The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire


Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129 - ca. 216) began his remarkable career tending to wounded gladiators in provincial Asia Minor. Later in life he achieved great distinction as one of a small circle of court physicians to the family of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, at the very heart of Roman society. Susan Mattern's The Prince of Medicine offers the first authoritative biography in English of this brilliant, audacious, and profoundly influential figure.

Like many Greek intellectuals living ...

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The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire

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Galen of Pergamum (A.D. 129 - ca. 216) began his remarkable career tending to wounded gladiators in provincial Asia Minor. Later in life he achieved great distinction as one of a small circle of court physicians to the family of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, at the very heart of Roman society. Susan Mattern's The Prince of Medicine offers the first authoritative biography in English of this brilliant, audacious, and profoundly influential figure.

Like many Greek intellectuals living in the high Roman Empire, Galen was a prodigious polymath, writing on subjects as varied as ethics and eczema, grammar and gout. Indeed, he was (as he claimed) as highly regarded in his lifetime for his philosophical works as for his medical treatises. However, it is for medicine that he is most remembered today, and from the later Roman Empire through the Renaissance, medical education was based largely on his works. Even up to the twentieth century, he remained the single most influential figure in Western medicine. Yet he was a complicated individual, full of breathtaking arrogance, shameless self-promotion, and lacerating wit. He was fiercely competitive, once disemboweling a live monkey and challenging the physicians in attendance to correctly replace its organs. Relentless in his pursuit of anything that would cure the patient, he insisted on rigorous observation and, sometimes, daring experimentation. Even confronting one of history's most horrific events—a devastating outbreak of smallpox—he persevered, bearing patient witness to its predations, year after year.

The Prince of Medicine gives us Galen as he lived his life, in the city of Rome at its apex of power and decadence, among his friends, his rivals, and his patients. It offers a deeply human and long-overdue portrait of one of ancient history's most significant and engaging figures.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this meticulous and engaging biography, University of Georgia history professor Mattern (Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing) writes that Galen, a Greek aristocrat of great ambition and dazzling intelligence, was already a superstar physician when he arrived in Rome in 162 C.E. Educated in medicine and philosophy, Galen left his provincial medical practice at the age of 32 to come to the center of the world’s largest empire, where he treated the prominent—including Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a feverish philosopher named Eudemus, and gladiators—and the common populace, in a city regularly assaulted by malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis, and (in 168 C.E.) a devastating plague. “Visits to patients were a normal part of his daily life,” Mattern writes. The book covers Galen’s upbringing by an adored father and a despised mother, as well as his medical and philosophical training, and his astounding repertoire of medical work—including anatomy, surgery, and voluminous writings. Mattern’s rigorous scholarship also unveils the rich, vivid layers of Galen’s life and times, and Galen’s own words paint a portrait of an astounding physician whose motivation was “not fame or wealth” but “the love of mankind.” 18 b&w illus. & 3 maps. (July 2)
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention, 2013 Prose Awards, Classics & Ancient History Category

"In The Prince of Medicine, [Mattern] situates Galen in his broader intellectual and social milieu, tracing the education and career of a physician who was remarkable not only as a prolific author and observant practitioner, but also as a supremely confident performer and harsh critic of his rivals. ... Her narrative of Galen's life draws frequently on On Prognosis and On Anatomical Procedures, two rich and fascinating treatises, while framing them in a way that gives the non-specialist reader insight into the wider social world of the Roman elite. ... As she notes, in one particular genre, the case history, Galen was able to create 'a complex and subtly sympathetic portrait' (229) of his patients. In this biography, Mattern has done the same for Galen." —New England Classical Journal

"This scholarly yet vivid new biography portrays a complex man, at once 'a tireless interrogator of nature, an attentive inquisitor of patients and reader of diagnostic clues' and a man who 'might be diagnosed with a personality disorder, once megalomania, today narcissism.'" — Boston Globe

"Excellent... [N]ow the liveliest introduction to Galen in English." —Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Confident and frequently fascinating... [A] fine biography." —The Spectator

"[M]eticulous and engaging biography... Mattern's rigorous scholarship also unveils the rich, vivid layers of Galen's life and times, and Galen's own words paint a portrait of an astounding physician whose motivation was 'not fame or wealth' but 'the love of mankind.'" —Publishers Weekly

"An engaging biography." —Library Journal

"A well-written, well-documented biography of the single physician who dominated Western medicine for 1,300 years... A valuable resource for classics and history of medicine collections. Summing up: Recommended. All academic, general, and professional readers." —Choice

"After centuries of traditional academic studies of the works of this most influential physician of all time, we are here gifted with this full-blooded and much-needed biography of Galen the man. In every way as scholarly as previous attempts to bring his paradoxical genius to life, Prof. Mattern's enormous contribution is set within her meticulous understanding of 2nd century Rome, its medical sects, and its socio-political atmosphere. All hail to her!" —Sherwin B. Nuland, author of Doctors: The Biography of Medicine and How We Die, winner of the National Book Award

"A fascinating and lively biography of an ancient Greek doctor who settled in Rome as an imperial physician. Using much newly discovered information, Dr. Mattern sets Galen's career against the background of the Roman Empire at the height of its prosperity."
—Vivian Nutton, Emeritus Professor of the History of Medicine, University College London

"A pathologically quarrelsome physician, Galen was, in a sense, the Dr. House of Antiquity, and through his eyes Susan Mattern gives us the whole Roman world, from hovel to palace, as he treats ruptured rustics, gutted gladiators, and neurasthenic noblemen. Galen's tale is told with style and panache and due help to the reader unfamiliar with Rome—and even better than that, with plenty of enjoyably disgusting medical details." —J. E. Lendon, author of Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity

"It has been a while since I have read a scholarly book from cover to cover in almost one shot. Yet, Susan Mattern's The Prince of Medicine engulfed me with its subject — which for a name like Galen's is a given — and its enviable merits. Mattern's talent weaves a historical biography of one of the most reputed and controversial intellectual minds of antiquity into a grabbing full-life story of the real Galen, uncensored and demystified." —CJ-Online

Library Journal
Mattern (history, Univ. of Georgia; Rome and the Enemy) presents an engaging biography of Galen of Pergamum (circa 130–212 C.E.), a Greek who practiced medicine and philosophy in the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, first rising to fame at home in Asia Minor before becoming preeminent in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Mattern writes that she intended here both to detail Galen's life and demonstrate the experience of medicine during his time. She succeeds in both respects. With many fascinating case studies from Galen's own writing, clarifications by modern scholars, and insights from the author, her book provides a thorough account of what a patient might expect from diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment in the ancient world. Galen was the most erudite and talented physician of his time with a legacy that extended beyond the Renaissance. He was an agonist in the classical sense, struggling and competing to prove his medical genius in contests of dissection, rhetoric, and writing, seeking glory in the same way others sought it in athletics or sophistry. VERDICT Highly recommended for both researchers of the period and knowledgeable generalists interested in classical culture.—Evan M. Anderson, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199767670
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 516,497
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan P. Mattern is Professor of History at the University of Georgia and the author of Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate, Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing, and (with Robin W. Winks) The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Rancid Cheese
Chapter 1: Pergamum
Chapter 2: Learning Medicine
Chapter 3: The Gladiators
Chapter 4: Rome
Chapter 5: Anatomy, and Boethus
Chapter 6: Marcus Aurelius, and the Plague
Chapter 7: The Fire
Appendix: Abbreviations of Galen's Works

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