Ancient Roman villa may hold world's richest literary treasure
April 2nd, 2002
By Robert Harris
Two thousand years ago, on the Bay of Naples, in the outskirts of the luxurious resort of Herculaneum, stood one of the grandest houses of the Roman world.
The Blenheim Palace extended more than 200 metres along the shoreline and included an Olympic-sized pool. The extraordinary construction, which has never been fully excavated, is now the subject of an academic controversy.
Eight of the world's leading scholars of ancient literature, including four professors of Greek (from the universities of Bristol, Harvard, London and Oxford) have launched a campaign to recover what they believe the villa may still contain: one of the greatest cultural treasures of all time. Unless work starts soon, they warn, it could be lost for ever.
The villa probably belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar and one of the rulers of the Roman republic. In AD79, a century after his death, it was buried under 30 metres of volcanic debris by the same Vesuvius eruption that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum.
In 1738, it was rediscovered and the excavators removed statues and objets d'art. In the process, they threw away many lumps of what they took to be coal or charcoal. It was not until 1752 when they discovered the villa's library - neatly lined with 1800 rolls of papyrus - that they realised the discarded material had been books.
It remains the only intact library to have survived from the ancient world and the palace became known as "the Villa of the Papyri".
These rolls of papyri were difficult to decipher and it was not until the 1970s that they began to receive proper scientific study from an international team of scholars led by Professor Marcello Gigante of the University of Naples.
Hundreds of Greek works - including half of Epicurus' entire opus, missing for 2300 years - and some Roman odes were read for the first time.
The author most commonly represented turned out to be Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher attached to Piso's household, who taught the greatest Latin poet, Virgil, and probably Horace.
It was increasingly Professor Gigante's conviction that only about half of Piso's collection had been retrieved and that much more awaited discovery.
Fresh attempts were made in the 1990s to explore the old excavations and these yielded an astonishing discovery. The villa was not merely built on one level, as had been previously thought, but was terraced down to the sea. It appeared that slaves had been trying to carry crates of books to safety when they were overwhelmed by the eruption.
And the mosaic floors, frescoes and painted ceilings of these lower storeys supported Professor Gigante's belief in the existence of a second library.
Unfortunately, the project ran out of money and Professor Gigante died in November. All that now remains of the exploration is a huge waterlogged hole in which float the syringes of local heroin addicts.
Several of the experts involved in the campaign to save the villa agree there may be lost plays by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, or even the lost dialogues of Aristotle, as well as works by many other Greek writers, in the lower level.
A contemporary copy of the Lucretius poem On the Nature of Things - which has been recovered - suggests that the villa may yield copies of Virgil's Aeneid, or copies of Horace, or even Catullus.
And it is possible that a family capable of owning such a villa also possessed a copy of Livy's History of Rome, of which more than 100 of the original 142 books are missing.
In the words of the campaigners: "We can expect to find good contemporary copies of known masterpieces and to recover works lost to humanity for two millennia. A treasure of greater cultural importance can scarcely be imagined."
In the meantime, the buried villa is threatened, in the short term by flooding, in the long term by renewed volcanic activity. What is needed is money to restart the excavation and sufficient will on the part of the Italian authorities to see the project through.