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How Well Do You Listen? Plutarch and His Letter on Listening

by December 4, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plutarch (AD46 – after AD 119) was a Platonic philosopher, essayist, biographer, magistrate, and a priest at the Temple of Apollo later in his life.

Plutarch was known for his involvement in all matters of society, taking on even the humblest of tasks. However, he is best remembered today for Parallel Lives, a series of biographies that followed prestigious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia a collection of essays, letters, and speeches that summarized his life’s work, beliefs, and teachings.

Moralia translated as ‘’Morals’’ or ‘’Matters concerning customs and mores’’ and consists of 78 essays and speeches. From questioning fate to the nature of music, Moralia sheds light on ancient Greek life and offers some of the deepest and most timeless wisdom.

Plutarch etching by Edward Gooch, source: Hulton Archive

Plutarch’s letter on listening was first delivered as a formal lecture and was later converted into a letter to his young friend Nicander, who was about to embark on the study of Philosophy.

While the letter is written to a youth about to enter a period of intense study, it contains lessons from which we could all benefit.

Plutarch’s descriptions of different kinds of listeners are as relevant today as they were then. The lazy listener, the scornful listener, those who listen with excitement, and the over-confident listener are just a handful of listening types he discusses.

Plutarch’s Listeners

Listening to Lectures (De auditu), in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library No. 197 (1927)

The Selective Listener

Plutarch describes the selective listener as someone who is very good at listening – to what they want to hear.

This refers to the tendency to be most interested in hearing about topics that we find exciting and interesting, and how much easier it is to listen to long speeches from great orators or those we admire.

While most of us are guilty of this – no doubt there is great pleasure in listening to topics that one most enjoys – Plutarch warns that only listening to advice and opinions that are pleasing to the ear may mean we miss other important or useful information. Much good can be hidden away in ‘boring’ lectures or speeches from those we deem less interesting or desirable.

The Disapproving Listener

Most people will have listened to opinions that conflict with our values and meet with our disapproval. While there’s nothing wrong with disagreement, Plutarch encourages us to always keep an open mind. Most importantly, he urges us to listen to the speaker in their entirety first, without judgment.

Judgment or disapproval, Plutarch argues, is in itself a distraction of the mind. Those who attend speeches already in a state of disapproval are distracted, often comparing their own intelligence with that of the speaker, and/or observing others in the audience for signs of admiration and approval. In the process, much information is missed and the listener comes away less informed.

Disapproving listeners are at risk of distorting the information conveyed, rendering the whole experience useless.

Plutarch points out that when we have already decided we are against something, we’re likely to recall only what we consider to be the negative points. Great learning, he says, arises when we ponder and reflect on opinions that are opposite to our own.

The Over-Confident Listener

“In praising a speaker, we must be generous, but in believing his words cautious” – Plutarch

“Don’t believe everything you hear” is an adage as old as time. There are certain speakers we confide in due to their achievements, status or because they have previously given honest and useful advice. In that situation it becomes easier just to believe what you hear without a second thought and leave critical thinking at the door.

Plutarch advises us that no matter how much we admire the speaker, or how dazzling and entertaining the performance is, we must be a ‘heartless critic’ when evaluating the quality of the information we are receiving.

Plutarch did not believe that any speaker should be met with hostility, but warns us to be careful not to be swept away by the current. Just because someone may have useful information the first time, does not automatically qualify them to give good advice the second time. All information should be approached with a clear and critical mind, no matter who says it.

Aristotle teaches young Alexander by Charles Laplante (1837–1903)

Listening as a Collaborative Process

One of the core lessons from Plutarch’s essay on listening is that the learning process does not solely rely on the speaker or educator. He continuously reminds us that responsibility also rests on the shoulders of the listener. Learning and informing requires the active participation of both parties.

Thus the listener would do well to reflect on the quality of their listening, be mindful of personal flaws, approach all information with caution, and not be afraid to ask questions.

