Herculaneum Library Study Archive

Idealist library from AD79 Discovered in Herculaneum – “Vergil had learned from Philodemus. The latter has been cited on both sides of the controversy; indeed, On Piety cols. viii-xiii has been one of the main supports of the idealist interpretation.”

Ancient Revelations
Herculaneum Library
Herculaneum “Villa of the Papyri” – A 2,000 Year Old Library is Being Unearthed

In 1754, an archeological excavation in Herculaneum, the city that died along with Pompeii, discovered a few papyrus rolls. Precisely, a few burnt papyrus rolls containing texts written with soot-based ink, aged almost two thousand years. Trying to unroll them was useless: they would have decomposed. But how to read the text? Recently scientists decided to use computer tomography, which enabled them to model a “virtual” papyrus roll and unroll it on the computer screen.


On the wall of House 26 in Pompeii, an ancient observer, viewing the aftermath of the eruption, scratched the words “Sodom and Gomorrah”—a poignant Biblical reference to God’s vengeance on the two sinful cities of Genesis 19

  • 2005: British scholars call for the excavation of the Villa of the Paryri – March 11, 2005 “Controversy has erupted over Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri and whether it should be excavated now or left untouched for future generations. The villa, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, was partly excavated in the 1750s, when archaeologists discovered the only intact library of texts from the Classical era. The texts already found are Greek, but the hope is that Latin texts by some of the greatest Roman authors may also be waiting to be discovered.  The 1,800 carbonised scrolls were very difficult to decipher and serious study of them only began in the 1970s. In the early 1990s further excavations at the villa were undertaken, but work was halted in 1998, when it was argued that resources should be put into the preservation of what had already been uncovered elsewhere at Herculaneum, just south of Naples. “
  • 2005: Hunt for Treasures at the Villa of Papyri – “When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, a sprawling Roman villa, once inhabited by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, disappeared beneath a sea of lava.  Now Italian archaeologists are about to begin unearthing the ruins, one of the most important Roman sites in the country. They hope to uncover a priceless library of papyrus scrolls.” | “These rolls of papyri were, for many years, very hard to decipher, and it was only in the 1970s that they began to receive proper scientific study from an international team of scholars, led by Professor Marcello Gigante of the University of Naples. Hundreds of lost works of Greek philosophy – including half of Epicurus’s entire opus, missing for 2,300 years – and some Roman poetry were read for the first time. The author most commonly represented turned out to be Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher attached to Piso’s household, who certainly taught the greatest Latin poet, Virgil, and probably also Horace. “

THE SILVER LINING. Buried by burning hot ash, Pompeii was completely destroyed in a matter of hours by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (seen in the background of this photo of Pompeii’s ruins). The manner of its demise also protected it, however. The city remained amazingly preserved for almost two millennia. When it began to be excavated in the late 19th century, the archaeologists revealed a first-century Roman city frozen in time—from the vivid frescoes on the walls of spacious villas to the loaves of bread left baking in the oven.


Unlocking the Scrolls of Herculaneum via Roger Pearse – “On the eve of the catastrophe in 79 AD, Herculaneum was a chic resort town on the Bay of Naples, where many of Rome’s top families went to rest and recuperate during the hot Italian summers. It was also a place where Rome’s richest engaged in a bit of cultural one-upmanship – none more so than Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a politician and father-in-law of Julius Caesar.  Piso’s grand villa, which has come to be known as the Villa of the Papyri, also contains the only library to have survived from the classical world. It is a relatively small collection, some 2,000 scrolls, which the  eruption nearly destroyed and yet preserved at the same time.”


“But many of the texts that have emerged so far are written by a follower of Epicurus, the philosopher and poet Philodemus of Gadara (c.110-c.40/35BC). In fact, so many of his works are present, and in duplicate copies, that David Sider, a classics professor at New York University, believes that what has been found so far was in fact Philodemus’s own working library. Piso was Philodemus’s patron.”

Philodemus “The works of Philodemus so far discovered include writings on ethics, theology, rhetoric, music, poetry, and the history of various philosophical schools.”


On Piety (PHerc. 1428) | On the Gods (PHerc. 26)
On the Way of Life of the Gods (PHerc. 152, 157)

Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans “Whether (Epicurus’s) “idealist” interpretation or a “realist” one is correct, it is clear that the gods of the Aeneid are not those of Epicurus: they are neither imaginary models of the good life for human beings, nor real biological entities living outside our world and free from concern for it. This does not mean that Vergil’s account of them may not contain significant references to Epicurean doctrines; but before we can identify such references, we need to determine which version of Epicurean theology Vergil had learned from Philodemus. The latter has been cited on both sides of the controversy; indeed, On Piety cols. viii-xiii has been one of the main supports of the idealist interpretation.”

Battle for the books of Herculaneum

Buried deep in the Villa dei Papiri, covered by the molten lava of Vesuvius, lies one of the finest libraries of the ancient world. But excavation may destroy more than it saves

They look like lumps of coal, and when the Swiss military engineer and his team who first explored the buried town of Herculaneum in the 18th century encountered them, that was how they were treated: as ancient rubbish, to be dumped in the sea.

