Galen and the Great Fire of Rome

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By Raoul McLaughlin | Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 9 2011

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 LessingA 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 Lessing

In 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.

Claudius Galenus (AD 129-c. 217) has been revered for centuries as the most important ancient authority on anatomical theory and medical practice. He was a renowned collector of written medical remedies, inventor of specialist surgical methods and the originator of many therapeutic procedures. It was known that Galen had written a letter to a friend in his home town of Pergamum in Asia Minor about the nature of grief, but only fragments of the document had survived in Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts. The rediscovered document carries the full text in which Galen offers advice on coping with misfortune by recalling the greatest loss he ever experienced in his professional career, when a vast fire devastated the centre of Rome in the spring of AD 192.

Historians have long been fascinated by the first ‘Great Fire’ of Rome, which occurred in AD 64 during the reign of Emperor Nero (r. AD 54-68). In the aftermath of this disaster there was popular resentment of the emperor and even rumours that he had been complicit in starting, or spreading, the blaze. But until now little attention has been given to the inferno that swept through Rome in ad 192 during the reign of another notorious Roman ruler, Emperor Commodus (r. AD 180-192).

Galen was personal physician to Commodus, who became emperor following the death of his father, the stoic Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161-180), regarded by many as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. Commodus proved to be very different from his philosopher father and a rumour circulated that he was probably the son of a gladiator with whom his mother Faustina was said to have had an affair. Certainly Commodus’ remarkable exploits in the Roman arena dressed as Hercules did nothing to dispel the gossip or quell the concerns of conservative public opinion.

Rome during the time of Commodus was a wealthy city, full of bustling commercial activity. After the first great fire Nero began to build a vast pleasure palace with luxurious private grounds in the space cleared by the conflagration. Plans for this monumental ‘Golden House’ were abandoned when the Roman commander Vespasian became emperor in AD 69. Vespasian gave orders that grounds leading up to the west side of the Palatine Hill were to be restored to the city and enhanced with monumental public buildings.

The most famous of these was the Colosseum. Known in ancient times as the Flavian Amphitheatre, this giant stone arena could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators. At the upper end of the Sacred Way, at the edge of the main Roman Forum, Vespasian also constructed an impressive new civic complex that became known as the Temple of Peace. This temple commemorated the end of the Jewish War (AD 66–70), when Vespasian and his son Titus had crushed a major revolt in Judea. The edifice had further symbolism, for Vespasian became emperor as the victor in a vicious civil war. By these means he had ended a period of brief but serious political turmoil known as the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’.

The Temple of Peace was set on high ground above the Colosseum and resembled a vast enclosed piazza, with a central garden area filled with pools and statues. The sacred precinct had the features of a public park and surrounding buildings contained an extensive library. One of the many chambers in the complex displayed the Jewish Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick taken as a war trophy when the Temple of Jerusalem fell to Roman forces. Josephus reports in The Jewish War (c. AD 75):

The Temple of Peace surpassed all human imagination, for Vespasian had vast wealth at his disposal and he embellished this place with old masterpieces of painting and sculpture. Into one sacred precinct he gathered all the individual artworks that people had been willing to travel across the known world to see. He also placed therein gold artefacts taken from the Temple of the Jews.

The Temple of Peace therefore symbolised the power and stability of the restored Roman state. It also held an important position near the sacred centre of ancient Rome and the site of shrines that had been preserved since the earliest periods of Roman history. Close by was the Temple of Vesta, just below the ancient Palatine Hill where Romulus was said to have founded the city. This small circular temple was dedicated to the Roman goddess of hearth and home. Here a sacred fire was tended by six Vestal Virgins, chosen from the wealthiest and most important families in the city. The flame symbolised the spirit and fortunes of Rome and it was seen as a portent of imminent disaster for the Roman state if its flames were ever extinguished. The Temple of Vesta also housed the Palladium, a sacred wooden image of Athena supposedly rescued from the devastation of Troy by Aeneas. It was believed that the continued success of Rome depended upon the safe preservation of this ancient artefact.

Vespasian’s son Domitian (r. AD 81-96) oversaw the completion of further monumental buildings along the Sacred Way which led from the Temple of Peace down to the Colosseum. A large imperial warehouse called the Horrea Piperataria was constructed next to this busy thoroughfare. The complex was so large that its side elevation on the Sacred Way was only slightly smaller than the façade of Buckingham Palace. Although it was called the ‘Pepper Warehouse’, the facility stocked all manner of incense from Arabia and Somalia, along with spices from India and the Far East.

This store of valuable international commodities proclaimed the extent of Roman power. Every year Roman ships set sail from Red Sea ports in Egypt on voyages into the Indian Ocean. They visited trade centres in Somalia, Arabia and India, returning with thousands of tons of eastern cargo to supply Roman markets. Writing about the early stages of this international commerce the Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 BC-c. AD 24) reveals that 120 Roman ships sailed to India every year.

