.

But it seems that the great translator of Galen into Arabic made a translation of De libris propriis.  He says so, indeed, in the Risala which Bergstrasser published (I uploaded this to and which John Lamoreaux has translated into English.

A single manuscript containing the translation exists.  It’s in what Boudon calls “a religious library in North-Eastern Iran, at Meshed”.   The manuscript has been unknown to science, and was first mentioned only in 1970 by F. Sezgin in Geschichte des arabischen Schriftums, III (Leiden, 1970), p.78, no.1.  The work is on f.22v to 40v of the manuscript.

Boudon adds an interesting note for the rest of us: that it was unknown to M. Steinschneider, Die arabischen Ubersetzungen aus dem griechischen (Leipzig, 1897) (online here) and M. Ullmann, Die Medizin in Islam (Leiden, Cologne 1970), which are “the standard repertories of information on such manuscripts.”  The former should be out of copyright and worth a bit of investigation!  But back to the Meshed ms.

Boudon was able to get a set of “photocopies”, evidently monochrome, by means of a “complex series of exchange deals”.  These revealed that the folios had become disarranged.  The script suggests an 11th century AD date.  It is so very similar to another Meshed ms, Rida, tibb. 5214/1 which contains On the order of my own books and gives Hunain ibn Ishaq as the translator, that the two were probably once part of the same ms.  Once the folios are rearranged, we find that the opening leaf of De libris propriis is lost.

But the translation gives us much.  The lacunose Greek neverthless has chapter titles.  The Arabic agrees, and restores three more from points where there are lacunas in the Greek.  Still more, it gives us a massive extra chunk of text from chapter 3, where Galen is summarising the contents of 20 books of anatomy written by one Marinus, who wrote ca. 129 AD.  Boudon gives a translation, also.  Nothing in it relates specially to our interests, however, but it is very good to have. 

The translation by Hunain also corrects various numerals appearing in the text, for the numbers of books in particular works.  Naturally at some points this leaves a question as to what the right number is — the Greek or the Arabic both giving a different number!

I had never heard of the library at Meshed, or its contents.  But if such libraries can give us back portions of ancient literature, we need to know more of them.

UPDATE: Please note the comments on this article by Maureen which contain a vast amount of information about the Meshed site.  Thank you so much for that!


A newly discovered text by Galen

David Wilmshurst has drawn my attention to a find.  It seems that a French scholar discovered a lost work by Galen in a monastery in Thessalonika, not long ago!  Apparently there was a Times Literary Supplement article which mentioned it, and I found this word document — apparently abstracts from a 2007 Classical Association of South Africa conference — which contained the following item.  It seems that Veronique Boudon-Millot is the discoverer:

Véronique Boudon-Millot (Paris IV) 


The Galenic treatise Peri alupias (On the avoidance of pain) was regarded as entirely lost, as well in Greek as in Arabic or Latin. The recent discovery of this treatise in an unknown manuscript of Thessaloniki furnishes some new and important material about the workshop and the library of a Greek scholar in Rome in the 2nd century. The aim of this paper is to present the different aspects of the activity of Galen as scholar, physician and surgeon as well as philosopher and to give some details about his main centres of interest.

In other words, this is not merely a new text, but one that is of wide interest to people like ourselves who are interested in how the ancient world of books worked!

I need to find out more about this.  There ought to be papers on this, I would think.  More later.

UPDATE: There is also an article in PDF here about Galen’s Library by the same scholar, who clearly is the discoverer.  She refers to:

a new manuscript of Galen’s works, Vlatadon 14, which was recently discovered in the Vlatades monastery in Thessaloniki, … it is a 281-folio5 manuscript, measuring 305 x 220 mm, dating from the 15th century and probably coming from Constantinople. Written by a number of copyists, it contains about thirty Galenic or pseudo-Galenic treatises. Apart from Peri alupias which can be found in folios 10v to 14v …

4. See V. Boudon-Millot, ‘Un traité perdu de Galien miraculeusement retrouvé, le Sur l’inutilité de se chagriner: texte grec et traduction française’, in V. Boudon-Millot, A. Guardasole & C. Magdelaine (edd.), La science médicale antique. Nouveaux regards. Etudes réunies en l’honneur de J. Jouanna (Paris 2007) 72-123.

