Philodemus of Gadara (c. 110 B.C.E. – c.35 B.C.E.) was an Epicurean philosopher and epigrammatic poet who studied with Zeno of Citium, head of the Epicurean school in Athens, before settling in Rome around 80 B.C.E. He was a follower of Zeno, and an innovative thinker in the area of aesthetics. He was a friend and mentor of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, and was implicated in Piso's profligacy by Cicero (In Pisonem, 29), who, however, praises Philodemus warmly for his philosophic views and for the elegans lascivia of his poems (Horace, Satires, I. 2. 120). Philodemus was a teacher of Virgil and an influence on Horace's Ars Poetica. He played an important role in disseminating Epicurean ideas among the intellectuals of Rome. The Greek anthology contains thirty-four of his epigrams.
Thirty-six of his books were preserved when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., and embalmed Piso’s villa at Herculaneum, which contained an extensive library of papyrus scrolls. The transcription and translation of these scrolls has provided an invaluable insight into the world of classic Greek and Roman intellectualism.
Philodemus was born in Gadara, Coelo-Syria (modern Palestine), c. 110 B.C.E., and studied Epicureanism under Zeno of Citium in Athens. In 80 B.C.E. he came to Rome, and apparently resided at Herculaneum, either in or nearby the villa of Lucius Calpurnium Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, until his death c. 35 B.C.E.
Information about Philodemus’ life comes from references to him in the works of other Greek and Roman writers, and deductions made from his epigrams. Few details are available about his personal life, but his interactions with Greek and Roman intellectuals of his time are documented by his writings. According to Cicero he was "a person of talent and erudition, thoroughly versed not only in philosophy but also in the other studies which Epicureans are generally said to neglect." Cicero praised his poems and called him "my friend, an excellent man and most learned human being." Through his students and many literary friends, Philodemus played an important role in transmitting the ideas of Epicurus and other Hellenistic philosophers to the intellectuals of Augustan Rome. His many pupils included Virgil, one of Rome's greatest poets. Scholars have traced the influence of his literary theories on the works of Virgil, Horace, and perhaps even Lucretius.
Little is known about Philodemus’ antecedents or social status, but it is evident from his association with Piso that he was highly regarded in Rome. One of Philodemus’ epigrammatic poems recounts how he invited Piso to his humble house for an annual celebration of Epicurus’ birthday, and contrasts the simplicity of the house and dinner with the illustriousness of the gathering. Some scholars attribute the arrangement of the sculptures and ornaments in Piso’s villa to Philodemus’ Epicurean tastes.
Apparently, there was an extensive library at Piso's Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. A significant part was a library of Epicurean texts, some of which were present in more than one copy, suggesting the possibility that this section of Piso's library might have been Phildodemus' own. Scholars believe that the library originated in Athens and was then transferred to the villa at Herculaneum. They also suggest that Philodemus was using the documents to educate the Romans about Epicurean ideas.
The contents of the villa were embalmed in the eruption of Vesuvius, 79 C.E., and the papyri were carbonized and flattened, but preserved. During the eighteenth century exploration of the Villa by tunneling, from 1752 to 1754, there were recovered over one thousand carbonized papyrus scrolls, including thirty-six treatises attributed to Philodemus. These works deal with music, rhetoric, ethics, signs, virtues and vices, the good king, and defend the Epicurean standpoint against the Stoics and the Peripatetics. The first fragments of Philodemus from Herculaneum were published in 1824 C.E.
The difficulties involved in unrolling, reading, and interpreting these texts were formidable, and it is only during the last thirty years that a renewed effort has been made to read and translate their contents. During the eighteenth century, transcriptions were made of documents which were being destroyed as they were unrolled. Today, researchers work from digitally enhanced photographs, infra-red and multiple-imaging photography. Both transcripts and extant originals are conserved by the International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri in the Biblioteca Nazionale, Naples. Another very important set of early transcripts (made between 1802 and 1808) is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The writings of Philodemus appear to have been added to the library in several stages. The earliest works cover his philosophical historiography and the history of Epicureanism, and are on a range of topics, such as ethics, psychology, music, rhetoric, and theology. They help to interpret Greek philosophy for Roman audiences, and include treatises such as, On Freedom of Speech, On Types of Life, On Vices and Virtues, On Anger, On Music, On Rhetoric, and On Poems. The theological works were added later, probably in the third quarter of the first century B.C.E. and include How the Gods Live, On Piety, and On the Gods. The Comparetti Ethics, On Signs, and On Death are the latest to be included in the library during Philodemus' lifetime.
Epicurus and his followers had concerned themselves mostly with ethics, cosmology, natural science, and epistemology. Diogenes Laertius, in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, quotes Epicurus as saying, “It is only the wise man who will be able to converse properly of music and poetry—but not engaging in composing poems as a serious activity.” Philodemus followed the Epicurean teachings of Zeno, but being a poet and writer himself, he explored the value and meaning of poetry, art, music, and literature from an Epicurean point of view.
Philodemus declared that the form and the content of a poem or a work of art or music cannot be separated. He challenged the ancient and universal view that the purpose of art is moral improvement of the audience, and suggested instead that great art aims at giving intellectual pleasure through its content and manner of expression. The true pleasure of poetry came from the perfect arrangement of stoichea (phonetic units), together with the meaning conveyed by the poem.
The nature of Epicurean philosophy demands a discussion of how, and when, and to what extent art has a place in the pursuit of happiness, as well as an analysis of the nature of poetry and art. In his writings, Philodemus reviewed his opponents’ positions before refuting them, providing a detailed account of the debates which were taking place in the intellectual world of Rome during the first century B.C.E. Philodemus opposed the type of moral censorship which Plato wished to impose on artistic works, but recognized that certain content and imagery could be detrimental.
Philodemus’ works represent the largest existing body of ancient Greek philosophical writing not yet translated into English. The Philodemus Project is an international effort, supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by contributions of individuals and participating universities, to reconstruct new texts of Philodemus' works on poetics, rhetoric, and music. These texts will be edited and translated and published in a series of volumes by Oxford University Press. Philodemus: On Poems I, edited with introduction, translation, and commentary by Richard Janko, appeared in 2001. Subsequent works will be On Poems V, edited and translated by David Armstrong, James Porter, Jeffrey Fish, and Cecilia Mangoni; On Rhetoric I-II, edited and translated by David Blank; and On Rhetoric III, edited and translated by Dirk Obbink and Juergen Hammerstaedt.
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