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The Independent
February 11, 2001 8:58 AM   Subscribe

The Independent has a report that excavations at Herculaneum has brought forth some 850 papyri and "Among the works, which academics hope to read using the new equipment, are the lost works of Aristotle (his 30 dialogues, referred to by other authors, but lost in antiquity), scientific works by Archimedes, mathematical treatises by Euclid, philosophical work by Epicurus, masterpieces by the Greek poets Simonides and Alcaeus, erotic poems by Philodemus, lesbian erotic poetry by Sappho, the lost sections of Virgil's Juvenilia, comedies by Terence, tragedies by Seneca and works by the Roman poets Ennius, Accius, Catullus, Gallus, Macer and Varus."
posted by stbalbach (20 comments total)

 
Very cool! Just a note: the manuscripts themselves aren't new, they've been around since Herculaneum was excavated a long time ago--they just haven't been readable until now. I can't wait to hear more about this.
posted by rodii at 9:31 AM on February 11, 2001


Wow. This rocks on so many levels. Not the least of which being that the scrolls belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law.
posted by Optamystic at 9:59 AM on February 11, 2001


I wonder if 2500 years from now scholars will be just as excited to find a lost Tracy Lords VHS tape as they are to find lesbian erotic poetry by Sappho.
posted by stbalbach at 10:44 AM on February 11, 2001


Now I have my summer reading cut out for me! Hope the stuff comes out in paper or on-line.
posted by Postroad at 11:47 AM on February 11, 2001


The technical lead here is Steven Booras of BYU, who was also instrumental in bringing a digital reconstruction of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the public. (There was some controversy that surrounded that, particularly this third-party reconstruction based on partial texts.) I assume he's using the same multispectral imaging technique relied on here. Here's a nice summary of his career.

Postroad, it will likely be years before this stuff is authenticated. For instance, scholars may have to reconstruct separated or missing fragments based on third-party references. Even then there will likely be academic debates over accuracy.
posted by dhartung at 1:22 PM on February 11, 2001


What dhartung said: even with the extant texts -- often gathered from footnotes and references in other works -- there's constant debate upon authority and accuracy. With Sappho, for example, scholars have had to postualte and reconstruct an entire Greek dialect (Lesbian) to make sense of the fragments that survive.

We're talking about an equivalent process to the Human Genome Project: the cyclical identification of significance and construction of meaning. Fingers crossed, then.
posted by holgate at 5:36 PM on February 11, 2001


A question: okay, so you've got these unreadable ancient texts lying around, right? And there are all these lost works of genius that are known to have existed but are thought not to exist any more? So you finally manage to find a way to uncover the details of these manuscripts and...hey! It's the lost work of all these great greeks! So is it the case that:
A: There just weren't that many amazing greek scholars
B: There were loads but most of them didn't carry into folk myth so we never hear about them.
C: There are loads of papyrus texts by scholars that have either not been read, are only vagualy readable or are just not "noteworthy" enough to get a mention.

posted by davidgentle at 6:25 PM on February 11, 2001


davidgentle,

Interesting question. I gather from the article that, because these scrolls all came from the same library, they've been able to read the "card catalogue" or have some other way of knowing the library's contents.
posted by Optamystic at 7:37 PM on February 11, 2001


D: Only the big names made it into the press release, and there are dozens of Greek Danielle Steeles in the library that just aren't worth mentioning.
posted by rodii at 9:04 PM on February 11, 2001


If there were 1,200 scrolls, whoever was taking care of them at the time might very well have put together a catalog or inventory of some kind. This wouldn't have taken the form of a card catalog as that only came in with Napoleon but it might have been some sort of book/scroll. That said, while most of the manuscripts are illegible, it may be that parts of them are legible enough to make out the author or the work.

Like anyone who's ever brushed up against Greek and Latin literature, I'm quite excited/hopeful about the news. I wonder if something from Petronius will turn up -- I always wanted a complete copy of the Satyricon plus whatever of his lyric poetry I could possibly get my hands on -- the poetry knocked me out when I first came across it as an undergrad. I'm sure others have their own wish-list.
posted by leo at 9:20 PM on February 11, 2001


Oh my. This is going to be huge, fascinating, and relevant even to modern times. Just reading the words "[Aristotle's] 30 dialogues, referred to by other authors, but lost in antiquity" is exciting to this old political theorist.

People generally know that Aristotle was Plato's student, but if you're not familiar with Greek philosophy, you may now know that one of the big demarcations between them was that Plato was known for his dialogues - he didn't write prose - and Aristotle was known for his (usually terse) prose. People have written about this break for years, and speculated about whether the stylistic break went along with the intellectual break Aristotle made with his teacher or was a separate thing.

