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  • Galen’s De Indolentia and The Fire of 192 CE: Through the Eyes of Book History1
  • Germaine Warkentin (bio)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;so many things seem filled with the intentto be lost that their loss is no disaster.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.”*

Sometime in the spring of the year 192 CE,2 a fire–all too frequent in the jerry-built Rome of the time–raged through the Temple of Peace in the Forum, the centre of official Rome. Like several other monumental buildings on the nearby Palatine Hill, the temple possessed a library, where intellectuals often met for discussion.3 A cluster of other buildings on the nearby Via Sacra included two high-status warehouses for rare spices and valuable merchandise, the Horrea Piperateria and the Horrea Vespasiani. They also stored the valuables of wealthy Romans and others who were temporarily absent from the city. Pier Luigi Tucci imagines the situation as a north wind blew flames from the burning roofs of houses in the near-by Subura towards the temple, the warehouses, and onward south-west,4 but we need only recall the fire at Notre Dame on April 15, 2019, with heavy wooden roof-beams crashing down onto the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling, to reconstruct it for ourselves.

The “fire of Commodus” swept away not only the temple, the libraries, and the warehouses, but almost all the personal possessions of one of the empire’s notables: Claudius Galenus, (129-ca. 200/16?), the most famous physician of his time.5 Among his losses were the rare medicaments he needed for clinical work, the unique bronze surgical instruments he had designed, and the bookrolls constituting most of his personal library: not [End Page 1] only those Galen had written himself but also the exceptional collection of books by earlier authors he had copied and carefully corrected against better manuscripts.

Galen, despite his renowned practice in Rome, wrote in Greek and seems never to have mentioned a Latin author.6 When the fire broke out he had been 220 km to the south, visiting his country property in Campania, then an area of strong Hellenistic cultural influence. He had had his fill of the cruelty of the emperor Commodus, whom he had known as a patient since the emperor’s childhood. Depositing in one of the warehouses on the Palatine the more valuable of his possessions,7 Galen planned to spend some time in the south, possibly to move there for good. He relates that he had arranged for two copies of his books to be made, one for his friends in Rome who wished to deposit them in public libraries, the other for his own use in Campania (De Ind. §21–23), but the task was unfinished when in the spring of 192 fire raged through the warehouses. The losses Galen suffered were a terrible blow, but philosophically he was a stoic, and writing to a friend in Pergamon who had asked how he was responding, his repeated leitmotif was a variation on “But none of this distressed me,” (De Ind. §30).8 Galen mentions the fire without much detail in a few of his later works, but scholars have known little about his ordeal because the letter, known as Περὶ ὰλυπίας (Peri Aloupias) or by its Latin title De Indolentia (“Avoiding Distress”), had been lost for eighteen centuries. However, in 2005 a copy was discovered by Antoine Pietrobelli, then a graduate student doing research in Greece, and it proved to be a rich source of information on Galen’s writing, his life in books, and the libraries of Rome in the late second century. The rediscovery of De Indolentia has led to a multinational cascade of editions, translations, and articles. Its recovery, however, has been little noted by professed book historians outside the field of classics, at least those writing in English.

After several centuries of near-dormancy, Galen studies is flourishing, as scholars scour his medical works for information on cultural, social and intellectual history. There have been at least seven editions and or translations of De Indolentia in French, Italian, Greek and English in the interval since the discovery...


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