Herculaneum papyri

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Hetairos (companion)
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Herculaneum papyri

Post by Alexias »

System1988 sent me an interesting link to an article on a papyrus from Herculaneum that was was presented to Napoleon https://www.livescience.com/ai-is-decip ... -the-great
Only small parts of the heavily damaged text can be read right now. "It contains the names of a number of Macedonian dynasts and generals of Alexander," Janko said, noting that it also includes "several mentions of Alexander himself." After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., his empire fell apart. The text mentions the Macedonian generals Seleucus, who came to rule a large amount of territory in the Middle East, and Cassander, who ruled Greece after Alexander's death.
There are some 280 carbonized scrolls and papyrus fragments that have been recovered from a villa in Herculaneum, but up to now they have been unreadable, because they cannot be unrolled without damaging them. There is a video here by Brent Searles of the University of Kentucky on the development of the technology that will hopefully allow these scrolls to be read https://youtu.be/Z_L1oN8y7Bs?feature=shared.

There is also a paper here by Richard Jenko of the University of Michigan, who has been involved in the decipherment of the texts produced by Searles, on the work done on some of the papyri https://www.academia.edu/78533972/How_t ... um_Papyrus.
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Hetairos (companion)
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Re: Herculaneum papyri

Post by dean »


thanks to both of you for drawing my attention to this. It coincides with some questions I have been thinking about in the last few days...

One of the books I was reading recently was talking about how we have been handed down certain books of old(in this case, the author was talking about the new testament) and it kind of got me thinking about how much really we can trust anything we have. Jesus as Alexander didn't have news reporters going around with them documenting/recording every word and act so of course anything must be taken with a massive pinch of salt or could be simply made up.

When Alexander sees his father fall at the Attalus affair, and says "look there's the man who wants to cross to Asia and can't even cross from one table to the next...(not exact, just copied from memory as you can see my version is probably very different from the original in the sources.) who actually was there to document and transmit that sentence or scene?

The author of the book I read was questioning just about everything in the holy book and due to numerous arguments I could see why. Printing wasn´t invented till the 15th so we are talking about centuries of copies of copies, words easily missed or mistaken or whatever- to err is human.

With my interest in Alexander the great, I immediately got to thinking about the sources each with their own perspectives and agenda(hidden or otherwise), all of the primary sources now long gone and a few lucky individuals (lucky for us really)a few centuries later decided to write about Alexander and his life with their own perspectives, lives and agendas. The plot thickens.

I have read Homer's Iliad probably as many times as Alexander did(well maybe nearly as many) and yet as I read the detail and lines in that book, I also wonder...could oral tradition over several centuries have given us such a weighty tome?
In the school where I worked, I used to play a game called the telephone game, basically with all students sitting in a circle, you whisper in the nearest student's ear some sentence and he or she has to try to repeat and whisper it to the person next to him. Usually after going the full circle, the sentence is quite different producing some hilarious moments int he classroom.
Experts debate on differences between cuarto and folio copies of Shakespeare and that was only a few days ago in historical terms so how can we take really seriously many of the details in what we have today?

Anyway I am sure you can see where I am going with this. If one day we got the opportunity to find out the real story beyond any shadow of a doubt, I think that it would be quite a surprise to say the least and turn up no shortage of disagreements between what we know now and what actually happened.

Thanks again for the links....
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Re: Herculaneum papyri

Post by hiphys »

Hi Dean,
your questions are very interesting. In ancient times memory was more developed than ours and oral tradition was the main way to hand down names, deeds, poems, customs, and history. But 'oral' doesn't mean 'incorrect', 'wrong' or 'imprecise': sometimes memory is better than writing, as you may see on some book on this subject: F. A. Yates, The Art of Memory, London 1966; W. J. Ong, Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word, London - New York 1982.
You said you have read the Iliad as many times as Alexander did, but I think he had read it possibly only when he was a boy, because we know he learnt all Iliad (and most of Odyssey) by heart. Can you imagine it?
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Jeanne Reames
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Re: Herculaneum papyri

Post by Jeanne Reames »

Ironically, one of the guys working on the Herculaneum papyri is from the Univ of Nebraska, Lincoln, just to my south. Local news station interviewed me about it.

Anyway, it appears that most of the scrolls are philosophical in nature, specifically Epicurean. Will be a huge boon to that field. There may also be a history by the Elder Seneca. What else is unclear, but given the partial nature of what has survived, we may hope for something.

Regarding the reliability of ancient texts, this is an old problem of historiography. In ATG's case, actually, he DID have a court historian in Kallisthenes, but think of Kallisthenes more like the president's press secretary. He's issuing approved statements, sent back to Greece. I'm sure there were others with Alexander, writing down things, including after Kallisthenes arrest and eath. None of these contemporary accounts survives. What we do have are later accounts that used these early ones--but it wasn't cut-and-paste. Some good work has been done in the past 20+ years on the themes we find in Curtius, Arrian, Diodoros, and Plutarch (as well as Justin). Of particular interest is the Roman overlay from these later authors. They're writing to *their* contemporaries, so they sometimes use Alexander as a sort of moral exemplar or a cautionary tale, depending.

As for exact quotes, especially for speeches, we should never take those as verbatim, and maybe not even the gist. They were opportunities for authors to flex and show off their rhetorical skills. Thucydides frankly admits he never heard Perikles' famous Funeral Oration, and really doesn't know what he said, but "It must have been something like this...."

In other cases, we may get closer to actual words. Things that are short, quirky, pithy... those might get closer. But even then, sometimes it's not what some famous person actually said, but what a later writer (I'm looking at you, Plutarch) THOUGHT s/he OUGHT to have said. Ha. I mean, consider internet memes today. ;)

To figure out what might be closer to accurate means a deep-dive into themes and motifs of an era/author, the ways texts were transmitted, etc. And even then, historians argue about what we should take as more or less factual.
Dr. Jeanne Reames
Director, Ancient Mediterranean Studies
Graduate Studies Chair
University of Nebraska, Omaha
287 ASH; 6001 Dodge Street
Omaha NE 68182
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