Most of the ancient literature we still have, we owe to the efforts of medieval monks who eagerly copied and preserved it. They didn’t do a bad job. True there are some oddities. Has it ever struck you how many of the plays of Euripides have a title beginning with "i" or “e” (or, what is much the same in Greek,"hi" or “he”): Iphigeneia, Hippolytus, Electra, Helen, Hecuba etc . . . ? It looks as if somehow, at some date, a single alphabetically-arranged volume of the master’s complete works managed to escape, when others were lost in fire, flood or whatever.
And just occasionally there is a dramatic find in the ancient papyri from the sands of Egypt. Most of the works of the Greek comic dramatist Menander reached us that way. So too (if you think that the monks maybe had it right in not bothering with Menander) did Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians – actually probably the work of a research assistant, but still a good find for anyone interested in Athenian history.
But Alan posted a comment to ask what I would like to come up from any new excavation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, where eighteenth-century diggers found loads of papyri rolls, the vast majority of which (apologies now to my philosophical colleagues) were rather dreary treatises from an also-ran Epicurean philosopher by the name of Philodemus.
I confess that I am not a tremendous enthusiast for more excavation on the Villa site. Various reasons. First, my feeling is that – if you have millions of euros to spend – you’d be better off preserving the parts of the ancient town of Herculaneum that have already been dug up, but are so badly crumbling that they wont make it to the next century. Second, I’m not honestly sure that we are desperate for much more classical literature, when we haven’t really studied very hard vast tracts of what we have already got. Third, when most of what has come up from the Villa so far has been Philodemus,
I don’t see much reason to be optimistic about finding a more varied selection if we only dig deeper. (This place was obviously the bolt hole of an obsessive Philodemus fan.)
But if I had to pick my 5 favourite lost classics to find in the lava, what would they be?
First off (and I’m scrupulously sticking to Latin – and written before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD here) would be the Autobiography of Agrippina, Nero’s mum.