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What would Vivian Nutton say?

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Ann Hanson

I have wondered why Galen was so poorly represented in the fragmentary papyri and parchments containing works from his hand — when compared, for example, to the number of papyri with texts known in our Hippocratic Corpus.

Counting the number of papyrus copies of a work or an author surviving to modern times has seemed to give an indication not only of readership in the ancient schools but also of a more general popularity among adult readers. Thus, the fact that Homer’s Iliad surpasses all other literary works in Greek in the number of copies represented by fragments on papyrus and/or parchment underscores the notion that it was being read by many in the Roman province of Egypt, schoolchildren and grown- ups alike. The Iliad papyri make plausible a relationship between number of discrete fragments and size of readership (these days the number of Iliad fragments is perhaps representing nearly 1000 copies).

A similar imbalance favouring the Hippocratic Corpus over Galen seems also to exist in the collection of medical texts excavated from late antique Antinoupolis. The lists in Diels’s Die Handschriften der antiken Ärzte. Griechische Abteilung are not strictly comparable, for while the list of manuscript copies for treatises in the Hippocratic Corpus is concise and occupies pages 3–57, the list for Galen is complicated in part by the evidence Diels assembled for Latin translations; he followed the Kühn edition for his pages 58–115, but continued on with Greek titles not in Kühn, while pages 136–50 list items known only in Latin translation. It is instructive to compare Diels’s information in 1906 on the manuscript evidence for On his own Opinions/De propriis placitis, page 119, with what Vivian assembled for his 1999 edition of the treatise for Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, V 3.2, pages 14–45. That same year Vivian hosted a symposium that resulted in 2002 in the collection of essays he edited as The Unknown Galen.

Insofar as papyrus fragments are concerned, the timespan might seem to favour the Hippocratic Corpus in that its earliest copy from Epidemics II was assigned a date in the first century BCE, while the earliest date assigned to a copy of Galen’s De placitis Hipp. et Plat. is the first half of the third century CE, thus copied either during the very last years of Galen’s life or in the decades shortly after his death. Galen himself claimed that his writings were read from one end of the Roman Empire to the other and that he carried on vigorous correspondences with provincials from many areas. He reported the remarks he made to Peitholaus, the Emperor’s chamberlain, that Marcus Aurelius was always saying about him that he was the first among physicians and unique among philosophers.

Galen’s contemporary Athenaeus of Naucratis, who, like Galen, immigrated to Rome, turned him into a character at the party he once hosted (Sophists at Dinner, or Deipno-sophistae). The characteristics Athenaeus attributed to Galen are certainly plausible: Athenaeus’s Galen wrote more treatises on philosophy and medicine than all those who preceded him, and lectured guests on Italian wines and on medical opinions on the nourishing properties in breads and cakes. But it is essentially only Galen’s self- portraits that present him as a lion in Roman society. Photius, patriarch of Constantinople in the ninth century CE, claimed in his Bibliotheca to enjoy reading Galen’s De sectis, certainly one of Galen’s more popular treatises (and a commentary to it among preserved papyri from late antiquity); but Photius went on to criticise Galen more generally as someone who “burdened his treatises with irrelevancies, digressions, and lengthy periods, and these, in turn, confused and obscured the meaning of his texts…breaking up their structures; his verbosity rendered readers indifferent”. The enthusiasm Photius’s contemporary Hunayn ibn ́Ishaq showed for Galen’s treatises makes it clear, however, that Photius represented neither a majority opinion in his own time nor in earlier centuries. Perhaps the forthcoming volume of medical texts from Oxyrhynchus will somehow rebalance the papyri and texts of Galen will come to equal, or even outnumber, those from the Hippocratic Corpus.

Despite the fact that Galen has a long way to go in order to catch up, I am loath to concede that there were more Romans and more late antique readers for the Hippocratic Corpus than there were for Galen. Those who were reading papyrus copies of Hippocrates from the first century BCE to the fifth and sixth centuries CE concentrated on a relatively small number of texts, the majority of which also figured in the canon of the Alexandria medical schools: Aphorisms, Epidemics, the pseudepigraphic Letters, treatises in gynaecology or orthopaedic surgery. I wonder, then, whether one could not read the evidence from the papyri a bit differently, blaming not Galen and his prolixity but rather ourselves: we are the ones who cannot find Galen in a morass of papyri. For one thing, our electronic Hilfsmittel fails us: we may search Galen’s vast output of texts electronically, but our database limits us for the most part to the Greek text as it appeared in Kühn. Translations of Galen into other languages have to be identified in the old-fashioned way by reading and carrying contents in one’s head. If the weaknesses are ours, are there schemes that might overcome the difficulties in locating Galen among our fragments? And, more important, is this the story the imbalance among papyri of Hippocrates and Galen is trying to tell?

I had advice from Vivian back when joining the Berlin fragment of De placitis Hippocratis et Platonis to the fragment in Munich, and again when trying to make sense of Melchior Goldast’s creation of the correspondence he confected among Cleopatra, Marc Anthony and Soranus. I had every intention of asking Vivian about the imbalance in the papyrus fragments during the Oslo Conference ‘Texts of the Medical Profession in Antiquity: Genres and purposes’, in September 2010, and his paper, ‘Private and Public in the Writings of Galen of Pergamum’, seemed almost to invite the question of how best to construe the paltry offering of papyri from the hand of Galen. But time slipped away in Oslo to other matters. So I ask now: What would Vivian Nutton say?

Dr Ann Hanson is a Senior Research Scholar at the Department of Classics at Yale University, USA.

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