Sunday, June 20, 2004


Lost Books

Some people are under the mistaken impression that the corpus of ancient literature is fixed, that no books are ever added to it. As a matter of fact, we now have many ancient books that were unknown to scholars just a century ago, for example many fragmentary plays of the Greek comic poet Menander.

The stories of such discoveries make fascinating reading in their own right. In World War II, the British were building a munitions dump at Tura, outside Cairo, when native workers discovered a hidden cache of ancient manuscripts, including hitherto unknown works of Didymus the Blind. Roger Pearse has an interesting account of the discovery.

Only about 35 books survive of the 142 written by the ancient Roman historian Livy. Throughout the centuries there have been periodic and persistent rumors about the lost books of Livy coming to light. There's a witty and erudite essay on this subject by B.L. Ullman, entitled "The Post-Mortem Adventures of Livy," in his Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 2nd edition (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1973), pp. 53-77.

The most recent rumor was a false claim by Dr. Mario Di Martino Fusco in 1924 that he had discovered a copy of the lost books of Livy. The hoax was at first believed even by the eminent classical scholar R.S. Conway, but was finally exploded when A.E. Housman identified a printed facsimile purporting to be a few lines of one of the manuscripts as actually part of Sulpicius Severus' Life of Saint Martin of Tours.

Ullman hopes that the rumors and hoaxes continue, and ends his essay with the words:
When the Lost Books of Livy disappear into Lethe, the River of Oblivion, we shall know that the Renaissance has come to an end and another tombstone may be erected, inscribed on which will be the words: "Hic iacent studia humanitatis et spes librorum Livianorum reperiundorum; requiescant Livi manes in pace." "Here lie humanistic studies and the hopes of finding the books of Livy; may the shade of Livy rest in peace."

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