The Herculaneum Library
- Has anyone else read this?
Digital device reads wealthy Roman's library of 'lost' classics
By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent
11 February 2001
Hundreds of long-lost works of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy,
science and literature - possibly including works by Aristotle,
Archimedes and Seneca - are about to be rediscovered in what promises to
be the most important re-emergence of classical literature and thought
since the Renaissance.
American scientists have succeeded in developing a remarkable new
high-tech system for reading previously illegible manuscripts. Using
digital technology, academics from Brigham Young University near Salt
Lake City, Utah, will "remaster" the lost wisdom of the ancients.
Classical scholars believe the technology will open up the world's
greatest surviving ancient works which have been illegible because of
their poor state of preservation.
As many as 850 Greek and Latin philosophical and literary works were
excavated from a 2,000-year-old Roman villa in the ancient city of
Herculaneum near Naples by Italian antiquarians in the 18th century.
Among the works, which academics hope to read using the new equipment,
are the lost works of Aristotle (his 30 dialogues, referred to by other
authors, but lost in antiquity), scientific works by Archimedes,
mathematical treatises by Euclid, philosophical work by Epicurus,
masterpieces by the Greek poets Simonides and Alcaeus, erotic poems by
Philodemus, lesbian erotic poetry by Sappho, the lost sections of
Virgil's Juvenilia, comedies by Terence, tragedies by Seneca and works
by the Roman poets Ennius, Accius, Catullus, Gallus, Macer and Varus.
"The development of sophisticated digital technology for reading ancient
manuscripts is the most important technological advance in the
archaeological and historical world for several decades," said the
Scandinavian classicist Professor Knut Kleve, one of the leading
academics involved in reading the lost works.
The illegible texts all came from the library of a wealthy Roman
politician and intellectual who was the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.
For more than a century the library flourished as a major centre of
Roman scholarship and intellectual achievement. But in the summer of AD
79 it was overwhelmed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and was buried
under almost 100ft of volcanic debris.
Extraordinarily, although the volcanic catastrophe destroyed two cities
and killed tens of thousands of people, it actually served to save the
library for posterity. The searing heat charred the library's papyrus
manuscripts, preserving them forever, albeit in a damaged state.
A small portion of the library - about 1,200 scrolls - was discovered
during excavations in the mid 18th century, but until now most of the
material has been largely unreadable because of the degree of fire
damage and the fact that the layers of the papyrus rolls had stuck
The new high-tech digital reading system, developed by US academic
Steven Booras, of Brigham Young University, means many more manuscripts
will be readable for the first time.
Out of the 1,200 or so individual manuscripts only 800 have been
unrolled, and 450 are so difficult to read that their contents have been
little understood and their titles and authorship unknown.
"'In my experience,' he said, 'the trouble with oaths of
the form *death before dishonor* is that eventually, they
separate the world into just two sorts of people:
the dead and the forsworn.'"
_A CIVIL CAMPAIGN: A Comedy of Biology and Manners_
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Barbara J. van Look vesta (at) internetcds (dot) com