Richard Janko


Intellectual biography and current research

My fields of interest are Homer, Linear B, Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, Herculaneum papyri, ancient literary theory, ancient religion, and aspects of Presocratic philosophy. You may well wonder how on earth the same person could have acquired such an odd set of interests. There is actually a coherent explanation. To understand it, you will need to learn something of my intellectual biography.


Although my passion for antiquity dates back to when I read Homer's Odyssey in translation at the age of about seven, my interests in it have evolved over the years. I suppose I have always sought out the most challenging problems, whatever new approaches for tackling them may demand, and whatever new knowledge I may have to try to acquire in doing so. This takes a certain courage (or even recklessness) and has made my life as a scholar harder than it needed to be, but certainly not boring. To the amazement but with the support of my wonderful and self-reliant parents, who knew little of such things as my father was an electrical engineer and my mother a shopkeeper, I developed a passion for unknown languages, unknown scripts and archaeological discovery. I took part in local excavations in England and read John Chadwick's book The Decipherment of Linear B, on the advice of a client of my father's, John Leatham, a true philhellene who eventually moved to Greece. Another client, Michael Farrar, gave me a load of Classics school-books that filled a wheelbarrow; they had been in his garden shed for forty years. I had gifted teachers at secondary school--Philip Grattidge and above all Andrew Wilson, who is now celebrated for translating Harry Potter into the Greek of Lucian; he made me read Albert B. Lord's book The Singer of Tales, which introduced me to the study of oral poetry. At university I was fascinated by Homer and all things Homeric, and was lucky enough to study with John Chadwick, who took part in the decipherment of Linear B with Michael Ventris, revealing it to be the earliest surviving form of Greek. To study Homer, I felt, one needed to study all approaches that could be relevant to him. So I studied Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, Linear B, classical philology, and historical linguistics. In the summers I took part in excavations and the study of Mycenaean remains from Ayios Stephanos in Laconia and from Mycenae, under the auspices of the amazing Lord William Taylour of the British School at Athens, not to mention the Late Bronze Age and early Iron Age acropolis at Koukounaries on Paros directed by Dimitri Schilardi. In total I probably spent a year in Greece, learned the language of the Greek countryfolk, and fell in love with the landscape, the people and their traditions. I was fortunate to be able to write my dissertation under the guidance of John Chadwick. I did some work on Linear B and the undeciphered Cyprio-Minoan script, which later resulted in some articles, but in the absence of new materials in these scripts I soon decided to work on a Homeric topic for my dissertation. Luckily I chose a peripheral topic that shed light on very big questions.

The Homeric Question

I began by studying the language of the Homeric Hymns, but realized that this could not be studied without looking at that of the rest of early Greek epic. The work of Arie Hoekstra and Patrick Edwards had shown that the language of early Greek epic poetry changed subtly over time. By studying very common features where older linguistic forms are replaced by newer ones, it seemed, one could verify the relative chronology of the surviving early Greek hexameter poems. Influenced by the writings and the scintillating personality of Denys Page, I expected to be able to use the study of language to confirm separatist theories about the origin of the Homeric epics. I spent months counting these features, at first by hand, and then, at John Chadwick's suggestion, by computer (at a time when a computer file was a roll of paper tape, not even a floppy disk), at the wonderful Literary and Linguistic Computing Centre at Cambridge. I had to learn statistics, even though I had always hated mathematics; now I could see how it might be useful! I was so excited as this tedious counting neared its end that I worked round the clock. The statistics, once analysed and brought together, gave a clear and irrefutable result: the Iliad is the oldest poem we have in Greek, followed by the Odyssey, and then, after a gap, come the Theogony and the Works and Days of Hesiod, with the Homeric Hymns at the same time as Hesiod or later. The gap between the Homeric epics was less than that between Hesiod's two poems. But I had been absolutely wrong to accept the theory that the Homeric epics were by different poets at different times, that could be analysed into separate lays as Wolf had supposed. As I gained a better understanding of literature, and especially oral poetry, I came to believe in the unity of the Homeric poems. The statistics proved that the two great epics could be by one and the same poetic genius after all! It also followed that the texts of the epics were fixed at different dates; the only credible mechanism for doing this, in my judgement, is that they were taken down by dictation, which is what Milman Parry and Albert Lord, my mentors in these matters, believed (I met Albert Lord in Boston in 1980, and knew well this most remarkable scholar during the last ten years of his life). The mechanisms of oral poetry explain the structures of the Homeric Hymns, as I argued in an article of 1981.

