Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.24


Marcello Gigante, Philodemus in Italy: The Books from Herculaneum. Translated by Dirk Obbink. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 153. $32.50. ISBN-0-472-10569-8.


Reviewed by Alan C. Mitchell, Theology, Georgetown University, mitchela@gunet.georgetown.edu.

In a word this book is elegant. At the most basic level its appearance is handsome. More importantly, Gigante's rendering of Philodemus is fascinating and engaging, and Dirk Obbink's translation is masterful.

Gigante presents an engrossing account of the relevance of Philodemus of Gadara and the critical importance of his private library at Herculaneum for the attestation of Italian Epicureanism in the first century BCE. His method is almost conversational as he tells the story of the excavation of the library, the deciphering of these difficult texts, and the significance of Philodemus' place in the history of Epicureanism. Along the way Gigante comments on the volume of Philodemus scholarship that has exposed the problems that prevent an easy portrayal of the evidence and its meaning. He dialogues with this scholarship in a manner that is both charming and critical.

The first chapter opens with the story of the excavation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum and its relevance for research on Epicureanism at Rome in the later Republic. Gigante predicts that expanded exploration will only increase the value of this find. The discovery of new texts is, perhaps for philologists like Gigante, the most exciting part of the excavations. While the bulk of the material from the library is Greek texts of Hellenistic philosophy, scholars can anticipate additional new texts, when the Latin part of the library is explored. Among the Latin papyri verses of books 1, 3, 4, and 5 of Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things has been identified. Gigante believes this confirms his opinion that an entire copy of the poem, which had been edited by Cicero, was placed in the Epicurean section of the library. Texts from Ennius, Virgil, and Horace were also discovered. There is real hope that the library will yield a copy Epicurus' On Nature, as well as other of his writings. Less conservative than some scholars of Epicureanism, Gigante conveys his enthusiastic hopes that the textual yield at Herculaneum will re-vitalize research on Greek Epicureansism in Rome between the second and first centuries BCE. In relation to this rejuvenation Gigante expects the importance of Philodemus, until now somewhat downplayed, to increase in value.

The relationship of Philodemus to the Villa of the Papryi is quite problematic. Gigante favors Pandermalis' theory over Sauron's, and thinks it reasonable that Philodemus could have influenced the decoration of the Villa, which reflects Epicurean themes. In the end he maintains a connection between the Villa and Roman Epicureanism and believes the best candidate for ownership of the Villa is Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, consul in 58 BCE and friend of Philodemus.

Chapter two examines more closely the library of Philodemus, and here Gigante favors the opinion of Christian Jensen that Philodemus played a key role in the library's establishment. This fact, however, should not give unwarranted expectation that among the texts of the library an autograph of Philodemus will be found. Rather, Gigante believes one may find notes or provisional drafts, that may have been worked on and completed by members of his circle. Such a view is valuable for uncovering information about literary production in the late Republic. Gigante supports Cavallo's thesis that the core of the library comprised the thirty-seven books of Epicurus' On Nature. Additional volumes, which range from the third and second centuries BCE, supplemented it. The core of the library was established elsewhere, likely in Athens, and was probably brought to Herculaneum by Philodemus himself. His purpose in doing so was the spread of Epicureanism and the dissemination of its teachings.

The library grew in the first century BCE as works written by Philodemus himself were added to the collection, as well as were other Epicurean treatises written after his death. The first phase of the inclusion of Philodemus' own writings focused largely on his philosophical historiography and the history of Epicureanism. Taking a middle position between those who see Philodemus as a sterile repeater of Epicurean doctrine and those who view him as a mean polemicist, Gigante believes he was an accurate interpreter of Epicureanism for Roman society. In this regard Philodemus rendered the teaching of Epicurus relevant to Roman society of his day. Perhaps this is more clearly seen in his other writings, which are more speculative in nature. These range over the topic of ethics, psychology, music, rhetoric and theology. Among them are treatises such as On Freedom of Speech, On Types of Life, On Vices and Virtues, and On Anger. Some of them disseminate the thought of his teacher Zeno of Sidon, whose lectures he attended in Athens. The trilogy, On Music, On Rhetoric, and On Poems, shows how much Philodemus valued humanistic education for the sage. According to Cicero this earned Philodemus praise for cultivating disciplines normally neglected by other Epicureans. Here is evidence that Philodemus was not simply a slavish repeater of Epicurean doctrine. The theological works were added later, probably in the third quarter of the first century BCE and include How the Gods Live, On Piety, and On the Gods. Gigante evaluates these texts as both original and polemical and agrees with K. Kleve on the influence the theological treatises had on Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods. Additional ethical works, the Comparetti Ethics, On Signs, and On Death are the latest to be included in the library during Philodemus' lifetime.

