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The survival rate of ancient literature
#16
Quote: Although conquest always incidentally destroys some books. Things get accidentally burned, or soldiers steal them and they get ruined in their packs, or they get casually destroyed. Sultan Mehmet may have wanted to preserve the books and buildings of Constantinople in 1453, and he did a fairly good job of it, but some of his auxilliaries seem to have disagreed. Ditto for the Crusaders in 1204.

Some books will always get destroyed. You don't even need real wars for that, though they help (soldiers frequently need kindling, bedding or, erm, items of personal hygiene more than they need reading matter). But for a loss of the proportions we saw in Late Antiquity to occur, people have to basically stop caring about books for centuries on end.
Der Kessel ist voll Bärks!

Volker Bach
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#17
Quote:Ah well, one can only imagine what fantasies the conquered concoct about those who conquer them!

OInly saw that now. The funny bit about the story of Caliph OMar is that it wasn't invented by the Copts. As far as we know, it was invented by arabophone Muslims who regarded themselves as descendants of the Caliph, and they meant it in a good way. They were, of course, at the time familiar with the tradition of a great library at Alexandria so they could spin the tale around it (IIRC the Alexandrina played no role in Coptic folklore before it became politicised in the nineteenth century). The apparent intent behind it was to show 'soft' contemporaries how strong in faith and alert to temptation their glorious ancestors were.

Similarly, Frankish authors seeing nobody north of the Seine spoke much Latin any more wrote that their ancestors had killed all the Romans, never dreaming what French nationalist historians would do with that tidbit after 1871. They thought 'my great-granddaddy could beat up your great-granddaddy' was a good thing to preserve for posterity.
Der Kessel ist voll Bärks!

Volker Bach
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#18
Quote:As you say, Carlton, many thousands of scrolls and codices were lost. The Library at Alexandria had basically the complete history of Egypt, if we can believe Herodotus, which was accidentally burned in Mark Antony's day.


There are many stories about what happened to the Library of Alexandria. Some blame Caesar, some blame the Catholic Bishop, some finally blame the Arabs when they captured the city.

In my opinion I chose to think the church is the most likely one.

1. Caesar was fighting a war and while he may have burned the Egyptian fleet and some warehouses the odds of this destroying the library is low since we have reports of people using the library afterward.

3. The arabs of this time period were actually very accepting of knowledge and science. It would be out of character for them to mindlessly destroy all the knowledge within the library.

2. The church though had a very dim and rather destructive view of anything pagan. We already know the church closed down the libraries of Rome once they took over the city and destroyed the manuscripts they contained. Is it really that much of a leap to accept that Theophilus the Patriarch of Alexandria ordered and then oversaw its destruction?
Timothy Hanna
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#19
There are at least 4 theories as to how/when the Library burned. As far as I can tell, there is not clear consensus which is correct. It seems to me that the ashes ought to be found in a stratum that would make it fairly easy to determine at least the century, but I'm not a historian or an archeologist.

My personal opinion, not thoroughly researched, is that the first library burned during J.Caesar's war against Ptolemy, and was probably an accident. It's reported that Mark Anthony took scrolls by the hundred from Pergamum and had a library rebuilt using those "books" as a gift to Cleopatra, but many of the original volumes were lost irrecovacably. If this is true, the library was burned about a century before Jesus was crucified, and at least a three centuries before the church was an entity capable of ordering anything. Again, I apologize to the real historians, and am willing to be shown wrong in these statements.
M. Demetrius Abicio
(David Wills)

Saepe veritas est dura.
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#20
Quote:It seems to me that the ashes ought to be found in a stratum that would make it fairly easy to determine at least the century, but I'm not a historian or an archeologist.
Unfortunately, there are no known remains of the library in Alexandria in situ. There's a hollowed out block that may have been used for holding scrolls, but even that's debatable. The sad fact is that very little of ancient Alexandria remains. The visible remains have been plundered for centuries upon centuries, and urban development over the past 100 years has obliterated much more.
Dan Diffendale
Ph.D. candidate, University of Michigan
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#21
One last datum since this thread has started up again.

