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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.2 (2002) 355-356

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Book Review

Galen on Food and Diet

Mark Grant. Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge, 2000. ix + 214 pp. $85.00 (cloth, 0-415-23232-5), $25.99 (paperbound, 0-415-23233-3).

Up until the nineteenth century Galen was seen as a preeminent physician, yet few modern physicians or scholars have been exposed to his writings. Galen on Food and Diet provides the first English translation of some of Galen's most important works, unified under the concept of food and food's effect on humors: "On the Humours," "On Black Bile," "On Uneven Bad Temperament," "On the Causes of Disease," "On Barley Soup," and three books of "On the Power of Foods," providing "a legitimate source of what generally counted for medicine in [Galen's] time" (p. 5). Mark Grant does not offer a literal translation, choosing instead to produce a very readable text with excellent footnotes and a detailed bibliography. The work demonstrates the effective and palliative care that Galen offered his Roman patients—care that influenced the construction of and beliefs about medicine well into the nineteenth century.

For those interested in the history of medicine, these texts are useful because they represent the social ethos of medicine in second-century Rome. Romans considered philosophy to be more prestigious than medicine. Rather than opposing philosophy and medicine, Galen unified them, and the classical rhetoric he employs in these essays demonstrates not only his learning, but also the hostility he faced from his contemporaries. In these works, one can clearly see how Galen unified medicine and philosophy into a belief system that studied medical authorities and altered or rejected these beliefs through experience and practice. In "On Black Bile," for example, he derides the Methodists and the followers of Erasistratus and Asclepius, and praises the works of Hippocrates and Rufus of Ephesus, based on his own personal experience with specific illnesses. [End Page 355] Consequently, he writes: "My intention is therefore to consider what exactly is useful, as I usually do, and then turn to whatever follows on logically from this" (p. 19). Galen's method of investigation combines theoretical studies with philosophical investigation that is centered on his experience. From his work, one comes to understand that he was a careful physician who practiced and believed in moderation as the foundation of good health.

These works of Galen also describe the causes of disease as explained by humoral medicine, and the best way to prepare foods for both pleasure and health. Galen uses personal anecdotes to defend his beliefs about foods and humors, thus giving us insight into the personal lives and eating habits of the Roman people. Each of the three books of "On the Power of Foods" is organized around a specific food group: grains, vegetables and fruits, or meats. In this section, one is able to see not only the variety of foods that were available to Roman citizens, but also how class structure and geography influenced the availability and preparation of certain foods.

Grant also gives us insight into the uses of rhetoric and education in the Roman period, the literary heritage and tradition of the Greco-Roman world, and the foods and illnesses that were part of Roman life. This is a clear, readable, and enjoyable translation of Galen's work for any who are interested in medical history, Roman life, or dietetics.


Bryon Lee Grigsby
Centenary College of New Jersey



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pp. 355-356
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