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Lost and Not Lost

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Lost and Not Lost

I don't have a proper tag for this! I just ran across a fascinating article on the loss and preservation of ancient literature. The author dismisses the story that it was Christians who were responsible for the burning of ancient pagan libraries and instead finds a lot of evidence that the survival of much ancient literature was due to the Christians. I ran across a number of interesting facts that I was not aware of:
  • It has been claimed that about ten million words of classical Greek and one million words of classical Latin, excepting Christian works, have come down to us. Of the former, two million words are the medical corpus of Galen alone, while of the later about a third is made up of the surviving three quarters of the works of Cicero. In fact, whereas much classical Greek is technical and not of interest to the general reader, nearly all preserved classical Latin is worth reading in its own right.
  • So just what proportion of ancient literature has been lost? This is difficult to answer but we can get a rough estimate from the size of ancient libraries. Archaeology suggests that the biggest contained 20,000 or so scrolls and the Great Library of Alexandria itself is most reliably said to have contained 40,000. On the other hand, all the extant pagan classical works would not fill much more than a thousand scrolls so we have been left with about 5% of what might be found (barring repeat copies) in Rome. As for Latin, we have the names of 772 classical authors.  Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them.  We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors.  Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them.
Wow! I had no idea that Greek literature amounted to so much more than Latin. Nor that the level differed so much, the Greek being much more technical and the Latin more popular. 95% lost.
  • Some of the reasons that important literature disappeared are in fact very prosaic. The most important was language. When the Roman Empire was at its height the educated classes could read both Latin and Greek but after the fourth century the two languages split on geographical grounds with Greek completely dying out in Western Europe. In the East, Latin was first confined to the army and then disappeared altogether. As late as the thirteenth century the humanist scholar Petrarch could bemoan in a letter to Nicolas Sygeros that he was unable to read any of his collection of Greek manuscripts. Clearly, copying a manuscript that no one understands is not going to be a priority so Latin in the East and Greek in the West was lost.
  • This is also the reason for the near total lack of scientific scholarship in Western Europe before the translations into Latin of the High Middle Ages. There never was a scientific tradition in Latin, only popular writings like Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Once Greek died out, these were all that anyone could read and the technical Greek works (apart from one or two like Plato's Timeaus that had already been translated into Latin) were lost to the West.
Again, wow. No scientific tradition in Latin. For some reason this never dawned on me, I suppose because I tend to read much more in Greek authors than Latin ones. Now that I think of it, the Latin authors are poets, biographers, historians and not writers on science. How odd!
  • Today we regret how much has been lost but we have been remarkably careless ourselves. Many classic television serials, such as Doctor Who from the 1960s, have disappeared because at the time no one felt they were important enough to use up video tape for. Even more tragically, large numbers of early movies like the second part of the incomparable Wedding March (1928) have been lost through carelessness and the perishability of nitrate film (for further details see here). Some surviving classics were preserved in a single print. To those of us who mourn the loss of classical literature this is a depressingly familiar story.
Yes, and the recent fire at the Universal archive in which a lot of master tapes of popular music were lost shows that the problem is ongoing. I preserved some files on zip drives that I no longer have any means of reading, for example.

Just as a footnote to the nature of preserved Greek literature: we have a number of texts on Greek music theory by people like Aristoxenus, but almost no actual music. The Greeks lacked a good system of music notation, but they were very interested in the theory of music and that had a significant influence on the later development of Arabic and Western European notions of music theory. I was very amused to read in the introduction to Gustave Reese's book Music in the Middle Ages with an Introduction on the Music of Ancient Times (published 1940 and one of the first books in English on the topic) that when he consulted a classical scholar about ancient Greek music theory he was told to avoid it completely as "that way lies madness!"

Still reading Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography and he just mentioned Stravinsky's Piano Rag Music, the first piece of any importance he wrote for piano and which was dedicated to Rubinstein:


Rubinstein couldn't make much sense of it and didn't play it much. Last night I listened to the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra playing the 1947 Petrushka ballet score by Stravinsky. Excellent performance conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada and excellent quality:


Every time I hear that I am astonished at how good the music is.


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