Quality listening does not mean that the listener must be quiet, Plutarch adds. Questions are an important part of the listening process and should always be welcome, so long as they are related to the topic.

Plutarch believed that the major obstacle in learning from others is one’s own shortcomings and insecurities. To remedy this, proper behavior in all educational settings must be observed so that the information can be adequately understood and assessed without the interference of personal preferences.

Whether we tend to drift off during boring lectures or immediately dismiss speakers we dislike, as listeners we are active participants in the cultivation of ideas. Identifying barriers to our listening and learning, especially those we impose upon ourselves, is a crucial part of personal development and self-improvement.


Tarquin, Last King of Rome and Bloody Tyrant

by September 18, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Roman Republic was moulded rather decisively by the fall of the monarchy. The Republic was designed to prevent the re-emergence of rule by a single person. Rome’s last monarch was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BC). His tyranny provoked a rebellion, and this was to lead to the Republic which was to change the history of the Classical World.  
The early life of the tyrant
Superbus was related to Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of the previous Etruscan king Servius Tullius. He was a member of the Tarquin Dynasty. His grandfather Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, had been an Etruscan by birth and had been adopted by the fourth Roman king. He later became his heir and ruled Rome for many years.
This story may indicate that Etruscans had conquered the Latin City and had imposed a king of Rome. The sources version of events, which were written down many years later, are not regarded as reliable. It is claimed by Cicero that Superbus conspired with his future wife to become king. He killed his wife and then assassinated the 6th king of Rome Servius Tullius.  He was the only king to seize power by force in Roman regal history.  The Roman king only ruled a small area at this time and was more like a petty king or chieftain. 

The murder of King Servius by his son-in-law (details), around 1413 -1415

The reign of Tarquin
Tarquin came to power in either 595 or 594 BC and he proved to be a capable if ruthless ruler.
Traditionally, the king had worked with the Roman nobility. However, Tarquin proved to be a despot and had no respect for the law or tradition. His name Superbus means the ‘proud’ in Old Latin.
Tarquin intimidated the Roman Senate and set aside the precedents established by Romulus. In this way, he was similar to later tyrannical Emperors such as Nero and Caligula. Tarquin often sentenced senators to death for alleged crimes and frequently used capital punishment against his real and imagined enemies. He initiated a reign of terror in Rome.
The dictator was a shrewd politician and he made Rome the head of the Latin League. He did this by charging his main rival with a spurious plot against the Latins. Tarquin was an aggressive leader and he waged war against the Volsci and Aequi and expanded the territory of Rome. He was careful to maintain peace with the powerful Etruscans. Tarquin was a great builder, as many tyrants are. He built a huge Temple to Jupiter and began the construction of the Forum. 

A reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, Italy, 5-6th century (reconstruction by Dr. Bernard Frischer, Rome Reborn)

Tarquin and the Sibylline Books
The King was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, who offered him nine books of prophecy. She was the priestess at a shrine to Apollo and was famed for her powers of second sight.
The priestess demanded a huge sum for the books. Tarquin dismissed her and in response, Sibyl burned three of the books. She returned to Tarquin and offered him the six books for the same price. Again, the king refused to pay and dismissed the priestess. The old priestess returned and offered the three remaining books for the same price. Tarquin at last relented and in this way, Rome obtained the Sibylline Books.
The books were a collection of oracular maxims written in Greek verse and they were widely consulted by the Roman Senate, especially during times of crisis. 

A Sibyl, by Domenichino, circa 1616-17

Downfall and exile of Tarquin
By 509 BC, the Roman population was tired of Tarquin and his brutal and burdensome rule. Tarquin went on a campaign that year but this was not a success, as the enemy refused to engage with the Romans.
Tarquin’s son after a night’s drinking raped a Roman noblewoman and she told members of the nobility after her family refused to help her. The Roman noblemen, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, began to plot the overthrow of Tarquin. 
Lucretia committed suicide and Brutus swore on her dead body that he would end the monarchy and free the Roman people. They moved slowly and secured the support of the Roman nobility and many of the ordinary people.
Interestingly, Lucius was an ancestor of the Brutus who was involved in the plot against Julius Caesar.  Brutus and others summoned an assembly of the people and the Senators, and they voted for the expulsion of Tarquin and end the monarchy.

