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Discoveries of Greek & Roman Papyri in the Library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, the Only Library Preserved Intact from Graeco-Roman Times (79 CE – 2015)


In 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman coastal city of Herculaneum together with Pompeii and Stabiae. Among the vast ruins preserved in lava was the library of papyrus rolls in the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum— a magnificent home thought to have been built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Discovery of this library in 1752, nearly seventeen centuries after the eruption, was the first and only discovery of ancient papyri in Europe.

On October 19, 1752 Neopolitan "cavamonti", who had been digging at Herculaneum since 1738 by order of Charles III of Spain (who through conquest was also Charles VII of Naples), excavated the first papyrus rolls from a large suburban villa. Over the next two years several hundred papyrus rolls were excavated from the site, and the villa from which they were excavated became known as the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri) or Villa dei Pisoni, after its original owner. This library was the only library that survived "intact" since Graeco-Roman times.

Discovery of the Herculaneum papyri was a landmark not only in archaeology, and in the recovery of classical texts, but also in book history because until the discovery of papyrus rolls at Herculaneum no one in early modern Europe had seen the actual roll form of books from the ancient world, or even a fragment written on papyrus. When Mabillon described papyri in his De re diplomatica (1681) he had not seen an actual example.

Papyrus rolls did not survive in humid environments, and for this reason information on rolls that might have survived into the early Middle Ages had either been lost through the decay of the rolls, or had been copied onto parchment codices for preservation before the rolls were lost or discarded. By about 1200, when paper was introduced into Europe, the precise nature of ancient papyrus as a writing surface had been for the most part forgotten. Without a medieval Latin word for paper, which was new to Europeans, scholars reapplied the old word papyrus to paper. Papyrus remained the Latin word for paper until the early seventeenth century. This double usage of the word, as Christopher de Hamel pointed out, sometimes led scholars to confuse the comparatively modern material (paper) with the material referred to by ancient Christian writers, who wrote on papyrus. 

The papyrus rolls discovered at Herculaneum had been carbonized by lava, and all were deformed to some extent because of the weight of the lava that had covered them over the centuries. Paradoxically, the carbonization process had preserved the rolls and their content, but made unrolling them and reading them exceptionally difficult. In spite of the state in which the papyrus rolls were found they were examples of the Roman papyrus roll and the form in which the rolls were stored in a Roman library. Besides the libary at the Villa of the Papyri,  frescos also discovered at Herculaneum showed how the Roman books were kept.

The first account of the Herculaneum papyri to reach the scientific world was a brief mention in a letter from the artist, sculptor and art restorer Camillo Paderni, director of the Museum Herculanense, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  The first of these, an extract of a letter to Richard Mead, was written on November 18, 1752, only a month after the discovery, and read to the Royal Society on February 8, 1753. This letter contained a brief extract of what was then the earliest surviving manuscript of Latin poetry, P.Herc 817. In this letter Paderni reported:

"it is not a month ago [specifically October 19, 1752] that there have been found many volumes of papyrus, but turn'd to a sort of charcoal, so brittle, that, being touched, it falls readily into ashes. Nevertheless, by his Majesty's orders, I have made many trials to open them, butt all to no purpose, excepting some words which I have picked out intire, where they are divers bits, by which it appears in what manner the whole was written. The form of the characters, made with very black tincture, that overcomes the darkness of the charcoal. . . ."

Paderni's letter contained portions of two continguous hexameters from P.Herc.817P.Herc. 817, containing the text of Carmen de bello actiaco, sometimes known as the Carmen de Bello Aegyptiaco, was the most substantial Latin papyrus discovered in 1752 in the library of the Villa dei Papiri. Written in Italy between 31 BCE, the date of the battle of Actium, and 79 CE, when Herculaneum was destroyed, this is one of the two earliest manuscripts of Latin poetry, the other being the slightly earlier fragment of the poetry of Gaius Cornellus Gallus discovered in 1978 at Qasr Ibrim, Egypt. The twenty-three papyrus fragments of the poem Carmen de Bello Actiaco preserved in Naples at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and in Paris at the Louvre, represent the earliest surviving dated examples of rustic capitals

"Latin Rustic probably began its career as a rationalized version of official and popular writing, fused with a loosening version of the Square Capitals, the whole written with a pen cut specially for speed. It secured a measure of public approval in Rome during or before the first century B.C., though the evidence is slight" (Stanley Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. [1972] 43; see also 41-43, and pl. 34.

