Reference for the claim that only 1% of ancient literature survives

People sometimes make arguments from what our surviving collection of classical texts do NOT contain.  I tend to reply by pointing out that only 1% of classical texts survive, which makes such a procedure very risky.  This figure comes from a statement by N. G. Wilson on the Archimedes Palimpsest Project web page, although the site has changed and I couldn’t find it just now. 

When I met N. G. Wilson by accident at the Oxford Patristics Conference some years ago I asked him about this, and he said that the figure came from Pietro Bembo, the renaissance scholar.

The discussion on CLASSICS-L of the same issue has now produced a quotation with a modern academic reference.  I reproduce the post (by Atticus Cox) here:

In partial answer to Jeffrey B. Gibson’s original question — “What percentage/How much of pre-second century CE literature is lost to us and how has this figure, whatever it may be, been determined?”

Rudolf Blum in his Kallimachos : The Alexandrian library and the origins of bibliography (Wisconsin, 1991) [= transl. by Hans H. Wellisch of BLUM, R.: Kallimachos und die Literaturverzeichnung bei den Griechen : Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Biobibliographie (Frankfurt, 1977)] states as follows (p.8):

Literary criticism was made difficult for the ancient philologists (similar to what their modern colleagues experience when they deal with medieval literature) because among Greek authors as well as among medieval ones there are so many namesakes (Apollonios, Alexandros, etc.).  Thus, for example, we find that Diogenes Laertios (3rd cent. A.D.) lists for 29 of the 82 philosophers with whom he deals in his work on the lives and opinions of famous philosophers (the most recent are from the end of the 2nd century A.D.) several known namesakes, most of whom had also been authors.[n.31]  Quite a few bearers of the same name were active in the same field, were compatriots and contemporaries.[n.32]  It also happened frequently that an author had the same name as his father, equally well-known as an author.  In such cases the customary procedure for the identification of persons — complementing the personal name by an indication of the father’s name (in the genitive) and the place of birth or domicile (in adjectival form) — was not sufficient.  One had to find further biographical details and to add them.

The large number of authors with the same name was a corollary of the large amount of Greek literature, the sheer bulk of which alone would have been enough to keep the ancient biobibliographers busy.  The small nation of the Greeks was immensely productive in art and scholarship.  Although it is impossible to ascertain the total number of all works written by Greek authors, there were certainly many more than those that have been preserved or are merely known to have existed.  For example, we have no adequate idea of the multitude of works which Kallimachos listed in the 120 books of his Pinakes.  Of the Greek literature created before 250 B.C. we have only a small, even though very valuable, part.  We do not even have the complete works of those authors who were included in the lists of classics compiled by the Alexandrian philologists.  Of all the works of pagan Greek literature perhaps only one percent has come down to us.[n.34]  All others were in part already forgotten by the third century A.D., in part they perished later, either because they were not deemed worthy to be copied when a new book form, the bound book (codex), supplanted the traditional scroll in the fourth century A.D.,[n.35] or because they belonged to ‘undesirable literature’ in the opinion of certain Christian groups.

In n.34 Blum explains that his figures are based on the counts of Hans Gerstinger [= GERSTINGER, H.: Bestand und Überlieferung der Literaturwerke des griechisch-römischen Altertums (Graz, 1948)] —

n.34: “According to Gerstinger (1948) p.10, about 2000 Greek authors were known by name before the discovery of papyri.  But the complete works of only 136 (6.8%) and fragments of another 127 (6.3%) were preserved.  Gerstinger counted, however, only authors whose names were known, not works known by their titles.  The numerical relation between these and the works that are preserved wholly or partially would certainly even be much worse.  Whether a count of known titles would serve any purpose remains to be seen.  The main sources would be the biobibliographic articles in the Suda, but even the authority on which it is based, the epitomator of the Onomatologos by Hesychios of Miletos (6th century A.D.), no longer listed many authors which e.g. Diogenes Laertios (3rd century A.D.) had still named in his work.”