The Story of Lucretia, by Sandro Botticelli, about 1500

The army refused to support the monarch and he was forced into exile. He attempted to regain his crown but he failed and he died in exile in Cumae. In 495 BC, the elderly former king, at the head of an alliance of Latins was defeated by Rome at the Battle of Lake Regillius.
The Romans replaced the monarchy with two consuls, who shared supreme executive power, for a year. The Republican system was designed to ensure that no single person could become the ruler. 
Tarquin was the last king of the Romans. However, he helped to establish the city-state as the greatest power in central Italy and was a great builder. It cannot be denied that he was a despot and that he ruled Rome with an iron fist. His rule was so brutal that it made the Romans determined to never have a king again. This led to the foundation of the Roman Republic, which may not have happened if Tarquin had ruled like his predecessors. The anti-monarchical political culture of Rome was unique and it ultimately transformed the city-state into a Mediterranean power.

Lycurgus: Mysterious Spartan Lawgiver

by September 16, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sparta has fascinated people for thousands of years. One of the most, if not the most important figure in all of Spartan history was Lycurgus, the great lawgiver. The interesting thing is that we know very little about this man and his character and indeed, many suspect that he was only a myth.
Sparta at the time of Lycurgus
The Spartans were Dorian Greeks and they had probably migrated from the Balkans and occupied parts of the Peloponnese during the so-called Dark Ages (12th to 8th century BC). 
At the time of the future lawgiver’s birth, Sparta was just another one of the many petty kingdoms and city-states that controlled Greece. It was not wealthy and was not famed for its military prowess. Indeed, it had many enemies and was very vulnerable to attack. 

This map, dating to some 20 years after the death of Lycurgus, shows Sparta as one of many ancient Greek city-states

The origin of Lycurgus
We know very little about the man who became the founder of the remarkable Spartan state.  It is believed that he may have lived in a date range between the 10th and the 8th century BC.
What we do know about his life is from the biographer Plutarch who wrote several hundred years after his probable death. Many believe that he never existed and that the Lygurgus comes from an epithet derived from the God Apollo. Then some believe that the name Lygurgus may be based on an archaic wolf-deity or cult.
Certainly, the great Spartan is a quasi-mythical figure, but he was almost certainly a historic figure. However, there may have been more than one person with that name, and later generations may have attributed all their works and policies to one single person. 

A statue of Lycurgus at the Brussels Court of Law

The life of Lycurgus
It is widely believed that he was born into the royal family of Sparta. It seemed that he was highly esteemed by his fellow Spartans. His father and his older brother both predeceased him and he was offered the kingship.
He became the rule of the kingdom and was a good and just ruler. However, his brother’s wife was pregnant when he died, and she later gave birth. After some consideration, Lycurgus did something remarkable and abdicated, which astonished all of Greece, according to Plutarch.
He had his nephew crowned the king and he acted as his regent. His brother’s queen became concerned and she and her family feared that Lycurgus was plotting to assassinate the infant. They plotted against him and forced him into exile.

Lycurgus Gives the Laws to the Spartans, by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio (c 1480-1528) or Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), date unknown

Travels and Oracle Delphi
During his exile, the Spartan decided to travel the known world. On his travels, he acquired a great deal of knowledge and gained a new perspective on politics.
In particular, he was impressed by the institutions of Crete, whose rulers were also Dorian Greeks. The Spartan also travelled to Asia Minor, where he admired the intellectual pursuits of the Ionians, but not their luxurious lives. According to one source during his wandering Lygurgus met Homer and later helped to compile the Iliad and the Odyssey, but this is almost certainly incorrect.
Some believe that the Spartan travelled as far as Spain. Back in his native land, things began to go badly and the people wanted Lycurgus to return and rule them again. He agreed out of a sense of duty, but before he did he consulted the Oracle at Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia, by Eugène Delacroix, 1835-45

