The Lost Library of Herculaneum: Unravelling the Scrolls That Mount Vesuvius Almost Destroyed

The charcoal-like lumps of papyrus could reveal the lost works of the Greek philosopher Epicurus—if people could figure out how to read them.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum—but may have preserved a lost library of Epicurus's writings.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum—but may have preserved a lost library of Epicurus's writings. / Vesuvius: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images; Epicurus: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1752, diggers at a particularly grand villa in the ruined Roman village of Herculaneum had high hopes of extracting priceless masterpieces. The site, which had been destroyed by pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, had already yielded a profusion of exquisite bronzes; 18th-century antiquarians, searching for the next treasure, probed the ruins with sticks and shovels.

Despite, or because of, their violent end, the remains of Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii were some of the best preserved from any Roman site. The country homes’ painted walls with intricate decoration had surrounded Roman families in a riot of color. The ribald graffiti scrawled on those same walls gave a voice to average Romans and their scandalous sense of humor.

Charles VII, king of Naples, funded the excavations to add more masterpieces of Roman art to his expanding collection, and the diggers knew what he wanted them to find—marble and bronze to decorate his palace. In their eagerness, they came perilously close to missing what many consider the greatest discovery ever made at Herculaneum.

Interior garden-room in the House of Neptune, Herculaneum, Italy
An interior garden room in the House of Neptune shows the sumptuous decoration of Roman homes in Herculaneum. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The workers were most disappointed when, in one small room, all they found were burnt and blackened lumps of disintegrating material. Some of the workmen pulled them from their repository and tossed them away, while others found that these twisted objects were highly flammable and used them to start their cooking fires. It was only when the men realized the extraordinary number of these objects, and how they had been carefully arranged in the Roman building, that they gave them more study.

The objects turned out to be scrolls—nearly 2000 of them—made from papyrus rolled around wooden cores. They comprised the only complete library that had survived from antiquity.

No one knows who first spotted letters written on the fragile surface of the scrolls, but almost as soon as they were discovered, Charles VII ordered Camilla Paderni, keeper of the king’s museum, to attempt to read them. It was easier said than done, Paderni explained in a letter:

“It is not a month ago, that there have been found many volumes of papirus, but turn’d to a sort of charcoal, so brittle, that, being touched, it falls readily into ashes. Nevertheless, by his majesty’s orders, I have made many trials to open them, but all to no purpose excepting some words, which I have picked out entire, where there are divers bits by which it appears in what manner the whole was written.”

Historians were struck by the tantalizing possibility that this library might contain missing works of some of history’s greatest writers—works thought to have been lost forever. Would they reveal the silenced voices of poets like Sappho, or the forgotten thoughts of philosophers like Epicurus?

Butcher Knives and Acid

Early Excavations at Herculaneum Illustration from Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies
An illustration of 18th-century excavations at Herculaneum. / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

Europe in the late 18th century was an age in which scholars worshipped the genius of Greece and Rome. News of the mysterious discovery rippled across the continent, and antiquarians guessed at what the scrolls contained. The poet William Wordsworth was transported into rhapsodic flights of verse about the 1800 scrolls pulled from the ground:

“O ye, who patiently explore
The wreck of Herculanean lore,
What rapture! could ye seize
Some Theban fragment, or unroll
One precious, tender-hearted, scroll
Of pure Simonides.”

There was still one problem. Nobody could yet read the scrolls beyond the few bits Paderni had deciphered. The fragile papyri had been almost completely carbonized by Mount Vesuvius’s heat, fused together in charcoal-like masses. It would not be simple to tease the scrolls apart, and even harder to see any hints of the ink, let alone complete words. But this was an age of science—so people tried.

In the first attempt, readers used a butcher knife to slice the scrolls right down the middle. They peeled off a fragment at a time and tried to decipher it before moving on the next. Unfortunately, this method tended to leave nothing but piles of miniscule shards. Scholars needed a more subtle approach.

