Tales From The Crypt Page 3

On the day we attend the ceremony in the library, a young researcher bubbling with enthusiasm calls up on his laptop a whole string of favorite images from Booras' collection. The words written on the scrolls, which were read aloud in discussions at Herculaneum before Rome was an Empire, are clear enough to discern distinct styles of handwriting. Two thousand years on, this scholar can recognize the work of individual scribes.

While Janko and his colleagues are finding their labors eased by the new images (for one, they are no longer confined to working in Naples), perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Booras' work is a fairly obscure first-century BC philosopher and poet called Philodemus.

Philodemus does not stand out in histories of philosophy. He was one of a number of like-minded followers of Epicurus who came to the Roman republic after its consul, Sulla, sacked Athens in 86 BC.

His greatest claim on the classicists' attention is not so much what he wrote as the fact that much of what he wrote has not yet been read. It is news - news from the deep past.

The literature of Greco-Roman antiquity that exists in books today has been read and read and read again, for thousands of years. It was through this reading and recopying for new readers that it survived. But most classical writings did not survive. Working from the references in extant works, classicists have come to believe that roughly 90 percent of the written culture of Greece and Rome is lost to them. Epic and lyric poetry, towering drama, philosophy fundamental in the shaping of those cultures - all gone.

So, although he's not an Aristotle or a Plato, Philodemus' thoughts fill in a picture of his time. Better still, in expounding his thoughts, he summarizes those of others. He thus provides secondhand testimony on the contents of various lost works by the great philosophers.

That is why years have been spent in the hot, still air of the library. That is why the folds inflicted on the scrolls when Vesuvius crushed the villa above them have been painstakingly measured with calipers so that different fragments from the same scroll can be recognized and reunited. That is why new ways of unwinding the remaining papyruses have been developed and disagreed over. (One being discussed is a gas-based method that allows leaves of paper to float off each other. Used by the IRS to recover information from burned ledgers in tax cases, this technique has also been applied to papers retrieved from the Titanic.) That is why the digital images mean so much.

To those who have little interest in Philodemus, let alone his scribes, the pictures might seem interesting yet inconsequential. But Philodemus may be just the prolegomenon. The facts of his life suggest that the scrolls unearthed at the villa in Herculaneum were part of a much larger library. And any large library in those days would have been full of works now lost.

Details of Philodemus' biography are scarce. It's not known when he was born or died, how long he spent in Alexandria (possibly) or Athens (definitely). It's not known which, if any, of the various women featured in his often bawdy poetry might have been his wife, though the ones who required pay can probably be ruled out. But it is known that when he settled in Italy, he did so under the patronage of a high-powered plutocrat - Lucius Calpurnius Piso, one of the richest Romans of his day, scourge of Cicero and father-in-law to Caesar.

The 18th-century excavators of Herculaneum - they had started off just sinking a well, and then, finding relics at the bottom, began tunneling out belowground - realized fairly quickly that the villa was something special. It was vast, filled with beautiful mosaics and sculptures. Its design, with long colonnades flanking a pool in the courtyard, was so pleasing that when John Paul Getty needed a design on which to model his villa in Malibu, he used what was by then known as the Villa of the Papyri. Clearly, this was the home of someone with serious amounts of money, who was either cultured or at least hoped to appear so. It's hard to imagine that Piso - who had a live-in philosopher on call - would not have had an extensive library.

Why, then, were the uncovered works more or less all by Philodemus? One answer is that these papyruses were in the process of being saved from the disaster when the mud rolled over the villa, the boiling sea lapping at its lower terraces. The papyruses were discovered scattered along the colonnades, some loose, some in packing cases, as though they were in transit. The writings of Philodemus, goes the argument, had a special emotional value to Piso's heirs, because Philodemus had once lived in the villa. So when the volcano erupted, slaves were sent to gather the scrolls and carry them down to the shore, where boats would take them to safety with the rest of the household. The bulk of the library - works by more famous hands, but not as precious to the family and more easily replaced - was abandoned. According to this theory, some buried part of the palace may contain a collection of ancient texts too commonplace to have been worth saving then and too valuable to ignore now.

In the 1990s, new excavations brought the villa into daylight for the first time. In a great pit surrounded by greenhouses, the terraces that once led down to the sea have been revealed. But the rooms set within those terraces remain encased in rock. Many of the archaeologists involved feel this is appropriate; their principal interest is stopping the already excavated part of the town, a few hundred meters from the villa, from deteriorating. But to classical scholars, those hidden rooms are as exciting as unread poems by Dante or unseen plays by Shakespeare.

At present, through careful negotiation and some gentle lobbying of international opinion, the classicists are making progress persuading the preservationists to support further excavation. But even so, plans are limited to feasibility studies.