Immerging into a Layered Past

The number of texts that have survived from Graeco-Roman antiquity is finite, but impossible to quantify: an unknown number of texts are still hiding somewhere, and thus every day on which a new text – or part thereof – becomes known to us (again), attracts major attention in the academic community.

Sometimes, when either the author of the text is suggesting a sensational headline or the method that has been employed to extract the text from its previous hiding place is spectacular, the news breaks well beyond the confines of academia.

Today is one of those days, with reports about the spectacular (and successful) means by which text from a carbonised scroll from Herculaneum‘s notorious Villa dei Papiri has been extracted.

A good day (except, maybe, for those twisted minds among us who think that it would be nice to get a break from that darn Philodemus for a change – and find something just a little bit more thrilling: de gustibus and such).

To me, apart from my professional excitement over an ever-expanding body of knowledge, there are two elements to two of the most recent announcements – the Sappho papyrus (and its somewhat peculiar history of discovery and publication, which has received a lot of attention and critical coverage) and the Herculanean Philodemus – that are particularly remarkable: (i) the texts’ original state of preservation in a layered format, resulting in the need to unwrap, unfold, and extract them, one way or another, for the text itself to be accessed, and (ii) the element of wildly determined treasure hunting that comes with their history of discovery.

Both elements are revealing with regard to our own culture’s (and our own profession’s) relationship to, and respect for, texts as immaterial goods, to works of art, and to the various manifestations of ancient material culture.

At the same time, both elements also carry great narrative and metaphorical potential – a potential that was already seen in the ancient world, and substantially explored and exploited in two short texts that introduce one of the most bewildering ancient texts that have had the good fortune to survive antiquity: Dictys CretensisJournal of the Trojan War (Ephemeris Belli Troiani), a text that was particularly influential in the Middle Ages.

A reader approaching this remarkable text in its extant Latin version, gets to encounter it in two steps before getting to read the actual work: first, the reader is presented with a letter that purports to have been written by one Lucius Septimius to one Quintus Aradius Rufinus (translation taken from here):

Lucius Septimius sends greetings to Quintus Aradius Rufinus.

Dictys of Crete originally wrote his Journal of the Trojan War in the Phoenician alphabet, which Cadmus and Agenor had spread throughout Greece. Dictys had served in the War with Idomeneus.

After many centuries the tomb of Dictys at Cnossos (formerly the seat of the Cretan king) collapsed with age. Then shepherds, wandering near the ruins, stumbled upon a little box skilfully enclosed in tin. Thinking it was treasure, they soon broke it open, but brought to light, instead of gold or some other kind of wealth, books written on linden tablets. Their hopes thus frustrated, they took their find to Praxis, the owner of that place. Praxis had the books transliterated into the Attic alphabet (the language was Greek) and presented them to the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero rewarded him richly.

When these little books had by chance come into my hands, I, as a student of true history, was seized with the desire of making a free translation into Latin; I felt I had no special talent but wanted only to occupy my leisure time. I have preserved without abridgment the first five volumes which deal with the happenings of the War, but have reduced into one volume the others which are concerned with the Return of the Greeks. Thus, my Rufinus, I have sent them to you. Favor my work as it deserves, and in reading Dictys . . .

Treasure hunting, encountering an illegible script, decipherment, scholarly activity (already then classed as ‘spare time’ rather than ‘work’…), and ample reward – all the elements are there!

Matters get even more entertaining (and mysterious) in the second step, in a text that suggests to be the prologue to the work, which repeats multiple items of information that were already in the letter, adding a bit of further detail, mystery, failure to see the true value hidden behind a secret script and much more:

Dictys, a native of Crete from the city of Cnossos and a contemporary of the Atridae, knew the Phoenician language and alphabet, which Cadmus brought to Achaea. He accompanied the leaders Idomeneus and Meriones with the army that went against Troy. (Idomeneus and Meriones were the sons of Deucalion and Molus respectively.) They chose him to write down a history of this campaign. Accordingly, writing on linden tablets and using the Phoenician alphabet, he composed nine volumes about the whole war.

Time passed. In the thirteenth year of Nero’s reign an earthquake struck at Cnossos and, in the course of its devastation, laid open the tomb of Dictys in such a way that people, as they passed, could see the little box. And so shepherds who had seen it as they passed stole it from the tomb, thinking it was treasure. But when they opened it and found the linden tablets inscribed with characters unknown to them, they took this find to their master. Their master, whose name was Eupraxides, recognized the characters, and presented the books to Rutilius Rufus, who was at that time governor of the island. Since Rufus, when the books had been presented to him, thought they contained certain mysteries, he, along with Eupraxides himself, carried them to Nero.

Nero, having received the tablets and having noticed that they were written in the Phoenician alphabet, ordered his Phoenician philologists to come and decipher whatever was written. When this had been done, since he realized that these were the records of an ancient man who had been at Troy, he had them translated into Greek; thus a more accurate text of the Trojan War was made known to all. Then he bestowed gifts and Roman citizenship upon Eupraxides, and sent him home.

The Greek Library, according to Nero’s command, acquired this history that Dictys had written, the contents of which the following text sets forth in order.

Repetition of the exact same information regarding the discovery is a neat move, of course, designed to increase credence and trust in the validity of the narrative – whether to be taken as a historical report, or a narrative device to shape the readers’ approach.

Many have called for consistency in more recent discovery narratives, assuming that there must be ‘true stories’ to be told about provenance.

As papyrus fragments were found that preserve Dictys’ text (or rather, parts thereof) in Greek, there is no reasonable doubt over the existence of a Greek version of Dictys’ Journal – alas, they post-date the alleged discovery narrative of the Neronian age in the Latin by at least one hundred years.

And that is not all.

The second text, logically predating the first one, is rather specific that the original find was not even written in Greek, but in Phoenician, written in Phoenician letters – the Greek version is secondary (thanks to [Eu-]Praxi[de]s – or the people tasked by Nero to transcribe and translate…? …and what about the claim in the letter that the originally discovered text was, in fact, in Greek?), the Latin version even tertiary (thanks to Septimius).

Or so the text would like to make us believe.

But does it matter?

Aren’t we looking, with an analytical eye, at texts that systematically draw us into a narrative that pretends to be accurate, but is no less messing with the audience’s sense for realism as any other?

Will we ever assign any actual authority to what Dictys has to say?

Or will we take it for what it is (most likely, anyway): an entertaining piece of writing, concocting a fabulous story, a story that had to be unwrapped, and that gets to be unfolded again by its readers from an introductory narrative of mystery, adventure, discovery, and surprise.

Academics – archaeologists and classicists alike – need to be concerned, for hugely important reasons, with the material nature of their finds, whether they carry text or not – there is a duty to preserve, to document, and to comment on the legality in which lettered objects have emerged.

Today’s news is a major breakthrough for non-invasive philology and responsible classical scholarship – or so I hope.

But one must not underestimate the narrative and metaphorical potential in stories that report the discovery of texts – of words that can manifest themselves in many different ways and in many different media.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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