Galen: a Biographical Sketch

I. Birth and family

The physician and philosopher Galen was born at Pergamum in A.D. 129. His father, Aelius Nicon, was an architect and builder with an interest in mathematics, logic, and astronomy and a fondness for exotic mathematical and literary recreations. His mother, according to Galen himself, was a hot-tempered woman, always arguing with his father; Galen compared her to Socrates' wife Xanthippe.

Perhaps while still in his teens, Galen became a therapeutes or 'attendant' of the healing god Asclepius, whose sanctuary was an important cultural center not only for Pergamum, but also for the entire Roman province of Asia. The prestigious cult association of therapeutai included magistrates, senators, highly-placed members of the imperial civil service, and literary men from all over the province.

II. Education

Nicon had planned for his son to study philosophy or politics, the traditional pursuits of the cultured governing class into which he had been born. But in 144 or 145 Asclepius intervened. In a dream, Galen says, the god told Nicon to allow his son to study medicine, and for the next four years Galen studied with the distinguished physicians who gathered at the sanctuary of Asclepius.

In 148 or 149 Nicon died, and Galen at 19 found himself rich and independent. He chose to travel and further his medical education at Smyrna (modern Izmir), Corinth, and Alexandria. In 157 he returned to his native city and a prestigious appointment: physician to the gladiators. From autumn 157 to autumn 161 he gained valuable practical experience in trauma and sports medicine, and he continued to pursue his studies in theoretical medicine and philosophy.

By A.D. 161 Galen, now 32, may have realized that even a great and prosperous provincial city like Pergamum could not offer the opportunities his talents and ambition demanded. He left, returning only for a three-year span from 166 until some time in 169. The rest of his career was spent in Rome.

III. At Rome

During his first stay at Rome Galen quickly became part of the intellectual life of the capital. His public lectures and anatomical demonstrations brought him to the attention of the consular Flavius Boethius, and through him to the notice of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In 168, Galen tells us, Marcus and his co-emperor, Lucius Verus, invited him to return from Pergamum and to join them at their headquarters in Aquileia, where they were engaged in military operations against the Quadi and Marcomanni, barbarian tribes threatening the Danubian frontier.

By the time Galen acted on the emperor's invitation, however, an outbreak of plague had forced Marcus and his court to return to Rome. There Galen joined them. He continued to write, lecture, and practice medicine, with the emperor's son Commodus and Marcus himself as his most illustrious patients. With the possible exception of a few journeys taken to investigate scientific phenomena, he remained at Rome until his death sometime after A.D. 210.

IV. Writings

In 191 a fire in the Temple of Peace, where he had deposited many of his manuscripts for safe-keeping, destroyed important parts of Galen's work. What remains, however, is enough to establish his reputation as the most prolific, cantankerous, and influential of ancient medical writers. His extant works fill some twenty volumes in Greek. Other works survive only in Arabic or medieval Latin translations.

Galen's works fall into three main categories: medical, philosophical, and philological. His medical writings encompass nearly every aspect of medical theory and practice in his era. In addition to summarizing the state of medicine at the height of the Roman Empire, he reports his own important advances in anatomy, physiology, and therapeutics. His philosophical writings cannot be easily separated from his medical thought. Throughout his treatises on knowledge and semantics he is concerned to argue that medicine, understood correctly, can have the same epistemological certainty, linguistic clarity, and intellectual status that philosophy enjoyed. Likewise his treatises on the language of medicine and his commentaries on Hippocratic texts form part of his project to recover authentic medical knowledge from the accretions of mistaken doctrine.

V. Personality and Influence

From this consistent intellectual and scholarly program emerges a consistent personality. Galen tells us more about himself, his opinions, and his life than any other ancient medical author. He lambastes his contemporaries for their ignorance, greed, and superficial knowledge of the art of medicine. In his fiery, polemic quest for intellectual and rhetorical supremacy, Galen belongs among the great public intellectuals of the Second Sophistic period.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Galen for European medical thought in the centuries between the fall of Rome and modern times. Even as late as 1833, the index to Karl-Gottlob Kühn's edition (still the only nearly complete collection of Galen's Greek works) could be designed for working medical practitioners as well as for classical scholars. Galen absorbed into his work nearly all preceding medical thought and shaped the categories within which his successors thought about not only the history of medicine, but its practice as well.

Lee Pearcy

Portions of this essay first appeared in Archaeology, November/December 1985

Further Reading

Bowersock G. W. (1969) Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford)
Moraux P. (1969) Galien de Pergame: Souvenirs d'un médecin (Paris)
Nutton V. (1973) 'The Chronology of Galen's Early Career', Classical Quarterly 23, 158-171
Pearcy L. (1985) 'Galen's Pergamum,' Archaeology 38.6 (November/December), 33-39
Scarborough J. (1971) 'Galen and the Gladiators,' Episteme 5, 98-111
idem (1988) 'Galen Redivivus: An Essay Review', Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 43, 313-321