Galen and the Roman Empire

I listened to the audio version of a biography about Galen, and reading sections of the text. The author is Susan P. Mattern. The title of the book is The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

The title is fitting. The author does a great job of describing and explaining the society Galen lived in, the early Roman Empire. I’ve read a fair amount about that time, but this is the first book that gave me a clear sense of how different it was compared to the world today.

Mattern also made clear what this meant for a Greek like Galen. It was tricky business navigating that often dangerous world. As a physician and anatomist, he had a career that was highly respected and ruthlessly competitive. It meant not just having the skills and knowledge to heal people, but also to be a philosopher, performer, and much else.

There was one thing that stood out to me more than anything. Everything was social. Our notion of individuality would have been incomprehensible to them. They seemed to have done everything as a social activity.

When a person needed medical care, friends and family would accompany the patient. And if they needed long term care, those friends and family would stay with the patient for as long as it took, someone constantly at their bedside. These friends and family would advocate for the patient, even arguing with the physician.

That was the easy part of the job. Someone like Galen had his own entourage of students, followers, and friends. Either with Galen or out in a group, these social groups would roam the streets and public spaces of whatever city they were in. There were many other social groups with other leaders. It wasn’t easy to distinguish physicians, philosophers, monks, and other similar types. For example, Jesus and his disciples would have been just one group among endless groups.

These groups constantly were seeking other groups to challenge and debate. Anyone who wanted to be a leader was forced to accept challenges and to deal with hecklers. Sometimes physical fights broke out.

Another interesting thing relates to my other readings about ancient societies. Others have noted that even into the Roman Empire evidence of the bicameral mind could still be found. In Christian religious texts, body parts were sometimes described as having minds of their own.

This carryover of bicameralism apparently even was found in the medical theories back then. Here is a description of this from Mattern’s book, although the author doesn’t acknowledge its strangeness (pp. 232-233):

“He mentions speaking with many women who described themselves as “hysterical,” that is, having an illness caused, as they believed, by a condition of the uterus (hystera in Greek) whose symptoms varied from muscle contractions to lethargy to nearly complete asphyxia (Loc. Affect. 6.5, 8.414K). Galen, very aware of Herophilus’s discovery of the broad ligaments anchoring the uterus to the pelvis, denied that the uterus wandered around the body like an animal wreaking havoc (the Hippocratics imagined a very actively mobile womb). But the uterus could, in his view, become withdrawn in some direction or inflamed; and in one passage he recommends the ancient practice of fumigating the vagina with sweet-smelling odors to attract the uterus, endowed in this view with senses and desires of its own, to its proper place; this technique is described in the Hippocratic Corpus but also evokes folk or shamanistic medicine.”

This bicameralism (or whatever one wants to call it) was already in decline at this point. It’s unlikely that many Roman citizens actually experienced bicameralism. But bicameralism was still recent enough that the traces of it survived in the cultural heritage.

The Roman Empire existed through the late Axial Age. It was a time of transition. The seeds were being planted for modernity. Yet much of the ancient world still held immense power.

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