How 99% of Ancient Literature Was Lost
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How 99% of Ancient Literature Was Lost

Ancient Greece and Rome had a lot of literature, but almost nothing has survived to the present day. What exactly happened to nearly everything written in Western antiquity is the subject of the video above by the ancient history Youtube channel Told in Stone, previously featured here on Open Culture for its investigations of everything from the Colosseum and Pantheon to Roman nightlife and the explosion of Mount Vesuvius. But none of his past videos have as much relevance to this particular story as those in the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

Described by narrator Garret Ryan as “the largest of all ancient libraries,” the Library of Alexandria could fit between 532,800 and 700,000 volumes on scrolls, all of which were lost when Julius Caesar burned it in 48 BC.

Even so, “the loss of all but a small part of the ancient literature was not caused by the loss of a single library. On the contrary, it is a consequence of the basic fragility of the text before the advent of printing.” Papyrus, the pre-paper writing material first developed in ancient Egypt, certainly didn’t stand the test of time: in relatively humid western Europe, “most papyri had to be re-copied every century or so.”

Plus changes: even, and perhaps especially, in our digital age, long-term data archiving apparently requires regular movement from one storage medium to the next. But perhaps our civilization will prove more fortunate in the process than the Roman Empire, whose collapse meant that “the elites who had traditionally commissioned new copies all but disappeared. Far fewer manuscripts were produced, and those tended to serve specific purposes of religion, education, and 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 learn, so that the last era was brilliantly demonstrated, you can compensate by studying hard.

Related content:

What Was Really Lost When the Library of Alexandria Was Burned?

How Egyptian Papyrus Was Made: Witness Craftsmen Keeping 5,000 Year Old Works of Art Alive

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

The Erotic Papyrus of Turin: Earliest Depiction of Human Sexuality (About 1150 BC)

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

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastst about the city, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter book about cities, book The City Without a State: A Journey through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarsall or on Facebook.

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