The Herculaneum Papyri (Part I)

You might have heard about the new exhibit that opened last week at the British Museum: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. While the city of Pompeii occupies perhaps a more prominent place in the public eye, it is the nearby town of Herculaneum that has been particularly interesting to papyrologists.

A prosperous seaside town on the bay of Naples (modern Ercolano), Herculaneum was buried, like Pompeii, during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Of the parts of the town that were eventually unearthed, one villa was especially significant. The elegant style and culture of its inhabitants was evident in their library, where the discovery of papyrus scrolls led to the designation Villa dei Papiri, or ‘house of the papyri.’ The papyri were found in the library and in the hallways nearby, suggesting the inhabitants may have tried to gather some as they escaped the volcanic eruption.

Close to 1100 papyrus rolls were found in this villa in the 1750’s. Some were eventually identified as works by the philosopher Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE) along with Stoic texts and a few “scraps” of Latin poetry. Most turned out to be philosophical treatises by the 1st c. BCE poet Philodemus who wrote in Greek and was a follower of Epicurus. It has been suggested that this may have been Philodemus’ library, or it may have belonged to his friend L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus who was consul of Rome in 58 BCE (and father-in-law of Julius Caesar).

The papyri are not only significant for their content, but for the centuries of trial and error it has taken to perfect a process for unrolling these charred book rolls. Early attempts included slicing them open (which caused loss of the letters along the cut and the possibility that the text, now in two pieces, would be separated) and peeling the sheets apart (equally damaging). Next, the experimenters tried mercury (thinking that it would force the layers to separate), and rosewater. Neither worked, but instead destroyed the papyri. Then, they tried gas, but the smell was horrible and the results disappointing. One experimenter even tried putting a roll in a bell jar and waiting for the sun to steam apart the layers. This failed in that the steam caused the letters to run and gave the false impression that they were written in Oscan, not Greek.

Not until Antonio Piaggio, a specialist from the Vatican, took over in 1793, would any real progress be made.

(to be continued…)

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