How did books like Gorgias or Republic survive to these days? Where were they found or how were they preserved so well for the centuries when antique philosophers were rejected as atheists?

And are the originals still around or are the current versions only multiple transcriptions?

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    Antique philosophers were not "rejected as atheists". If you believe it to be so, you might have serious biases about the European Middle Ages. They were not as close-minded as you might think. They valued the useful information even if written by someone who might not have believed exactly what they believed. Instead of wiping out all that remained from the ancient Greek and Roman era, they took care to preserve it. Without Christian monasteries also copying ancient literature, much less of it would have survived to this day. Especially Aristotle was held in high regard by the Church.
    – vsz
    Apr 8, 2016 at 18:49
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    @vsz: unfortunately, early medieval Europe and Mediterranean was not nearly as open-minded as you think. Violent uneducated Christian mobs, led by extremist bishops, murdered pagans and heretics, burned books and libraries, etc. You can easily google all that; if not I can add citations.
    – Michael
    Apr 8, 2016 at 21:12
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    @Michael : yeah, and they also taught that the Earth is flat and murdered everyone who dared to say it's round, right? You can google it and find a lot of people claiming it. And it's still not true, and no serious historian believes it. To get back to the point: yes, of course, those times had seen a lot of wars, and yes, sometimes violence was motivated by religion (but usually motivated by power and wealth - like everywhere in the world).
    – vsz
    Apr 8, 2016 at 21:24
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    @Michael : However, if your theory were true (burning books and libraries of past eras just because they were pagans) then how come they respected many Roman and Greek writers? There is plenty of proof they did. So, to get back on topic, I contested the claim of the OP that "antique philosophers were rejected as atheists" which is simply not true.
    – vsz
    Apr 8, 2016 at 21:25
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    @Michael : you really thought that posting a link will make people accept your claim without following it, right? You wrote "many of them by Early Middle Ages Christians" Of the 22 book burnings listed, exactly one was done by early medieval Christians, and even that one didn't contain knowledge from the Classical Era, but contemporary esoteric writings. Some of the others among the list were done by late medieval Europeans, but exactly zero of them were about books from Antiquity. Zero. All of them were contemporary controversial fringe esoteric or theological writings.
    – vsz
    Apr 8, 2016 at 22:57

2 Answers 2


I suppose you are talking about Plato's books. No major classical work from ancient Greece survived in the original. (Exception is some recently found papyri originating from the Roman Egypt, which are usually just small fragments). All those books that survived (and specialists estimate that about 1% of the ancient Greek and Roman literature survived) were copied, and we have much later copies or translations to other languages, mainly Arabic. The reason that you mention explains why so few survived. In most cases the earliest existing copies originate in 11-13 centuries or even later. Many books are available in several old copies, which of course differ, and a research was required to establish a standard modern text. The oldest existing copy of Plato's republic is made in 9s century.

Greek writers were not considered atheists (this word and the notion are 18s century inventions), they were considered pagans. Why some pagan authors were considered valuable enough to copy them? Because of the interesting information contained in these books. Christians understood very well that the authors who worked before Christ could not be Christians, so it is not their fault that they were pagans. But their writing could contain valuable thoughts and information, on the opinion of the Christians. Plato and Aristoteles, in particular were highly estimated by many Christian philosophers.

Very few ancient books were copied in Western Europe during the early Middle age. Most surviving copies came from the Eastern Roman empire, or through Arabic or Hebrew translations. But several authors, like Plato, Aristotle or Ptolemy were generally well-regarded in Europe, and their books were continuously copied in Western Europe.

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    Interestingly, the Plato example in the OP is particularly misguided, given that neoplatonism had a strong influence at the root of Christian theology throughout late antiquity and middle ages. Apr 9, 2016 at 20:03

In Roman-Greek times (before 300 AD) there were no books in the Roman Empire, just papyrus scrolls, each chapter being one scroll. So a work like the Republic would be divided into many scrolls. Papyrus is relatively perishable, so virtually none of these scrolls survived, with only a few isolated exceptions.

The works have survived, however, because they were copied either by individual scholars or by being copied en masse in scriptoriums. In a scriptorium a master reader, called a lectorius, would recite the word and scribes would write it down as he spoke it. Another method of copying, more precise, was to use the punct, a sharp stick. With the left hand the copyist would place the point of the punct below the letter being copied and write it with the right hand. Then he would move the punct to the next letter and repeat the process. Our word "punctilious" comes from this process.

They began using parchment, the corium of a sheep, for the writing material, which is much more durable than papyrus. Note that the Romans did make some use of parchment, but the use expanded greatly in medieval times. Parchment was much, much more expensive than papyrus.

Every library in medieval times had a scriptorium. They would borrow scrolls or books, copy them for their library, then send them back.

At the Abbey of Cluny over 1000 ancient works survived by this method including those by Livy, Aristotle, Aesop, Horace and many others.

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