This research came out in 1982 as Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns. My conclusions were favorably received by classicists who were willing to look at statistics. Unfortunately not everyone was; my results are sometimes travestied by those who hold that I argue that the Iliad was taken down in precisely 750 B.C.E. and the Odyssey in 733. All I in fact did was to show what happens if we adopt different hypotheses about absolute dates and rates of linguistic change, because the relative sequence of the poems is fixed. Thus Homer must be older than Hesiod. It is surprising that much Homeric scholarship of the past two decades tended to favor a date for Homer in the seventh century, because my results proved that this displaces Hesiod into the sixth century, which is far too late to be correct. Homer's epics belong in the mid-eighth century or perhaps even slightly earlier. If the statistics are incorrect or incorrectly interpreted, someone should say so; it will not do simply to ignore or traduce them (see 'Relative Chronology and the Literary History of the Greek Epos', 2011).

At this time I worked on other early hexameter poetry, with studies of the Hesiodic Shield of Heracles and of the Orphic gold leaves. The latter article showed that the 'B' series of instructions for the afterlife were variants from memory a single original text, which I was able to reconstruct. Subsequent discoveries have only reinforced this conclusion (see 'Going Beyond Multitexts', 2016).

The Lost Second Book of Aristotle's Poetics

Meanwhile, while teaching at St Andrews, I came across a mysterious and forgotten text that, when it was first published in 1839, was identified as an abstract of the lost second book of Aristotle's Poetics, his missing treatise on comedy. (The existence of a second book is proved by ancient references.) In 1853, however, the great scholar Jacob Bernays agreed that parts of it were genuine, but argued that other parts, those in fact which disagreed with his interpretation of what Aristotle meant by catharsis, were a Byzantine forgery meant to replace the lost text. I investigated this manuscript, which is anonymous and untitled, in great detail. It is in a tenth-century manuscript in Paris. I concluded, by traditional philological methods, that it is indeed an abstract of the lost Poetics Book II, offering new insights into the theory of comedy in antiquity and into Aristotle's view of tragic and comic catharsis (see my essay of 1992, 'From catharsis to the Aristotelian mean'). Aristotle regarded Aristophanes as the best poet of comedy. I presented my conclusions in Aristotle on Comedy. This proved to be very controversial, not least because I had argued in scholarly terms the same thesis as did Umberto Eco in his famous novel The Name of the Rose, which by coincidence came out at the same time. For my view of the controversy see my essay 'Aristotle on comedy' of 2001. Interest in the Tractatus continues with the publication of Walter Watson's The Lost Second Book of Aristotle's Poetics (2012), which builds on my work.

Aristotle's Poetics among the Herculaneum Papyri

Shortly after Aristotle on Comedy was published in 1984, I came across by chance a reference to a Herculaneum papyrus, no. 207, that was said to attack Aristotle's lost dialogue On Poets. I resolved, despite not having studied papyri or indeed much ancient philosophy, to go to Naples and see what I could make of it. The papyrus indeed turned out to be a critique of Aristotle's theory of literature. It was the work of Philodemus, the teacher of Vergil and probably Horace who was himself a poet. Even though I could use only very primitive microscopes to read the black ink against a black background, I was able to read much more of it than had previous editors. I included parts of it, and of another papyrus on Herculaneum that discusses Aristotle's theory of catharsis, in 1987 in a translation and commentary that I produced of Aristotle's Poetics and related materials, including a reconstruction of the lost Book II. Given the great progress since then in reading Herculaneum papyri, I brought out greatly improved texts of these materials in 2011 (papyrus 207 turns out to contain Aristotle's name, which was not read before). For this purpose I also reviewed the manuscript transmission of the Poetics and came up with many improvements to the text. The Poetics urgently needs a complete new edition (see my review of Tarán's edition, 2012), which I have now drafted.

