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2000-Year-Old Burned Papyrus Mentioning Alexander the Great Analyzed by AI

Alexander the great death
Alexander the Great. Credit: Public domain

Computerized artificial intelligence (AI) has analyzed a 2000-year-old burned parchment, and found mention of the generals and usurpers who succeeded Alexander the great, who is also spoken of in the text as “the good king who was ruling as in Homer’s iliad over the “gigantic imperium”.

The reconstitution which finally succeeded, micro point by micro point, in deciphering the fragments of text, is a modern wonder. The ancient parchment had been almost completely destroyed in the eruption of mount Vesuvius in the year 79 AD which wiped out both Pompei & Herculaneum.

The parchment was found in the ruins of the ” Villa dei Papiri”, so called because of the burned papyrus scrolls found there in the mid-18th century, many of them from the time of Alexander the Great.

To decipher this ancient parchment, a team headed by R. Janko, professor at the University of Michigan, USA, used the technique of machine learning, with a special algorithm that helps AI to detect & scan traces of ink on a paper sheet and decipher its meaning bit by bit. He was assisted by B. Seales, director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky. The teams used computed tomography (CT), taking several thousand X-rays to produce 4K-3D digital images.

At the presentation of the study, reported by Live Science, Mr. Janko explained that the teams’ work gradually made more of the text readable. “After each repetition of the process, the AI’s ability to read these fragments of writing gets a little bit better,” he said.

The scroll and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great Papyrus
Public Domain

The content is about the reign of Alexander the Great and its dramatic aftermath. “This is probably a lost work,” said Mr Janko, speaking at a presentation by the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies in New Orleans in January 2023.

Only tiny portions of the heavily damaged text can be read at present. “It contains the names of many members of the Macedonian dynasty and generals of Alexander the Great,” said the professor, noting that “several mentions of Alexander himself” appear in the manuscript.

The text mentions in particular the Macedonian general Seleukos, who ruled over Babylon, and then founded Seleukia near the ancient capital of Alexander the Great. Also the cruel Kassandros, who was involved in the assassination of the king of Babylon and who later usurped the rulership of Greece after the death of Alexander in 323 BC, poisoning Roxane and Alexander’s son to consolidate his power. By corruption, he had made alliances with oligarch politicians in Athens to go against cities still loyal to Olympias and the ancient king Alexander, which led to a civil war in Greece after 321 BC.

The origin of this scroll remains very enigmatic to researchers

The greater part of the parchment remains to this day a mystery, and its author is unknown. It could be a copy of the lost diary-papyrus of Eumenos, the secretary of Alexander, or maybe written by Agnothemis, a friend of general Antigonos.

Charles de Bourbon found the papyrus in 1761 and offered it in 1803 to Napoleon Bonaparte. The emperor then entrusted it to the Institute of France, in Paris, where it still remains today. An unfortunate attempt to unroll and read the parchment in 1986 caused further damage, with some pieces being reduced to ashes.

Now in 2023, at the conference, the University of Michigan professor said that the study of the text is continuing as successful deciphering is finally taking place. So there will be more revelations to come!

About the discovery site

The Villa dei Papiri had an extensive library of papyrus scrolls. But its owner is unknown. However the content of some scrolls may give a clue as to his identity, as numerous writings are from the philosopher Philodemus, who lived between 110 B.C and 30 B.C These papyri were carbonized when the volvano erupted.

In his writings, Philodemus compares the rulers who proclaimed themselves kings after the rule of Alexander with those who reigned earlier, casting the self-proclaimed successors in a very negative light, because of their wrongdoing.

The mentor & mecene of Philodemus was a man named Lucius Calpurnius Pisonius Caesoninus, the Roman governor of Macedonia. He was a consul and became the stepfather of Julius Caesar when he married the latter’s daughter Calpurnia. This villa is thought to have been his second home.

He had a passionate interest in great world rulers, and worked feverishly to uncover the secrets of the last years of the rule of Alexander the Great, for himself but also for Caesar, as he was an admirer of the young conqueror.

Philodemus cites the great Homeric kings before the time of their royal successor Alexander the Great, comparing them to the decadent and evil generals who came after him, whom he calls the “decadent hellenestic rulers of Asia (Orient) bringing back war between the Greeks in the polis (cities)”.

However Philodemus is known to have written only on philosophical themes, so is he really the author of this mysterious text? Or is it a copy, maybe from the library of Alexandria? Many Roman generals and patricians moved from Alexandria to the rich villas of Pompei and Herculaneum. Who is the real author? Time will tell, as AI helps to unlock the last mysteries of the time of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great book cover Alexander Schoedler
Book of the Author Alexandre Schoedler

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By Alexandre Schoedler-Tziamouranis

About the author

Alexandre Schoedler-Tziamouranis is an award-winning writer and photographer specializing in ancient and modern history. He is also the author of successful historic novels as well as thrillers and fact-based, investigative books. He lives in the South of France and Greece. His article in Greek Reporter, written in March 2023, is an exclusive.

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