But before being hit by a cascade of molten volcanic rock at more than 400C (the so-called pyroclastic flow that inundated the town), these now-blackened and nondescript objects were part of the library of the grandest villa in the town, where the father-in-law of Julius Caesar was regaled with the epigrammatic gems of his in-house Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus.

They were the papyri on which the ancient world preserved its literature, as the tunnelling archaeologists of 250 years ago belatedly understood. Some 1,800 have so far been recovered, and although both papyrus and ink were carbonised, modern thermal imaging techniques have made it possible to decipher them, with the help of a considerable amount of computing muscle.

Half have already yielded their secrets. None are likely to enter the best seller lists: mostly they are works of Epicurean philosophers, like Philodemus, the one-time resident of the villa. Indeed, although he died a century before Vesuvius’s disastrous eruption, the papyri discovered so far may well have come from his private library. But experts suspect that only a fraction of the papyri inside Villa dei Papiri (”the Villa of Papyri”), as it is known, have been discovered. New excavations in the 1990s revealed two more previously undiscovered floors to the villa, below those already explored. But because the entire villa is encased in tufo, the tough stone that results when the pyroclastic flow hardens, a major task of engineering and archaeology is required to find what more remains to be brought to the surface.

A group of classical scholars is now calling for excavations inside the Villa of Papyri to be resumed without delay. Thanks to the fluke of its preservation within the inferno of the eruption, this is by far the oldest extant library in the world. And nobody has a clue what is in it. It is known that its owner when Philodemus was alive was Lucius Calpurnius Piso Cesoninus, a senator and a wealthy, cultured figure who entertained Roman high society down here at his fabulous country pad by the sea. The villa was full of beautiful vases and statues and other works of art, many of which are now in a museum in Naples.

It is highly probable that Piso also possessed a large library, as became someone of his wealth and culture: not merely the works of Epicurean philosophy that reflected the special interest of Philodemus, but all the other works, Greek and Roman, with which a man of his civilised tastes could be expected to be familiar: the plays of the Greek tragedians, for example, or the dialogues of Aristotle, or Livy’s History of Rome. And given the freakish survival of Philodemus’s collection, it is argued, the rest of the library may be in a similar condition: carbonised but accessible. The figure that has been suggested as the likely cost of bringing them back to civilisation is between €20m (£13.6m) and €30m. But the prize, Robert Harris, author of the novel Pompeii, and the scholars argue could be quite literally priceless: our knowledge of the literature of the ancient world could double overnight, with this single excavation.

But at the Villa of the Papyri all is quiet: no drills or jackhammers batter at the villa’s tufo shell, no new mines are being bored through the rock, no teams of volunteers sift spoonful by spoonful through the recovered debris.

In fact there is nothing going on here at all.

The villa was built a couple of hundred yards away from the town of Herculaneum, set apart from it along the beach that the eruption of 79AD destroyed. Today it occupies a site adjacent to the ruins of the ancient town, separated from it by a seedy lane lined on one side with old tenements and newer but already shabby-looking apartment blocks strung with washing. Groups of British and American and French tourists pad about through the ruins of Herculaneum, which looks like a fragment of Grozny after the Red Army had been battering it for a couple of years.

The tightly packed houses, shops, temples and taverns are built of diagonally set, cream-coloured stones: all are roofless and with weeds and wild flowers sprouting from the walls, though structurally they look in remarkably good shape.

But nobody pads around the Villa dei Papiri site: it is only open for groups with special permission. When I visited this week it was completely deserted. Behind a high concrete entranceway and massive steel gate, more befitting a municipal refuse site than an important ancient monument, what remains of the Villa of the Papyri is wrapped in its rock-encrusted sleep.

And now the scholars are demanding to know why. Last year they formed the Friends of Herculaneum Society, and with Robert Harris have begun lobbying for excavation to begin again as soon as possible.

Professor Robert Fowler, professor of Greek at Bristol University and a trustee of the new society, said: “Everyone thinks it is possible that there is more to be found, because of the very peculiar, one-sided nature of the library as so far discovered: this is one of the great country houses of one of the great Roman potentates. Where are the other philosophers? Where are the Greek poets? Where are the Latin books? If you were under siege by a volcano, would your first priority be to get the books out? We have an obligation to finish the excavation.”

Robert Harris said: “The promise and potential there is immense. This is the wellspring of Western civilisation. There could be the lost dialogues of Aristotle down there, the lost plays of Sophocles, poems of Catullus – it’s just priceless. Anything that could be done to get it out should be done. It’s irresponsible to leave it in the hope that it could be got out in 50 years.

“It’s a battle to keep people interested in history and ancient history in particular. And this is a great story, it captures the imagination of people.

“It’s a thrilling thing that stirs the imagination. The sad fact is that the preservation of what’s already been excavated is essential, but it’s not sexy. I hope both can be done.”