The article contains English versions of much of the interesting material. 

UPDATE: It seems that Veronique Boudon is a very busy Galen scholar indeed!  Her home page here lists many articles, including these two:

« Galen’s On my own Books : New Material from Meshed, Rida, Tibb. 5223 », in The Unknown Galen, Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Unknown Galen : Galen beyond Kühn (Thursday & Friday 25-26 November 1999), London, Institute of Classical Studies, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Supplement 77, 2002, p. 9-18 [NF4 P520.b.87.68]

« Deux manuscrits médicaux arabes de Meshed (Rida tibb 5223 et 80) : nouvelles découvertes sur le texte de Galien », CRAI 2001, fasc. II (avril-juin), p. 1197-1222.  (Perhaps this is Comptes rendus de l’Academie des Inscriptions et Belles- Lettres?)

This is some Arabic new discovery on the most interesting of Galen’s works, On my own books (a work which she has edited and translated into French).  Mmmm.  I so want to read all this material!  Isn’t it daft, tho, that it’s all offline?

Then there are these:

« Un nouveau témoin pour l’histoire du texte de l’Ars medica de Galien : le Vlatadon 14 », in L’Ars medica (Tegni) de Galien : lectures antiques et médiévales, textes réunis et édités par N. Palmieri, Publications de l’Université de Saint-Etienne, Centre Jean Palerne, Mémoires XXXIII, 2008, p. 11-29. 

« Un traité perdu de Galien miraculeusement retrouvé, le Sur l’inutilité de se chagriner : texte grec et traduction française », in La science médicale antique : nouveaux regards, Etudes réunies par V. Boudon-Millot, A. Guardasole et C. Magdelaine en l’honneur de J. Jouanna, Paris, Beauchesne, 2007, p. 72-123.

« The Library and the Workshop of a Greek Scholar in the Roman Empire: New Testimony from the recently discovered Galen’s treatise Peri alupias », in Asklepios. Studies on Ancient Medicine, Acta Classica Supplementum II, edited by Louise Cilliers, 2008, p. 7-18.

« A Recently Discovered Consolation: Galen’s On the Futility of Grieving », in H. Baltussen (ed.), Acts of Consolation: Approaches to Loss and Sorrow from Sophocles to Shakespeare, A collection of papers presented at the International Colloquium (London, 14-15 December 2007), Cambridge University Press.

I suspect the Asklepios article is the one I found online.  Again, I want to read them all.  And I can’t even access them!


Galen’s preface to Hippocrates “On the workshop/laboratory of a doctor” in English

Andrew Eastbourne has come through, and a .doc file of this text (De officina medici) arrived today and can be downloaded from here: Galen_-_Preface.   I have also uploaded it to the Fathers site here.  I’m placing this in the public domain — do whatever you like with it (except stick your own copyright notice on it!)

It is most interesting as a guide to the transmission of texts in ancient times, so I will do my best to post it here.

He entitled a medical [work], “Pertaining to the Surgery” (κατ’ ἰητρεῖον).[1]  But it would have been better for it to be entitled, “On the Things Pertaining to the Surgery” (περὶ τῶν κατ’ ἰητρεῖον), as some give the title for the [works] of Diocles, Philotimus, and Mantius.  For while these men wrote on the same subject, in each book, in the greatest number [of copies] the title lacks the preposition (περί) and the article (τῶν)—they are entitled, simply, “Pertaining to the Surgery”—in a few [copies], however, [it is given] with the preposition and the article:  “On the Things Pertaining to the Surgery.”  But whereas these men’s books give quite copious theoretical instruction, Hippocrates’ [book], after the catalogue of the things that are the components of surgery overall, gives a full explanation of bandaging, since the man considered it proper to practice this first.  And indeed, the practice of this can be pursued most especially with pieces of wood sculpted into human form, or if [this is] not [possible], on the bodies of children at least.

