How 99% of Ancient Literature Was Lost

Ancient Greece and Rome had plenty of literature, but practically none of it survives today. What exactly became of almost everything written down in Western antiquity is the subject of the video above by ancient-history Youtube channel Told in Stone, previously featured here on Open Culture for its investigations into everything from the Colosseum and the Pantheon to Roman nightlife and the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. But none of its past videos has quite as much relevance to this particular story as the one on the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

Described by narrator Garret Ryan as “the greatest of all ancient libraries,” the Library of Alexandria could have contained between 532,800 and 700,000 volumes in scroll form, all of them lost by the time Julius Caesar burned it down in 48 B.C..

Even so, “the loss of all but a tiny fraction of ancient literature was not brought about by the disappearance of a single library. It was, instead, the consequence of the basic fragility of texts before the advent of printing.” Papyrus, the pre-paper writing material first developed in ancient Egypt, certainly couldn’t stand the test of time: in relatively humid western Europe, “most papyri had to be recopied every century or so.”

Plus ça change: even, and perhaps especially, in our digital era, long-term data archival has turned out to necessitate regular movement from one storage medium to the next. But perhaps our civilization will prove luckier with the process than the Roman Empire, whose collapse meant that “the elites who had traditionally commissioned new copies all but vanished. Far fewer manuscripts were produced, and those that were tended to serve the particular purposes of religion, education, and the technical disciplines.” For these and other reasons, very few classics made it to the Middle Ages, and thus to the Renaissance. But even if you don’t have much to study, so the latter era gloriously demonstrated, you can more than compensate by studying it hard.

Related content:

What Was Actually Lost When the Library of Alexandria Burned?

How Egyptian Papyrus Is Made: Watch Artisans Keep a 5,000-Year-Old Art Alive

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria: An Animated Introduction

The Turin Erotic Papyrus: The Oldest Known Depiction of Human Sexuality (Circa 1150 B.C.E.)

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (8)
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  • Frances Almefleh says:
    How Islam Saved Western Civilization
    History lecture by Dr. Roy Casagranda
    History lecture by Dr. Adnan Rashid

    I hope you will enjoy these lectures by historians. They may expand your view of how Western civilization developed.

  • T droppelman says:

    This article neglects the fact that monotheism taught that only the Hebrew scriptures had any moral value and that the spirituality of the preceeding ages was demonic and needed to be avoided. Many works of literature were deliberately not copied for that reason.

  • Dakota says:

    If I’m not mistaken I believe one of the caliphate burned fown the library of Alexandria, not Julius Caesar.

  • Alexander says:

    There existed more durable writing material than papyrus before printing, parchment for example and paper started being used in Europe during the middle ages.

  • Lefke' says:

    Many were taken and hidden in the Vatican.
    Leonardo da Vinci copied many ancient inventions.

  • Mike says:

    You’re mistaken

  • Brad Caffee says:

    Julius Caesar did NOT burn down the Library of Alexandria. Plutarch made that claim. However, other ancient sources refer to its continued existence, as does modern archeology. Plutarch (who never visited Alexandria) got it wrong. Caesar’s troops accidentally burned a *book depository* on some docks.

    Most literature from ancient Hellas and Rome was lost (perhaps about 80%.) Yet, arson is not the reason. Arsons did happen, but most of that material wasn’t lost because of it. It was lost because of two things: 1) There weren’t a lot of copies to begin with in the pre-printing press world. Not by modern standards. 2) Centuries of neglect in cellars had most of it fall into moldy dust.

  • Brad Caffee says:

    There may have been multiple fires over the centuries. The one that finely did it in was,very likely, cause by an earthquake in the early Middle Ages.

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