My five favourite Roman classics . . . that we have lost
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.
We know she wrote one, and quite what she had to say about the death of her husband Claudius (those mushrooms?) would be fascinating to discover. Besides, we need some more women’s literature from the ancient world.
Second, I’d have Ovid’s play Medea. This is partly on the principle that you couldn’t ever have enough of Ovid – than whom none was ever cleverer and funnier. And it would be good to see what he did with the story of a jealous child-murderer.
Third, I’d like the complete poetical works of Cicero. Poor old orator Cicero has had a really bad press for his poetry. Not helped by the 70 odd lines he himself quoted in one of his essays from his own epic poem “On his Own Consulship” (this included, as we know from other sources, the memorable bit of doggerel, “o fortunatam natam me consule Romam” = “Rome was born a lucky city,/ when I as consul wrote this ditty”, or sort of. . .!). I’d like to see what it looked like when we saw the lot.
The fourth is going to play it safe. I’ll take Ennius’ Annales – his multi-volume epic on the history of Rome from the fall of Troy to the second century BC. Before Virgil, this was the national epic of Rome. And although some fragments survive, they’re not really enough to see how the whole thing works.
Fifth, the wild card. The Handbooks on Divination by Umbricius Melior. Melior was the favourite haruspex (Etruscan diviner) of the short lived emperor Galba (who followed Nero, 68/69 AD) and he’s known to have written handbooks on his skill. This would be an insider’s view on reading the omens in livers and the flights of birds… which might just help us see how this bit of ancient religion worked (there speaks the historian of religion!).
Does anyone have better ideas? And remember, not after 79 AD please.