This much the book itself required me to say, before my interpretations of individual points; now, however, I will go through what is not required by the book, but by those who, in copying [2] them, readily received the writings of the ancients in whatever [form] they themselves wished.[3]  For some eagerly attempted to find 300-year-old copies of even very old books,[4] preserving some in papyrus scrolls, others on sheets of papyrus, others on parchment, like the [texts] that are with us in Pergamum.[5]

Therefore, I decided to examine all these things in the [commentaries of the] earliest interpreters, so that on the basis of the majority and the most trustworthy I might discover the authentic writings.  And the result turned out to surpass my expectations.  For I discovered that they nearly all agreed with each other—the treatises and the commentaries of the interpreters—such that I was struck with bewilderment at the audacity of those who have recently written commentaries or have made their own edition of all the books of Hippocrates, among whom are Dioscorides and his associates, and Artemidorus, called Capito, and his associates,[6] who made many innovations in the ancient writings.

It seemed to me that the account of the commentaries would be [too] long, if I mentioned all the writings, and so I imagined that it was better to write [about] the older ones only, adding to them some few others—those that show but little alteration—and of these, primarily those which have been acknowledged by the earlier commentators on the book.  There are four of them:  two, who wrote commentaries on all the books of Hippocrates—Zeuxis and Heraclides; and then Bacchius and Asclepiades, [whose comments], not on all [the books of Hippocrates, are] hard to understand.[7]

And now, enough of these matters.  By way of recovering the pleasure of a clearer exordium, I will speak briefly, as though I had not said anything already.  Hippocrates’ book, entitled “Pertaining to the Surgery,” contains at the outset a preamble to the whole art [of medicine], as I shall demonstrate a little later, and for this reason some have reasonably considered it proper to read it first of all, promising lessons very similar to what some later gave in the works they entitled “Introductions.”  And next in sequence after the common preamble, he teaches (regarding what can be effected in the surgery) the most useful things for those who are beginning to learn the medical art.  It will become plain to you that [all] this is the case as you apply your mind carefully to the explanations of the expressions themselves. 

From: Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, tom. XVIII pars II, ed. D. Carolus Gottlob Kühn, Lipsiae (1830), p. 629-632. Title: ΤΟ ΙΠΠΟΚΡΑΤΟΥΣ ΚΑΤ̕ΙΗΤΡΕΙΟΝ ΒΙΒΛΙΟΝ ΚΑΙ ΓΑΛΗΝΟΥ ΕΙΣ ΑΥΤΟ ΥΠΟΜΝΗΜΑ Α.  The title of the Latin translation is:  Hippocratis De Medici Officina liber et Galeni in eum Commentarius I; Galeni praefatio. [Note by R.P.]
[1] “Surgery” here appears to refer to the physical set-up for a doctor’s operations, not the practice of surgery to which the English term most frequently refers.
[2] The Greek term, μεταγράφοντες, carries the implication that they changed them in the process of copying.
[3] Here Birt, Das antike Buchwesen, p. 503, suggests emending the odd ἢ (“or” [?]) to οἳ, yielding the following meaning for the sentence:  “…but by the copyists, who readily took…”
[4] In the Greek, it is the copying rather than the composition that is explicitly described as “300-years old,” since the participle γεγραμμένα—lit., “having been written”—is in the accusative case, whereas the books are in the genitive.
[5] Kuhn’s text (τὰδὲἐνδιαφόροιςφιλύραις, ὥσπερτὰπαρ’ ἡμῖνἐνΠεργάμῳ:  “others on various / excellent [sheets of paper made from] the under-bark of the lime tree, like the texts that are with us in Pergamum”) is problematic.  Although this under-bark is attested as being used for writing (Herodian 1.17.1; Cassius Dio 72.8.4), it has no connection with Pergamum.  Birt, Das antike Buchwesen, p. 503, cites Cobet’s emendation (ἐνδιφθέραις) with approval—I have adopted it here; Birt also mentions Marquardt’s suggestion (ἐνδιφθερίναιςφιλύραις:  “on [sheets of] parchment ‘bark'”).
[6] The phrasing here—”Dioscorides and his associates” (Gk. οἱπερὶΔιοσκορίδην)—is frequently used in Greek as a circumlocution for the simple “Dioscorides.”
[7] Gk. δυσλόγιστα; this can mean, literally, “hard to calculate” or “bad at calculating” and hence, either obscurity or shoddy commentating is the point.  


