BMCR 2006.01.41

The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum

, The library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005. viii, 123 pages : illustrations (some color), 1 color map ; 26 cm. ISBN 0892367997. $40.00.

On 24 August AD 79 Mount Vesuvius erupted. Some days later several cities which had been located around it had disappeared. Best known at present of these cities were Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the early 18th century Herculaneum was rediscovered. It soon became a target of treasure hunters looking for bounty to sell to the rich and famous of that time. In the process a library of more than a thousand, largely charred or carbonized, papyrus scrolls was discovered in one of the houses.

In the book under review David Sider (henceforth S) describes the history of the Villa dei Papiri (as the house became known), the probable ownership of this collection of scrolls, the process of unrolling and preserving the scrolls, and above all the contents of the library. S does so in a very readable account, supported by many illustrations (42 in color and 40 in black/white).

In the first chapter S discusses the ownership of the villa and the library. Though certainty cannot be obtained, S argues that the first owner of villa and library may well have been Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, senator and consul (58 BC). He does so because of the content of the library: many, if not most, of the texts were from the Epicurean school of philosophy (of which Piso Caesoninus was a supporter), and, more specifically, could be traced back to Philodemus (of whom Piso Caesoninus was the most important patron, as far as is known). Though other candidates have been suggested, like Marcus Octavius (curule aedile in 50 BC Appius Claudius Pulcher (consul in 54 BC or Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Pontifex (Caesoninus’ son, consul in 15 BC Caesoninus still appears to be the most likely candidate as founder of this library. It is, however, thoroughly possible, if not likely, that others may have added to the library between the moment of Caesoninus’ death (c. 40 BC) and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

This eruption itself is the subject of chapter two. S recounts the events, which may, in retrospect, be considered as warnings for the things to come, occurring during the fifteen odd years preceding the great eruption. Describing the eruption and occurrences immediately following it, he freely uses the notes of Pliny the Younger, embodied in two letters to Tacitus. These notes are S’s starting point to sketch briefly what happened in volcanological terms.

The third chapter describes the ‘Recovery of the Papyri in the 1750s’. S describes the early days of the excavation (to use that term) of Herculaneum as well as the good luck that Karl Weber had been appointed as director of the works weeks before the villa was discovered. On October 19, 1752 the first amount of papyri was found. The director of the Museum Herculanense in the Royal Palace at Portici (Kingdom Naples), Camillo Paderni, was (unfortunately) the first to try and read the content of the scrolls. The progress of his efforts is followed both in his (translated) comments and the rather more critical comments of Padre Antonio Piaggio, an expert from the Vatican Library sent for by the king. The result of Paderni’s efforts was generally disappointing and the damage extensive. Nevertheless the philosophical orientation of the library was clearly understood at an early stage.

In the next chapter S describes ‘The Form of the Book in Greece and Rome’. Pivotal in his account is the papyrus scroll and its fabrication (with thanks to Pliny the Elder), its storage, and the way it is written on. Next, the way to read a book roll is discussed as well as the role and function of writing in a culture. S sketches the different position the book had in Greece compared with the position it held among Jews and later Christians and Muslims. Nevertheless, approaching the Hellenistic age, public libraries were established throughout the Greek world. The ‘Mouseion’ of Alexandria became its most famous example. Unfortunately it was (partly) destroyed several times. Private citizens collected books as well. The books at the villa were largely concentrated in one small room, furnished with book cabinets: most of the books read until now are Greek, but, given the Roman habit of ‘segregation of libraries’, it is possible that the part of the villa which is still awaiting excavation may hold a Latin library. Whether or not that part of the library, if it existed at all, will also focus on Epicurean issues will be a surprise, but S believes it did so.

The fifth chapter S dedicates to the problem ‘How to Open and Read a Charred Papyrus’. In a way it is the natural sequel of the first part of the previous chapter. As S explains, ideal circumstances for the preservation of more or less complete texts hardly occur. The scrolls at Herculaneum are severely charred and so difficult to open and read that many scrolls remain for the moment closed carbon blocks. How several people tried to open some of those blocks makes at the same time sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply saddening reading. Only Piaggio succeeded to read some parts without inflicting too much damage, using several (self-invented) devices. The method of reading the preserved pages used until the second half of the eighties of the twentieth century is equally fascinating and astounding. After Piaggio’s death, reading the papyri was attempted by others. Several methods, old and new, were applied; apart from Piaggio’s device none was so successful as Fackelmann’s, well in the twentieth century. However, until then only the inner parts of the scrolls were fairly legible. The more charred the part of the scroll was, the less legible the text, due to the lack of contrast between letters and background. A Norwegian computer program and so-called multispectral imaging (essentially using light of different wave lengths) dramatically improved the amounts of text that could be read, though the human eye remains necessary to be the final judge.

All information so far leads to the actual heart of this book, chapter six, dedicated to ‘The Books in the Villa dei Papiri’. The chapter itself is divided in several parts. First, there is an introduction. In it, S re-emphasizes the importance of this library for our knowledge of Epicurean thought. He also notes that several important Greek works, quoted by Philodemus, are (still) missing: it may be another indication that only part of the library has been recovered so far. Next is a section on some of the 62 fragments of Latin texts originating from the villa presented so far to the world. They are a fragment of the Carmen de Bello Actiaco, a poem on the battle of Actium, possibly by C. Rabirius; three fragments of Lucretius’ Epicurean poem ‘On the Nature of Things’; a fragment of Ennius’ Annales, a poetic version of annals of Rome’s history down to 171 BC in 18 books; and a fragment of the Obolostates sive Faenerator (the usurer or loan shark), a comedy by Caecilius Statius. The Greek section of the library comprises exclusively philosophical treatises, predominantly Epicurean though some Stoic ones (e.g. by Chrysippus) as well. They appear to have been (part of) Philodemus’ working library. The oldest texts belong to Epicurus’ central work On Nature, some probably even dating from Epicurus’ own lifetime (i.e, 341-270 BC). So far, seventeen groups of texts have been identified with thirty-four different distinct scribal hands. Philodemus is explicitly identified as the author of forty-four rolls. His works include an On the History of Philosophy, an On Theology, an On Logic, an On Ethics, and an On Poetic Theory. The last one is an extremely important work, if only because we now have, thanks to Philodemus’ practice of first describing the views of others, a better understanding of the evolution of poetic theories throughout the Hellenistic period. S illustrates most of these works with fragments, indicating their importance.

The text closes with some appendices. The first presents a review of English translations of Epicurus and Philodemus, the second the publishing history of the Herculaneum papyri. Next appear the notes, a glossary, an annotated bibliography, and an index. The book is clearly intended for a general public. It is well written, with a pleasant mix of information and readability. It is, moreover, a useful introduction to a much neglected area of philology, if only because in that area an aspect of typical classical scholarship (i.e., paleography) is mixed with the practical application of highly sophisticated technical methods and devices, useful even for some whose interest goes further than that of the general public. Especially the notes offer interesting additional information. The book is well produced, though one might question some of the choices made by the designers of this publication, though this is largely a matter of personal appreciation, just like my preference for hardcover instead of paperback, especially for books I want to read or consult more than once.