The Oracle assured him that his reforms would work and that he would make Sparta the greatest Greek state. Many have been struck by the similarities between the Spartan and the Athenian Solon, another great lawgiver.
Lycurgus the lawgiver
The Spartan saw that his kingdom needed to be completely reformed. He redrafted the constitution and established that two kings would rule Sparta. A council of elders would guide them and the male citizens would have a say in the government by their participation in the assembly.
This system provided Sparta with a great deal of political stability for centuries. Next, he established a system that has been likened to communism. He banned the use of gold and silver and all land was owned by the state, which allocated equally among all the citizenry.

Lycurgus Demonstrates the Benefits of Education, by Caesar van Everdingen, 1660-62

Lycurgus decided to make Sparta a highly militaristic society with the best warriors in Greece. He developed the agoge system to train young boys. Under this system, they were taken from their families and trained in warfare from an early age. It was a brutal system, but the young boys became fierce and highly disciplined soldiers.
Lycurgus wanted the citizens to put the state before their own family. He ordered that all adult males have a common mess hall. Lycurgus was almost universally loved, and he was a mild-mannered character. As he grew old, he decided to return to the Oracle at Delphi. 
The mysterious death of Lycurgus
Before he left he assembled all the Spartans and had them swear to maintain the laws he had introduced.
Then he left and he simply disappeared and was never seen again. Some claim that he starved himself to death as part of a ritual.
After his death, he was worshipped by the Spartans and a hero-cult developed around his memory. Such was his reputation, after his death, he came to be regarded as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. 

Lycurgus of Sparta, by Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1828

Lycurgus changed Sparta and he transformed it into a highly disciplined and militaristic society. Without his laws, the Spartans would not have been the greatest power in the Peloponnese nor able to play their decisive role in the defeat of the Persian invaders.  Moreover, without his reforms, they would not have been able to become the dominant power in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.

Julius Caesar: Legend Borne Out of a Lifetime of Adversity

by August 12, 2020

Written by Ash G, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Smooth seas don’t make good sailors” is a clichéd term but a very underrated statement, nonetheless. It is often said that something great is on the horizon when everything is going downhill. When life is pulling an individual back, it is often preparing to catapult them to greatness. The cross-section of Julius Caesar’s life has the potential to instill a greater appreciation for adversity in people.
Even from early adulthood, Caesar faced a very real possibility of death after his uncle Marius’s rival, Sulla, became the leader of Rome. He was executing everyone remotely linked to Marius. Young Caesar was forced to leave Rome and live off in exile for some time until Sulla was lobbied to pardon him.
He came back to Rome as a poor man, as even though he was able to keep his head intact on his neck, all his personal and ancestral belongings were confiscated. This would prove to be one of the basic dynamics that will haunt him for his entire life, and at the same time, drive him to attain the legendary status in history.

Statue of Julius Caesar on Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome.

Yes, his prime motivation to go on to that daring suicidal-cum-genocidal conquest of Gaul was to pay off his debt that he had been taking all his life to compensate for the losses of his properties. If not, he faced imprisonment at home.
His second-biggest source of adversity was his relationship with his peers; or, more aptly put, his enemies. Because, as it would turn out, almost everyone was his enemy.
Maybe he didn’t know the art of diplomacy. It created bundles of hurdles for him everywhere he went but indirectly helped him ascend to the status of the most powerful man in Rome.
He had many enemies. He was hated and mocked with almost everything he did. An individual would obviously get pissed off if he’s called every man’s woman in Rome. He was rumored to have been in a homosexual relationship with the King of Bithynia. Queen of Bithynia,” they would call him in Rome.
These kinds of allegations were fairly common in ancient Rome as a political tool, but Caesar’s reaction made it far worse. He vehemently denied these rumors. He would go to great lengths to prove he was the “ladies’ man in Rome.” He would humiliate his accusers like Cato by sleeping with their sisters and disclosing their love letters in public. This would earn him ever-green enemies in the Senate of Rome, who would ultimately give him no option but to declare war on the Senate after his term as Governor of Gaul and his alliance with Pompey ended.
Gallic surrener

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, Lionel Royer (1852-1926). The painting depicts the surrender of the Gallic chieftain after the Battle of Alesia (52 BC).