The other notes are as follows:
n.31: “He lists on average 5-6 homonyms, in one case 14 (Herakleides), in two cases 20 each (Demetrios and Theodoros).”
n.32: “E.g. in the fifth century B.C. there were two Attic tragic poets by the name of Euripides other than the famous one.”
n.33: “Despite the more precise Roman system of naming persons (/praenomen/, /nomen gentile/, /cognomen/) there were many homonyms, although relatively few among authors, because there were fewer of them than in Greece.”
n.35: “Widmann (1967) columns 586-603 [= WIDMANN, H. : ‘Herstellung und Vertrieb des Buches in der griechisch-römischen Welt’ in /Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens/ 8 (1967) 545-640].

10 thoughts on “Reference for the claim that only 1% of ancient literature survives

  1. In the first volume of the Ioannis Kakrides edited “Greek Mythology” (a 5 volume compilation in Greek of all known Greek myths) he has some 10 pages where he gives names of writers and titles of ancient mythlogical works and a summary of each work’s content if we have some idea what it is. When I originammy read it I did not feel the need to take notes but from what I remember it is far below 1% what has survived from that list. My guess would be around 0,3 to 0,4% of that list has actually survived …

  2. Does the same thing apply to the Fathers? I assume we only have a smattering of writings from the early church, and that even those writings which existed represented only a tiny fraction of the actual preaching and teaching in the early church.

  3. It depends, period by period. For the first and second century, I think it does apply. From the third century on, while losses are very substantial, I think the picture changes.

    We have 31 works by Tertullian. We know the titles of a further 16. So clearly we have lost a lot.

    But we probably have nearly all the works of Augustine, and the major fathers from ca. 400 on.

  4. Possibly.

    As Rommel and the Afrika Corps threatened Cairo in 1941, workmen were set to clear some of the galleries in the ancient quarries at Tura for munitions. One of them found under some debris a number of piles of papyrus pages, which he promptly sold to a dealer. The authorities were able to recover most of the find, once they became aware of it.

    The find contained lost works by Origen, and Didymus the Blind. The Dialogue with Heracleides by Origen is mentioned nowhere in our sources, and seems to be a stenographic record of a discussion that really took place with a bishop who had got theologically confused. It gives a marvellous picture of how Origen worked, and how his authority came to be recognised in the region. There was also a portion of the lost Greek text of his Commentary on Romans, which was useful to compare against the Latin translation of Rufinus.

    There’s probably all sorts of stuff in the sands if we but knew it.

  5. As I said in a previous post there are today about 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 unpublished papyri out there (though we must remember that Coptic and Demotic papyri are underepresentant in the published corpus) and in every year since the 1880’s more papyri are dug out of the earth every year than are published. Hisotrically 10% of all papyri are literary (100,000-150,000 unpublished literary papyri) and 40% of all Greek literary papyri are Homer. If 10% of new literary papyri are ‘new’ texts (subject of course to diminishing returns), then in my personal estimate there are today 10,000 ‘new’ texts waiting to be discovered among the mass of those 1,000,000+ unpublished papyri.

    On this link is a SELECTION of new texts discovered mostly in the 20th century from papyrology

    http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/Fragments/lost_date_descend.html

    The list is anything but comprehensive. However when we talk about new texts in many cases what we recover is very small: The Strasbourg Empedocles is 100 verses long, the P.Oxy. LXXIII fragment is 5 verses long and that book of empedocles had several thousand verses. Still what was recovered is better than nothing. Furthermore we only had the word of ancient authors that Aeschylus copied Stesichorus, before the mummies at Lille yielded the Lille Stesichorus and thus gave us the first serious sized surviving fragment of that author (who indeed was massively copied by Aeschylus)

  6. Professor Roger Bagnall has put online a large part of his scholarly articles (at least of those that he is able to diffuse online). One very interesting on the Alexandria Library called “Alexandria: Library of Dreams” has a discussion on the size of Ancient Greek literature on page 5. The link is

    http://archive.nyu.edu/handle/2451/28263

    It cites an interesting study by Strasburger that 1/40th of all ancient Greek historians has survived.

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