Upcoming Exhibition: The Empire’s Physician: Prosperity, Plague, and Healing in Ancient Rome

Dioscorides, author; illustrator unknown. The Vienna Dioscorides, De Materia Medica. Folio 3 verso, Seven Physicians with Galen Enthroned at Center. Pigment on parchment, Byzantine, ca. 515 CE, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Figure 1: Seven physicians with Galen enthroned at center, the Vienna Dioscorides The Roman physician Galen (ca. 129–216/17 CE) was called to the bedside of a troubled woman suffering from insomnia. His examination revealed no fever, no trace of illness, nor any other notable physical findings. He wondered if her issues arose from an imbalance of one of the four bodily humors, perhaps black bile causing depression, or a worry that she was hesitant to disclose. Galen appraised the entirety of the woman’s situation—speaking with her maid and keeping her company when an acquaintance visited to chat about dancing at the theater—and the doctor observed the woman’s color changed when a particular dancer came up in conversation. Was it the dancer? Eager to confirm his diagnosis, Galen felt her otherwise steady pulse suddenly shift to a wild rhythm at the mere mention of his name.

In sickness and in health: A runaway pulse is a love story, to be sure, but for Galen, it was more. A rigorous, learned thinker and a keen observer, he used the case to argue against colleagues who had failed to grasp that the body can be altered by different mental states. The Roman bedside went beyond patient care and was a high-stakes arena for intellectual debate with all dimensions of life in the balance. Ancient medicine was a complex art at the intersection of science, philosophy, and religion: Some practitioners privileged theoretical knowledge, others placed a higher value on naturalistic observation, while other healers relied on magic or divine intervention. There were many different sects and subsects within each system of medicine and even overlap between them, and both physicians and patients chose different paths. As a young man, Galen was interested in them all. He set out to learn about medicine as broadly as possible—always maintaining a reverence for Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 BCE) and his physiology of the humors—before building on his Greek predecessors’ teachings to establish his own legacy.

Galen was born to a wealthy family in Pergamon, a city particularly famous in the Roman period as a pilgrimage site for its temple to the healing god Asklepius. He was initially educated as a philosopher but switched to medicine at age sixteen and travelled extensively to gain exposure to as many different teachers as possible. Following the final leg of his studies at Alexandria, the storied medical center, Galen returned to Pergamon, where he earned the position of physician to a team of gladiators. Treating these warrior-athletes provided him with additional insight into diet and fitness, as well as allowed him to refine his surgical skills in tending to their traumatic wounds. It was as an anatomist that Galen made one of his most enduring contributions to the history of medicine: His studies in anatomy remained the accepted standard well into the sixteenth century. In his own day, Galen’s expertise in anatomy attracted broad attention and his public demonstrations (animal dissections and vivisections) greatly contributed to his fame after moving to Rome in 162 CE. On the strength of his expansive learning, success in treating difficult cases, and network of wealthy citizens, he became the personal doctor to the Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), and later Commodus (161–180 CE) and Septimius Severus (145–211 CE). Along the way he treated a broad range of patients of different ages with a wide variety of ailments—from lovesick women to bloodied gladiators. 

Today we know of Galen’s medical research and practice from his prolific writings, all written in a vivid voice and frequently with a flair for self-promotion. Of the over 250 books that he composed, more than a hundred survive to this day, both in the original Greek and in other languages. The range of his writing is as diverse as his curiosity: He wrote for other physicians—treatises, case studies, polemical arguments, etc.—while also producing texts fit for a more general readership with thoughts on moral philosophy, choosing a doctor, and more. Notably, Galen recorded a number of significant catastrophes during his lifetime including the Great Fire and the eponymous Antonine Plague (sometimes simply called the Plague of Galen). Although references to “plagues” and “pestilence” are frequent in writings from the ancient world, there was usually little effort to distinguish one infectious disease from another in detailed clinical terms. But the Antonine Plague was singled out for its severity and duration. The physician documented symptoms of epidemic victims—the reason it bears his name—although he socially distanced himself from its epicenter not long after the outbreak. Based on Galen’s accounts after treating hundreds of victims, medical historians today believe the “great plague” was likely the first visitation of smallpox in the Mediterranean. Taken together, Galen’s writings provide not only an account of ancient medical science and attendant debates, but also a broader sense of life in the Roman Empire on an individual as well as a collective level. 

Opening in February 2021, The Empire’s Physician will present Galen and his world as an illustrated, interactive online exhibition. Visitors will have a chance to explore many different dimensions of this wide-ranging thinker as well as diverse patient perspectives through personal narratives, historical descriptions, object histories, manuscripts, illuminations, anatomical illustrations, diagrams, architectural recreations, and more, in a scholarly-yet-accessible style. 

Figure 1: Dioscorides, author; illustrator unknown. The Vienna Dioscorides, De Materia Medica. Folio 3 verso, Seven Physicians with Galen Enthroned at Center. Pigment on parchment, Byzantine, ca. 515 CE, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.