11

I first came across an uncommonly precise claim that "94% of classical Latin literature was lost during the transition period of late antiquity" while listening to Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy without any gaps podcast. Upon further inquiring with Peter himself, I was able to find the source of this claim in G.W. Trompf, “The Concept of the Carolingian Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973), 3-26:

Doughty Cassiodorus may have kept alive the seven liberal arts and the teachings of Martianus Capella, but if my learned colleague J. A. Willis is right, there is some justification in the reckoning that 94 per cent of of classical Latin literature was lost in the intervening period between Rome's downfall and Charlemagne's rise to power.

The article did provide a reference (see the attached image), but I was not able to find the referenced document anywhere after an extensive search online. Therefore, I was left uncertain as to whether the claim was valid or not.

I then thought of contacting Dr. Trompf himself through email, but have not been successful so far. In the meantime, I decided to post my concern as a question here with the hope that someone might either have access to the aforementioned reference, or is able to substantiate the claim with historical evidences.

Thanks.

enter image description here

  • 4
    Interesting question. I hadn't seen that claim before, but I do know that the Italian Renaissance scholar Pietro Bembo estimated that less than 1% of Greek literature survived. I wasn't convinced by his arguments. While not doubting for a moment that a great many ancient works have been lost, I do not believe we have anywhere near enough information to precisely quantify that loss. – sempaiscuba Feb 12 at 5:18
  • @sempaiscuba Thanks for sharing that. I agree that it's virtually impossible to quantify the loss of ancient texts in a precise manner. I am more interested in the methodology these authors used to draw their conclusions. – mooncatcher Feb 12 at 5:54
  • Hard to know what has not survived, so I think the 94% figure must give a misleading impression of precision, although I would have thought it is plausible. What does survive refers to many other works now lost. I do not know how we can count the works that neither survived nor are referred to in any that did survive. Less than 50 Ancient Greek plays survive reasonably complete, but in the annual festival at Athens 17 new plays (9 tragedies, 5 comedies & 3 satyr plays) were presented every year from 486 BC apparently for the next few hundred years, so most must be lost – Timothy Feb 13 at 20:43
7

It's hard to see how this claim could be substantiated given that we don't know how much existed in the first place.

In a 2013 article Lost writings of Latin literature, Peter Knox (Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado) and J.C. McKeown, (Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin) observe that:

No doubt the Roman world produced many literary masterpieces of which we are completely unaware.

Similarly, the Jstor article The Lost Parts of Latin Literature state that

The total number of writers regarding whom any notice has been preserved to us is 772, so far as recorded in the pages of Schanz and Teuffel. How many more actually figured in the course of Roman literary history we have no means of knowing, or even of guessing with a fair chance of coming near the truth.

Granted, this article dates from 1905 and finds have been made since, but our knowledge remains patchy.


The original source: J. A. Willis

The author of the source cited by Trompf would appear to be the same J. A. Willis listed as a former Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia (1962 - 1988).

I have found a few citations of his articles, but none of them are the one cited by Trompf. None of the sources cited in this posted, most of which post-date Willis' 1968 article, mention the estimate of 94%. Also, as with the OP, extensive searching has turned up no further sources which cite Willis' figure.

Although not stated, the 94% probably refers to titles / works. If so, Willis' estimate of 94% lost may be based on known works.


So what estimates are there?

Few sources cite any, but this article Loss of Information from Late Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century states that (for classical literature):

Estimates of the percentage of classical literature that is thought to have survived to the present vary; one widely used estimate is only ten percent.

This article cites Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature by L. G. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, but I can find no mention in this book for this estimate (I have a copy), so the above '10% survived' should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

The article Reference for the claim that only 1% of ancient literature survives gives us a different figure and, as with the above 10%, is not specifically for Latin literature.

Other sources I have checked do not give percentages. Michael von Albrecht in A History of Roman Literature (1997) says:

Only a small portion of Roman literature has come down to us, and we should never forget how much has been lost.

The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature (by Knox & McKeown, see above) is even less precise:

It is....hardly surprising that the survival of literary works has been haphazard at best.

The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. 2 Latin Literature makes similarly vague statements in relation to different authors and genres.

Perhaps more useful (and productive) than trying to guess at a percentage is to look at the authors:

for Latin, we have the names of 772 classical authors. Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them. We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors. Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.