Galen uses the production of and the commentary on ancient texts as tools to establish his own medical authority. He leverages both the physical possession of ancient books and the superior claim to familiarity with ancient authors that they afford him in order to set himself up as the authoritative master in the field of medicine and, to some degree, also that of philosophy. In these practices, he adapts the contemporary culture of the second century A.D., with its emphasis on the authoritative value of books and the privileged place of antiquity, to his own professional ends. Interest in Galen’s relationship to contemporary society (Bowersock (1969); Brunt (1994); Swain (1996); Schlange-Schöningen (2003); Gill, Whitmarsh, and Wilkins (2009)) and his reading and editorial practices (Hanson (1998); von Staden (2009); Johnson (2010)) has blossomed over the past few decades. This paper integrates this interest into the study of the more technical side of his corpus by exploring the ways in which Galen’s philological activities inform his medical persona by supporting and embellishing his scientific authority.
I begin by examining Galen’s editorial practices. In his recently rediscovered text On the Avoidance of Greif, he offers details of the type of editorial work he engaged in, including locating and copying the oldest or most reliable witness of ancient texts, judging authenticity both of whole works and of individual words, and inserting breaks and punctuation for clarity. In his extant Hippocratic commentaries, especially those on Epidemics III and VI, he goes into greater detail about how he evaluates variant readings and seeks to uncover and explicate the most authentic versions of these ancient texts.
Next, I look at the ways in which Galen deploys both his possession of an impressive library and the superior level of antiquarian knowledge to which his editorial activities entitle him. I offer instances, on the one hand, of moments where he uses a display of books or of arcane knowledge to intimidate a rival or audience member; for example, in On the Avoidance of Greif, he uses his wide-ranging knowledge of Attic vocabulary to discredit a contemporary’s interpretation of Hippocrates. Here I also examine parallel situations from contemporary sources, including Aulus Gellius and Lucian. On the other hand, I evaluate the ways in which his textual activities bolster his claim to be the true interpreter of the ancients, giving him leeway to coopt Hippocratic, Aristotelian, or Platonic authority for many of his own theories, even in cases where their relevance is quite strained.
Finally, I examine the ways in which Galen’s editorial practices on the books of his predecessors translate to his handling of his own corpus and the authority that it, too, brings to him. He writes On my Own Books explicitly in order to police the authenticity of the writings circulating under his name, famously beginning with an anecdote about a spurious work publically denounced by an educated reader. In addition to supplying a list of genuine titles, the text offers insights into the compositional situation of many of the texts, creating a hierarchy among them. Thus, just like his evaluation of ancient editions, some of his own texts are presented as more and some as less authoritative, depending on the degree of editing and his intentions with regard to dissemination.
Medicine and Disease in Galen