Two other letters by Paderni were also published in Philosophical Transactions. His second letter, to Thomas Hollis, was dated April 27, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on June 13, 1754, reported that excavators had discovered an entire library:

"In one of these buildings there has been found an entire library, compos'd of volumes of the Egyptian Papyrus, of which there have been taken out about 250; and the place is not yet clear'd or emptied, it having been deem'd necessary to erect props first, to keep the earth, which lies above it, from falling in upon it. These volumes of Papyrus consist of Latin, and Greek manuscripts, but from their brittleness, occasion'd by the fire and time, it is not possible to unroll them, they being now decay'd and rotten. His majesty however has done his part; having sent for a certain monk from Rome [Padre Antonio Piaggio], who belong'd to the Vatican library; in hopes, by his means, to have unfolded them; but hitherto in vain.

'Your servant Paderni alone can shew some fragments of several lines, and more than this he is much afraid will never been seen. Of these there are many in my custody, which I suppose you will have the pleasure of observing in the intended catalogue. There have been found those small tables [i.e. wax tablets] which they are cover'd with what was called the palimpseston, then wrote on them with the stylus; but all these are become a kind of cinder, and have likewise suffer'd by the damps; from both which circumstances they are now so tender, that they break with the touch."

Paderni's third letter, also to Hollis, was dated October 18, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on December 12, 1754. In this letter he explained what he meant by a library, as up to this time no one in Europe had a clear idea of what the interior of an ancient Roman library would look like:

"As yet we have only entered into one room, the floor of which is formed of mosaic work, not unelegant. It appears to have been a library, adorned with presses, inlaid with different sorts of wood, disposed in rows; at the top of which were cornices, as in our own times. I was buried in this spot for more than twelve days, to carry off the volumes found there; many of which were so perished, that it was impossible to remove them. Those, which I took away, amounted to the number of three hundred thirty-seven, all of them at present incapable of being opened. These are all written in Greek characters. While I was busy in this work, I observed a large bundle, which, from the size, I imagined must contain more than a single volume. I tried with the utmost care to get it out, but could not, from the damp and weight of it. However I perceived, that it consisted, of about eighteen volumes, each of which was in length a palm and three Neapolitan inches; being the longest hitherto discovered. They were wrapped about with the bark of a tree, and covered at each end with a piece of wood. All these were written in Latin, as appears by a few words, which broke off from them. I was in hopes to have got something out of them, but they are in a worse condition than the Greek. From the latter the public will see some intire columns, having myself had the good fortune to extract two, and many other fine fragments. Of all these an account is drawing up, which will be published together with the other Greek characters, now engraving on copper-plates and afterwards make separate work by themselves. . . At present the monk, who was sent for from Rome, to try to open the former manuscripts, has begun to give us some hopes in respect to one of them. Those which I have opened, are philosophical tracts the subjects of which are known to me; but I am not liberty to be more explicit. When they are published they are to be immediately conveyed to you. That first papyri, of which I formerly acquainted you, were in a separate room, adjoining to the beforementioned palace." 

Because of the difficulty in reading the carbonized documents, the first publication of the texts of Herculaneum papyri occurred forty years after their discovery, in 1793 with the issue of the first volume of Herculanensium voluminum quae supersunt in Naples. Because of the fragility of the papyrus burned and preserved in lava, Paderni did not attempt to unroll P.Herc. 817  until 1805, at which time apographs were drawn by Carlo Orazi. The first coherent publication of its text appeared in the second volume of Herculanensium Voluminum (Naples, 1809) without facsimiles or reproductions of the papyrus. Orazi's apographs were taken to Palermo before the French occupation of Naples in 1806, but facsimiles of P.Herc. 817 were not published until nearly 80 years later. Efforts to read the remainder of the papyri proceeded very gradually; this series was completed in 11 volumes in 1855. Two hundred years after their discovery many of the Herculaneum papyri remained illegible to scholars, even after sophisticated imaging techniques were applied.

In 1800 the Prince of Wales (later George IV) decided to support the unrolling and deciphering of the papyri found at Herculaneum in 1752, and sent his chaplain in ordinary John Hayter to Naples, who was an expert on antiquities, to take charge of the "Officina" and direct the work. By this time, perhaps out of appropriate caution, or because of the difficulty involved, only 18 of the approximately 1800 manuscripts found in the Villa dei Papiri had been unrolled. It is thought that Padierni opened only the rolls that he thought were most promising from the textual standpoint.

Discussing the background of the project, in 1800 Hayter issued a few copies of a 22-page pamphlet entitled the Herculanean and Pompeian Manuscripts. This was written in the form of a letter to the Prince of Wales. By this time the papyri had been moved to Palermo. Hayter began operations in 1802 at Portici, near Naples. He had charge of the papyri from 1802 to 1806. In four years about two hundred rolls were opened, and nearly one hundred copied in lead-pencil facsimiles under Hayter's superintendence.