Back to Homer's Iliad

Meanwhile I had been invited to produce a commentary on Books XIII-XVI of Homer's Iliad, in the series edited by Professor Geoffrey S. Kirk. These books contained over 3,000 lines of complex epic narrative, mostly battles (including the wonderful aristeia of Patroclus), but also the Deception of Zeus, which is a miniature Homeric hymn. In writing the commentary I marvelled at the artistry of the poet, the clarity and power of his similes, the balance of the speeches, and the way in which he maintained a complex narrative structure over thousands of epic verses. Along the way I had to comment on a vast range of odd questions, from Homeric armor and battle-tactics to similes about sea-squirts and lions. The minor inconsistencies in the epic are readily explicable as the result of oral composition-in-performance, and the original text as the singer dictated it is still recoverable nearly all the time. In introductory sections I discussed the Homeric gods, the Homeric language with its older and younger forms from various dialects (reflecting, in my view incontrovertibly, an Aeolic phase in the pre-Homeric performance tradition), and the transmission of the text. In my view the Alexandrian scholars Zenodotus, Aristophanes of Byzantium and even (to a lesser extent) Aristarchus tended to modify the original text in line with conjectures, either by predecessors or of their own devising. This opinion has proved very controversial, but best explains the available evidence. So has my view that the Homeric poems are oral dictated texts. I believe that this is justified not only by the researches of Parry and Lord, but also by traces remaining everywhere in the texts (see my article of 1998, 'The Homeric poems as oral dictated texts'). The recent discovery at Methone in Macedonia of another text in verse scratched on pots as early as c. 730 B.C.E. reinforces the message of 'Nestor's Cup' from Pithecussae that Euboeans used the alphabet soon after its creation to write down verse; indeed, the alphabet may even have been invented there (see 'The Rise of the Greek Alphabet', 2015).

Philodemus' On Poems and the Philodemus Translation Project

During my first stay in Naples in 1986, it was borne in upon me that there are enormous amounts of work to be done on the Herculaneum papyri, preserved in a blackened and carbonized state by the eruption of Vesuvius. Focussing on the field I knew best, I tried to clarify what Philodemus' treatise On Poems had consisted of. Book V was well known. The critique of Aristotle was in Book IV. The other books were a confused jumble of different papyri. In 1991 several colleagues and I established the Philodemus Translation Project (, to bring out new, more reliable editions and translations of Philodemus' three treatises on aesthetics — the On Poems, On Music and On Rhetoric. My project was to edit and translate what turned out to be On Poems Book I. The work of reconstruction was the hardest I have ever attempted, and took, with interruptions, almost ten years; it appeared in 2000. I had to work with a model of a papyrus-roll 16 meters long, and solve many mathematical problems in order to reconstruct the physical book-roll.

Book I turned out to contain a summary, and then a refutation, of a series of otherwise unknown critics who all believed, or were held to believe, that the quality of verse can be judged by the ear alone, regardless of the meaning. This school of Hellenistic literary theorists, previously almost unknown, predominated during the period between Aristotle and Horace; from those centuries all the works of criticism (apart from Demetrius' On Style) have been lost. Hence Philodemus' reports of their theories are of prime importance. His refutation too is significant, since it prefigures the return to classicism in the Augustan Age of Rome. Both these critics and Philodemus' reply to them were very important to the approach of Horace in his Ars Poetica.

My edition of Books III–IV came out in 2011. In it I also included a collection of the Aristotle's lost dialogue On Poets, since I found many that were new both in Herculaneum papyri (some of which talk about tragic catharsis) and in other sources like Themistius and an unrecognized papyrus of Aristocles of Messene. Malcolm Heath has already denounced my edition of the On Poets as wishful thinking, and in so doing he tried to cast grave suspicion on what we can find in the Herculaneum papyri; I remain unrepentant. Ongoing technological breakthroughs ( continue to make this a very exciting area in which an enormous amount of work remains to be done, and we need many more excellent scholars to work on these difficult papyri before they eventually disintegrate (they are lasting pretty well, but will not endure for ever). In 2016 I published a detailed practical guide to reading and reconstructing a Herculaneum book-roll.

