Last Successful Book Burning

Has there ever been an instance where all copies of a book have been completely burned and destroyed? I mean all copies of all editions of a title by the same author.

I am well aware that many books by various authors have been burned throughout history and even to this day. Fortunately, in the book burning cases I know, not all copies of the books have been destroyed. But what about successful book burnings? What there the books and the circumstances surrounding the books and their authors?

There are plenty of works lost to history for some reason - one has already been mentioned, the fire in the famous ancient library of Alexandria; many other books survived only as fragments. Many were lost during the Middle Ages, when books were primarily preserved in the libraries of monasteries and copied manually by monks.

Franz Kafka had asked a friend to birn his entire work after his death, but the friend (author and composer Max Brod) disobeyed these instructions after Kafka’s death. If he had done otherwise, Kafka’s work would be lost.

And don’t forget the burning of the library of Emperor Qin. This library housed multiple copies of many “forbidden works,” texts totally unknown to us today, many of which probably contained important works of philosophy.

I wonder if the original poster is asking if there was ever a successful attempt to systematically purge an author’s work(s), i.e. book-burning in the sense of deliberately removing an idea from public discourse, rather than, say, accidentally as during the fire at the library of Alexandria?

I had a professor in college who advanced the theory this might have happened to Gaius Cornelius Gallus (70-27 B.C.E?), a poet widely regarded as one of the greats in ancient Rome. He ran afoul of Augustus while he acted as govenor of Egypt after the defeat of Antony–Augustus exiled him and he quickly committed suicide. Despite his reputation (He’s frequently mentioned in glowing terms by other surviving writers, and Vergil made him the apparent subject of his tenth Eclogue), he is not mentioned in Quintillian’s list of “books that should be read” (I.O. book X) written less than 100 years after his death, and nothing of his writing survives (except a chance fragment of papyrus found in an Egyptian tomb, containing four lines).

I disagreed with his view: Ovid was also exiled by Augustus, and lots of his writing survives. I also tend to believe that such attempts to suppress an author’s work always backfire, but must admit I don’t have historical cites to back that up.

I wonder if the original poster is asking if there was ever a successful attempt to systematically purge an author’s work(s), i.e. book-burning in the sense of deliberately removing an idea from public discourse, rather than, say, accidentally as during the fire at the library of Alexandria?

Yes! I couldn’t have said it better myself, CCJ. Although I am interested in books which were destroyed in antiquity where the only evidence we have is in ancient footnotes, I was originally thinking about cases where the goal was to make it as if the book had never existed.

Thank you, CJJ!
(Where’s that edit button?)

By definition, if this has ever been sucessfully done we wouldn’t know it had been. :wink:

That seems to be exactly what happened to Sappho. She was of comparable antiquity with Homer, and there were ancient Greek critics who considered her poetry superior to Homer’s. Now the Iliad and the Odyssey have been preserved in toto. What happened to Sappho’s poetry? She was just as popular as Homer in classical Greece. We have quite a few fragments of hers because writers on poetry quoted her frequently. Her works seem to have disappeared from existence early in the Christian era. One theory is that Christians burned her books because her name had become associated with lesbianism. I don’t know the explanation for Sappho’s poetry disappearing, but that theory is plausible.

One case that stuck in my memory was from the explorers that did go to africa to find the source of the Nile.

Richard Francis Burton almost made it, as an explorer he recorded virtually anything and made lots of drawings of the creatures sighted.

Unfortunately for posterity, Burton’s wife - Lady Burton - burned many of his diaries and journals after he died, in order to depict her husband in a light that was acceptable to Victorian sensitivities.

It was one of the biggest literary crimes in England.
In the Americas, the biggest one was the one made by one of the Spanish bishops, Diego de Landa, who ordered all the ancient Mayan texts burned.

Only 4 partially preserved books survived.


Regarding Sappho, I’m a little skeptical that a deliberate purge was made by the Christians. Given that she wrote in the 6th century BC, this leaves about 1000 years between her writing and the beginning of the Dark Ages, when arguably her poetry survived only in the manuscripts collected by Western monasteries. At that time we know of many works that just didn’t get copied; Greek manuscripts were often lost since knowledge of ancient Greek was so poor in the Middle Ages. Even in placed where Greek was understood, it was the Koine Greek of the NT rather than Sappho’s archaic Aeolic Greek. Finally, we know the same fate befell Alcaeus, a contemporary of Sappho whose works were also praised. I’d therefore argue the loss was accidental rather than the result of a deliberate purge.

If I were ever to write a theory on literary purges, I think I’d stipulate that the purge has to strictly occur within a generation of the writer for it ever to be successful.

Fourth complete Sappho poem found in mummy casing.

Fascinating story.

But this is similar to the fact that the most complete Etruscan text we have today was also found when a mummy was unwrapped, and I don’t think anyone says that anyone deliberately tried to eradicate the Etruscan language.

We just don’t appreciate how few ancient texts out of the most famous mainstream survived antiquity.

But the surviving texts do give references to hundreds of non-surviving texts, so the notion that destroying all extant copies would mean we wouldn’t know of the existence of the original doesn’t play out in reality.

How 'bout one that was almost sucessful? Around the end of the second century, Irenaeus led the destruction and supression of the Gnostic Gospels. He was sucessful for almost 1700 years until be chance some remaining hidden copies were found at Nag Hammadi.

Archbishop Landa (drawing a blank on his first name) almost single handedly wiped out the accumulated knowledge of the Maya. Other than the stella at various sites, there are only 5 codices that remain.

I am really interested in politically motivated book burnings, especially those that happened in modern times. What about near-successful book burnings in which just one or two copies were found? Or successful book burnings where the only evidence is reference in other books, newspapers, or first account recollections?

It’s arguable whether it’s either “political” or “modern”, but there is the case of Michael Servetus as the example of near-successful destruction. Burnt at the stake by Calvin in 1553, attempts were also made to systematically destroy all copies of his offending Christianismi Restitutio. These were successful to the extent that only three copies of the book survive.

[I vaguely recall recently reading about a similar case from the Reformation where all copies of a work were burnt, but I’m drawing a blank on the details.]

Well, besides ignoring my post, do you have a cite for the 5 codices? Maya researchers only mention 4 so they would be very very interested in a 5th one!

Some other burnings I remembered:

Shi Huangdi (259-210 B.C.) The first emperor of china was notorious for burning virtually all the books that remained from previous regimes. And also did the same to scholars! IIRC many complete writings of authors from the previous era were lost forever.

The destruction of Rome by the Gauls (B.C. 390).— was a great disaster, not just for Rome but for history, because when it was burned, the records of the ancient city perished; leaving many things in the early history of ancient Rome dark and obscure.

Sorry. 4 is right next to 5 on this keyboard and my typing isn;t that great. Of course I could also count the Prague Codex.

Oh! Thank you so much, Exapno Mapcase! This is beyond terrific! For a Sappho lover there can be no better news! I’m overjoyed! :slight_smile:

Now I have to try to find a print edition of the Times Literary Supplement to see the Greek text… and when I do, I will post it here, Dopers. (Why couldn’t they simply put the Greek online with Unicode? Couldn’t be bothered?)