Ancient Papyrus Scrolls At The National Library Of Naples
One of the hundreds of scrolls unearthed in Herculaneum, now kept at the National Library of Naples. / Antonio Masiello/GettyImages

Antonio Piaggio, the keeper of manuscripts at the Vatican, created a machine in 1753 to steadily unroll the scrolls using weights. His device could tease apart the layers into larger fragments, which gave researchers a better understanding of what was written inside. It was still a slow and risky procedure, however, so people did not give up on hopes of improving it.

When King Ferdinand IV of Naples gave Britain several of the scrolls in 1816—in exchange for a giraffe for his menagerie—they were handed over to the care of Dr. Friedrich Sickler, a tutor and school teacher. Sickler had experience working with Egyptian papyri and was a noted scholar of ancient languages. He plunged the scrolls into water until they softened up enough to pull apart. This technique opened the scrolls, but it also completely washed away the writing within, destroying seven of the 12 scrolls on hand before Sickler realized his mistake. A parliamentary committee convened to investigate the blunder, and eventually removed Sickler from the project.

Next, the eminent scientist Sir Humphry Davy stepped in. As a brilliant and innovative chemist, Davy’s approach was almost delicate by comparison: He exposed the fragments to chlorine, iodine vapor, and acid [PDF]. The acidic vapor aided loosened the layers of the scrolls, while the chlorine and iodine helped make the writing more distinct by changing the color of the papyrus.

Today the scrolls of Herculaneum are held in secure and stable environments and not exposed to any possibly destructive activity. (While writing a book on the contents of the scrolls, I was not even allowed to look at a fragment held within the archives of the British Library for fear of damaging it.)

In the last decade, physicists have made digital scans of the scrolls’ interiors in an effort to decipher them. What has been revealed so far has upended 2000 years of philosophy.

Rising from the Ashes

Ancient Papyrus Scrolls At The National Library Of Naples
An unrolled scroll at the National Library of Naples. / Antonio Masiello/GettyImages

“Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get,
What is terrible is easy to endure.”

This four-line fragment of one of the scrolls is known as the Tetrapharmakos (four-part cure) and is an encapsulation of the ethos of Epicurus, an Athenian philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BCE. His ancient biographers record dozens of books written by Epicurus, and his school of philosophy spread across the ancient world. For hundreds of years, Epicureanism and Stoicism were two of the most influential philosophical doctrines, but the rise of Christianity—with its focus on redemption in the next life—reduced interest in Epicureanism, which was concerned only with the here and now. With Epicurean thought falling out of favor, his works were eventually scattered and lost.

Only the barest outlines of Epicurus’s own teachings were remembered. For 2000 years, some of the best historical sources about Epicurus came from the writings of hostile thinkers from other philosophical schools, or Christian writers who condemned him as an atheist and hedonistic pig. To call someone an Epicure was to accuse them of caring only about the pleasures of their own belly.

But now, Epicurus’s own words can refute their charges. The scrolls from Herculaneum that have been deciphered so far consist entirely of Epicurean texts, once thought gone forever.

The library likely belonged to a Roman Epicurean named Philodemus who wrote extensively on Epicurean thought and collected the works of the philosopher. From the recovered texts, modern scholars know in detail how the Epicureans thought, taught, and lived.

The recipes for life are startlingly modern. Epicurus believed everything could be explained by the actions of atoms following natural laws, pushing aside divine explanations for events. He argued that people should focus on living as well as they can while they are alive, because there was no redeeming afterlife. Anxiety, fear, and pain should be reduced as much as possible, and human connections with friends are the keys to contentment.

While much of ancient philosophy deals with recondite matters of linguistic differentiation, metaphysics, and logic, there is a charming simplicity to Epicurean philosophy. The ancient thinker proposed that life is for living well—and that we can do this best by spending time with our friends and enjoying small pleasures. It’s hard to argue with a philosopher who thought that having a “little pot of cheese” was as good as a costly feast.