After ten years' work, I have now reconstructed the longest, almost complete and very well preserved, papyrus-roll of Philodemus' On Poems, namely Book II, which contained 222 columns in exactly 100 sheets (kollemata). It contains Philodemus' rebuttal of the critics Heracleodorus and Pausimachus, whose works he had summarized in Book I, together with Philodemus' own thoughts on language and style in poetry. This edition was published in 2020 by Oxford University Press. The new edition of Book V, which we entrusted to David Armstrong, Jeff Fish and James I. Porter, remains to be published.

The work of the Philodemus Translation Project plays a major part in KBYU's documentary Out of the Ashes, which reconstructs the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum and Villa of the Papyri where the ancient library was found. This is the only place in the ancient Mediterranean world where a library was buried under conditions that allowed its preservation. If the excavations of the Villa, halted in 1998, are resumed, I consider it extremely likely that more ancient books, possibly thousands more, will be found. In addition, new non-invasive technology promises to give us more texts from the rolls that have never been opened.

Back to the Aegean Bronze Age: the Excavations at Ayios Stephanos

In 1989, before he died, the remarkable British archaeologist Lord William Taylour asked me to undertake the publication of the excavations at Ayios Stephanos in southern Greece. During the 1970s I had worked on the archaeological stratigraphy of the site and so I was, I suppose, a logical choice. However, this request came at a time when I had undertaken many other projects. Nonetheless I agreed, since I feel an immense debt of gratitude towards this wonderful man and believe in the great importance of the site for understanding the Aegean Bronze Age. Ayios Stephanos was a coastal village or small town in south Laconia, facing Crete; it is near the only source in the Old World of the ornamental stone lapis lacedaemonius.

The site is very important for the relative chronology of the Greek mainland relative to Minoan Crete, and for the origin and evolution of the Mycenaean style of pottery, as Penelope Mountjoy has shown. The detail of the stratigraphy is almost unmatched in Greece, since many different sub-phases of Early and Middle Helladic pottery have now been distinguished, above all by Carol Zerner. The site, which was perhaps the Bronze Age Helos, had connections with central Crete as early as EH II Early (EM IIA Early). Reoccupied early in MH I, it flourished with many Cretan connections (including an inscription in Linear A) until LH IIIA2 Early, when it was destroyed by fire. The settlement revived at the end of LH IIIB2 with an influx of refugees, but was abandoned, possibly after a massacre, at the end of LH IIIC Early. The Medieval reoccupation dates to c. 1250-1320 C.E., and makes Ayios Stephanos the type-site for the Medieval pottery of the Southern Peloponnese.

My own contribution was to edit the entire volume, and in particular completely to redo the chapters on the architecture, stratigraphy and burials. I also wrote a chapter of conclusions, bringing together all the threads and tracing the history of the archaeological site through time. Publishing a collaborative archaeological site-report with many internatinoal contributors is a lengthy and challenging, not to say ghastly, undertaking. The completion of the stratigraphical drawings and plans caused great delays, complicated by revisions of the ceramic phasing. But this large volume finally appeared as a Supplement to the Annual of the British School at Athens in 2008, and has been very well received. For some updates see my article jointly with Dick Hope Simpson of 2011.

The recent discovery of an archive of Linear B tablets, followed by the excavation of a palatial building, at Ayios Vasilios south of Sparta, not far from Ayios Stephanos, enhance the unexpected picture of Mycenaean Laconia to which this volume contributed; in particular, it seems that Ayios Vasilios may have been destroyed at almost the same moment as Ayios Stephanos, i.e. LH IIIA2 Early. The implications of this fact are mysterious and intriguing. I continue to keep up to date with Aegean studies, have written on the etymologies of ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ and ΕΡΜΗΝΕΥΣ (2014), and on 'The Greek Dialects in the Mycenaean Palatial and Post-Palatial Bronze Age' (2017), on the Mycenaean origins of the dialects of classical Hellas.

