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Richard Janko on Philodemus

Understanding one of the richest periods in the history of human thought

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In 1986, browsing among the new periodicals in a college library in America, I came across an article by a recently deceased Italian scholar. In it he lamented that nobody had noticed his work on a papyrus from Herculaneum, first published in 1955. In his edition he had shown that new fragments of Aristotle’s lost dialogue On Poets are cited in a work on literary theory by the poet and philosopher Philodemus, who was the teacher of Vergil and, probably, of Horace, the greatest poets of Augustan Rome.

Two years earlier I had published a book, Aristotle on Comedy, arguing that the lost second Book of Aristotle’s Poetics, on comedy and laughter (celebrated in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose), had not actually perished entirely, but survived in a summary in a medieval manuscript in Paris. So new fragments of Aristotle’s poetic theory, wherever they might be found, were of the greatest interest to me. Hence I went for the first time to the National Library in Naples, the home of the papyri preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius, to restudy this text. Fragile, brittle, black as coal, it was the hardest thing which I had ever tried to read. But my excitement was great as I managed, using a microscope, to read more of the text and thus to confirm the Italian scholar’s theory.

While I was there, I looked at a few other manuscripts in the collection. Many were very extensive indeed—and completely unpublished. Looking at one which was full of quotations of Greek poetry, I said to one of the local scholars that he ought to publish it. He said he was too busy with other papyri, and I had to confess that I was also. But this made me aware of how much remains to be done, even in the absence of finds of more texts from resumed excavations at Herculaneum.

This is the only scholarly library from Greek and Roman antiquity to have been preserved in conditions which ensured its physical survival. Other ancient texts, like Aristotle’s Poetics, survive because they were copied and recopied by monks; but not these. They are unique in every sense, and do much to bridge the gulf in ancient philosophical writing between the time of Aristotle and that of Cicero. Philodemus’ On Poems, in particular, opens a window onto a lost age of scholarship—the period between Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Art of Poetry, the works which define classicism for the ancient and modern worlds. I felt that it was time for the On Poems to be restored to the world in as complete a state as possible.

New techniques for reading the papyri—better microscopes, better photographs, digital enhancement, infra-red images—came along at just the right time. In France and America, two scholars had independently rediscovered the key to putting the mutilated fragments back into the correct order. The work remained laborious and terribly difficult; but it was now possible. As I prepared the first volume in Oxford’s new series, which aims to edit all the aesthetic treatises of Philodemus, the team of scholars whom I brought together to undertake this exciting task made other discoveries which all contribute to our ability to reconstruct this lost library, and with it to understand one of the richest periods in the history of human thought.

Richard Janko

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Frank Nisetich’s book Philodemus: On Poems, Book 1is available now from Oxford University Press.

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