And of course this is still quite relevant, in that many of the foundations of modern political and social thought can be directly drawn back to Aristotle, especially through the catholic interpretations of St Thomas Aquinas and many others, which presaged the enlightenment.

Of course the US constitution, still at issue, is an enlightenment document.
posted by mikel at 9:46 PM on February 11, 2001


Oh my. This is going to be huge, fascinating, and relevant even to modern times. Just reading the words "[Aristotle's] 30 dialogues, referred to by other authors, but lost in antiquity" is exciting to this old political theorist.

People generally know that Aristotle was Plato's student, but if you're not familiar with Greek philosophy, you may now know that one of the big demarcations between them was that Plato was known for his dialogues - he didn't write prose - and Aristotle was known for his (usually terse) prose. People have written about this break for years, and speculated about whether the stylistic break went along with the intellectual break Aristotle made with his teacher or was a separate thing.

And of course this is still quite relevant, in that many of the foundations of modern political and social thought can be directly drawn back to Aristotle, especially through the catholic interpretations of St Thomas Aquinas and many others, which presaged the enlightenment.

Of course the US constitution, still at issue, is an enlightenment document.
posted by mikel at 9:46 PM on February 11, 2001


Whoops. Sorry about that.
posted by mikel at 9:47 PM on February 11, 2001


There was an amazing novel written about the loss/discovery of Book II of the Poetics of Aristotle, on Comedy. In fact Eco makes a very good and deep case for his interpretation/interpolation of what the Comedy would say.

Unfortunately, the article says they include 30 missing dialogues, which don't appear to be the same thing.

davidgentle, how bout
E. the Romans were perpetually insecure about their own considerable achievements and elevated Greek scholars to the top of the Roman canon, which became the Western canon through no doubt familiar processes.

Also, you have to consider that
F. when the only way to publish is to laboriously copy out with a pen you'd better be worth publishing.

Romans didn't have an internet. Yet they all wanted the same primary texts available. There was very little mediation in those days, indeed, people in the educated class were expected to know Aristotle right up to the 20th century. IMHO this was a Good Thing. My dad went to a college (Shimer) that was known for its Great Books curriculum. You didn't read about Aristotle; you read Aristotle and discussed him directly. Much closer to a graduate seminar approach.
posted by dhartung at 10:54 PM on February 11, 2001


I'm just as excited about this as anyone else, but I'm also entertaining an amusing image. Porn was very popular among the Romans, and I'm imagining these guys using their device on some scroll, with bated breath, only to discover that it's the Roman equivalent of "Gay Boys in Bondage".
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:10 AM on February 12, 2001


mikel: there's also the division between Aristotle's "esoteric" and "exoteric" works: the more expansive texts that are believed to be authorised works, and the terser stuff that some people think is the equivalent of lecture notes. (Explaining the stylistic division, to some extent, though not the break from dialectic.) Now, if there's fuller versions of scrappy texts to be found, that's going to make a real difference.

(It's also worth noting that much of our knowledge of Greek philosophers and mathematicians comes from Arab scholars, who preserved Aristotle during the Dark Ages, even when they didn't appreciate much of what was being said. A nice contrast to modern conceptions of Islam.)
posted by holgate at 10:51 AM on February 12, 2001


Smithsonian has an article this month about St. John's College and their Great Books curriculum.

I'm thinking they'll be pretty excited to hear about this possible source of additions to their canon.
posted by beth at 12:31 PM on February 12, 2001



i'll be attending st. john's college next year, and this is very awesome news. too bad it won't be decoded before i'm out of school. i wonder if they'll eventually add another year of study.
posted by pikachulolita at 1:49 PM on February 12, 2001


too bad it won't be decoded before i'm out of school...

Well, hopefully no one here shuts down intellectually once they get out of college. In fact, if anyone here is like me, that'll just be the beginning. Also, it's not clear if anything they've got, even if decoded, would enter anyone's great books series -- at least not immediately. The system needs time to digest these things and that can take quite a while.
posted by leo at 7:46 PM on February 12, 2001


as a current student of st. john's, i have to say i'm intrigued by the possibilities this opens up. Euclid and Aristotle in particular are major components of freshman year, and though i doubt anything new will make it on 'the program' anytime soon, it will be interesting to see what else these guys have to say. as an added bonus, my knowledge of ancient greek seems in much higher demand now than before.
posted by clockwork at 12:05 AM on February 14, 2001


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