I have it on the word of written culture expert Dr. Erik Kwakkel that about 8% of medieval manuscripts survive (carying a somewhat higher proportion of medieval literature, but we don't know much about what is missing). Of course, common medieval books like psalters probably got discarded much quicker when printing came in than anything old and rare, but I'm not sure. Based on that, a survival rate of less than 1% for ancient literature sounds plausible.
Nullis in verba

I left this forum around the beginning of 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value
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#22
Quote:There are at least 4 theories as to how/when the Library burned. As far as I can tell, there is not clear consensus which is correct. It seems to me that the ashes ought to be found in a stratum that would make it fairly easy to determine at least the century, but I'm not a historian or an archeologist.

My personal opinion, not thoroughly researched, is that the first library burned during J.Caesar's war against Ptolemy, and was probably an accident. It's reported that Mark Anthony took scrolls by the hundred from Pergamum and had a library rebuilt using those "books" as a gift to Cleopatra, but many of the original volumes were lost irrecovacably. If this is true, the library was burned about a century before Jesus was crucified, and at least a three centuries before the church was an entity capable of ordering anything. Again, I apologize to the real historians, and am willing to be shown wrong in these statements.


Out of curiosity what would you base this on? Caesar did burn the Egyptian fleet but in a city where its library and the books within are really the heart of the city I would find it very illogical that the library was located close enough to the docks that the library would also be burnt.

Also in my experience most pieces I have read that want to blame Caesar are written by people with religious bias who are more interested in shifting blame away from the Patriarch and Christianity. I find it extra amusing because quite often its a dual-point arguement made that Caesar did it and who really cares because there wasnt that much stuff in the library anyway.
Timothy Hanna
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#23
The first mention of such a fire comes from more than 100 years after Caesar's time. I don't have the quote at hand but it reads something like "10,000 books were burned" when the Alexandrian fleet was set afire. Since Alexandria was the ancient world's greatest exporter of books this probably meant that warehouses containing books for export were burned. The destruction of the Alexandrian Library would have been considered an atrocity and surely Caesar's many, many enemies would have mentioned it had it really happened.
Pecunia non olet
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#24
I don't suppose Elizabeth Taylor's having said to Richard Burton in the 60s movie Cleopatra, "...they burned the library?!" would count as a reference? :lol: :roll:

I said it was an opinion. I could probably dig around and find things that would agree with me, and things that wouldn't. In either case, others could find opposite viewpoints. If it were clearly documented, then there wouldn't be disagreement, odds are. Then there would be no argument.

It's just easy to blame the medieval Church for all the ills of the world, and many do. In some cases, it's true. In others, it's the continual bashing of the Church that prompts such statements.
M. Demetrius Abicio
(David Wills)

Saepe veritas est dura.
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#25
Quote:I don't suppose Elizabeth Taylor's having said to Richard Burton in the 60s movie Cleopatra, "...they burned the library?!" would count as a reference? :lol: :roll:

I actually liked that movie! Elizabeth Taylor made a great Cleopatra. Smile
... wasn't too keen on Richard Burton though.

Anyway, I have read somewhere in a history book that the library was burned during J. Caesars time. But of course I'm no expert or scholar! ... and unfortunately i can't remember the source where i read that :? .
Sara T.
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#26
Quote:The first mention of such a fire comes from more than 100 years after Caesar's time. I don't have the quote at hand but it reads something like "10,000 books were burned" when the Alexandrian fleet was set afire. Since Alexandria was the ancient world's greatest exporter of books this probably meant that warehouses containing books for export were burned. The destruction of the Alexandrian Library would have been considered an atrocity and surely Caesar's many, many enemies would have mentioned it had it really happened.


