What percentage of ancient literature survives: some data

An interesting discussion is going on at CLASSICS-L at the moment.

Jeffrey Gibson: How much pre-second century CE literature is lost to us — and how has this figure, whatever it may be, been determined?

Patrick T. Rourke: Even if you limit yourself to the plays produced at the Greater Dionysia during the productive lifetimes of the three great tragedians (~485 bce – 406 bce), that would be 33 out of 12×79=948, or 3.5%. That number is not an estimate, but a ceiling, because of all the factors you have to ignore to get that nice clean number:

  • I think the Rhesos is under the wrong name and is later than 406.
  • At least 15% of the Iphigeneia at Aulis has been replaced with a later attempt at a reconstruction.
  • There are fragments of hundreds of lost tragedies, enough to count as maybe 3 additional play equivalents.
  • Tragedy officially started in 534 bce, though we might not consider the earliest plays to fit our definition of the genre, and the productions of tragedies continued into the common era, though after about 400 bce repertory productions of older plays could take the place of new plays
  • We are counting satyr plays
  • We are ignoring the Lenaia, and other feativals and cities where tragedy came to be performed.
  • We are ignoring later book tragedies, which date to the mid 4th century bce.

As I said, that is a ceiling, amd a rough back-of-the-envelope number that my gut tells me is an order of magnitude too high (it’s probably closer to 0.4%), but it’s a nice way to demonstrate the problem.

We have 33 surviving tragedies (including satyric and pro-satyric plays):

7 of Aeschylus*
7 of Sophocles
19 of Euripides*

1 play ascribed to Aeschylus by all ancient authorities has been challenged on stylistic grounds, but I believe the skeptics still think it was anciently produced. 1 play ascribed to Euripides was challenged in antiquity on stylistic grounds – and we have a much better sample for Euripides; those theories would place production after 406 bce. Those three between them wrote slightly over 300 plays (123 for Sophocles, 91 or 95 for Euripides, ~ 88 or 92 for Aeschylus), so we have 10% of their work; 24 of the plays survive due to their use in schools, and 9 of Euripides plays survive due to an historical accident of transmission. It is possible that some of the surviving plays were produced at the Lenaia, which would add an additional several plays a year to those totals (obviously I don’t know, and can’t quickly find, the actual number; and we know that some of the lost plays for the big three for which we have titles were produced at the Lenaia, and at least four outside Athens altogether.)

The two dates I’ve chosen are the year before Aeschylus’ first recorded first prize and the year of Euripides’ and Sophocles’ deaths. That gives an active period for the three great tragedians of 79 years. The actual active life of the Greater Dionysia was closer to 700 years, but only some of the plays produced before Aeschylus would fit our definition of tragedy, and after the death of Sophocles, it became common to revive older plays. By the mid-4th century ther were only 9 new plays per Dionysia, and we can assume that the late 1 st and early 2 nd century had no new plays, so we might average out at 4 new plays per year for the last 500 years, which would raise the total closer to 3000 plays and lower the percentage to a little over 1%. Throw in the Lenaia and the number drops well below 1%.

The number twelve refers to the fact that three poets were chosen for each Greater Dionysia to present four plays: three tragedies and a satyr play. We believe that in some festivals in the 5 th century the satyr play was replaced by another kind of play, a prosatyric play, and that Euripides’ Alcestis is an example. By the mid 3rd century the satyr play is gone.

Aristotle mentions what I’ve called book tragedies – closet dramas that take the form of tragedy. They were apparently popular by the mid 3rd century, and there is no way of estimating them. None survives.

Other cities came to imitate Athens’ genre, but there is no way to quantify that. We hear about dramatic productions in Alexander’s camp, but at least some were revivals (I think at least one was a new play).

I’m also ignoring the rural Dionysia on the assumption (possibly quite wrong) that it was repertory only.

The sources include the scholia, hypotheses, lives of the poets, inscriptions, a couple of contemporary speeches, allusions throughout the history of Greek literature (including Aristophanes the comedic playwright), the Suda, numerous literary essays from Roman times, &c. The most accessible collection of evidence is Csapo and Slater, *The Context of Ancient Drama*. One book that experts use a lot for ancient evidence is probably Pickard-Cambridge, *Dramatic Festivals of Athens*, though even in its updated form, it is quite old now and so doesn’t take into account the past 40 years if research. For the whole discussion, I’d recommend as a starting point for general readers is the popular account in several brief sections of Stuart Kelly’s *The Book of Lost Books*. Reynolds and Wilson’s book from the 70s (and that may be the second edition), *Scribes and Scholars*, is the best in depth discussion of the transmission of classical texts that I know about.

I’d guess that the numbers for all other genres are worse than for tragedy – we are lucky that we have so much of it!

