Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Treasure!

Awesome:

Even in our age of hyperbole, it would be hard to exaggerate the significance of what is at stake here: nothing less than the lost intellectual inheritance of western civilisation

...

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.”


Lost because the islamofascists couldn't save all the classics from the anti-intellectualism and Christian bigotry of Dark Age Europe.

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