Category Archive 'Philodemus'

21 Jan 2015

Reading the Herculaneum Papyrus Scrolls

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The only library surviving from Classical Antiquity is that found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

1,785 papyrus scrolls were found, packed carefully in cases and ready to be moved to safety, which were nonetheless overtaken by a 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) cloud of hot gas and rocks emanating from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The scrolls were charred black, but preserved under 20-25 meters (22-27 yards) of hardened volcanic ash.

New techniques apparently are beginning to permit scholars to read the scrolls.

io9 quotes a recently published paper in Nature Communications:

In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. Until now, specialists have been unable to view the carbon-based ink of these papyri, even when they could penetrate the different layers of their spiral structure. Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them. This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.

Smithsonian reports what has been discovered so far, no lost plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus, no poems of Sappho, no treatises of Plato or Dialogues of Aristotles, instead they’ve found lots of Philodemus.

Most of the scrolls that have been unwrapped so far are Epicurean philosophical texts written by Philodemus—prose and poetry that had been lost to modern scholars until the library was found. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a school of thought in the third century B.C. that promoted pleasure as the main goal of life, but in the form of living modestly, foregoing fear of the afterlife and learning about the natural world. Born in the first century B.C. in what is now Jordan, Philodemus studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and became a prominent teacher and interpreter of the philosopher’s ideas.

Modern scholars debate whether the scrolls were part of Philodemus’ personal collection dating to his time period, or whether they were mostly copies made in the first century A.D. Figuring out their exact origins will be no small feat—in addition to the volcano, mechanical or chemical techniques for opening the scrolls did their share of damage, sometimes breaking the delicate objects into fragments or destroying them outright.

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