More sections of Philodemus’ history of the philosophers discovered, more info on Plato

An Italian team has revealed that they have managed to read some more of a Herculaneum papyrus, with fascinating results.  They have found literary evidence that Plato was sold into slavery by the Spartans, perhaps in 399 BC, and also the location of his tomb, previously unrecorded.

The literary text in question is the Σύνταξις τῶν φιλοσόφων, (“Treatise on the Philosophers”) of Philodemus, of which long sections had already been revealed.  There is a translation of it at Andrew Smith’s Attalus Project here.  Via Google Translate from an article in Italian:

The project, in addition to investigating the state of conservation of these artefacts, has the aim of publishing an updated edition – thanks to the application of imaging techniques and philological methods – of Philodemus’ Review of the Philosophers , the oldest history of Greek philosophy in our possession. The History of the Academy is part of it , which contains much exclusive information about Plato and the development of the Academy under his successors.

“Compared to previous editions, there is now an almost radically changed text…. The increase in text roughly corresponds to the discovery of ten new medium-sized papyrus fragments. The new readings often draw on new and concrete facts about Plato’s Academy, Hellenistic literature, Philodemus of Gadara and ancient history in general,” adds Kilian Fleischer, the editor of this precious papyrus as part of the Greek Schools project.

Among the most important news, we read that Plato was buried in the garden reserved for him (a private area intended for the Platonic school) of the Academy in Athens, near the so-called Museion or sacellum sacred to the Muses . Until now it was only known that he was buried somewhere in the Academy.

Again regarding the same philosopher, it emerges that he was sold as a slave on the island of Aegina perhaps already in 404 BC, when the Spartans conquered the island or, alternatively in 399 BC, immediately after the death of Socrates. Until now it had been believed that Plato had been sold into slavery in 387 BC during his stay in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse. In another passage, in a dialogue between characters, Plato expresses himself contemptuously about the musical and rhythmic abilities of a barbarian musician originally from Thrace.

“The GreekSchools project also aims to develop methods of investigation of manuscripts by applying the most advanced diagnostic imaging techniques available today (infrared and ultraviolet optical imaging, molecular and elemental imaging, thermal imaging, tomography, optical microscopy digital, etc.)”, specifies Costanza Miliani of the CNR-ISPC. Staff … using mobile instruments from the Molab platform belonging to the European research infrastructure on Heritage Science E-RIHS, apply non-invasive techniques to opisthograph and stratified papyrus order to read text inaccessible on the reverse or hidden within multiple layers.

The work is being undertaken as part of the “Greek Schools project” at the University of Pisa, led by Graziano Ranocchia.  There is a good article from the Daily Mail with many pictures here, although it brings in “AI” for no obvious reason.

Ranocchia and his team have uncovered 30 percent more text within the Herculaneum papyri than in the previous 1991 edition.

The new analysis also revealed that Plato may have been sold into slavery in 399 BC following Socrates’ passing or in 404 BC during the Spartan conquest of Aegina.

‘Until now it had been believed that Plato had been sold into slavery in 387 BC during his stay in Sicily at the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse,’ said Ranocchia.

‘In another passage, in a dialogue between characters, Plato expresses himself contemptuously about the musical and rhythmic abilities of a barbarian musician originally from Thrace.’

Ranocchia and his team set up a laboratory years ago in the Italian National Library in Naples, allowing easier access to Herculaneum scrolls stored at the facility.

Using a camera, they took hundreds of photos of the charred document that were analyzed by an algorithm.

The researchers used infrared imaging, which allowed them to ‘see’ through the front side of the papyrus to the writing on the back, according to

This is amazing stuff.  There is a definite tendency to dismiss the Herculaneum library as only containing dull Epicurean works by Philodemus, but clearly there is still gold to be found!


Using X-Rays on the Herculaneum scrolls

When Vesuvius went pop in 79 AD, the lava flows buried the city of Herculaneum.  One of the houses buried contained a library of papyrus rolls, mostly containing otherwise lost works by the epicurean philosopher Philodemus.  When rediscovered, they were in the state of charred logs, unreadable and very difficult to unroll.

Now Brent Seales is going to see if he can read two of the charred scrolls without trying to unroll them.  (They tend to fall to dust when unrolled, you see).

Brent Seales, the Gill professor of engineering in UK’s computer science department, will use an X-Ray CT scanning system to collect interior images of the scrolls’ rolled-up pages. Then, he and his colleagues hope to digitally “unroll” the scrolls on a computer screen so scholars can read them.

“It will be a challenge because today these things look more like charcoal briquets than scrolls,” Seales said last week. “But we’re using a non-invasive scanning system, based on medical technology, that lets you slice through an object and develop a three-dimensional data set without having to open it, just as you would do a CT scan on a human body.”

The two scrolls that Seales and his team will work on are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. The UK group will spend July working there.

Their system was developed at UK through the EDUCE project, or Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration, which Seales launched through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Experts say that if the UK system works as well as hoped, it could provide a safe new way to decipher and preserve more scrolls from Herculaneum, as well as other ancient books, manuscripts and documents that are too fragile to be opened.

“No one has yet really figured out a way to open them,” says Roger Macfarlane, a professor of classics at Brigham Young University who also has worked on scrolls from Herculaneum. “If Brent is successful it would be a huge, potentially monumental step forward.”

Seales admits that there are hurdles, the biggest being the carbon-based ink thought to have been used on the scrolls. He says that since the papyrus in the scrolls was turned to carbon by the fury of Vesuvius, it might be impossible to visually separate the writing from the pages, even with powerful computer programs.

“The open question is, will we be able to read the writing?” Seales said. “There is a chance that we won’t be able to do it with our current machine, and that we’ll have to re-engineer some things. But if that’s the case, that’s what we will do.”

The full story is here.