Finding Ancient Greek Philosophical Texts in the Mountains of Turkey

January 4th marks the opening of the 2018 joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, a meeting that has served professional members of both societies for over 100 years and one that Hackett attends yearly as an exhibitor. The titles on display at the Hackett exhibit booth cover ancient history, classical languages, classical literature in translation, and ancient philosophy. They include Martin Ferguson Smith’s renowned translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Martin’s scholarly interests and achievements also include field study in the mountains of southwest Turkey, discovering, deciphering, and editing fragments of the work of another Epicurean writer. That writer is Diogenes of Oinoanda, who in the first half of the second century AD expounded the philosophy of Epicurus in Greek and had his exposition carved on the wall of a stoa (colonnade) in his home-city in northern Lycia.

The following Hackett blog post offers an introduction to Martin’s fascinating work on Diogenes of Oinoanda. His close involvement with Diogenes began fifty years ago and continues today, with the most recent fragments discovered as recently as October 2017. To learn more about the work at Oinoanda we encourage you to read also Eric A. Powell’s article “In Search of a Philosopher’s Stone” in Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, and to visit Martin’s own website, from which this post was excerpted.

Martin Ferguson Smith at Buckingham Palace, London, after his investiture as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) ‘for services to scholarship,’ October 18, 2007.


The Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda

A total of eighty-eight pieces of Diogenes’ inscription, of varying sizes, were first found by French and Austrian epigraphists late in the nineteenth century. The discoveries naturally attracted the attention of specialists in ancient philosophy, but no attempt to find more of Diogenes’ work, or even to re-examine the pieces already discovered, was made until 1968, when Martin made the first of many visits to Oinoanda.

A youthful Martin points to the first new piece of Diogenes’ inscription he discovered (1969).

Working first on his own (1968–1973), then as a member of teams from the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara (1974–2003), he recorded and published 135 more pieces of the inscription, bringing the total of known fragments to 223 and contributing several thousand words to Diogenes’ valuable exposition of Epicureanism, one of the most important and influential philosophies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He also rediscovered most of the texts found in the nineteenth century and published fuller and more accurate readings of them.

Martin estimates that the inscription originally contained about 25,000 words, which makes it the largest inscription known from the ancient world. It is unique also in presenting a complete system of philosophy. Diogenes tells his readers that he is “at the sunset of his life” and wishes, before he dies, to share with them “the remedies that bring salvation,” by which he means the philosophical “medicine” devised by Epicurus to cure the moral sickness that afflicts most human beings, by eliminating their unnecessary fears and desires and so enabling them to achieve the perfect peace of mind in which perfect happiness consists. He addresses not only his contemporaries, but also generations to come (“for they belong to us, although they are not yet born”). Moreover, he wants to benefit foreigners as well as Oinoandans—or rather “those who are called foreigners, although they are not really that, for . . . the whole compass of this world gives all people a single country . . . and a single home.” His philanthropic and cosmopolitan message, addressed urbi et orbi (to the city and the world), is remarkable and highly relevant to our age, as is his (and Epicurus’) conviction that scientific knowledge, properly applied, can rid us of fear, especially of the gods and of death.

A block of the inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, recorded in 2010. The text (new fragment 186) is part of a letter in which Diogenes expresses his readiness to help unnamed women who already have some acquaintance with Epicurus’ philosophy, but have not yet achieved the moral goal of tranquility of mind.

The wall that carried the inscription no longer stands. In late antiquity the stoa was either destroyed by an earthquake or deliberately demolished, and the blocks of the inscription were reused as building material over a wide area of the city, which means that recovering Diogenes’ work is an exercise rather like that of assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle, with the extra difficulties that many of the pieces are damaged or missing. The inscription occupied several (probably seven) horizontal courses of the wall, and the lettering in the upper courses, which were above eye level, was larger than that in the lower ones.

In 2007 further investigations at Oinoanda were begun by an international team directed by Dr. Martin Bachmann, Vice-Director of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. The new exploration of the site continued in 2008–2012 and, briefly, 2015 and 2017. Professor Jürgen Hammerstaedt, of the University of Cologne, and Martin (Smith) have collaborated closely and fruitfully in recording, editing, and publishing the eighty-two new pieces of Diogenes’ inscription that were found. More pieces not seen for well over a century were also brought to light. All the visible fragments, “old” and “new,” were recorded not only by the traditional methods of photography and the making of epigraphic “squeezes” (impressions obtained by using a brush to beat wetted filter paper into the letters inscribed on the stones), but also by 3D laser scanning. The 3D images are a valuable new tool of research, not least because they enable the wall of the stoa to be rebuilt in virtual reality. Another important achievement during the latest work at Oinoanda was the erection, in 2010, of a steel storehouse on the site to accommodate the pieces of the inscription and keep them safe for posterity.

Despite the sudden and untimely death of Martin Bachmann on August 3, 2016, the Oinoanda project, including work on Diogenes’ inscription, continues. What has been recovered of the inscription (306 pieces in all) is only a fraction, no more than a third, of the complete work, and there is a need for large-scale excavations to bring to light the buried parts of one of the most remarkable and attractive documents to survive from the ancient world—a document whose moral message is as relevant and important to us today as it was in Diogenes’ time.

Martin has presented the new discoveries at Oinoanda, as well as the revised and much improved texts of the nineteenth-century finds, in five books, the most recent of them co-authored with Jürgen Hammerstaedt, and about seventy articles. In early October 2017 seven new fragments were discovered. Martin will edit them in collaboration with Jürgen. Publication is expected in 2018. One of the new pieces, beautifully preserved, carries the beginning of a previously unknown letter.

An award-winning documentary film, A Gigantic Jigsaw Puzzle: The Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, directed by Nazim Güveloğlu, was shot at Oinoanda in 2011.


Martin Ferguson Smith, OBE, MA, MLitt, LittD, FSA, FRGS, born 1940, is a British scholar and writer whose interests and publications range from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, literature, and culture to twentieth-century British literature, art, and society. He is professor emeritus of Classics at Durham University and has lived since 1995 on Foula, the remotest of the Shetland Islands. He has an international reputation for his work not only on Diogenes of Oinoanda, but also on the Roman writer Lucretius (c.98–c.55 BC), who presented the doctrines of the Greek philosopher Epicurus in his epic of the universe, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), arguably the greatest philosophical and scientific poem ever written. Martin’s translation of it was first published by Sphere Books of London in 1969. In his award-winning book The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Norton: New York, 2011), Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University describes how the access the translation gave him to Lucretius opened up a whole new world for him.

The translation was reissued by Hackett in 2001, in revised form, with extended introduction and notes. Lucretius specialist Gordon Campbell has described the new edition of the translation as “streets ahead of the competition.”