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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