The Archimedes Palimpsest

Overview: The Importance
of the Palimpsest to the Study of Archimedes
By Reviel Netz of Stanford University

In discussing the importance of the Palimpsest for our knowledge of Archimedes, care should be taken to distinguish the significance of what Heiberg read in 1906 (call this The 1906 Discovery) from that of the further readings we make now (call this The 1998 Discovery).

For both discoveries, one is tempted to say that it is difficult to exaggerate their importance – only that their importance is often exaggerated. Some reports on the web suggest that nothing was known of Archimedes prior to 1906, or that entire treatises came to light in 1998. The reality is no less spectacular, but much more complicated. Here are the major facts.

First, we did possess the bulk of Archimedes' writings even prior to the 1906 Discovery, based mostly on a group of Renaissance manuscripts, all of them copied from a single Byzantine manuscript known as The Valla Codex, or Codex A. (The Valla Codex itself disappeared in the 16th century). Another important source was a Latin translation made from another Byzantine manuscript known as the Codex Mechanicorum, or Codex B. (This was lost probably in the 14th century).

Still, The 1906 Discovery was a major event, for several reasons. First, note that Codices A and B overlapped for a single work at most. The Palimpsest, on the other hand, overlaps with codices A and B for several works: together with Codex A, it has a text of Spiral Lines, Sphere and Cylinder and Measurement of the Circle; together with Codex B, it has a text of Floating Bodies. While it is of course especially exciting to discover totally fresh works that are unattested elsewhere, there is great value in having more than a single source for a given work: by the comparison between the two copies, our reconstruction of the original text can be made more precise. Thus The 1906 Discovery substantially furthered the precise establishment of the original text of Archimedes. Further, The Palimpsest did contain fresh, unattested works: the Method, as well as (in fragmentary form) the Stomachion. Indeed, many think of the Method as Archimedes' most interesting work. A special romantic aspect of this discovery lies in Archimedes' statement (which however should be taken with a grain of salt) that the Method contains what was, in some sense, his method of discovery. In other words, The 1906 Discovery appeared to provide a glimpse into the hidden process leading to Archimedes' Eureka moments. Finally, while the extant Latin translation of Floating Bodies is very precise, we could never know that this was indeed the case prior to the discovery of The Archimedes Palimpsest. The Archimedes Palimpsest thus settled the text of Floating Bodies, and it is only thanks to The 1906 Discovery that we can have the original formulation, in the Greek, of this treatise by Archimedes.

The 1998 Discovery is important for at least five reasons.

All in all, The 1998 Discovery is the most important event in the study of ancient science since – well, since The 1906 Discovery.