When were antiquity's great lost works lost?

Obviously there is no exact answer to this question, but when were the great lost works of antiquity lost? Take the Little Illiad for example, did it survive the fall of Rome, was it lost in the Muslim conquest, or did the Venetians destroy the last copy in the sack of Constantinople? Or how about Pytheas, did his work make it to the Middle Ages? No doubt the answer to these questions will vary greatly based on the worK, but I’m curious to know how long these works lasted and how they were lost.

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As for things lost in the middle ages, you’ve raised an interesting question. And I realize, we only know what we have lost if the item is mentioned elsewhere. For tomes not referenced, we don’t know what we’re missing.

The answer is many different times and places, but the most famous time and place was the burning of the Library of Alexandria:


Many parchments considered of minor importance (which doesn’t mean modern scholars would share that opinion) were erased and reused during the middle-ages. Certainly, a lot of works dissapeared forever this way.

I’d note that probably most of the ancient writings were simply destroyed by natural decay. It takes exceptional circumstances (dry climate, no light) for a document to be preserved for 2 000 years or more. So, with rare exceptions, all the writen material from the antiquity we still have access to had to have been considered worthy enough to be not simply kept, but copied early on, and generally copied again and again over centuries.

And, if you actually read the linked article it should become clear that nobody actually knows when that happened, or, perhaps, rather that the library was destroyed piecemeal (sometimes, but not always, by fires) over the course of many centuries.

There really is no straightforward answer to the OP’s question. There would be different answer for every work, and in the vast majority of cases we are simply not going to know. All we can say is that there is evidence that such-and-such once existed, but we no longer have any copies of it. Probably few if any ancient works have been lost since the Renaissance and a fortiori since the invention of printing, so we can say that most such losses happened either in the middle ages or in ancient times themselves. More than that, it is really impossible to generalize. Also, we should not entirely rule out the remote possibility that a copy might still one day turn up; it does, very occasionally, happen.

clairobscur is right about the mechanism of many of the losses, but it should be added that content that was erased so that the parchment could be re-used can sometimes be recovered. The erased parchment is known as as a palimpsest.

You might enjoy reading about the Archimedes Palimpsest

It was an unknown work of his that was written over and later recovered (in part) by modern techniques.

Undoubtedly the library at Alexandria was a great loss. How about the Vandals sacking Rome? What all was lost in all the battles of the crusades? WWII?

As an aside, just because there were hundreds or thousands of copies of a book printed, doesn’t mean that there are any surviving copies.

My specific area of interest is a certain category of technical books from the 1880’s to around 1910. I have a number of books of which I have either the only known copy or, in one case, 2 of 3 copies known to exist. There are many references to books with no surviving copies in my area of interest. This is true even for books whose publishers are still around 200+ years later, like Wiley.

If you include The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as ancient “works,” we know when many of them were lost.

For example, here are the details of the destruction of the Colossus of Rhodes:

Even much more recent documents have been lost because they weren’t considered to be of any value at the time. For that matter, a huge amount of early cinema films, and early television programmes, are not known to survive in any form.

A related point is that storage takes up space, and that ultimately means money. Which in turn means that some things are not preserved in the first place, or that they are subsequently destroyed as of low or no value. (And in the case of some television material that’s been lost, the last remaining copy was destroyed by people who didn’t realise they had the last remaining copy.)
Although not affecting works of the age the OP was interested in, two examples come to mind of planned and unplanned destruction of archived material.

If memory serves, British official government libraries destroyed a large number of slave registers in the early nineteenth century, on the basis that (a) they weren’t relevant to the UK proper, (b) they were no longer current records, and © they were of no interest to anyone.

In 1731, fire destroyed part of the Cottonian collection of old manuscripts.
Note that even today, the UK’s National Archives does not preserve all government records; they often only preserve what are considered to be representative samples. No doubt other archives and libraries have similar limitations. (Obviously this sort of thing doesn’t apply to material that is “obviously” important.)

What about some of the great fires like London, San Francisco, Chicago, etc.?

[slight tangent]To say nothing of some group deliberately destroying some work, such as religious censors from the Inquisition up to those today who would destroy (or castrate) works from Salman Rushie to Mark Twain.[/tangent]

The OP was asking about “great works” from antiquity. I take that “great works” means, at a minimum, writings that were once reasonably widely considered to be important and valuable, and that we now know about because they were mentioned, and their value made clear, in other works that have survived.

The survival or otherwise of technical manuals from the 19th century, or of civil service archives, or whatever, is a completely different issue. They do not survive because few, if any, people think that they deserve to, or take any steps to preserve them. By definition, that is not the case with “great” works. I am sure that many things that few people cared about were written down in the ancient world too. It is not remarkable that relatively few of them have survived (although some, such as most of the contents of the library of Asurbanipal, have, by chance, survived despite being, from most perspectives, very boring).

With much of the world’s information being put on the internet and the cloud, it will probably be easier in the future to destroy works through some official censorship worm that searches out and destroys. TSS still likes dead trees.

Every so often they find something they didn’t know they had, though - the great libraries of the world have a shocking amount of stuff, often sewn together willy nilly into bindings, and every so very often somebody finds something they’ve always had. I’m not sure they’ve ever unearthed anything really exciting like Love’s Labors Won this way, but for example the new “more complete” Metropolis was found perfectly well cataloged, it’s just that nobody realized this particular copy in the film museum in Argentina was more complete than the others.

Could be what happens nowadays when technology changes–items get put in someone’s attic or basement or donated to charity. How many times have you gone to a Salvation Army store and seen lots of outdated computers, television sets, eight-track tapes, etc., on the shelves? I’ll bet a lot of old treasures are being stored somewhere and will re-surface when the latest owner stops paying storage fees, or when relatives clean out a recently deceased pack rat.

The point I was trying to make was that the invention of the printing press wasn’t a cure-all for the loss of important works.

However… would you settle for the loss of the original slow-scan Apollo 11 moon landing tapes? All we have are the converted-for-broascast copies.

I don’t trust the cloud either. The official worm will have its problems with obscure Linux formats saved to micro SD cards, or worse yet, CD’s or DVD’s.

What I find interesting is that one point these works, take the Little Iliad again or Euripides, were considered hugely important to society. Then something happened whereby the world lost interest in these works to the point that they completely disappeared. Then some time passes and all of a sudden society re-remembers how important those works were and wishes it could have them back.

I guess ultimately that is exactly what the Dark Ages were - a complete breakdown of civilization where people were more concerned with their day to day lives than they were with a bunch of old books.

Well, you might think that, but take a look at the books that topped the charts in the Victorian era. There are scads of very important authors at the time that nobody, NOBODY reads today. It isn’t because it’s the Dark Ages, it’s because they don’t appeal.