The library of illegible books

Big news in recent weeks, as Ruso and Tilla have mentioned on their Facebook page. (They must be reading my mind.) It now seems someone’s found a way to read the charcoal ink on the scrolls that were burned to a crisp by Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago. There really is a chance that Herculaneum’s ‘lost’ library could be recovered, although it’ll be years rather than months before we find out what’s on many of the hundreds of documents that are too fragile to be unrolled.

Pic of Dulwich Public Library
Slightly irrelevant, but this is where I was working on Friday. Imagine if all the books were carbonised and we had to guess what was inside them.

All of which got me thinking: what would we LIKE to be in there?

In the past I’ve always said I’d like to find something – anything – written by Britons themselves about their history. Or indeed about anything at all. It would be good to have some opinions that weren’t those of the occupiers. Sadly, given that the British tribes relied on an oral  tradition, that Vesuvius blew up only a few decades after the invasion and that the Romans weren’t all that interested in what barbarians thought, it’s not likely.

Second choice would be a book I only found out about recently. It really did exist, but only quotations remain. Friends who’ve read Ruso’s and Tilla’s first adventure may recall Ruso’s failed attempts to write a Guide to Military First Aid: a book he envisaged as small enough to fit in a man’s pack and useful enough to provide some comfort when a medic wasn’t available. So I was delighted to discover that there really was a book by one Rufus of Ephesus whose title is variously translated as “For the layman” or “For those who have no doctor to hand”. The dates of Rufus’s life are unclear so it just might be early enough. Could a copy of Rufus’s helpful advice be sitting amongst the scrolls, waiting to be deciphered?

Third choice… hm, I bet most of us who try to reimagine the ancient world are conscious of gaps in the evidence that we’d like filled. For instance – I am tired of guessing at how much things cost. I know there are price lists and pay chits but they’re often from later periods and they’re scrappy.  I’d also like some menus for ordinary people, preferably with suggested quantities to go with the ingredients. And could somebody please confirm exactly what women wore underneath?

All of this reminds me of an essay question from Uni days. I’ve just looked it up and it turns out to be a quote from Anthony Burgess (he of the Clockwork Orange) – “is there one person living who, given the choice between discovering a lost play of Shakespeare’s and a laundry list of Will’s, would not plump for the dirty washing every time? – Discuss.”

Call me a philistine, but I’m going to be pretty disappointed if we just end up with a few more versions of Homer and the Aeneid.

Any other ideas? What would you like to find – real or imaginary? What questions would you like answered?

Medicus II on library shelf
OK, I admit to looking while I was there. And there was one. Thank you, Southwark Libraries. I did put it back properly afterwards.



17 thoughts on “The library of illegible books

  1. The third choice. I am a “pots and pans” historian and history teacher according to my “politics and old white men” history teacher husband. We are both retired, but our dinner table conversations can become quite lively.

    1. Lora, how I’d love to hear some of those conversations! Have any of BBC2’s series featuring Ruth Goodman made it across to you? I guess they fall somewhere between historical re-enactment and experimental archaeology. They’ve just been showing one about the construction of medieval castles (by actually being there to film while one’s built in France). So many “aha!” moments…

  2. What might they find in the illegible library? I’m afraid I have a frivolous imagination. Maybe there are stories about a crime-solving Etruscan doctor. And here we have drawings of Dilbertius struggling with his clueless boss. Men, some Roman tells us, are from Mars; women are from Venus. How to make friends and influence Romans and countrymen. The art of buying a good used slave. The spook who spoke.

    But, to be realistic, I expect that results from this exercise will be mostly fragmentary and dull. Archeologists need to be patient and not to expect too much, lest they be frequently disappointed.

    1. Auden was right, Jonathan – guessing is definitely more fun than knowing! Still, with entire scrolls to decipher, there’s a chance that we’ll get more than fragments. Good point about archaeologists, though. As a mere amateur I struggle to get excited about differently-coloured areas of mud, but never understand why non-diggers can’t see the beauty of my very small scraps of pot and rusty nails. I guess when you have spent enough time digging holes that turn out to have nothing archaeological in them, you are very easily pleased.

  3. Allow me to play Devil’s advocate for a moment. A laundry list or something like it might be interesting, but not necessarily helpful. This is essentially what Etruscan writing is, and the so-called documents tell us far less about the Etruscan people than their art and tombs. We’re not even entirely sure we understand their language. The same point can be made about Linear B. In that language we again have literature as produced by accountants. Wouldn’t it be fun instead to have a non-Homeric epic in Linear B?

    Lora Welt makes an excellent point regarding table conversations. One of the most interesting parts of Petronius’ Satyricon is the table conversation at Trimalchio’s banquet. There is also no end of fun in the graffiti from Pompeii/Herculaneum. These things, it seems, bring us closer to the lives of the people of those times. And honestly, your books do something similar, helping us to put flesh on those ancient “bones” we see in museums.

    I share your interest in the way “real people” lived in those distant times and hope that there is much more documentation of that still to be found. The kitchen utensils in the museum in Naples are in a way more interesting than the statues from Pompeii/Herculaneum. However, the thought of a new epic or more plays (or almost anything new) makes me hope I live long enough to see these scrolls made readable.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Allan. I never wrote that essay but I think you’d have got a better mark than I would!

      That’s a good point about mundane lists telling us less than art. Were it not for the appeal of the art, we probably wouldn’t be very interested in the lists. Sliding sideways into archaeology, I’ve been trying to find a pertinent quote from Richard Reece about ‘an accumulation of facts’ not leading to knowledge, but I can’t find it and doubtless I’ve got it wrong. I guess the appeal of the ‘facts’ for people like me is that we can then grab hold of them and weave fresh lies around them. There’s only so much source material to go round.

      Any kind of new text would be like hearing the voices of ghosts. A play or an epic would be like being able to enter their imaginations.

      1. Scholars are quite willing to tell us about Greek and Roman literature in all its forms on the basis of very little evidence. It would be nice to have more plays, poems, essays, histories, and biographies.

  4. It would be very helpful to find a copy of Claudius’ study of the Etruscan language.

    1. It would, if we had something worth reading. It’s hard to believe that the only Etruscans who wrote anything down were basically accountants. Given their connection to Greek civilization, it’s hard to imagine that all Etruscan art was visual and nothing literary. Of course literary art could have been oral, but…

  5. Ruth, I second your wish-list entries for the illegible books collection – especially the idea of finding anything at all written by Britons. I’d also love them to find contemporary (I mean around 79 AD) plays, poems, and letters. And going back into classical Greece, wouldn’t it be great if the original works of Pytheas the 4th-century Greek explorer turned up? He was the first one on record as having circumnavigated Britain, he visited northern lands with a midnight sun in summer, sailed to the Baltic…heaps more; see Barry Cunliffe’s excellent book. There are quite a few quotes from Pytheas in the work of later geographers, but not the full originals. If I ever get my hands on a time machine…

  6. A true record of the elusive Battle of Mons Graupius rather than a brief hagiographic reference by Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law (well he would say all that wouldn’t he!) would be rather good.

  7. It would be cool to see the british version of Josephus: a local who can tell what the locals thought, but romanised enough to write a book about it.

    Failing that… they had to have patterns for clothing. We know they used … sort of patterns for their construction.

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