Twelve Books at Herculaneum that could Change History (1 of 3)

Alike the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls & how contesting divisions of churches-academic-historians continue to debate these: here will be the sharing of more of Richard Carrier’s Twelve Books at Herculaneum (nearby Pompeii) that could Change History. In his own recent words “There is a fabulous ancient treasure still buried at Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples.” continued on to explain much of it has been covered by Mount Vesuvius volcanic ash, since 79ad.

Here are the opening parts …

There is a fabulous ancient treasure still buried at Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples. It is an actual ancient library that has been locked under a veritable rock of volcanic ash since 79 A.D. It likely contains thousands of scrolls, comprising hundreds of books. As I’ll explain shortly, a few hundred were recovered in the 19th century. But many are probably still sitting there—waiting to be excavated. The reasons this hasn’t happened yet are complicated, and aren’t just financial, but political (no one can agree on priorities), though there are rumblings of late to try and go back in. What might we find if we do? I have often been asked this in interviews. Today I will spell out my answer.

The Herculaneum Library

It is important to note that this site wasn’t an actual public library. Nearly every significant city had one of those (one of the many public welfare programs of the Roman Empire and its societal regimes: see my discussion of this fact in Science Education in the Early Roman Empire, index, “libraries, public”). There was one at Pompeii. But its contents were vaporized by pyroclastic flow. The Herculaneum site is actually just the private estate of a wealthy magnate (possibly even a descendant of Calpurnius Piso himself, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law). But wealthy elites (the Elon Musks of their day) maintained impressive libraries of their own. Unlike Pompeii’s, this one was slowly cooked by falling ash and heat, leaving its books charcoal, but still otherwise intact. 

And we have the technology now to read their contents. Indeed, an official competition is now on to read the scrolls we already recovered. Some of them a century ago had been read the old-fashioned way: by smushing or breaking them into pieces and trying to puzzle our way into what was written on them. But this was inaccurate and destructive, so the process was halted; with our new and better tech, it’s back on. In actual reality we have not recovered any scrolls from the library itself. That remains unexcavated. Instead, as archaeologists dug into the courtyard of the villa in the 19th century, they found a bunch of hastily filled crates in a staging area, evidently mid-evacuation. The owner was apparently trying to ship the scrolls out last minute during the eruption, but gave up. 

We don’t know how many books they successfully made off with, or how many are still in the library; and some scrolls were accidentally destroyed by our archaeologists or their laborers. But the cache we recovered from the staging area still amounts to around 1800 papyri. That doesn’t mean 1800 scrolls (much less books; a single scroll is roughly one chapter of a book). Some 500 of that number are just charred fragments (which could belong to only a few scrolls, and in any case won’t get us even a whole chapter much less book), some 970 more are actual scrolls but so badly damaged that we won’t be able to recover their entire contents no matter what we do; and only about 340 are intact scrolls that we have a chance to fully recover. In all, this amounts to maybe 100-200 books (with 30-40 of them in recoverable condition). There were likely hundreds more. Of what we have, there is an Oxford Resource page, and an index that shows how few of these have even been identified, much less translated.

Most of what we have recovered appear to comprise one shelf in the magnate’s home library, containing numerous works of an otherwise little-known Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus of Gadara. And yes, that’s Gadara of the Gadarene swine. He hails from the very town Jesus supposedly visited (although Philodemus had already died the previous century). Much as the finds at Qumran did for Judaism, the Herculaneum texts of Philodemus changed a lot of what we think about ancient world, not just trivially (as I wrote about in a previous humor-piece), but even in weighty subjects like science and philosophy. For example, these works reference a lot more going on then in mathematics and logic than we knew about, including important studies of inductive logic and probability theory, even discussions of non-Euclidean geometry (see The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire, p. 60 n. 153). The remaining books in the cache are almost entirely from other Epicurean authors, and mostly on subjects in philosophy (Demetrius of Laconia; PolyaenusColotes and Metrodorus, all of Lampsacus; Polystratus and CarneiscusZeno of Sidon; even lost works of Epicurus himself). In fact many of these treatises are on logic and mathematics; and apart from one exception (which I will discuss shortly), the only non-Epicurean works identified in the cache so far are a few lost works of the famed Stoic Chrysippus, yet also touching on math and logic.