He was ordered by the Senate to come back to Rome as a private citizen and face justice for his illegal warfare and numerous other crimes. He again faced imprisonment or death. He was thus forced to choose to go back to Rome on the head of his army; a move that many at Rome translated as yet another criminal act.
But the the die was cast for Caesar. Sometimes our adversities make the decisions for us. This decision would kick-start a series of developments in the form of civil war that would result in Caesar becoming the most powerful man in Rome.
During the civil war, most of his trusted lieutenants and allies would leave him to join the Senate. Marcus Brutus, who he considered to be his son, and Titus Labienus, his most celebrated cavalry commander, both turned against him. Although he was able to defeat his enemies during the civil war and pardoned those who he considered as friends, his difficult relationship with his peers would not subside throughout his life.

The Death of Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867.

Caesar wasn’t raised to become a military genius by birth like Alexander the Great. Yet, arguably, he surpassed the glory of Alexander. He was a scared man running from one part of the world to another from his creditors as well as his political, judicial, and personal enemies who were constantly at his throat.
Caesar reportedly used to ponder how he had wasted his entire life when he used to look at Alexander the Great’s statues because, unlike Alexander, he only got his first major military command when he was at the ripe age of 40. For the most part of his life, he himself didn’t know that he was destined to change the very history of Western civilization.
In hindsight, if Caesar was with us today, he would tell us how his adversities made him the legend he is. He would also tell us that destiny has its mysterious ways. The adversities he initially wished weren’t a part of his life eventually led him to unprecedented greatness. As Marcus Aurelius would say, “the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way.” Julius Caesar, in hindsight, would have been appreciative of the difficult life he lived.

Solon: Great Lawmaker and First Democrat

by July 31, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Solon (640-560 BC) was one of the most important men in the Classical world. He was in part responsible for setting Athens on its road to greatness. He helped to stabilize the city-state and laid the foundations for the future Athenian Empire. Most importantly of all, he laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which continues to influence modern-day democracies.
The early years of Solon
Solon was believed to be the son of Execestides, who was a member of the nobility. The family was distinguished but they had fallen on hard financial times. His family circumstances gave Solon a unique insight into Athenian society.
He received a good education and was an acclaimed poet. His poetry was famous in Athens and it includes verses on political issues and even his love affairs. During the war with Megara, Solon was given an important command and he carried out his duties with bravery and great skill. According to some sources, Solon was also a merchant and this allowed him to learn something about the world outside Greece.

Marble relief of Solon (1950), located at the U.S. Capitol in the House of Representatives Chamber.

Solon and his rise to power
Sometime around 590 BC, Solon was appointed archon of the city and became the de-facto ruler. The archon had a range of legal, military, and political powers. However, the Athenians provided Solon with extraordinary powers to deal with the serious political and social-economic crisis that was blighting the city.
At the time, Athens was divided between aristocrats who dominated the political life of the city, and a rising class of merchants and entrepreneurs who, though wealthy, were excluded from power.  This caused a great deal of friction in the city-state and it was widely feared that these tensions could lead to civil strife and even outright civil war.
Meanwhile, the majority of the population was powerless and lived on the verge of starvation. Many were dependent on the aristocracy who owned the land. The poor often became indebted to them and were sold into slavery if they failed to pay their debts.
A previous archon, Draco, had introduced a law code that favored the rich and was very harsh on any wrongdoer. From Draco we get the word Draconian, meaning harsh and brutal. Solon was charged with reforming Athens.