UPDATE: Andrew Eastbourne writes to remind me that “duties” of a doctor would be “officiis”, and to say that “officina” is workshop/laboratory.


Dark ages, middle ages, and how it’s all the fault of the Christians

While reading James Hannam’s blog Quodlibeta I noticed this post, discussing the history of vivisection and dissection.  It references a rather bad-tempered post by atheist polemicist Richard Carrier here

The nice thing in the discussion is to see ancient medical writers discussed and quoted.  James shows that the Hellenistic physicians Herophilus and Erasistratus carried out human vivisections in Alexandria, as witnessed by Celsus the 1st century medical author.  He rightly comments that we should not suppose that, just because we would find this appalling, an ancient would do so.  Martial’s epigrams describing things done to criminals in the arena make that plain enough.

I had never heard of Herophilus, still less that a edition of the fragments existed by Heinrich von Staten (Cambridge, 1989).  Religious controversy does unearth things that calmer debate would not, and we can all be enriched therevy.

Richard Carrier’s post is too long and too far outside my area of interest (and too unreferenced) for me to read much of it.  A couple of passages in it caught my eye accidentally. 

He objected to a Christian saying “[The Christians] preserved and copied an enormous amount of Greek mathematics, technical writings, and natural philosophy.”  This unexceptionable statement apparently upset Dr. C, who met it with the objection that only a tiny percentage of ancient literature has survived.  I was unclear how this evidently true observation refuted the point made, however.  Surely both are true?

keyser_encycl_natsciMuch more interesting in the same part of the post was an image of a book cover attached, which proved to be that of Paul Keyser &c, Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists (here).  I had not heard of this book, but as regular readers will know I am rather an enthusiast for compedia of authors.  But at $360, who of us could buy a copy?  Keyser himself is interviewed here; he turns out to be a fellow software engineer, working for IBM, who has also produced Greek science of the hellenistic era on the basis that:

Science accounts for more of the texts surviving from antiquity than any other sort of writing, and yet is rarely studied or even read because the texts are relatively hard to find in translation.

Well said, sir!  How many of us are even familiar with the dusty volumes of ancient science, the 20-odd volumes of Galen, and the like?

I don’t pretend to be that interested in the history of science, so much of what was discussed was above my head.  But one element involved a curious misunderstanding.  Carrier barks repeatedly that the term “Dark Ages” is one that is being suppressed in our day, and being suppressed by the awful Christians, because they are trying to conceal how awful it was. 

The attempts to remove the term from our language certainly exist, in our day, but I never heard that the Christians were responsible.  After all, whoever used any other term, before our own days?  On the contrary; most Christians I ever heard of think the middle ages was a period of degeneration in religion and everything else, and think of the poor conditions in the West during the Dark Ages, rather than the unknown splendours of Syriac and Arabic science.

The people who object to it seem primarily to be the medievalists.  Presumably professional pride influences this.  Indeed one medievalist has never spoken to me, ever since I queried a gross mis-characterisation of that wretched period of human existence.  Another, probably more influential group, seems to be the politically correct.  Why these object to it I do not know. 