All of which confirms the library shelved books by subject—and that we have only found a small fraction of that library.

Thistle V of Herculaneum. (Wikipedia)

What Else Could Be There?

It’s unlikely the Herculaneum villa’s library only contained this stuff. It’s all too narrow and niche in subject, and by all accounts the ancient elite were proud of amassing diverse collections in their libraries, and embarrassed not to have succeeded (for a good recent account, see George Houston’s study Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity). What we have appears to merely be a couple of shelves of volumes, maybe just one bookcase, all from the same spot, probably swept directly into the crates we found them in and staged in the courtyard to await a wagon to haul them.

There would have been a great deal else. Literature, history, science. Epistolaries, miscellanies, essays. Memoirs, novels, biographies. Satires. The work of orators and poets. Philosophy and mathematics. Scientific studies and technical manuals. Dictionaries and encyclopedias; and more (I survey the kinds of books that existed in antiquity in Ch. 8 of On the Historicity of Jesus, and throughout both Scientist and Science Education). For example, a prominent Latin collector near to Rome is likely to have had the epistolaries (published letter collections) of Cicero. While we already have copies of those, finding editions scribed within decades of his death would still be of considerable use. More importantly, medieval Christians chose not to preserve almost all ancient literature; so there could be epistolaries from other authors here, famous and obscure. And even poets and orators and novelists, besides being priceless to recover just in respect to the history of art, would also have commented on various subjects of importance, such as popular religion and events (you can see, as just one example, that in both Scientistand Science Education I glean a great deal from all kinds of sources on matters of ancient science, technology, and economics). 

There was a great deal else. To illustrate with a single example: we know another popular genre of the era would also be informative to find more of, paradoxography, or “collections of wonders and miracles.” We have some of those (pre-Herculaneum, Pseudo-Aristotle; post-Herculaneum Phlegon of Tralles). But it was an enormously popular genre spanning every century from the fourth B.C. to well after Vesuvius erupted (e.g. CallimachusPalaephatusPhilostephanusAntigonusArchelausApolloniusHeraclitusMyrsilus, even the famous Varroand Cicero wrote such works, now lost; and those are just the ones we know about). Thus what we can expect to find under the ash of Herculaneum is not just lost books we know existed, but books and authors we never knew did. And no matter what we find, it will all teach us something we didn’t know about the ancient world; probably many things.

Consider the sole exception to the subject-theme of the books we recovered from the courtyard staging area: a lost history of Seneca the Elder (the then-famous father of the now-famous Seneca). Sadly, we can’t fully reconstruct it due to extensive damage. But it would have been nice to get it all, because that history ran up to the end of the reign of Tiberius, making it a text (heretofore entirely lost) recording Roman history during the very time when Jesus is supposed to have lived, which was written by a contemporary to those events. Since it began its narrative during the civil war of Julius Caesar, it only covered a single-century span of events, which could mean it was quite detailed. Could it have discussed Judean affairs in any important way? What about other things, unrelated to Christianity?

Needless to say, we can’t know what books are still there (or that we might yet decipher from the several hundred volumes we already have), but we can play certain probabilities, given what was popular, and where this library was located, and the family that curated it, and details we can glean from the books already recovered. For example, it’s quite unlikely we’ll find anything directly from Christian or Jewish authors or extensively on their affairs; in contrast to how likely it is we could find the works I shall list. I won’t survey every interesting possibility (I give a list of relevance to Christian history in OHJ, Ch. 8; and to the history of science and technology, in SERE, Ch. 3; and those surround just two areas of interest of easily dozens one might contemplate). But I will single out twelve authors whose books I think stand a high probability of being there, and that could contain material that would change history as we know it (at least in subject fields I’ve published in). I could also add many other possible ways we’d learn from these discoveries; but I’ll focus only on one top example of what they could contain that would draw the most worldwide interest.

… parts 2 & 3 will contain 12 predated alternatives + more: Part 2 of 3 and 3 of 3.