The Roman government imposed a quarter-value import tax on eastern merchandise entering the empire, but instead of cash payments, merchants could surrender a quarter of their goods to custom officials in Egypt. As many merchants had most of their capital invested in their unsold cargo, they therefore took this option. The Roman government thereby came to possess great quantities of eastern commodities. A legal document from this era confirms the revenues raised by this trade. The second-century ‘Muziris Papyrus’ records that a single Indian cargo carried aboard the Roman merchant ship Hermapollon was valued at almost nine million sesterces. The Hermapollon was only one of many ships and the tax in kind accumulated from this income of spices and incense explains how Nero was able to burn such a large quantity of Arabian fragrances at his wife’s funeral. Pliny, in his Natural History (c. AD 77-79), reports:

Those who are most knowledgeable in this matter assert that Arabia does not produce in a whole year the quantity of incense that was burnt by the Emperor Nero at the funeral observances of his consort Poppaea.

The Horrea Piperataria served as a vast commercial centre where the state sold rare eastern products to the population of Rome at carefully managed prices. Indian and Arabian products were crucial ingredients in Roman remedies and many doctors bought their medical supplies from this place because the quality and quantity of stock was assured. The regular presence of these physicians at the Horrea Piperataria encouraged medical supply retailers to set up business in the vicinity. For example Galen in his Method of Healing describes how a shop ‘off the Sacred Way’ sold a special type of thin cord that was imported from Gaul and used for ligatures.

The interior of the Horrea Piperataria was divided into a maze of store rooms and high enclosed courtyards. There were numerous water troughs throughout the complex to dampen the oppressive atmosphere created by the dry and heavy aroma of the spice stocks. Comparing the dimensions of the Horrea Piperataria with other large warehouses, the complex probably held over 5,000 tons of spice when fully stocked. Such a quantity of spice, even if it were composed of simple black pepper, could fetch a market price of over 200 million sesterces, a figure close to a quarter of the entire Roman state income.

Information about people who worked in the Horrea Piperataria is revealed by a second-century funerary inscription commissioned by a man named Publius Veracius Firmus to honour his two brothers Proculus and Marcellus, who were employed in the complex. The brothers are referred to as Piperarii, which could be translated as ‘Pepper Workers’.

Special private store rooms were available to rent in the outer edifice of the Horrea Piperataria. An inscription from an imperial warehouse commissioned by Emperor Nerva (r. AD 96-98) reveals how these arrangements worked in practice. Rent was paid in advance and items kept in the storage units would be seized if the rental fees were not forthcoming. Rent at the Horrea Piperataria was high, but goods stored there for safekeeping were considered to be extremely secure. A military guard was employed at the facility to prevent theft or damage to the stored items. It was also believed that there was very little risk of fire breaking out at the complex, because the building was constructed mostly of stone and fitted with numerous cooling water cisterns. For these reasons professionals with an interest in eastern medical
ingredients, religious incense or perfume manufacture chose it as a safe storeroom for their most important business stocks.

By AD 192 the Horrea Piperataria had stood secure for almost a century, so Galen rented one of the units to store the valuable eastern materials he required for his medical practice. In ‘On the Avoidance of Grief’ he explains the situation.

People deposited their most precious treasures in these store rooms because they trusted that the warehouses along the Sacred Way would never be affected by fire. People were confident because there was no wood in these buildings other than the doors, and these warehouses were not close to any substantial private homes. What is more, the facilities were watched over by a military guard.

But Galen was proved wrong about the safety of the spice complex.

Until now our best surviving account of the great fire of AD 192 was provided by the Roman Consul and historian Dio Cassius (c. AD 165-c. 229), who lived through these events. He writes:

There were ill omens before the death of Commodus: for many eagles soared above the Capitol and uttered screams that boded nothing peaceful. An owl was heard to screech in the night moments before a fire began in some dwelling and leapt into the Temple of Peace. From there it swept through the storehouses of Egyptian and Arabian products.

The eagle was symbolic of Roman authority and the owl sacred to Athena; their cries of alarm in the skies above Rome foretold great misfortune for the empire. Dio attests that the flames that engulfed the Temple of Peace were carried aloft as far as the Palatine Hill where the blaze reached the imperial palace known as the Domus Tiberiana. It destroyed extensive portions of the building and incinerated nearly all the state records.

A bust of Commodus, second century AD. Photo: AKG Images/Dagli Orti

A bust of Commodus, second century AD. Photo: AKG Images/Dagli Orti

Galen’s letter offers a new account of the fire and a different insight into its origins as it spread through the sacred heart of Rome. In Galen’s version of events the blaze reached the Horrea Piperataria first, then swept along the Sacred Way up to the Temple of Peace. From there the flames spread to the Palatine Hill and the imperial palace.