But what seems quite clear to me is that the dichotomy is not between Christian and heathen, but between those like myself who look at the Dark Ages as a time in which we would certainly not like to live, unlike antiquity; and those more interested in it who see things differently.


Bergstrasser’s edition and German translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq, on translations of Galen

Greek science was translated into Arabic in the 10th century, mostly by Nestorian Christians such as Hunain ibn Ishaq.  The Moslem Caliphs of that period were the Abbassids, who came from Persia, and so knew the Nestorians as their “home” Christians.  With their access to the Greek medical tradition, including the works of the 2nd century doctor Galen, they were consequently in demand as doctors.  Of course being the personal physician of an oriental despot is not without risk, and Hunain himself was imprisoned, invited to act as a poisoner, and had his library confiscated. 

But with all this, he managed to translate most of the vast output of Galen from Greek into Arabic.  He also wrote a letter to one of his patrons, discussing this process.  This is a very valuable guide to how Greek literature made it into Arabic.

A manuscript of the work was discovered at in the library of Greek texts at Agia Sophia and was printed by G. Bergstrasser, with a German translation, in 1925.  Today I received a copy of the book by InterLibrary Loan, and I have scanned and uploaded the book to, here.  I have also added a Word document of the German text, also a .txt file and a .htm file.

An English translation and critical edition by John Lamoreaux is ready for publication.  This is based on better manuscripts than Bergstrasser had.  For this we shall have to wait.  But if you can’t wait, and have some German, then you now can access Bergstrasser.

Bergstrasser himself vanished while climbing in the Alps in 1933, so his book is out of copyright in Germany, the EU and the UK.  The US copyright status is unknown to me.


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!


Project to translate all of Galen into English

I learn from this job advert in CLASSICS-L that things are afoot in the world of Galen studies.  The Wellcome Trust – after the big pharmaceutical company, Glaxo-Wellcome (now GSK) has funded some posts to edit and translate Galen.  The idea is to translate all of Galen into English! The project is under Philip van der Eijk (personal page) at Newcastle University, and John Wilkins of Exeter is also involved.


Hunain ibn Ishaq, on the works of Galen

I was musing a little while ago about a small work by Hunain ibn Ishaq, the most important of the translators of the classics into Arabic in the 10th century.  The work was published by G. Bergstrasser with a German translation.  It lists the works of the ancient Medical writer Galen known to him, together with details of where he found manuscripts and how he went about translation. 

I was thinking that we do could with this text online.  Indeed this weekend I ordered a copy of Bergstrasser by ILL, with the thought of commissioning a translation.

Later that day I heard from Dr. John C. Lamoreaux, of the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.  It turns out that he is in the process of producing an edition with English translation, for academic publication!  This is excellent news, and should blow the field wide open.  After all, people with knowledge of Greek rarely know Arabic.

Of course this book won’t be online because of the usual problem; that academics who want to retain their jobs must publish research, and must do so via prestigious academic publishers.  These in turn would understandably like to actually sell at least a few of the miserably short print runs — they hardly make money anyway.  But the upshot is that this research remains offline, whatever the wishes of author and publisher.

However Dr. L. has very kindly slipped me a draft copy of the book, and with his permission I hope to review it here. 


Hunain ibn Ishaq, on text criticism

Hunain ibn Ishaq was a Nestorian Christian who was responsible for much of the translation of Greek works into Arabic, usually via a Syriac intermediate translation.   I find that a long letter of his, on the subject of the works of Galen and how he went about his task, exists.  It was published by G. Bergstrasser, Hunain ibn Ishaq. Uber der syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen (1925), and is about 40 pages long.  I’m considering having it translated into English, if I can get hold of a copy.  The only copy for sale online is £67, which is rather a lot!  Anyone got any ideas on how to find a copy?

Interestingly it seems that Dimitri Gutas has published a book about the whole “Translation movement” of turning Greek literature into Arabic.  It’s here.  But apparently it’s big on “why” rather than “what” – the social reasons why translation was a good idea, rather than what was translated.  Drat.


