Classics Galen
Véronique Boudon-Millot
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0258


After remaining for a long time in Hippocrates’ shadow, the Galenic corpus has attracted considerable scholarly attention since the 1970s. Born in Pergamum, Roman Asia Minor, in 129 CE, Galen was the most influential physician in antiquity after Hippocrates of Cos (flourished c. 425 BCE) and considered himself to be the latter’s legitimate heir. His tremendous impact on the medical world and the wide circulation of his works until the modern era contrast with the way he then faded into a relative obscurity. Galen spent his career mainly in Rome during the reigns of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Septimius Severus and described himself as both a physician and a philosopher. He was the author of nearly 150 treatises (one-eighth of the entire preserved Greek literature) covering all fields of medicine (anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and therapeutics) without neglecting hygiene, gymnastics, or cosmetics, and other treatises on philosophy, logic, ethics, and the vocabulary of comedy. An important part of his work consisted of commentaries on the main Hippocratic treatises. After the Galenic corpus became a standard in medical education in late Byzantine Alexandria, interest in Galen’s works slowly ebbed, so that by the French Revolution in 1789 Galen had taken a lesser place in medical education than Hippocrates, although some medical schools still taught Galen in translation, most often in Latin. Thus it was not until the 1970s that a full resurgence took hold among medical historians, students of Greek and Roman history, and classical philologists: numerous studies are now available on Galen and Galenic medicine, and this renewed interest has led to fresh discoveries of basically unknown tracts in manuscript holdings. Since the 1980s, thanks to philologists’ constant curiosity about his works, numerous studies were produced and they led to important discoveries as well as to significant renewal of our knowledge of the Galenic corpus. Although a large part of this huge corpus still remains to be translated into a modern language, Galen’s work is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves from medical doctors, philosophers, historians of medicine, and archeologists.

General Overviews

Galeni opera omnia (Kühn 1964) is a huge endeavor of almost 20,000 pages and, despite the lack of any translation in a modern language, is the only complete and still irreplaceable edition of Galen’s work since the nineteenth century. A few notices in dictionaries or encyclopedias and some histories of medicine among such as Grmek 1995 are useful for a first approach, although they do not always take into account the latest state of knowledge on the Galenic corpus. The discovery in 2005 of a new Greek manuscript (Vlatadon 14) in Thessaloniki has electrified Galen scholars. It is partly published in Galen 2007, also giving a general introduction on Galen’s life and works. Nevertheless, Hankinson 2008 remains a useful introduction to the subject, along with Haase 1994, which covers various aspects of Galen’s medical practice. Gill, et al. 2012 places Galen in the context of the intellectual life, while Nutton 1981 focuses principally on the history of the Galenic text.

  • Galen. 2007. Œuvres tome 1: Introduction générale, sur l’ordre de ses propres livres, sur ses propres livres, que l’excellent médecin est aussi philosophe. Edited and translated by V. Boudon-Millot. Collection des Universités de France. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    First volume of the works of Galen in the Collection des Universités de France (CUF) that includes a general introduction on the life and works of the physician as well as a history of the Galenic corpus that provides a comprehensive update on the current state of knowledge at the dawn of the twenty-first century and highlights potential directions for future work. The volume also takes into account the new Thessaloniki manuscript (Vlatadon 14) discovered in 2005 in the edition of two of the three treatises it contains.

  • Gill, Christopher, Tim Whitmarsh, and John Wilkins, eds. Galen and the world of knowledge. 2012. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Volume of stimulating essays that places Galen firmly in the intellectual life of his period and tries to provide valid answers to the following questions: How did Galen present himself as a reader and an author in comparison with other intellectuals of his day? How did he fashion himself as a medical practitioner? Did he see medicine as taking over some of the traditional roles of philosophy?

  • Grmek, M., ed. 1995. Histoire de la pensée médicale en Occident. Vol. 1, Antiquité et Moyen Age. Paris: Seuil.

    First published in Italy in 1993 under the title: Storia del pensiero medico occidentale—Vol. 1. Antichità e Medioevo, Bari-Roma, Laterza editori, and in 1995 in French with a traduction of Maria Laura Bardinet Broso, Paris: Le Seuil, this volume is an original approach through the history of medical thought rather than just medicine. The chapter by D. Gourevitch (pp. 94–122) focusing on medicine in the Roman world offers an insightful presentation of Galen’s life and works.

  • Haase, Wolfgang, ed. 1994. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW). Teil II: Principat. Band 37, 2 Wissenschaften (Medizin und Biologie). Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter.

    Of the seventeen chapters covering nearly 700 pages (pp. 1351–2017) of this encyclopedia on the various aspects of Galen’s medical practice, written in English, German, French, or Italian. Note especially the annotated bibliography by J. Kollesch and D. Nickel (pp. 1351–1420), which covers the entire period from 1900 to 1993.

  • Hankinson, R. J., ed. 2008. The Cambridge companion to Galen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive book in fourteen chapters written by eleven of the best Galen specialists takes stock of the knowledge accumulated during the thirty years prior to its release. After two chapters on Galen’s life and medical career, the following eleven chapters cover each of the fields of knowledge explored by the physician, before concluding with an overview devoted to the works’ posterity. With list of works and bibliography.

  • Kühn, C. G., ed. 1964. Galeni opera omnia. 1821–1833. 20 vols. Repr. Hildesheim, Germany: G. Olms.

    Reprint of the 1821–1833 edition (Leipzig: Car. Cnoblochii; freely available online). This edition essentially reproduces René Chartier’s Paris edition (André Pralard) (Chartier 1638–1689, cited under Corpus Galenicum). As it has still not been replaced, Kühn’s edition remains to this day the reference for the vast majority of Galen’s treatises that have not received a recent critical edition. Its text dates back to the seventeenth century and should therefore be used with caution. Greek text and Latin translation.

  • Leven, K.-H., ed. 2005. Antike Medizin, Ein Lexicon. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    The three articles in German devoted to “Galen” (pp. 316–319), “Galenismus” (pp. 319–321) and “Galenkritik” (pp. 321–322) amount to a synthetic and well-informed introduction.

  • Lloyd, G. E. R. 1973. Greek science after Aristotle. London: Chatto and Windus.

    The penultimate chapter, 9, devoted to Galen, briefly presents the main principles of Galen’s medical system: the four primary qualities (hot, cold, dry, and wet) and the four elements (air, earth, fire, and water), the role of three major organs (brain, heart, and liver), the natural faculties, the primacy of anatomy, and the practice of dissection and animal vivisection.

  • Nutton, Vivian, ed. 1981. Galen: Problems and prospects, a collection of papers submitted at the 1979 Cambridge conference. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

    The first six chapters of this two-part pioneering collection of multilingual papers focus on Galen as a writer on medicine and philosophy; the second part discusses the history of his works through Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic, and medieval Latin translations up to the sixteenth century, translations that played a significant role in the dissemination of research on the Galenic corpus. This collection continues to provide very useful insights on many aspects of the Galenic corpus.

  • Nutton, Vivian. 2004. Ancient medicine. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203490914

    History of ancient medicine written by a leading expert on Galen contains two excellent introductory chapters (15 and 16) entitled respectively, “The Life and Career of Galen” and “Galenic Medicine.” French translation by Alexandre Hasnaoui, 2016, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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