Article published in Quarterly: Reinventing Galen

Syriac Physicians Reinvent Galenby Father Dale A. Johnson

Galen was a Greek physician,second only to Hippocrates, in fame and influence, who lived in the second century AD. Many consider him the apex of 600 years of Aristotelean thought and development. Galen is credited with being a major incubator of Arab medicine beginning in the 9th century AD which in turn was the principle influence on Western science and medicine at the end of the Dark Ages.

It is estimated that Galen wrote about 3 million lines of text which is about the same as Ephrem. Galen is supposed to have had about 20 secretaries that followed him and recorded his every word. Galen wrote in Greek, a language that was known to Syriac translators but not to Arab scholars during the rise of the Caliphate in Baghdad in the 9th century.

Galen was not just translated into Arabic but he was reinterpreted, recompiled, and even reinvented by Syriac scholars in three stages as Galen was revealed to the Arab world through Syriac scholars and produced a golden age of science in the Middle East.

The first stage reinterpreted and recompiled works of Galen which occurred at the end of the 4th century in Nisibis, Emesa, and Alexandria through the writings and scientific accomplishments of Magnus of Nisibis and Nemesius of Emesa.

The Second stage reinvented Galen’s theories which occurred with Sergius of Reshain (d. 536 AD) of the 6th  century

The third stage was  the translation of Galen’s texts from Syriac to Arabic by  Hunain ibn Ishaq (830-870 AD).

But first, a few words about the life and work of Galen.


Galen was born in Pergamos in Asia Minor in the year 131 A.D.. After receiving medical training in Smyrna and Alexandria, he gained fame as a surgeon to the gladiators of Pergamos. He was eventually summoned to Rome to be the physician of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Galen spent the rest of his life at the Court writing an enormous corpus of medical works until his death in 201 A.D..

Galen performed extensive dissections and vivisections on animals. Although human dissections were illegal according to Roman law, he also performed and stressed to his students the importance of  animal dissections. He recommended that students practice dissection as often as possible. In On the Natural Facilities, Galen minutely described his experimentation on a living dog to investigate the bladder and flow of urine. It was Galen who first introduced the notion of experimentation to medicine. Galen and his work On the Natural Faculties remained the authority on medicine until Vesalius in the sixteenth century, even though many of his views about human anatomy were false since he had performed his dissections on pigs, Barbary apes, and dogs. Galen mistakenly maintained, for instance, that humans have a five-lobed liver (which dogs do) and that the heart had only two chambers (it has four).

If it had not been for Syriac physicians in the 4th, 6th, and 9th centuries, Galen may have been lost forever. He was recovered and reinvented by Syriac physicians who knew Greek and could translate Galen into Syriac and Arabic. But they did more than just translate. They became students of Galen and incorporated Galen principles of enquiry, empericism, and experiment. Galen would have been proud of these men of science who improved upon the work of one of the greatest physicians of history.

Stage One

Magnus of Nisibis

Magnus was born in Nisibis about the same time as Ephrem. Magnus seems to have spent time in Emesa which had an emerging school of medical studies. He studied medicine under Zenoof Cyprus in Alexandria and he was a fellow-student of Oribasius. He became a physician  around 370 AD he lectured on medicine in Alexandria. He was assigned a special teaching room in the Museum, where students across the empire gathered to attend his lectures.

Magnus composed treatises on fever and the urinary system. The latter was translated into Arabic by Hunain ibn Ishak in the 8th century.  Despite the criticism of his opinions, mainly from Theophilus, the method of treating urine as a diagnostic means became particularly widespread in Late Antiquity. (Peri ourwn).

Libanius mentions him in a letter written in 364. On his death Palladas wrote the well-known epigram in the Palatine Anthology:

“When Magnus went down to Hades, Aïdoneus trembled, and said: ‘Here comes one who will raise up even the dead.'”(1)

This was not intended as a satire, nor did Eunapius think Magnus absurd, but it was a tribute to Magnus for his power of rhetoric. In fact, Magnus is the father of the “placebo effect” by identifying, describing, and learning how to convince people who were sick that they were healed and people who were well that they were sick.

Magnus was alive in 388, when Libanius wrote to him Letter 763 (2)

Nemesius of Emesa(A.D. 390),

Nemesius was a Christian philosopher, and the author of a treatise De Natura Hominis (“On Human Nature”). According to the title of his book, he was the Bishop of Emesa (Homs,Syria). His book is an attempt to compile a system of anthropology from the standpoint of Christian philosophy.

Nemesius was also a physiological theorist. He based much of his writing on previous work of Aristotle and Galen, and it has been speculated that he anticipated William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood.