Gene O’Grady:  I’m being lazy and not checking, but I seem to recall that toward the end of this period there were reproductions of old plays (Aeschylus) at the festivals, so that would reduce the number of plays in the corpus, thus raising the percent that survive.

Also, do we know for sure that there was a satyr play every year?  And the site of original production of some plays (Andromache,  Archelaus, Aetnaeae) apparently wasn’t Athens.

Patrick T. Rourke: I had forgotten about Andromache, so my “at least 4” should be “at least 5”.

I admit that I know nothing about Greek tragedy.  So this is all out of period for me.  Nor do I know anything of the Greater Dionysia.  I’ve asked for some clarification for us late-antiquity buffs, but it looks as if we have some information that a play was performed 12 times a year for 79 years.  I’d want to see the data, of course.

But this sort of quantifiable stuff is invaluable.


6 thoughts on “What percentage of ancient literature survives: some data

  1. This is what I remeber from 11th grade ancient Greek course. I am sure that online you will find better and more acurate information

    The Greater Donysia was a religious festival, that took place in summer I think, at a time travel to Athens was most convenient. In it was sung a dithyrambus, a religious song for Donysius which involved other verses being sung by a single singer and other by a choir. I think that a new one was composed every year. Sometime in the 6th century a poet whose name I do not remember had the idea of having a second single singer and to create dialogue between the 2 singer and the choir. This is the beginning of theater: Eventually non-Dionysiac subjects were introduced and the faithfull could watch from a nearby hill the song. Since ancient drama was always in verse form due to its origins ancient playwrighter are properly called tragic poets, playwright is an English language minsnomer since ancient drama was in reality a big poem.

    The Festival took this form: At first several poets would gather at an Odeum and would propose to the audience = the Athenians the quadrology they would like to show: 3 tragedies and one satyric drama. 3 poets every year were granted the right to compete and a sponsor was assigned who would pay for the play (actors, choires etc.) as part of his tax obligation to the Athenian state. The taxpayer/sponsor would originally recover some of his money from tickets though from the mid 5th century the tickets for the poor were paid by the State (he was given the money) and from the mid 4th century the privilege was extended to all Athenians, hence only foreigner would pay tickets from their own pocket. The taxpayer of the best produced of the 12 plays (3 poets x 4 plays per poet) was given a monetary prize though according to at least one of the rhetoric speaches (by Isocrates I think? I am not sure) the prize covered only 80% of the plays expences

    The poems were produced at a hillside under the Acropolis where in the mid to late 4th century the theater of Dionysus was built by the rhetor/politician/economist Lycurgus. Alas, the only great Athenian playwright that managed to play there was Menander, Aristophanes and the 3 great tragedians were long dead by that time. Originally all 3 tragic plays and the satyr plays had to be about the same subject, the only such trilogy that has survived was the Oresteia. Eventually the satyr play (which was funny, so that people would not commit suicide after 3 hours of drama) could be of a different subject, from the mid-5th century the 3 plays could also be unrelated and from the 4th century one of the 3 tragedies had to be by one of the 3 great tragedians: this is to show just how low the level of 4th century had become.

    This was the Great Dionysia, one day of 12 plays with the winning poet getting a non-monetary prize and the best produced plays (which in many cases was not the winning play) getting money. The Great Lenaia was more or less the same thing only that it took place in mid-winter and there were no tragedies but only comedies. Comedies were what we would call today political satires, unlike satyr plays that were just funny without any political overtone. Aristophanes’ comedies are VERY political, but also at times are philological, according to ancient critics Aristophanes would in many case take an entire scene from one of Euripedes’ plays and just change a couple of words and integrate it in his play. Alas, so few of ancient drama has survived that we have to take their ancient comentator’s word for it… By the time of Menander though, when the political independance of Athens was rather theoretical than real, political overtones are non-existant and it is social critique that we see

    Hope this helps…

  2. Thank you very much for these notes. I also see that there is a Wikipedia article on the Greater Dionysia.

    No luck finding primary sources yet, tho!

  3. Primary sources, ah yes. I have very little idea what the primary sources are. I mentioned in my notes that there is a speach by a rhetor in there, I think the speach is called against Antidosis though I am not at all certain about it. I would be surprised if the 534 date comes from a chronicle or at best a literary critic like Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Aristotle’s poetics Book I is a main source about ancient theater though I have not read it. Book II did not survive and Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” is a fictional account of its destruction

  4. i have before me the oxford classical dictionary. i first thumbed through this as a graduate student in classics and remember reading that best estimates are that less than 2% of ancient Greek writing survives. i remember being rather bowled over. Unfortunately, i cannot find that entry, though i am looking. have you ever heard of such a number?

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