Yet there was nothing at all mentioned which is why I find any attempt to put the blame on Caesar as mere maneuvering to cover up the true culprit.

Oh and I am not trying to bash the medieval chuch for anything, they did quite a fine job of that all on their own. Remember more christians were killed by fellow christians than ever died at the hands of the romans.
Timothy Hanna
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#27
Quote:One last datum since this thread has started up again.

I have it on the word of written culture expert Dr. Erik Kwakkel that about 8% of medieval manuscripts survive (carying a somewhat higher proportion of medieval literature, but we don't know much about what is missing). Of course, common medieval books like psalters probably got discarded much quicker when printing came in than anything old and rare, but I'm not sure. Based on that, a survival rate of less than 1% for ancient literature sounds plausible.

Has he published anything on that matter? I'd also love to know which sources have come in what languages - Greek, Roman, Arabic, Syriac - to us. :?: :!: :?: :!:
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#28
Quote:
M. Demetrius:3kb84xn3 Wrote:I don't suppose Elizabeth Taylor's having said to Richard Burton in the 60s movie Cleopatra, "...they burned the library?!" would count as a reference? :lol: :roll:

I actually liked that movie! Elizabeth Taylor made a great Cleopatra. Smile
... wasn't too keen on Richard Burton though.

I'm not a big fan of the movie: I prefer 'Carry on Cleo', which is a lot funnier and historically (slightly!) more accurate.

Who can forget the line, "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in-fo'-me!"

On a more serious note, I'd always believed that the library burnt down later than Caesar, but I can't remember the reference - sorry. I'll try to dig it out.....
Ian (Sonic) Hughes
"I have described nothing but what I saw myself, or learned from others" - Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
"I have just jazzed mine up a little" - Spike Milligan, World War II
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#29
Quote:
Sean Manning:dvqetswk Wrote:One last datum since this thread has started up again.

I have it on the word of written culture expert Dr. Erik Kwakkel that about 8% of medieval manuscripts survive (carying a somewhat higher proportion of medieval literature, but we don't know much about what is missing). Of course, common medieval books like psalters probably got discarded much quicker when printing came in than anything old and rare, but I'm not sure. Based on that, a survival rate of less than 1% for ancient literature sounds plausible.

Has he published anything on that matter? I'd also love to know which sources have come in what languages - Greek, Roman, Arabic, Syriac - to us. :?: :!: :?: :!:
I expect that the figure is for Europe only, and I'm not sure if it includes the Orthodox world or just Latin Christiendom. It would be really interesting to do a tally of which ancient authors survive from different regions, and in what languages- I know some things only survive in Arabic or Syriac translations. I just asked Dr. Kwakkel about this and here was his reply:

Quote:Hi Sean,

The estimation of 7% (not 8%, as I may have stated in class) is found in:

-Uwe Neddermeyer, ‘Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer Quantitativen Bestimmung der Buchproduction im Spätmittelalter’ in Gazette du Livre Médiéval 28 (1996), pp. 23-32
-Uwe Neddermeyer, Von der Handschrift zum gedrückten Buch. Schriftlichkeit und Leseinteresse im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit: Quantitative und qualitative Aspecte (Wiesbaden 1998).

This number (7%) relates to medieval books in general. If you focus on illuminated manuscripts, the survival rate goes up to 15% (no doubt because of their beauty), see Hanno Wijsman, ‘Manuscrit illustrés dans les Pays-Bas Bourguignons: Quelques remarques quantitatives’, in Gazette du Livre Médiéval 43 (automne 2003), pp. 23-33).

I hope this is useful.

Erik Kwakkel
Its amazing that so many books survive when you think about it. Does anyone here read French or German?
Nullis in verba

I left this forum around the beginning of 2013, but I hope that these old posts have some value
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#30
Avete,

To those interested, I recommend you buy the book "The Rise and Fall of Alexandria", it starts with the foundation of the city until its demise by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD.

