Between the lines: A rare Ancient Greek text is found


Nov 29, 2006

BALTIMORE: An ambitious international project to decipher 1,000-year-old moldy pages is yielding new clues about ancient Greece as seen through the eyes of Hyperides, an important Athenian orator and politician from the fourth century B.C. What is slowly coming to light, scholars say, represents the most significant discovery of Hyperides text since 1891, illuminating some fascinating insights into Athenian law and social history.

"This helps to fill in critical moments in ancient classical Greece," said William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project. Hyperides "is one of the great foundational figures of Greek democracy and the golden age of Athenian democracy, the foundational democracy of all democracy."

The Archimedes Palimpsest, sold at auction at Christie's for $2 million in 1998, is best known for containing some of the oldest copies of work by the Greek mathematician who gives the manuscript its name. But there is more to the palimpsest than Archimedes's work, including 10 pages of Hyperides, offering fresh insights into the critical battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., which spelled the beginning of the end of Greek democracy.

The palimpsest is believed to have been created by Byzantine monks in the 13th century, probably in Constantinople. As was the practice then, the durable and valuable vellum pages of several older texts were washed and scraped, to remove their writing, and then used for a medieval prayer book. The pages of the older books became the sheaths of a newer one, thus a palimpsest.

After the Christie's sale the manuscript was left at the museum by the private collector for conservation and study. This year, imagers at Stanford University used powerful X-ray fluorescence imaging to read its final pages, which are being interpreted, transcribed, and translated by a group of scholars in the United States and Europe.

The new Hyperides revelations include two previously unknown speeches, effectively increasing this renowned orator's body of work by 20 percent, said Judson Herrman, a professor of classics at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

Hyperides lived from 390 or 389 B.C. until 322 B.C. and was an orator who made speeches at public meetings of the citizen assembly. A contemporary of Aristotle and Demosthenes, he wrote speeches for himself and for others and spoke at important political trials. In 322 B.C., Hyperides was executed by the Macedonians for participating in a failed rebellion.

"It's a spotlight shining on an important moment in history," said Herrman, a fellow at the National Humanities Center, in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Until the new leaves were found in the palimpsest, most scholars believed that only fragments of Hyperides survived beyond the Classical period. The mystery of Archimedes's treatise on combinatorics, the Stomachion, was solved in 2003 by deciphering the palimpsest. Now W. Robert Connor, the president of the Teagle Foundation, which provides education and financial resources for education, called the discovery of the new Hyperides text a "tour de force of the first order."

A combination of high-tech imagery and old-fashioned deciphering was used to resurrect the older text, revealing a slice of Athenian history in the days after its devastating defeat by Philip II, king of Macedonia and the father of Alexander the Great, Connor said. "The number of times you get a new text is very small," said Connor, a former professor of classics at Princeton.

Cecil Wooten, a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who attended a Hyperides presentation by Herrman on Nov. 13, called the discovery "interesting and significant."

"Although Hyperides is a very important fourth century Greek orator, one of the canon of 10, we have very little of his speeches, and much of that is fragmentary," Wooten said in an e-mail message.

Michael Gagarin, a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, said, "Every bit we get is important." Gagarin, a scholar on ancient Greek law, noted that Hyperides wrote many speeches and had a leading reputation in antiquity, but only about six of his speeches survive. "This obviously will contribute a great deal more," he said.

n one recently discovered speech, Hyperides talks about the number of boats (220) - a number not previously clear - belonging to the Greek side in the Salamis battle, Herrman said. In another speech, after the Battle of Chaeronea, he argues that the defeat was the result of chance, not bad policy. In a political case, Hyperides supports the Demosthenes policy that led to the Athenian defeat.

"For we chose the noblest policy and we believed it necessary to free the Greeks by taking on the risks ourselves, just like before," Hyperides argues in a passage translated by Herrman and transcribed by Natalie Tchernetska of Riga, Latvia, a project scholar and specialist in Greek palimpsests, whom Herrman credits with first identifying the material.

"One must assign the start and the suggestion of every risk to those who make the motion, but the outcome of these things is to be assigned to chance," Hyperides argues in the speech. "Diondas proposes the opposite happen: not that Demosthenes be praised for his policy, but that I give a defense because of chance."

Herrman said that the material also gives new information about inheritance laws in Athens and suggests a different timing for the Demosthenes case.

Historians had always believed that the trial of Demosthenes took place before the battle of Chaeronea, which Athens lost to the Macedonians, but the newly discovered speech shows that it was after the battle, Herrman said. "We had no idea of what the content of the trial was," he said. "Now we have an Athenian view of their own defeat."

The palimpsest contains about 120 printed pages of Archimedes text, in addition to the Hyperides material, a philosophical commentary on Aristotle, a neo-Platonic philosophical text, pages from a liturgical book on the life of a saint, and at least five pages so well-erased it is impossible to determine what they are, Noel said.