Galen and his works

Who cares to read the works of an doctor of the 2nd century AD?  Well, it doesn’t matter anyway; you can’t!  Not unless you are fluent in Greek at least, anyway.  Do we care?

Those of us who have the “Indiana Jones” approach to lost texts and manuscripts cannot fail to find Galen interesting.  He’s almost a textbook case of how ancient Greek works reached us, via Arabic.  He also has much to say of interest about the way that ancient books were made and traded and forged.  Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars,1 refer to him frequently, and I’ve summarised a few of the bits.  This should whet your appetite!

Ptolemy I sought to fill the library at Alexandria.  He borrowed the official copies of the Attic tragedies from Athens, giving a massive deposit, and then chose to forfeit the deposit and keep the books.  This is recounted by Galen, 17(1).607. In their eagerness to buy all the books that existed, the librarians were frequently deceived into buying forgeries (Galen vol. 15, p. 105).

Galen attributes the confused state of one of the works of Hippocrates to marginal notes being incorporated into the main text by a copyist (vol. 15, p. 624); in vol. 17 (1) p. 634, he notes how a parallel from another writer had been written in a margin, and incorporated in the same manner.3

Galen also was very close to the text critical maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred (Corpus medicorum graecorum,p.178, 17-18) where he expresses a preference for old or antiquated words in the text and understands that they would have been changed into something easier if the text had been modified (ibid. 121.17-18).

The Arabic scholars investigated Galen closely, and recent research into Arabic versions has recovered a missing passage from one known text and, better still, proof that an incomprehensible passage in the Greek is because a leaf in an early copy was pulled out and reinserted backwards!  The Nestorian translator, Hunain ibn Ishaq, gives a long list of Galen’s works then extant and considers which had been translated into Syriac, which into Arabic, by whom, when, and where manuscripts of the Greek might be found.  His method of translation involves collating several manuscripts to deal with damage, a trick he learned in part from Galen himself.4

After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, William of Moerbecke became Latin archbishop of Corinth, and translated into Latin some works of Galen not now extant.

In the 19th century Minas Minoides discovered some lost essays of Galen on Mount Athos, which are today Mss. Paris. sup. gr. 634 and 635. 

Interested?  I admit that I am.  I’d like to see those passages of Galen in English.  Indeed I’d like to see that list by Hunain ibn Ishaq.

Sadly no-one has ever been interested in translating Galen.  Initially I could only find one work in translation.  Then John Wilkins of Exeter University in the UK kindly pointed out to me that some selected works were translated by Peter Singer for the Oxford World Classics series in 1997, but that’s it. 

Incidentally the little Oxford World Classics paperback is already out of print, and commanding prices from £31 upwards! This system of making minority-interest texts available in short print run book form with a fierce copyright of life+70 years seems pretty broken to me; the book may exist, but who can read it?  Luckily my local library bought it, so I should be able to get it on ILL, and will report back.

Let us hope that Galen will attract more attention, and more of it online. 

1. 3rd edition, Clarendon Press (1991).    
2.  The reference given in S&S — generally bad on references — is 17(1).607., which tells us little; which work of Galen is this?  Luckily I have the French translation of S&S, D’Homere a Erasme, translated by Pierre Petitmengin who inserted a good few and elucidates.  He gives the reference to the Kühn edition of Galen, Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 1821-33, 20 vols; the ref. is to vol. 17, 1, p.607; I have followed his lead on references above.   There is a review of Kühn’s edition in English here.  The edition is Greek with a Latin translation, and runs to over 20,000 pages!  Vol. 20 is here.
3.  S&S describes Galen as the greatest text-critical scholar of his time, and that W.G.Rutherford, A chapter in the history of annotation, London 1905, pp.47-57 is still worth reading.
4. See J.S.Wilkie, JHS 101 (1981), 145-8; S&S has further bibliography.