“Solon demands to pledge respect for his laws”, book illustration (Augsburg 1832)

Solon and his reforms
Solon somehow managed to get the aristocrats to end the practice of debt-slavery. He also outlawed the practice of fathers using their sons and daughters as security when taking out a loan. This was transformative and it helped to end debt-bondage. Solon sought to change Athenian society and to make it more equal and more stable. He introduced four classes of inhabitants and people were divided based on their wealth.  Taxation was based on which class a person belonged to.
The four classes all had different political rights, and this was to reflect the amount of tax that they paid. The highest class, the pentakosoimedimnoi, had the most political rights, followed by the hippeis.
Though the poor and the artisans had few if any, political rights, they were granted equality before the law and this was a historic change. Solon also introduced an appeal system. In this way, he dismantled the cruel law code of Draco. Athens, as a result of Solon’s innovations, had a very liberal court-system, and this promoted equality and justice in the city-state. All that was retained of Draco’s law code was the punishment for murder.

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens (Wikimedia)

Solon was also a political reformer. He abolished the aristocracy’s monopoly on power. He introduced a new popular council, whose members could vote on political, diplomatic, and legal matters.
However, the aristocrats dominated a smaller council, and this allowed them to greatly influence politics. Even after Solon’s reforms, the old elite was still inordinately powerful. Not long after the death of the great lawgiver, Athens fell under the control of the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons for several decades.
Ironically, Peisistratos was a relative of Solon, who blamed the Athenians for the rise of the tyrants, because they did not place the good of the city before their selfish interests. Tragically, Solon was to witness the death of democracy in his beloved city and he died in exile.
Many have pointed out that Solon’s reforms were to bear fruit in the 5th century BC when, under Pericles, the city became very democratic.
Solon had been a trader and he took an interest in the economy. He encouraged agriculture and prohibited the export of foodstuffs. This benefitted the economy and food became cheaper. However, he did encourage the export of olives and this became a major industry. Many credit him with the promotion of the Athenian pottery industry, which became a major industry in Attica.

Plutarch, c. 100 CE, the biographer of Solon. Edward Gooch—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The travels of Solon
After the end of his period of office, Solon did an unusual thing. It is claimed that he visited Midas and Lydia. He was believed to have also traveled to Egypt and learned the lore of the Egyptians. It is believed that he was also the source of the Atlantis legend.
Because of his great wisdom, he was regarded as one of the seven sages of Ancient Greece. His words of wisdom such as ‘count no man happy until he dies’ were very influential in the Classical world. It is believed that he lived to be one hundred years old, but this is probably only a legend.
Solon was crucial in the history of Athens. His foresight and reforms changed the course of Athenian history. Solon can justly be considered as the ‘father of Athenian democracy’ and played a significant role in the development of democratic institutions and systems all around the world. His social, economic, and legal reforms not only influenced the Greek city-state but have influenced societies since the Classical era. Solon, more than anyone, was responsible for the rise of Athens and its Golden Age, which has shaped western civilization down to this day.

Galen: The Father of Modern Medicine and Anatomy

by June 17, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Graeco-Roman Civilization has shaped the modern world in many ways. Among these is the fact that it laid the foundations for modern medicine. Perhaps no single person did more for the development of medicine in the Ancient World than the physician Galen. His genius helped to establish medicine as a science, and he was the foremost authority in the field until the Renaissance.
The life of Galen
Galen (129-216 AD) was born in the rich city of Pergamum, which is now near Bergama in modern Turkey, during the zenith of the Roman Empire. He was a Greek speaker and the son of a wealthy architect. Galen received a typical liberal education for a member of the elite, studying literature and philosophy.
Pergamum was the location of one of the most important Asclepian temples in all the Roman Empire. People visited them in the hope of being healed by the god Asclepius. The priests of this cult often had considerable medical knowledge. This seemed to have stimulated Galen’s interest in medicine, and at the age of 16 he moved to Alexandria, which was famous for its medical schools.
Galen group

The ‘Galen’ group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides; he is depicted top center.