The Martin Classical Lectures

Amid these other commitments I was invited to deliver the Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College, Ohio. I postponed the lectures until March 1993, but even then was too soon, given what was to happen. I spoke on The Origins of Critical Theory, a set of four lectures. These covered Plato, Aristotle and Alcidamas of Elea; Hellenistic literary theory; Philodemus; and Horace and 'Longinus', who I think was, pace Malcolm Heath, an Augustan writer in dialogue with Horace. The deaths of my parents shortly before these lectures, combined with an international move and my wish to find out what more we could learn from the Herculaneum papyri, have caused me to postpone the completion of these lectures for publication, but I hope to return to them in the near future.

The Derveni Papyrus

In 1997 I was asked to give a lecture on the Derveni papyrus, a mysterious text from northern Greece copied in the fourth century B.C.E. that was still not properly published. This is the oldest surviving European manuscript. A new English translation of it by André Laks and Glenn Most was about to appear. I had no theory to offer and was unhappy to be required to speak on this topic, but soon found that the new material being published furnished precious clues to what the papyrus was. Most of it is an allegorical interpretation of a scandalous Orphic poem about the origins of the world. This poem, which speaks of Zeus dethroning his father and things even worse from any moral perspective, is reinterpreted as an account of cosmogony in terms of the latest Presocratic physics. Other parts of the text show that the author was concerned to argue that taking religious texts and rituals literally is a danger to one's faith; interpretation, using allegory and etymology, is essential.

In an article written in a burst of creativity over just two weeks, I was able to show that the interpreter was very close indeed in thought to the Presocratic philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia, whose eccentric beliefs are attributed to Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds. However, in the end I concluded that the author was probably the 'atheist' poet and sophist Diagoras of Melos, whom the Athenians sentenced to death during the religious hysteria of 415–414 B.C.E. for mocking the Eleusinian mysteries and putting people off from getting initiated. Diagoras is not known to have been a follower of Anaxagoras, but is known to have modified the names of the gods in arguing about their nature; Aristophanes labelled Socrates 'the Melian' in a reference to this particular 'heretic', who taught that Zeus had been displaced by Dinos, that is the Vortex or Air, which is of course an Anaxagorean view. Thinkers such as he thought that god was a material principle, but was also Mind, that permeates everything. However, the Athenians did not distinguish belief in new gods from belief in no gods at all, and in a series of trials Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Diagoras and Socrates were all condemned for impiety.

I developed this argument, and offered a translation of the papyrus based on my own reconstruction of the text from published sources, in a subsequent article in Classical Philology, considering whether Socrates himself shared, or was thought to share, similar religious beliefs and whether, as seems likely, that led to his condemnation by the Athenians in 399 B.C.E. In 2002 I released my reconstruction of the Greek text in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, and in 2008, using methods I had learned in working on Herculaneum papyri, I offered a reconstruction of the opening columns, which are I believe on divination. It is time for the new multispectral photographs of the papyrus to be released, so that progress on this papyrus can resume.

However, even without them further progress proved possible. While I was visiting professor at the American School of Classical Studies in 2014, I discovered a new method for reading and photographing the papyrus (which enables us to read all carbonized papyri preserved under glass). This resulted in many unexpected readings and changes to the reconstruction of the papyrus, especially in its opening columns; notably, I discovered that it quotes Parmenides (see 'Parmenides in the Derveni papyrus', 2016). Based on 10,000 microphotographs taken with both visible light and near infrared over the course of a few weeks, I have drafted a new text of the papyrus, first published in Mirjam Kotwick's book Der Papyrus von Derveni (2016). I have in preparation a new edition with a full papyrological and philosophical introduction, a revised text with full papyrological and scholarly apparatus, criticus, an English translation, and a commentary.

