Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stepping Closer to Ancient Literature

One Scroll at a Time

Ancient Greek and Latin literature is hard to come by. However in Herculaneum, Italy an entire library from the ancient Mediterranean was recently discovered. Thousands of years ago, in 79 AD, Herculaneum, on the Bay of Naples, was a vacation spot for many of Rome’s top families during the hot Italian summers. This relaxing spot was also a place where Rome’s richest engaged in cultural one-upmanship. The most loyal was politician and father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who even built a luxurious seaside villa.

When Piso’s villa was excavated in the 18th Century it was found to hold over 80 sculptures of the highest quality. The luxurious villa, known as the Villa of the Papyri, also contains the only library to survive from the classical world. The library contains about 2,000 scrolls, which were nearly destroyed due to the catastrophe in 79 AD. The scrolls took another hard beating in the 18th Century, when excavators and treasure hunters mistook them for lumps of charcoal and burnt logs and burned them as torches. Once they realized what they were challenges included unrolling them, keeping them in one piece, and reading them. Within the last 15 years, this luck changed when scientists from Brigham Young University in Utah examined the papyrus using infrared light. Deep in the infrared range they were able to see the contrast between paper and ink. It was finally possible to read some of the readings. In 2008, further advances revealed detail of the scrolls that even included different handwritings.

Although the scrolls have not all been unrolled, what has been discovered has mostly been Greek material. The major discovery is Philosopher Epicurus’s text On Nature. Many of the texts that have emerged so far are believed to have been written by a follower of Epicurus, the philosopher and poet Philodemus of Gadara. The extensive search has lead classic’s professor at New York University, David Sider, to believe that Piso’s villa was not only vacation home, but Philosdemus’s own working library. Piso was Philodemus’s patron.

Many of the scrolls originally recovered have yet to be read due to the tedious task of unrolling and translating. Italian authorities are also reluctant to permit further excavation, due to the new residents who live in Ercolano which was built on top of Herculaneum.

We only have guesses of what these scrolls originally were, however, with continued research professors and scientists hope to discover more great works of classical literature.

Check out fun and unique places to store your classical literature here.


  1. Very interesting post. I must admit that Classic Literature has not been a very large interest of mine. Yet I do appreciate the science behind discovering new ways to read the scrolls that were thought lost. What is really exciting is to have a piece of history from 79 AD.. I mean WOW.. to see into the thoughts of man at that time must be mind blowing. As we've evolved over the years.. I know without a doubt that we could learn a lot from those that came before us... keep smiling

  2. And to think some of the scrolls were used as firewood!