The blaze was fuelled by hundreds of tons of spice and incense stored in the Horrea Piperataria. These precious substances were closely connected with divine offerings and the acrid smoke that curled high into the night air would have been fragrant with all the perfumes of Arabia. This encouraged a belief that the fire had a supernatural origin and an unearthly purpose. Onlookers might well have thought that the entire Horrea Piperataria was offering itself up to the gods in a colossal and terrifying blaze.

Dio Cassius certainly believed that the fire had a supernatural aspect, a portent from the gods of the death of Commodus and the ruin of the empire. The historian Herodian (c. AD 170-240), who was a young man in Rome at the time of the fire, also believed that the blaze was no accident. He mentions other strange omens before the fire, including stars that remained visible throughout the day. Drawing upon popular reports he described the fire thus:

There was no massing of dark clouds, but a preliminary earth tremor was felt. There was no thunderstorm present when either a bolt of lightning struck, or a fire broke out as a result of the tremor. The entire Temple of Peace, the largest and most beautiful of all the buildings in the city, was burnt to the ground.

As if directed by some divine power, the blaze spread to the Temple of Vesta, the sacred hearth of ancient Rome. Herodian describes the terrifying scene.

When the Temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view – that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy. Now, for the first time, the statue has been seen by men of our time. The Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and fled with it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace.

But the all-consuming conflagration followed their flight into the palace. The Romans must have watched in horror as the destructive fire merged with the sacred vestal flames as it consumed the city.

The fire burned for days and it seemed that no human agency could extinguish the blaze. Dio Cassius describes the frantic efforts made by vast numbers of civilians and soldiers. They carried water to hurl upon the ground in front of the approaching fire and to dampen the walls of burning buildings. Even Commodus came to encourage the crowds but to no avail. Suddenly the weather changed and heavy rain showers fell upon the city. Herodian writes:

For this reason it was known that the disaster was indeed of divine origin. For people now believed that the fire was started, and stopped, by the will and power of the gods.

Only when the blaze was extinguished did people begin to understand their loss.

Dio Cassius describes the Temple of Peace as the richest of all the sacred buildings in Rome, containing a vast treasure trove of gold and silver artefacts. This precinct was thought to be the most secure location in the city and it had therefore functioned as an important depository where people could safely store their private funds. Many people had their most valuable possessions held at the temple for safekeeping when the blaze struck. They lost their savings and some lost entire fortunes in this single calamity. Dio Cassius reports that:

Everyone used the Temple as a deposit for their best possessions. In a single night, the fire sent rich men into poverty. Everyone joined together in mourning the destruction of a public edifice, but each person was also lamenting their own personal ruin.

People speculated that the destruction of the Temple of Peace was a harbinger of war. The smell of the conflagration resembled a vast funeral offering and Dio Cassius ominously adds that the burning of the warehouses full of foreign goods signalled that the coming evil would encompass the entire world. Herodian says that people no longer supported Commodus and attributed their misfortunes directly to the emperor. Galen’s experience, recorded in his letter home to Pergamum, typifies the distress felt by many people after the Great Fire.

Galen was already at his new country residence in Campania when he heard about the disaster. The fire was a personal tragedy, for Galen had temporarily placed many of his most precious possessions in his storeroom in the Horrea Piperataria for safekeeping while he moved house. This included valuable financial assets such as gold coins, expensive silverware and acknowledgements of debts owed to him. But the real loss felt by Galen was the destruction of his research materials, including a great number of books, specialist remedies and a diverse range of unique medical instruments. Galen was planning to collect these possessions from the store room at the start of summer and, if the fire had only occurred two months later, then his research would have arrived safely at his new home. Galen observes:

Thus fate laid a trap for me, depriving me of many of my medical books. I also suffered a further significant loss, the study of vocabulary that I had collected from ancient Athenian comedy.

Galen’s letter also reveals how medical professionals used the outer rooms of the Horrea Piperataria. He describes how he carefully stockpiled a unique collection of rare ingredients and exceptional medicinal preparations in his personal storeroom. Some of these substances were from the imperial palace and had been acquired by Galen when he prepared medicines for Marcus Aurelius. This included a large quantity of high-quality medical cinnamon that Galen thought he would never be able to replace. Galen considered these expensive medical supplies to be fundamental to his profession and irreplaceable through dealings with private merchants.

The research that Galen lost in the fire included original copies of the first two books of his medical study On Composition of Drugs According to Kind. Other research destroyed in the blaze included many notes and investigations. In a further work, called On My Books, Galen writes:

I was still engaged in research on some topics and I wrote a lot in connection with those studies. I was training myself in the solution of all sorts of medical and philosophical problems, but I lost most of this material in the Great Fire.

