Some people may have noted in the news that using NASA tech, we are now able to read some burned, rolled up scrolls from the House of the Papyri (qv) in Pompeii. It is a preserved library that may give us some ancient works we don’t have. Or just grocery notes. We’re still reading them. Some appear to be works of philosophy.

From my comment on Facebook: “Some people don’t know HOW we have exact copies of ancient writings such as works of Plato, Terence, Plautus, Vergil, Demosthenes, Horace, Ovid, etc. Hand-copying was how, back in the ancient world: a ‘printing press’ consisted of a large room of copyists (best in the front, with best materials) hearing dictation from a master reader and taking it down, ‘mass-producing’ a book or play, which would then sell, depending on quality for, oh, the modern equivalent of 30,000 dollars. And which would then be read in the household in leisure time, to all persons interested in hearing—ancient television.. Or lent to other households, in return for other books. It was a social thing, in the case of fiction or philosophy.

When the ancient world collapsed, we lost a lot: but monasteries preserved the precious books.. And monasteries that had books lent copies, a careful and perilous transport in some cases, to other monasteries to copy, often by monks who didn’t know the languages they were transcribing. This occasioned mistakes, which pass through a ‘line of descent’ of manuscripts, which works like DNA to determine which manuscript is most like the original, which are ‘daughter’ manuscripts down which line, and therefore which is the more ‘correct’ reading. (Sometimes as well, margin notes got copied in by mistake.)

Some of the surviving mediaeval copies are in the Vatican’s collection, or at other universities.

We also get a bit from Egypt, where schoolchildren copied onto papyrus—we learn pronunciation from their spelling errors, and occasionally get lines from lost plays…which we would love to have the rest of.

This is why this discovery in the Pompeii eruption is so exciting: these are whole ancient books that we may never have seen before—being read by space-age science.”