Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Translating a Lost Philosopher

In 1968, epigrapher Martin Ferguson Smith began to document what is considered the ancient world’s most massive inscription. Located in the ancient Greek city of Oinoanda in southwestern Turkey, the 200-foot-long wall, now largely in ruins, was the work of a little-known second-century A.D. philosopher, Diogenes, who paid to have it inscribed with his commentary on Epicurean philosophy. As of now, there are 299 known fragments of the inscription. Below are images of some of those fragments, along with Smith's translations of the words that appear on them.         

  •  In this important text, Diogenes begins to critique non-Epicurean philosophers’ theories of matter. Smith’s translation reads, in part: “As for the first bodies, also called elements, which on the one hand have subsisted from the beginning and are indestructible, and on the other hand generate things, we shall explain what they are after we have demolished the theories of others."
  •  One of Diogenes' favorite targets was Plato. In this fragment, he assails the great philosopher’s concept of the beginning and end of the universe: “Although Plato was right to acknowledge that the world had an origin, even if he was not right to introduce a divine craftsman of it, instead of employing nature as its craftsman, he was wrong to say that it is imperishable.”
  •  This block illustrates the difficulty in making sense of incomplete fragments of the inscription. It appears to be the title of Diogenes’ treatise on ethics. In the first line, one can make out “DIOGENOU,” which is a form of the name of the author. In line two there are the letters “ANDEOS,” which is the end of the adjective “OINOANDEOS,” or "citizen of Oinoanda." Line three has the letters “PATHON KAI,” or "of emotions and,” the meaning of which is still debated.
  •  A team member makes a “squeeze copy” of a fragment by using a brush to push wet paper into the indentations on the stone. Once dried, the paper retains the shape of the lettering. Epigraphers have used this tried and true method of recording texts since the 19th century.