Galen on books, reading, and writing in second-century Rome

Galen’s newly recovered treatise, On the Avoidance of Grief / Avoiding Distress, vividly portrays the vibrant book economy in Rome about the year 193.  Galen describes having copied many books “by my own hand,” declares that he wrote a new book by dictating it “as is my custom,” and expresses concern about being able to “keep up with what is said when someone reads a book to me.”  He complains that a decaying papyrus roll is difficult to unroll, and laments a precious parchment codex that has been burned.  He describes as necessary splitting large books whose length exceeds four thousand hexametric verses.[1]

Galen recognized the difficulties that scriptio continua creates.  He describes:

books that, after correction, had been written by me onto a pure text, books with unclear and errant readings throughout the texts – planning to produce my own edition.  The writings were worked to (the point of) accuracy so that neither was something added nor words taken away, not even a paragraphos – single or double, or a coronis – (a siglum) appropriately placed between books. What is there to say about the period or comma?  As you know, they are very valuable in unclear books, so that one who pays attention to them does not need an interpreter.[2]

A paragraphos is a paratextual marker that typically marked the end of a sentence; a coronis typically marked the end of a work or a major section of a work.  Galen’s concern for punctuation and textual correctness points to Galen’s wide-ranging scholarly attention to books apart from any school supporting oral recitation.

Libraries played an important role in disseminating books.  Galen refers to “all the libraries on the Palatine,” libraries by the Temple of Peace, and the Tiberian house “in which there was also a library full of many other books.”  These libraries had broad collections: rare books, common books, works of contemporary or near-contemporary authors, as well as “copies of books from many ancient grammarians were kept, also those of rhetoricians, physicians and philosophers.”  The libraries had catalogs.  Galen complains of books listed in a catalog but missing in the library, disparages readers “robbing” books from the libraries, and states that some bibliographic information in the catalogs is incorrect. Galen acquired some books by copying books in libraries.  Galen made copies of his books at the request of friends who sought the books for a public library in Galen’s hometown, Pergamum. Galen observed that other friends had “already placed many of my works {in public libraries} in other cities.”[3]

Galen treatise describes how to avoid grief using his personal example of his recent loss that included many valuable books.  These books burned in a major fire in Rome, probably in 192.[4]  Other scholars and book-lovers suffered intense grief from the destruction of books in that fire:

when his books perished in the fire, Philides the grammarian – wasting away from discouragement and distress – actually died. And, for a long time, one after another went out in black garments, thin and pale like mourners.[5]

The phrase “one after another” suggests that those with large personal libraries were quite numerous.  Their grief is a poignant counterpart to what must have been earlier much joy in books.

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[1] The text of the treatise, which takes the form of a letter to a friend, was found in 2005 at the Vlatadon Monastery, Thessaloniki.  The English translation of Rothschild & Thompson (2011) uses the traditional title for this work, On the Avoidance of Grief.  Id. p. 110, n. 1 observes that this isn’t the best translation.  Vivian Nutton’s forthcoming translation and commentary will title the work Avoiding Distress.  The work is dated to 193 GC.  On copying “by my own hand”, see Rothschild & Thompson (2011) trans. paras. 6,16, 19 (RT 6, 16, 19); dictating books, RT 84; reading books to Galen, RT 78b; decaying papyrus roll, RT 19; parchment codex, RT 33; four thousand verses, RT 28.  Parchment was significantly more expensive than papyrus.  Parchment was typically used only for more valuable books.  Bagnall (2009) pp. 52-59, 79.

[2] RT 14.  Words in parentheses RT added to clarify the translation.

[3] On libraries in Rome, RT 12b, 18; on collection scope, RT 13; on catalogs, cataloging mistakes, missing books, and book robbers, RT 16-18; on Galen copying library books, RT 12b, 17; on requests of friends for books for public libraries in other cities,  RT 21.  Galen’s On the Composition of Medications by Type (1.1) refers to “great libraries on the Palatine.”  Cited and trans. in Houston (2003) p. 45.

[4]. A date of 191 is also possible, but less probable.  On the date, see Houston (2003) p. 45, n. 3.

[5] RT 7.  Nutton (2009) p. 19, n. 5, provides other relevant Galenic references that support a reading of Callistus the grammarian, rather than Philides.  Nutton, reviewing Galen’s literary references, concludes that Galen’s range of knowledge was comparable to Plutarch’s.  The books that Galen lost probably had such a range.


Bagnall, Roger S. 2009. Early Christian books in Egypt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Houston, George W. 2003. “Galen, His Books, and the Horrea Piperataria at Rome.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 48, pp. 45-51.

Nutton, Vivian. 2009.  “Galen’s Library.”  Ch. 1 in Gill, C., Wilkins, J. and Whitmarsh, T. (eds) Galen and the World of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

RT: Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.'” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

2 thoughts on “Galen on books, reading, and writing in second-century Rome”

    1. Train your mind to imagine really bad things that could happen to you, e.g. losing everything and being banished to a deserted island. Then most other bad things that happen will seem trivial. In short, think of any loss from the perspective, “it could be worse.”

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