David Sider, The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum

(2014-03-09 001)Title: The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum

Author: David Sider

Publication Information: Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, c2005

ISBN: 978-0-89236-799-3 (0-89236-799-7)

Library of Congress Classification: DG70.H5

Dewey Decimal Classification: 091

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Villa of the Papyri (Herculaneum)
Herculaneum (Extinct city)—Antiquities
Piso Caesoninus, Lucius Calpurnius—Library
Private libraries—Italy—Herculaneum (Extinct city)
Manuscripts, Greek (Papyri)—Italy—Herculaneum (Extinct city)

This book is somewhat mistitled. It isn’t about the Villa of the Papyri itself, but the scrolls found inside the building, many of them in the library. The history of how these scrolls were opened and read is what much of the book is about.

When the villa was first found, the workers first thought that the lumps of black were coal until someone noticed writing on one of them. It was only after many of these “useless” pieces were discarded did the reality that they had found a library of charred scrolls sink  in. After this, the attempts to open the scrolls are told in horrifying detail. Many scrolls were destroyed by the crazy ways that were tested Finally, the first lengthy method was deemed the best; all unwrapping machines are based on this 18th century prototype.

Sider goes into gory detail about how each scroll has to have two wedges cut out of each side in order to unroll the scrolls into long pieces. Several outer layers were completely charred by the volcanic eruption as were the layers of scroll at the center; these sections are discarded. What are left are documents that have had their beginnings and endings lost to time. Sider reminds us that the only reason we still have these scrolls is because of the eruption. Otherwise, these scrolls would have been completely  lost. This is the only ancient library that has survived into the present day.

And what exactly are these scrolls of? Roman libraries were usually divided into two areas: Latin and Greek. This is the Greek section that was made up of the writings of Philodemus, a Epicurean philosopher whose works were mostly lost before the scrolls were found. There’s a strong possibility that the villa was owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. As Sider points out, there are two lower floors of the villa that have not been excavated. It is quite possible that the Latin part of the library is still buried. Sider wonders if there’s a scroll with letters from Julius Caesar himself somewhere in the hard rock. Only excavation and careful unwrapping of the scrolls will tell.

This is a well-written, interesting book for anyone who is interested in ancient libraries and learning. The documentation of what was done to many scrolls before a good way was discovered to unwrap them is unsettling; logic and patience had given way to sensationalism and impatience, the quick ways to unwrap the scrolls destroyed many.

A great book.

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