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The Latin Papyri from Herculaneum

Sarah Hendriks

The Latin Papyri from Herculaneum are not only fewer in number than the Greek Papyri, but also in far worse condition. Indeed, Scott’s initial assessment that they contained ‘nothing intelligible’ has been the predominant, enduring viewpoint for well over a century (Scott 1885). For this reason, conclusions about the content and nature of the Latin library at Herculaneum have been difficult to reach, especially when contrasted with the apparent uniformity of the Greek collection. However as technology has advanced, so too has our ability to access and assess the Latin collection. This paper presents the results of the latest comprehensive study of the Latin papyri at Herculaneum, including an up to date inventory of the contents of the collection.

At present it is estimated that there are approximately 62 Latin papyri, catalogued in 120 separate PHerc numbers (Del Mastro, 2005). While epic poetry, a dialogue, and panegyrics have all been proposed on the basis of the Bodleian disegni, only 9 works have been identified in current scholarship: Carmen de Bello Actiaco (PHerc 817), Oratu in Senatu (PHerc 1067), Lucio Manlio Torquato (PHerc 1475), Ennius Annales (PHerc 21), Caecilius Statius Obolostates sive Faenerator (PHerc 78), and Lucretius De Rerum Natura (PHerc 395, 1829, 1830, 1831).

These attributions were done through a combination of textual matching with known works (Lucretius), the presence of a subscriptio (Caecilius Statius), and philological analysis. These approaches have not, however, provided absolute results or even been without their controversy. Some of these attributions, in particular those of Lucretius, have incited vigorous debate (Delattre 2003), and recent work on the physical construct of the Latin rolls has questioned the presence of Caecilius Statius (Hendriks 2015).

The small number of identified works, coupled with the uncertainty of many of the attributions, has meant that few conclusions have been drawn about the nature of the Latin library at Herculaneum (Sider 2005). It has also meant that the majority of scholarship in this field relates to specific papyri, rather than the collection as a whole. Furthermore, this type of analysis has not continued to bring forth further attributions from the remaining texts. A new approach has, therefore, been taken in order to assist in verifying the current attributions and to provide a fresh means of assessing the contents of the Latin library at Herculaneum. 

Rather than beginning with the texts, this study has focused on the characteristics of the papyri themselves. Initially, a palaeographical comparison of all 120 Latin papyri was undertaken. The palaeography of the collection is not, at present, sufficiently understood to enable accurate dating of the papyri. However, work on palaeographical typologies of the collection has enabled grouping of the papyri on stylistic grounds (Kleve 1997)(Olsen 2008)(Radiciotti 1998).

The physical characteristics of the papyri and their textual layout were also the focus of a detailed study. Measurements of numerous features including text, columns, papyrus, and margins were taken and an analysis conducted of the layout and structure of all the Latin papyri. In addition, all papyri were surveyed for the presence of a subscriptio and for any non-textual markings such as paragraphoi. As with the palaeographical analysis, the papyri were then grouped based on similarities and emerging patterns within the data enabled further classifications of the papyri.

On the basis of these studies, the papyri were then arranged into different types or groups. This enabled easier identification of key features and conventions within the collection. These findings, in turn, also enabled the matching of PHerc numbers within the Latin collection and, subsequently, the reading and identification of previously unattested texts and genres.

The Latin papyri are undoubtedly in poor condition and complete tracts of text remain elusive. However, the use of these approaches in analysing the collection has revealed important trends and features within the Latin papyri and enabled the most comprehensive understanding of the Latin library at Herculaneum to date.

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Herculaneum in Word and Text

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