Quote:There was quite a bit destroyed during the Ottoman conquests to, I believe!

No, the city was long destroyed and abandoned by that period. However, the city was conquered by the Persians in the 7th century AD, but briefly reconquered by the Romans and finally conquered and destroyed afterward by the invading Muslim Arabs. So, the city's fate was worse than you might suspect.

Quote:3. The arabs of this time period were actually very accepting of knowledge and science. It would be out of character for them to mindlessly destroy all the knowledge within the library.

Yeah, they destroyed both Alexandria AND Carthage, the two greatest cities on the continent, which were never again inhabited afterward. Sounds very much in character to destroy ancient buildings.

Quote:I have it on the word of written culture expert Dr. Erik Kwakkel that about 8% of medieval manuscripts survive

Quite right, Sean. Books are lost all the time, as Carlton pointed out as well. But I didn't know only 8% of Medieval literature has come down to us Confusedhock: This does throw some perspective on the question.

Quote:But yeah, there are a lot of things to weep over, like all the times someone decided to make another copy of St. Jerome rather than copy something profane like a centurion's memoirs of a war the copyist had never heard

Actually, I think you're being too harsh here, Sean. The most documented portion of ALL Roman history that survives in greatest detail is the Late Republic. Mostly because we have Cicero's letters from the period which allow us to read about the politics of the time often on a day to day basis. No period previous or subsequent is so thoroughly preserved.

Quote:We should add that several books that we would like to read were already lost in Roman times, e. g. the whole literature of Carthage, which - according to Polybios and Livius - must have been extensive

True, and there's something else no one's mentioned. Alexandria was devastated by a massive tidal wave in the 360s AD (note: I don't say "tsunami" :roll: ) Many books could've been lost in that one event alone !

Quote:Caesar did burn the Egyptian fleet but in a city where its library and the books within are really the heart of the city I would find it very illogical that the library was located close enough to the docks that the library would also be burnt.

Also in my experience most pieces I have read that want to blame Caesar are written by people with religious bias who are more interested in shifting blame away from the Patriarch and Christianity.

Your cynicism is unfounded. Fire spreads very easily, just look at the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD - and Rome had a fire service unlike Alexandria ! Besides, we have circumstantial evidence for the extent of the fire that Caesar started. We know that Mark Antony presented Cleopatra the library of Pergamum (the second greatest only after Alexandria's) which may suggest that he was trying to compensate for the lost books burned by fire from Caesar's time.

Quote:Remember more christians were killed by fellow christians than ever died at the hands of the romans.

Gee, that can apply to just about every group. Alexander killed more Greeks than any Persians did, Romans killed more Romans than Hannibal ever did, Muslims killed more Muslims than ...etc.. Your point is moot.

Quote:I actually liked that movie! Elizabeth Taylor made a great Cleopatra.
... wasn't too keen on Richard Burton though.

I agree. Burton doesn't have a masculine presence. Two major exceptions are when he played in "Anne of a Thousand Days" and "Taming of the Shrew". Smile

Quote:I expect that the figure is for Europe only, and I'm not sure if it includes the Orthodox world or just Latin Christiendom

Great point ! Why did it take this long for someone to mention Constantinople ? Everyone always jumps on the Arabs and the Latin monks but Constantinople had its own library and the city never fell to invaders until 1204. There's nothing the Arabs "preserved" that did not already survive in Constantinople.

Quote:Many were translated from Greek into Arabic, then lost and back-translated from Arabic in the Middle Ages. It's a crapshoot any way you look at it.

No (and yes). The Greek originals were preserved in Constantinople and translated into Latin during the Renaissance as Greek scholars and artisans fled from the Ottoman onslaught. Besides, the Arab translations were flawed so it is doubly fortunate that the Greek originals were rescued and translated directly to Latin. There was no need for the Arab middleman. And the Arabs were highly selective in what they deigned to translate - for instance they completely ignored anything to do with Greek political theory.

~Theo
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