To conclude his survey of the texts of Philodemus, Gigante revisits the question of the relationship between Philodemus' literary production and the sculptural decorations at the Villa. Here Gigante confirms the suspicion of Pandermalis that the selection and grouping of the sculptures came under the direct influence of the thought of Philodemus. Support is also given to Sauron's conviction that Epicurean philosophy was compatible with "the 'program of coherent, planimetric, and decorative organization' of the 'gymnasium' of the Villa." The design of the Villa, then, reflects the conception of an Epicurean philosopher to the extant that sculptures of Epicurus and other Epicureans are placed together with those of other philosophers. The portrayal of gods and goddesses such as Athena, Hermes and Pan, as well as the depiction of satyrs, athletes, dancers, priests, sovereigns, poet and orators all help to represent the cultural world of Philodemus.

The third chapter treats of Philodemus' epigrams as autobiography and takes up the difficult problem of the relationship of his prose works to his poetry. The chapter examines three epigram in detail: A.P. 6.349, 9.412, and 11.35. The first, The Prayer to the Gods, was written early in his career when he was leaving his native Palestine for Athens to study under Zeno of Sidon. This detail accounts for the fact that this epigram cannot be reconciled with Epicurean theology and cosmology.

The other two epigrams treat of meetings at the belvedere located at the seashore outside of Villa of the Papyri. This was the place where the residents and guests of the Villa customarily took a modest lunch. A.P. 9.412 was written in Italy and reflects the spiritual context of Epicurean philosophy. It recounts a day when they did not go there for lunch because two of their number had died. The theme of the epigram is the contrast between "yesterday" and "today", "life" and "death." Gigante minces no words in dealing with previous interpretations of this epigram and offers his own reading of it, which "transmits an image of ordinary life at the belvedere of the Herculaneum Villa, a constant goal of those who do philosophical research ..." A.P. 11.35 treats of Philodemus' circle of friends who share simple banquet to which they have each contributed some item of food. In Gigante's estimation both of these epigrams witness to the simple life of the Epicurean community at Herculaneum, therein lies their autobiographical value for the way they show him interacting with his friends.

Chapter four examines Philodemus' treatise On the Good King according to Homer. It is dedicated to the owner of the Herculaneum Villa, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Gigante sees this as a "profoundly original" treatise that is consistent with the teaching of Epicurus. Although he describes it as something other than a political manifesto, he characterizes it as a "paradigm for a ruler." Finally he assigns it to the genre of political protreptic. The Homeric connection situates Philodemus' ideas on kingship within a cultural and poetic context, rather than a political one. Moral education is based on poetry. Of interest to Homeric scholars will be the way this text contributes to the history of the interpretation of Homer, especially among Epicureans.

The fifth and last chapter looks at the relationship of Philodemus to his patron Piso. In one epigram (A.P. 9.44) we find the strongest link between the two. The relationship described in this poem seems to be one of equals, thus one of friendship. The common ground of Epicureanism seems to have overcome the actual status differentiation between Philodemus and Piso. The poem tells of Philodemus' invitation of Piso to his simple house for the annual celebration of Epicurus' birthday on the twentieth of Gamelion. The value of the poem is enhanced when one considers the inclusion of Piso in the circle of Epicurean friends who gathered with Philodemus. The simplicity of the house and the dinner is contrasted with the richness of the gathering in honor of Epicurus. Gigante opposes those who find the poem pedantic, or see Philodemus as a mere flatterer. He rather sees it as an expression of genuine friendship between philosopher and patron and is able to demonstrate from other of Philodemus' writings how accurate a reading that is.

Gigante has written a lovely book on Philodemus and the venue of Epicureanism at Herculaneum in the late Republic. From it one gains a grasp of the importance of Philodemus in the spread of Epicureanism, as well as a sense of the Epicurean ideal, which under the tutelage of Philodemus, extended beyond philosophy to culture and history. The emergent portrait of this philosopher is one of a person of influence with Roman aristocrats like Piso, who was well disposed to Epicureanism, thanks to Philodemus. The central role philosophy played at the Villa of the Papyri is fascinating. Not only were philosophical and ethical themes integrated into the elements of everyday life there, but philosophy played a distinctive role in the physical arrangement and design of the Villa itself. This is one of the most intriguing and interesting aspects of Gigante's presentation of Epicureanism at Herculaneum. This book will be of interest to philosophers, philologists, archeologists and art historians. Anyone interested in Epicureanism and the very real life of friendship fostered in Epicurean communities will find much to dwell on in this marvelous little book.