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Lost writings of Latin literature

By Peter Knox and J.C. McKeown

Once upon a time, the Greek city of Cyrene on the coast of Libya grew prosperous through the export of silphium, a plant much used in cookery and medicine. But then the farmers learned that there was more money to be made through rearing goats. Overgrazing ruined silphium’s habitat quickly and completely, and the last sorry stalk was presented to the emperor Nero in the middle of the first century AD. In Apicius’s recipe book, the Art of Cookery, silphium is one of the ingredients in stuffed sow’s belly. Modern cookbooks that replicate Apicius tacitly omit silphium from the recipe for this dish. Unless silphium still lingers on in some remote Libyan oasis, we can never know what stuffed sow’s belly should really taste like.

It’s much the same with reading Latin literature. The Aeneid is one of the greatest poems ever written, but how much more we would be able to admire its detailed perfection if we only had Ennius’s Annals, which Virgil is known to have imitated and adapted throughout. The loss of a vital ingredient is felt even more intensely with love elegy. Much of our enjoyment of Ovid’s account of his frustration when he is locked out by his mistress is derived from seeing how he varies the accounts of the same scenario given by Propertius and Tibullus. It is depressing to know the almost total loss of their chief model, the four books of Amores by Cornelius Gallus, the founder of the elegiac genre.

No doubt the Roman world produced many literary masterpieces of which we are completely unaware. Even a bare and highly selective catalog of those known to be lost makes for very solemn reading. No doubt other readers would include here other sadly lost works, for de gustibus non disputandum est:

  • A full copy of the fifth-century BC law code, the Twelve Tables, which would vastly improve our knowledge of the origins and development of the legal system, one of Rome’s greatest legacies to the world.
  • Livius Andronicus’s translation of the Odyssey, which is traditionally regarded as the earliest Roman poetic text. It is also the earliest literary text in any culture known to have been translated from another language.
  • The emperor Claudius’s histories of Carthage and of the Etruscans, important peoples about whom we learn so little elsewhere.
  • The dictator Sulla’s memoirs and Asinius Pollio’s histories would broaden our perception of the last years of the Republic. As things are, seventy-five percent of what survives in Latin from Cicero’s lifetime was written by Cicero himself.
  • The speeches by Hortenius in defence of Gaius Verres, whom Cicero’s prosecution destroyed in 70 BC. There are no extant speeches, forensic or otherwise, by anyone but Cicero till AD 100.
  • The speech in 42 BC by Hortensius’s daughter, Hortensia, in which she pleaded successfully with the Triumvirs for amendments to the war tax imposed on wealthy women.
  • Mark Antony’s speech on his drunkenness.
  • Mark Antony. Not drunk.
    Mark Antony. Not drunk.
  • Varro’s Antiquities of Human and Divine Affairs, a vast store of information about Roman civilization, both religious and secular.
  • Ovid’s single tragedy, the Medea, perhaps his only important work that has not survived. This is a particularly poignant loss, given that Quintilian, who had a generally rather low opinion of Ovid, declares that the Medea shows what he was capable of when he applied himself properly. If Ovid ever did write a poem in Getic in praise of the imperial family, that would also be worth having for its linguistic, if perhaps not its literary, interest.
  • The histories of Cremutius Cordus, which were burned by order of the senate when he was forced to commit suicide in AD 25, and the memoirs of Agrippina the Younger. They would go some way to filling the conspicuous absence of contemporary records of the early empire.
  • The handbook on throwing javelins from horseback, written by Pliny the Elder on the wild German frontier. It would solve his image problem, given that he tends to be thought of nowadays as a bumbling professorial type who doesn’t know enough to come in from the ash that was raining down from Vesuvius.
  • The biographies of the emperors, probably Hadrian to Elagabalus, by the mysterious Marius Maximus, a missing link between Suetonius and the bizarre imaginings preserved in the Historia Augusta.

Most classical texts that have come down to us have done so because they deserve to survive: the labor of transcribing them was considered worthwhile. But there are quite a few works known to be lost that have a certain fascination even if their literary merits were perhaps not great:

  • As Catullus predicted, Volusius’s cacata carta (“shitty sheet”) has not survived, but it would have been good if we could have made up our own minds about him. We’d at least make up for quality with quantity.
  • Tacitus said that Caesar and Brutus were luckier than Cicero, because not so many people knew they had written poetry. Even so, poetry composed by the great and the good has a special appeal: if only Augustus’s Ajax hadn’t fallen on his sponge.
  • Valerius Maximus can find only three women to include in his catalogue of “women whom nature and decency could not restrain from public speaking”. One was Hortensia (see above), but what are we to make of Afrania, a senator’s wife who always chose to speak in court on her own behalf? Her speeches, characterized by Valerius as “weird barkings,” could not fail to alter our perspective on Roman society.

Is it easier to resign oneself to the fair certainty that none of these lost works of Latin literature will ever be recovered, or to cope with the tantalizingly random reemergence of so much Greek literature? Scholars who work on Roman elegy or the early empire are not holding back in anticipation of the discovery of a complete text of Gallus or of Cremutius Cordus, but who can say what lost treasures of Greek literature are about to turn up on Athos or at Oxyrhynchus? We are all waiting for Sappho. Greek literature without her is like Hamlet without the princess of Denmark.

Peter E. Knox is Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. J.C. McKeown is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Together, they are the editors of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature.

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Image credit: L’entrée de Marc-Antoine à Ephèse by Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1741. Dépôt du Musée du Louvre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  3. Randy Jenkins

    The complete “edition” (if, in fact, it ever was completed) of Petronius Arbiter’s “Satyricon”. In fact, just knowing who Petronius was, would be a good start.

  4. […] Lost writings of Latin literature […]

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