In his letter Galen offers additional details about this research and its significance to his early career. He explains how, as a young doctor, he inherited important medical papers collected by eminent physicians from his home city. One of these compendiums included specialist formulas that had been purchased for more than 100 gold pieces each. A further personal collection from a senior doctor named Teuthras contained medical remedies ‘gathered from all over the world’ and ‘owned by no other person’. When Teuthras died from the Antonine plague of ad 165-180 Galen became sole benefactor of this knowledge.

As a young doctor, Galen had built-up his medical practice using these studies. He recalls in his letter:

If someone owned an important remedy, I was able to acquire it without much difficulty. I just exchanged it for two or three comparable remedies from these collections.

But after the fire Galen was left with only the small number of remedies he had brought to Campania and formulas he had freely entrusted to other doctors. The flames that engulfed the store rooms of the Horrea Piperataria had therefore destroyed an irreplaceable wealth of professional knowledge.

Galen had also placed his medical equipment in the storeroom before he moved house and this included unique instruments that he had carefully designed and crafted himself to perform specific operations. These items were destroyed and Galen recalled that every day afterwards he felt the need of a book, or an ingredient, or some remedy, only to realise that it was gone. Yet this personal loss was part of a greater tragedy as Galen explains in his letter:

Yet I have not mentioned the most terrible thing. For there was no hope of replacing my lost collection of books, for all the libraries on the Palatine Hill were burnt on that same day.

Many other professionals must have suffered similar losses in this great fire. In grounds close to the Horrea Piperataria was the Horrea Vespasiana. This was a colossal warehouse built to store merchandise taxed from Egyptian estates. It too burned as the fire swept along the Sacred Way, incinerating great stockpiles of linen and papyri. Scholars had chosen to keep their research in store rooms near this facility and these works were also consumed in the blaze. Some academics lost a lifetime of research, knowledge and inquiry. Galen speaks of Philippides the grammarian, who died soon after his precious books were destroyed in the fire. Some said that he had been overwhelmed with despair and pain from his loss. In fact everyone affected by the destruction wandered around for a long time dressed in black cloaks, some appearing thin and pale and all looking like people in mourning.

The fire heralded a new era of insecurity and hardship for the people of Rome. In the aftermath Commodus declared himself to be a new Romulus and vowed to rebuild the sacred heart of the city. But his actions bounded on megalomania and he planned to re-name the great institutions of state in his own honour, with Rome itself becoming known as Colonia Commodiana. Within a year conspirators had persuaded Commodus’ personal wrestling trainer to strangle him. The Praetorian Guard appointed a man named Pertinax as their new emperor and the Senate declared Commodus damnatio memoriae to erase him from popular memory. Pertinax struggled to pay the gifts of money that the praetorians expected and within a matter of months he, too, was murdered. In AD 193, after a century of stability, civil war again erupted across the empire and regional armies battled for the sole rule of Rome. So began the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’.

The following century was an era of increasing political upheaval for the Roman Empire. Civil wars became more frequent, revenues were interrupted and the empire entered an era of serious economic decline. The prosperity that Roman merchant fleets had brought back from distant India withered in a world of increased crisis and uncertainty. By AD 227 the Roman tax on international trade was reduced to one eighth (the octava) and the state never again received vast amounts of costly spices and incense. The income that the Flavian emperors had used to build colossal commercial warehouses in the centre of Rome was no more.

Thanks to the keen observation of Antoine Pietrobelli a unique personal account from the ancient world has been restored to modern scholars and physicians. In ‘On the Avoidance of Grief’ Galen tells his friend how he experienced great loss during his life, but never over-indulged in misery. He explains that after the fire: ‘I alone, demonstrating the strong love for work I have felt throughout my life, did not feel overcome with grief.’ Rather than lament his fate, Galen decided to direct his attentions towards the future and regain the materials he needed to continue his medical work. Galen is believed to have died in AD 217, aged 87. By the time of his death he had devoted almost 70 years to the study of philosophy and medicine, but had suffered no greater loss than in the Great Fire of AD 192.

Raoul McLaughlin is a tutor at Queen’s University, Belfast. His academic interests include Roman commerce and the ancient economy.

Further reading:
  • Raoul McLaughlin, Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Distant Lands of Arabia, India and China (Continuum, 2010)
  • Véronique Boudon-Millot, Galien: Tome 1, Introduction générale (Belles Lettres, 2007);
  • Martin Winkler, Gladiator: Film and History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004)
  • Martin Winkler, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)
  • John E. Hill, Through the Jade Gate to Rome (BookSurge Publishing, 2009)

Galen and the Great Fire of Rome | History Today

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