January 23, 2005


The search for the lost library of Rome (Robert Harris, 1/23/05, Times of London)

Peering into the dark, stagnant water it is hard to imagine that this was once one of the greatest villas in the Roman world, the size of Blenheim Palace, extending for more than 250 yards along the Bay of Naples. (An impression of what it must have looked like is provided by the Getty Museum in California, which is an exact replica.) Its nemesis, Vesuvius, still looms over it less than four miles away. When the mountain erupted on August 24, AD79 it buried the villa under a mantle of volcanic rock 100ft thick, altering the coastline and pushing the sea back by hundreds of yards.

All knowledge of the great house was lost until 1738, when workmen sinking a well shaft encountered a mosaic floor. It was too deep to excavate; instead, over the next 20 years under the supervision of Karl Weber, a Swiss military engineer, a network of tunnels was hewn through the debris clogging the great peristyle, the atrium and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Cartloads of treasures were brought to the surface, destined for the art collection of the King of Naples.

Throughout this time, mingled with the sculptures and glassware, workmen retrieved what looked like lumps of coal which they unthinkingly dumped in the sea. It was not until 1752 and the discovery of an intact library lined with 1,800 rolls of papyrus, that the excavators realised that what they had been throwing away were carbonised books. The site has since been known as the Villa of the Papyri.

Once the villa had been stripped, 200 years ago, the tunnels were sealed. But last week a group of the world’s leading classical scholars gathered in Oxford to demand that the site be reopened. They believe that there is a better-than-evens chance — “quite likely”, is how Robert Fowler, professor of Greek at Bristol University, puts it — that the villa may have possessed at least one other library still to be uncovered.

These are scholars, cautious by nature. Their optimism is therefore worth taking seriously. It follows the first detailed analysis of the 1,800 papyri, now largely unrolled and deciphered thanks to a technique known as multi-spectral imaging (MSI). What appear to the naked eye as jet-black cinders are transformed by MSI into readable text. Thirty thousand images are now legible on CD-Rom; suddenly poems and works of philosophy are speaking again, 2,000 years after they were sealed in their cedar-wood cabinets in the summer of AD79.

The author chiefly represented in the collection is Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher of the 1st century BC who taught Virgil, the greatest Latin poet, and probably also Horace. He may indeed have given lessons to both beneath the porticoes of the Villa of the Papyri, for it is known that Philodemus was employed in the household of a powerful Roman senator, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, father-in-law of the dictator Julius Caesar. And it is now regarded as almost certain that Piso — who died more than a century before the eruption of Vesuvius — was the original owner of the Villa of the Papyri.

Apart from the texts of Philodemus, hundreds of other lost works of Greek philosophy — including half of Epicurus’s entire opus, missing for 2,300 years — have been rediscovered. Among them is a treatise by Zeno of Sidon, who Cicero saw lecture in Athens in 79BC. According to Richard Janko, professor of classics at Michigan University: “This is the first copy of Zeno’s writings to come to light; they had all been lost in later antiquity.”

Most of the work on the Philodemus texts was carried out by the late Professor Marcello Gigante of the University of Naples: a small (despite his surname) and dynamic figure, he gradually became convinced that the 1,800 rolls so far discovered represented perhaps only one half of the books that the villa contained. Certainly it does seem unlikely that Piso — an educated man who was joint ruler of Rome in 58BC — should have confined himself to this one, narrow collection. Or that his heirs, equally highly educated, would not have added to it over the decades.

In the 1990s, on Gigante’s initiative, an abortive attempt was made to reopen the old 18th-century excavations. The project was eventually abandoned when its funding ran out, but not before the archeologists had established that the villa was larger than had been thought.

It seems that it was built on two or possibly three levels, terraced down to the sea. It also appears that slaves were in the act of carrying crates of books to safety when they were overwhelmed by the eruption. These lower storeys, with their mosaic floors, frescoes and painted ceilings — clearly an integral part of the house — all lend support to Gigante’s theory that the villa had at least one other library.

Gigante died in November 2001 but his campaign for renewed excavation, far from dying with him, gathered strength. Eight of the world’s leading scholars of ancient history, including professors from Harvard, Oxford and London, wrote to The Times in the spring of 2002 demanding action: “We can expect to find good contemporary copies of known masterpieces and to recover works lost to humanity for two millennia. A treasure of greater cultural importance can scarcely be imagined.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 4:50 PM

Thanks for posting this. I have been wondering about the fate of the Villa dei Papyri for a few years now.

Aside from the vast body of classical literature currently presumed lost, one thing I didn't see mentioned in the article is that a library from 79 A.D. might contain new eyewitness accounts of the beliefs and practices of the Christian churches at that time.

Posted by: Guy T. at January 23, 2005 6:38 PM

Burgess Laughlin's 'The Aristotle Adventure' is a useful corrective to the nonsense that most people have been led to believe about the survival, or not, of ancient texts.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 25, 2005 1:56 AM