So why aren’t the archaeologists and engineers busy burrowing under the Villa of the Papyri now, as we speak, to bring this hypothetical treasure to the light? The essential reason is contained in a paradox: under present circumstances, the only way to ensure the survival of whatever may emerge from the villa is to leave it exactly where it is, encased in rock.

Suppose new excavations were to start tomorrow, and next year half a dozen lost tragedies of Sophocles, say, were brought to light. Once the spectral imaging technology had got to grips with them, their survival for eternity would be guaranteed; a year or two after that one would be able to buy the Penguin Classics translations in any bookshop.

But what about all the other stuff that would inevitably emerge at the same time as the precious lumps of carbonised papyrus? Because the library, if it exists, will not be uncovered in isolation. Everything interred with it will come to light too.

Herculaneum is unique in that the mantle of rock that encased the town preserved not only the sort of things that can be found in sites all over the world, such as stone and pottery, but organic material as well: papyrus, but also wood, cloth, rope.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the director of the British School in Rome and of the Herculaneum Preservation Project, said: “The ancient town is in a great pit beneath the modern town, and it was preserved by the molten rock like a fly trapped in amber. This is one of the very few excavations in the world where organic material has been so extensively preserved – wood, papyrus, cloth, rope, mostly wood that was carbonised by the pyroclastic flow. Things that survived include furniture, cupboards, beams, doors.”

Herculaneum in this respect is very different from the more celebrated Pompeii, which receives 10 times as many visitors. “At Pompeii you have the feeling of a bare skeleton, impressive for its scale but with too little intimate detail. But in Herculaneum you walk round a corner and come upon a little tavern with a wooden wine rack, storage loft and back office with sliding doors,” Mr Wallace-Hadrill said.

“A villa of this quite exceptional magnificence evidently had many treasures other than its papyri, including other types of documentation (wooden tablets with legal transactions and records) and an abundance of other organic materials, including grain and foodstuffs, fabric and wooden furniture.”

But with rain, polluted air and pigeon droppings assailing the site daily, that unique organic fabric is crumbling fast.

“The Herculaneum site was mostly excavated in the 1930s,” Mr Wallace-Hadrill said. “Now it’s undergoing a conservation crisis – it’s crumbling away. It’s hard to believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. Really beautiful fresco decoration flaking off, lumps of plaster that have come away lying at the bottom of walls. We’ve got a whole team of people trying to halt the worst – it’s an emergency first aid job, taking it area by area. It’s an enormous undertaking. If it had been properly maintained it wouldn’t be such a huge problem.

“Stuff falls off the walls in great chunks. It’s like in the scene from the Fellini film Roma where they discover a Roman villa and open the door and this vivid fresco fades in front of their eyes. It’s one thing to bring an ancient town back to life by excavation. But to keep this delicate ‘reborn’ patient alive is a massive challenge. The people who built Herculaneum didn’t build for millennia any more than we do today – they built to last 20 years or so. The staggering thing is the quality of the Roman mosaics that have survived despite what’s been done to them.

“Because of this conservation crisis, I’m almost indifferent on the subject of the papyri. I feel terribly strongly that you’ve got to concentrate on the acute problems of today, rather than what you could do in the ideal circumstances. Ancient cities that have been buried and preserved, are incredibly rare – we can’t afford to throw them away. Let’s get our heads around what’s to be done to preserve it. It’s tremendously important.”

Neither Mr Wallace-Hadrill nor Bristol University’s Robert Fowler have the final say in the matter, of course: Herculaneum’s fate is in the hands of the Superintendent, Professor Piero Guzzo. Listening keenly to the arguments is David Woodley Packard, the American billionaire philanthropist, a scion of the Hewlett-Packard dynasty, whose Packard Humanities Institute is committed to funding the site’s development. Initially on the side of those who argue for a rapid new start to excavation, he too has come round to the view that the first priority is to stop the existing site from disintegrating further. His institute has already spent $2m (£1.1m) doing that.

Mr Packard told the Art Newspaper: “When the Italians decide it is time to resume excavations at the Villa of the Papyri, our foundation expects to be in a position to offer appropriate financial support.”

We can imagine the master of the Villa dei Papiri, grasping the stanchions of a galley offshore from Herculaneum on that nightmarish day in August AD79 and gazing back in horror as the eruption column of Vesuvius slowly collapsed and a cascade of molten rock engulfed his home. He could have had no doubt that all was lost, his fragile papyrus library and everything else.

Two thousand years later, the disaster has turned out to be a miracle. But the only way to ensure that the contents of his home, miraculously spared, will not quickly crumble to nothing is to keep them in their rocky womb a little longer.


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Date: 18 Jan 2011
Time: 12:09:17

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We have lost so much of classical literature as a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the descent of most of Europe into barbarism as a result that it is incredible there is not more urgency in ascertaining if the buried villa contains a library. What is to be gained from not proceeding with a thorough excavation now that funding is promised. Are we in the 21st century not somewhat more advanced in our thinking than the hordes who nearly destroyed western civilisation. It would be such a huge moment in world history if a classical library was discovered. It would cheer up not alone classical students but the citizens of the planet.

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