In 157 AD he returned to Pergamum and became the physician to a Gladiatorial school. During his time there, Galen learned a lot about the human body. He became a great surgeon and he wrote extensively on the discipline, contributing to the advancement of surgical practice in the Classical World.
Putting anatomy first
It was at this time Galen became famous for his anatomical knowledge. He was only able to study the corpses of dead animals because the vivisection of humans was prohibited at this time. Galen’s anatomical reports on the nervous systems of animals and their vocal cords were revolutionary.
He mainly carried out vivisections on monkeys at first but found them too human-like and he later began studying pigs. The physicians often held public displays of his anatomical studies and this made him famous. Galen believed that anatomy was the foundation of all medicine and that knowledge of the body was a pre-requisite for every medical practitioner, a view which has been enormously influential. He also proposed a new theory of the circulatory system based on the ‘four humors’.

Galen and Hippocrates. Galen of Pergamum, left, with Hippocrates on the title page of Lipsiae (1677), a medical book by Georgii Heinrici Frommanni. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

As his fame spread, Galen was summoned to Rome to become the personal physician to several nobles. However, he became a little bit too successful for the liking of many of the city’s resident doctors. Moreover, his new ideas challenged long-held assumptions, and the Greek was very dismissive of his rivals.
Galen was eventually forced to leave Rome because he feared that he would be assassinated by his professional enemies. At around this time, he developed the medical technique of prognosis. He was the first medical practitioner to use empirical observation to predict the course of a disease. This was revolutionary as traditional healers had used rites and spells to cure people. Galen urged doctors to use reason rather than religion to understand diseases.
Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague was one of the most terrible pandemics in recorded history. The Greek physician was present when the plague decimated Roman legions in Aquileia, and saw first-hand the devastation it caused among the population in Rome. He recorded the symptoms and prevalence of the disease and left vivid descriptions of it.

Galen’s Opera omnia, dissection of a pig. Venice, 1565

Based on his descriptions, many modern researchers believe that the Antonine Plague was smallpox. Galen left Rome in 166 AD and returned to Pergamum. Though he claimed that he was leaving because he feared assassination, some scholars suspect that it was really because he wanted to flee the plague.
Physician to the Emperor
Galen returned to Rome when the plague abated.  The Greek accompanied Marcus Aurelius on his campaigns against the Marcomanni. However, Marcus dispensed with his services on the advice of a seer. He became the personal physician to Emperor Commodus and later to Emperor Septimius Severus. Though there is no agreed upon date of the death of Galen, it is believed that he died at the age of 70 in 199 AD, while some Arab sources claim that he died in 210 AD.
Galen’s contributions
Galen was pivotal in the history of medicine. He pioneered a new scientific method and was the father of modern anatomy. He published hundreds of works that influenced later Roman and Greek doctors, but also medicine in the Byzantine and Muslim Worlds. Translations of his works inspired many Arab physicians who made great advances in medicine. Given the times Galen lived in, it’s not surprising to learn that some of his theories were wrong and were refuted by later experts during the Renaissance, such as Andreas Vesalius.
The Hippocratic Bench

A drawing of a Hippocratic bench from a Byzantine edition of Galen’s work in the 2nd century AD

Galen was also a philosopher and made important contributions to logic and the philosophy of science. One of his most original contributions was his belief that there was no distinction between mind and body and that all mental activity was ultimately a result of biological process. Many also believe that Galen was one of the first psychologists.
Galen was one of the most brilliant men of the Classical World. He helped move medicine forward, away from a discipline based on mysticism and superstition to a discipline being based on reason and empiricism—that is, to a discipline based on fact rather than religion. Though he didn’t get it all right, he got quite far with the limited resources he had and decisively influenced the development of medicine and science.