In 1802 Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, in a diplomatic move, offered six rolls of Herculaneum papyrus as a gift to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to discover the contents of these artefacts — some of the most impressive examples — Bonaparte handed them over to the Institut de France in Paris. There the mathematician and keen archaeologist Gaspard Monge, and Vivant Denon, the "founder" of the Louvre, were put in charge of unrolling the rolls. When the French invaded southern Italy in 1806, Hayter followed King Ferdnand into exile in Palermo, Sicily, and the original papyri fell into the hands of the French. The lead-pencil facsimiles also passed out of Hayter's hands, but were recovered from the Neapolitan authorities through the influence of William Drummond of Logiealmond, the British minister. Between 1807 and 1808 copperplates were incised at Palermo under Hayter's direction, and shipped to England where, instead of being published as Hayter had planned, they were archived at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Meanwhile, during the last illness of George III, the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent, and would ascend to the throne in 1820 at the death of his father. In 1811 Hayter issued a rather grand volume on the project, printed in unusually large type, and illustrated with fine color mezzotint plates, entitled, A Report upon the Herculaneum Manuscripts, in a Second Letter, Addressed, by Permission to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent. The volume discusses Hayter's experience with the papyri in detail, and includes some beautiful color images of the papyrus plant, but no reproductions of papyri. It also reprints the text of Hayter's first (1800) letter to the Prince. My copy is bound in the original pink boards with its title printed in large boldface letters on the upper cover. Hayter's series of reproductions of P.Herc 817 and other papyri were mostly not published until 1885, in an appendix to Fragmenta Herculanensia: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oxford Copies of the Herculanean Rolls by Walter Scott. The first photographs of any of the fragments were published by Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores III (1938) 385.

In 1816 some of the Herculaneum papyrus fragments which had been brought to Paris and London were entrusted to the German polymath and archaeologist Friedrich Carl Sickler who attempted to unroll them, but in the process destroyed several. As a record of this experience Sickler published a pamphlet entitled Herculaneum Rolls. Correspondence Relative to a Proposition Made by Dr. Sickler of Hildberghausen Relative to Their Development (London, 1817).

Following this the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy travelled to the museum at Naples, reported on the state of the papyri found there, and attempted to unroll some of them in Naples, and to use chlorine to unroll some of those in London. Even though he employed scientific care some destruction occurred. Davy published his results as "Some Observations and Experiments on the Papyri Found at Herculaneum," Philosophical Transactions, III (1821) 191-208, plates XI-XVIII, include some of Hayter's reproductions published for the first time. These were probably the earliest reproductions of papyrus fragments published in England. When historian of libraries Edward Edwards published his Memoirs of Libraries I (1859) he was able to get permission from the Royal Society to reproduce Davy's plates from the original copperplates which were still preserved. These he reproduced in his account of Davy's work facing facing p. 72.

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In 1999 researchers at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, began to apply multispectral imaging, a technique originally designed for the study of extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, to the study of ancient documents that were difficult to read. One of the successes of this project was the revelation of the texts of the documents from Herculaneum.

♦ On December 19, 2013 BBC News published an article by Robin Banerji entitled Unlocking the scrolls of HerculaneumThis contained the best illustrated summary that I had seen to date of the history of the problems in unrolling and deciphering the Herculaneum papyri. (Thanks to my friend William P. Watson for directing my attention to this, and the following paper.)

♦ On January 20, 2015 in an article entitled X-ray technique 'reads' burnt Vesuvius scroll Jonathan Webb reported on bbc.com that a 3D X-ray imagining technique sometimes used in breast scans had been successful in reading some of the Herculaneum papyri without unrolling them. Webb's article summarized a paper by Vito Mocella and colleagues: "Revealing letters in rolled Herculaeum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging," Nature Comunications, January 20, 2015. In the United States The New York Times published an equally interesting article by Nicholas Wade, with different illustrations entitled "Unlocking Scrolls Preserved in Eruption of Vesuvius, Using X-Ray Beams." On January 21, 2015 further information and a photograph of the researchers was available from artdaily.org at this link.

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The most useful modern study of the library is David Sider's The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (2005).

The classic study of the excavation of Herculaneum through 1908, which impressed upon its readers the necessity for further excavation, was Waldstein & Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past Present and Future (1908). This includes a very useful historical bibliography. In 2011 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, issued the most beautiful large-format full color book entitled Herculaneum, Past and Future. The volume included hundreds of color photographs, numerous full color maps and charts, and several double-foldout 360 degree views. Reading this book truly gives one the feeling of being in the ancient place.

 (This entry was last revised on 01-21-2015.)