Although Galen was the supreme medical authority until the seventeenth century, his views were  extended or modified. An early example of this phenomenon is the addition of a ventricular localization theory of psychological faculties to Galen’s account of the brain. The first theory of this type that we know of was presented by Posidonius of Byzantium (end of the fourth century AD), who said that imagination is due to the forepart of the brain, reason to the middle ventricle, and memory to the hind part of the brain (Aetius 1534, 1549, book 6, ch. 2). A few decades later, Nemesius of Emesa (ca. 400 AD) was more specific and maintained that the anterior ventricle is the organ of imagination, the middle ventricle the organ of reason, and the posterior ventricle the organ of memory (Nemesius 1802, chs. 6-13). The latter theory was almost universally adopted until the middle of the sixteenth century, although there were numerous variants.

Stage Two

Sergius of Reshina (d. 530)

Sergius translated at least 30 of Galen’s works. He was an Syriac physician and priest during the 6th century. He is best known for translating medical works from Greek to Syriac, which were eventually translated to Arabic. Reshaina, where he lived, is located about midway between the then intellectual centres of Edessa and Nisibis, in Northern Mesapotamia.

The great ninth century translator Hunain ibn Ishaq gives the names of twenty six medical texts by Galen which Sergius translated into Syriac; these were the first significant translations of medical works from Greek into a Semitic language, and presumably were the textbooks Sergius himself had used when he studied at Alexandria. Hunain is not always complimentary about Sergius’s translations; though some he thinks are better, as Sergius became more experienced.  He also composed two works of his own, On the Influence of the Moon, and The Movement on the Sun, probably drawing heavily on Greek sources.

Although Sergius was close to Nestorian scholars nearby, he was himself in fact a Syriac Orthodox priest. In 535 he was sent to Rome by Ephrem, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, and escorted Pope Agapetus I to Constantinople. There he died, the following year.

Stage Three

Hunain ibn Ishaq

Greek science was translated into Arabic in the 10th century, mostly by Nestorian Christians such as Hunain ibn Ishaq. The Moslem Caliphs of that period were the Abbassids, who came from Persia, and so knew the Nestorians as their “home” Christians. With their access to the Greek medical tradition, including the works of the 2nd century doctor Galen, they were consequently in demand as doctors. Of course being the personal physician of an oriental despot is not without risk, and Hunain himself was imprisoned, invited to act as a poisoner, and had his library confiscated.

Hunain managed to translate most of the vast output of Galen from Greek into Arabic. He also wrote a letter to one of his patrons, discussing this process. This is a very valuable guide to how Greek literature made it into Arabic.  It is a 40 page volume published by G. Bergstrasser, Hunain ibn Ishaq. Uber der syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen (1925)

Hunayn translated (c.830-870) 129 works of “Jalinos” into Arabic


Galen’s insistence on a rational systematic approach to medicine set the template for Islamic medicine. The irony is that a significant number of the scientists during this period were not Arab but Syriac Christians. Furthermore, the Galen witnessed in Arabic was a neo-Galenism thanks to Syriac scholars who improved upon the science of Galen.

Syriac Christian scholars who reinterpreted, redefined, and reinvented Galen encouraged Arab scientists to do the same. Doubts on Galen was the title of a book written by Rhazes (Muhammad ibn Zakarīya Rāzi 865-925 AD). Arab scholars continue to find new or relatively inaccessible Galenic writings that challenge but build on the principles of Galen. Another Arab scholar who picks up the mantle of this tradition is Ibn Zuhr,  an Arab Muslim physician, pharmacist, surgeon, parasitologist, Islamic scholar and teacher in Al-Andalus, Spain.

Galen promoted enquiry, empericism, and experiment. Syriac scholars took Galen at his word and improved upon Galen through the three powers of enquiry, empericism, and experiment. (Avenzoar) and Ibn al-Nafis, understood that the works of Galen were not to be taken unquestioningly, but as a challengeable for further study and modification.  For example, the experiments carried out by Rāzi and Ibn Zuhr contradicted the Galenic theory of humorism, while Ibn al-Nafis discovered  the principle of pulmonary circulation

On the other hand, Galen influenced Syriac scholarship. Roger Peirce writes:

“Galen attributes the confused state of one of the works of Hippocrates to marginal notes being incorporated into the main text by a copyist (vol. 15, p. 624); in vol. 17 (1) p. 634, he notes how a parallel from another writer had been written in a margin, and incorporated in the same manner.

Galen also was very close to the text critical maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred (Corpus medicorum graecorum,p.178, 17-18) where he expresses a preference for old or antiquated words in the text and understands that they would have been changed into something easier if the text had been modified (ibid. 121.17-18).

The Arabic scholars investigated Galen closely, and recent research into Arabic versions has recovered a missing passage from one known text and, better still, proof that an incomprehensible passage in the Greek is because a leaf in an early copy was pulled out and reinserted backwards! The Nestorian translator, Hunain ibn Ishaq, gives a long list of Galen’s works then extant and considers which had been translated into Syriac, which into Arabic, by whom, when, and where manuscripts of the Greek might be found. His method of translation involves collating several manuscripts to deal with damage, a trick he learned in part from Galen himself.”(3)


1. Magnus is mentioned by Philostorgius viii. 10.
2. See Seeck, Die Briefe des Libanius; but Sievers thinks that this is another Magnus.

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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