I am also planning to write a more popular account of this extraordinary text and its importance, since it represents nothing less than a Greek version of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (or indeed 'clash of civilizations'), with its own share of reformers, martyrs and popular hostility to freedom of thought and belief (see my article 'God, Science and Socrates' of 2003). This is the most radical interpretation of this papyrus that has been proposed, and I do not expect it to be widely believed in this generation, because that would require a revolution in our thinking about fifth-century Athens, which was in its heyday a tolerant and open society but in 430 B.C.E. banned astronomy and put Anaxagoras on trial, as I have shown in 'Eclipse and Plague: Themistocles, Pericles, Anaxagoras, and the Athenians’ War on Science' (2020). I shall be surprised to see my interpretation disproved rather than merely denied or ignored. The new study of the papyrus by F. Jourdan, for instance, does not even tell the reader what my hypothesis is, even though the author attempts to respond to it. I have already taught several courses on this topic, including one in Modern Greek at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. For a video of a lecture I gave in Athens on this topic click here, and for an interview on it for the Ideas Roadshow with Howard Burton here.

Empedocles' Poem On Nature

In July 2003 I was invited to a conference on the island of Mykonos on the Presocratic philosopher Empedocles. I had nothing to say about Empedocles and agreed to speak because I longed to see Greece again, after an absence of twenty years. But I made an exciting discovery: I found that I could reconstruct, from published photographs, the newly discovered Strasbourg papyrus of that philosopher (for an illustration see here). The first editors, Alain Martin and Oliver Primavesi, had reduced 51 fragments into 11 groups of fragments, supposedly from two different book-rolls separated by a larger amount of text. I was able to suggest a reconstruction in which most of these groups of fragments come together to produce a continous passage of 130 verses of his text. If this reconstruction is correct, it will cause a fundamental reinterpretation of Empedocles' doctrines. Oliver Primavesi has since written a book which tries to refute it, but does not take account of all the evidence: see my review in Ancient Philosophy 2010. I continue to be fascinated by Empedocles (see 'Empedocles frr. 8–9 D.–K. in the context of Plutarch’s Against Colotes', 2017).

Current Intellectual Peregrinations

New texts continue to fascinate me, whether they are assorted Herculanean fragments in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Royal Library at Windsor (which I am preparing for publication), the eighth-century inscriptions from Methone in Macedonia (see 'Methone and the early history of the Greek alphabet', 2017), the Cologne papyrus in which Sappho laments her old age (see 'Tithonus, Eos, and the cicada', 2017), the fifth-century hexameter Hymn to Paean, Asclepius and Heracles from Selinus on a lead tablet in the Getty Museum (see 'The Hexametric Incantations against Witchcraft' of 2014 and 'The Hexametric Paean in the Getty Museum' of 2015), the amber objects inscribed in Linear B from Germany (which I believe originated in Messenia — see 'Amber Inscribed in Linear B from Bernstorf in Bavaria', 2016), the scraps of papyrus from the Great Tumulus at Vergina in Macedonia ('Papyri from the Great Tumulus at Vergina', 2017), the lost papyrus from Callatis in Romania, now found again, or the newly collected corpora of Cypro-Minoan inscriptions, which enable one to see that many Cypro-Minoan inscriptions are in the same language as Eteocypriot (but that too is undeciphered). There are new and true things to be said about all of these. What is so wonderful about Hellenic studies is this: with so much that is new to discuss, we can better comprehend what is old.

Whatever Next?

Serendipity, when one has one's eyes open for new and exciting challenges, is a wonderful thing! If I could predict what I will be doing next, I would change to some other kind of work. Thank you for reading. I hope that you too will find in classical antiquity the inspiration to take on new challenges and to learn more about a world that clarifies our own, which is at once both so similar and so different from it. It meant a lot to me when I was elected a Foreign Member of the Academy of Athens: as I said in Athens that day, ο Χαρος δεν θα μου παρει την ημερα αυτη (the members are called 'immortals', not because we will live for ever, but because a new one is always appointed when an old one dies). The inspiration of Hellenic high culture has long protected civilization against the forces of despotism and barbarism; we need Hellenic studies more now than ever.


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