Galen and the Great Fire of Rome

The discovery of a letter written by the great physician sheds new light on one of the most dramatic events in Roman history, as Raoul McLaughlin explains.

A detail from a relief on the Arch of Titus, built in AD 81 in honour of Titus' victory over the Jews in AD70. It shows a triumphal procession, carrying the Menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum of the Temple of Solomon. Photo: AKG Images/Erich LessingIn 2005 Antoine Pietrobelli, a student from the Sorbonne in Paris, was looking at microfilm copies of old manuscripts from the Vlatadon monastery in Thessalonica, modern Greece, when he made an extraordinary discovery. Among a collection of medieval texts he found a copy of a letter written by the ancient Greek physician Galen. ‘On the Avoidance of Grief’, thought to have been destroyed during the Middle Ages, provides remarkable new insights into the global trade of the Roman Empire at the height of its power. It also reveals how ordinary people dealt with crisis and despair, for the events it refers to foreshadowed an era of unparalleled political and economic decline in the ancient world; and this previously lost account tells the story of a great disaster that befell the city of Rome in the late second century AD.

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