Illustration: Kate Hazell

The tragedy of the lost Classics—mourning the Greek and Roman works of literature we'll never get to read

So much was lost, we don't even know what we're missing
March 3, 2020

To be any kind of student of the classical world requires an acceptance of loss. The “classical world” that we construct is made from mere glimpses and shattered fragments. This is true of material culture, and also of literature. What survives and what does not can often seem totally arbitrary; plenty of famous works rely on the existence of a single medieval manuscript preserved in a single monastery. Our version of Euripides’s play The Bacchae has 50 crucial lines missing because a page in an early copy, on which all our later copies rely, got lost, or ripped out, or, I don’t know, some careless idiot of a monk spilled ink on it.

In fact we have only a tiny fraction of the Greek tragedies produced in the 5th century BC—six, maybe seven plays of Aeschylus’s, out of between 70 and 80. All his surviving plays except Prometheus Bound, which may not be his at all, come from towards the end of his career, leaving three decades—30 crucial years in the development of drama—unaccounted for. And that’s before you get to the authors whose work has disappeared altogether. I would love to read Xenocles—he won the playwright’s prize at the Great Dionysia the year Sophocles premiered Oedipus the King, so either the judges were having an off-day, or he was quite something.

If you could magic up a lost text, what would it be? Sappho, of course, comes up. She wrote nine books of poems, revered in antiquity, but all that remains is a slender volume of scraps culled from quotations in other ancient writers, and finds of ancient papyrus in Egypt. Some would love to read Mark Antony’s treatise On His Own Drunkenness, which, aside from his defence against the charge of drunkenness, or possibly his justification for it, would be full of fascinating stuff from the loser’s side of history—it was probably written shortly before his defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian. When I was writing a book about Roman Britain, I wished for the freak reappearance of On the Ocean—Pytheas, its 4th-century BC author, an inhabitant of the Greek colony of Marseille, claimed to have circumnavigated Britain. We know this because later authors regarded it as a fanciful notion. But you never know, he might have done it.

One classicist, Tim Whitmarsh, firmly believes Ctesias’s Persica would change our understanding of the ancient world. A history of Assyria, Babylon and Persia, written in the 5th century BC by a Greek at the Persian court, it was “a bicultural text” that would “undermine the idea of a hermetic Greek literary tradition” and help explain the development of the Greek novel.

Then there is the yearning for the broadening of the canon: what about Archippus’s comedy, Fishes, with a chorus of, yes, fish? Or could we please have the endings of works that just, frustratingly, stop—such as Valerius Flaccus’s epic (or not so epic as it stands) poem about Jason and the Argonauts? Or Tacitus’s Annals, missing the last two years of Nero’s reign? Classicist Emma Bridges yearns for Palamedes and Alexandros, the two lost companion pieces to Euripides’ The Trojan Women.

And yes, there’s Aeschylus. The scholar of Greek tragedy, Oliver Taplin, said he’d like to rescue the playwright’s trilogy about Achilles: “This was the moment when tragedy dared to outbid epic,” he told me. Alas, barring miracles, these are dreams. Classics is a puzzle that has to be played with most of the pieces missing.