Great Literary Works Lost to History

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThroughout history, some of the greatest literary treasures have been destroyed by foreign invaders who set fire to entire cities, including great libraries in order to erase the cultural history of the conquered inhabitants. These ruthless barbarians have taken the torch to great cultural institutions that belong to the world at large, including the Library of Alexandria, the Imperial Library of Constantinople, the Library of Congress, and more recently, the Central Library of the University of Baghdad, the National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Mosul public library. (Just as tragic, in some instances, scholars were also burned or buried alive.) The loss of these rare historical and literary manuscripts is immeasurable. Other times precious literary works are lost due to natural disasters, accidental fires, deterioration of paper, or simply due to failure to preserve the original literary works. Here are some of the most significant literary works lost to history.

The plays of Euripides: Euripides wrote about 94 plays; 19 plays survived; 75 were lost.

The plays of Sophocles: Sophocles wrote about 120 plays; only 7 plays survived; 113 were lost.

Margites by Homer: Although two great epics (Iliad and Odyssey) are attributed to Homer, he actually wrote a third one. Only five fragments discussing Homer’s third epic poem have been found; one of these was from Aristotle who wrote: “[Margites as] an analogy: as are the Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies.”

Ab Urbe Condita by Titus Livius (Livy): Livy wrote a 142-volume history of Rome between 27 and 9 BC. 35 volumes survived; 107 volumes were lost.

The Aztec and Mayan Codices: Following the orders of Itzcoatl, the fourth Aztec emperor, and Diego de Landa Calderón, a Spanish Franciscan monk and bishop of the Diocese of Yucatan, thousands of Mayan historic artifacts, including 27 hieroglyphic manuscripts were destroyed. Only three Maya books and fragments of a fourth book (collectively known as the Maya codices) exist. Ironically, much of what we know of Maya culture comes from Landa’s manuscript, Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, which he wrote upon returning to Spain in 1566 (but not published until 1862).

Cardenio by William Shakespeare: Cardenio, co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher based on an episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, was first performed in 1613 by the King’s Men. Although there are two existing plays that are related to Cardenio, the manuscript of the original play has never been found.

Love Labour’s Won by William Shakespeare: A list of Shakespeare’s completed works as of 1598, included the play Love Labour’s Won. Although some Shakespearean scholars believe it is simply an alternate title for The Taming of the Shrew, others believe that it is a completely different play. As evidence they note another list of extant works, compiled in 1603, that includes the titles: The Taming of the Shrew and Love Labour’s Won.

Classic of Music by Confucius: The book, an interpretation of Confucius’s Book of Songs, was destroyed in 213 BC by the order of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

Adam Unparadiz’d by John Milton: Milton began writing Adam Unparadiz’d as a play in the early 1640s. He completed only two acts before he abandoned the work, due to the closure of many of the theaters in London. Soon after, Milton began work on his magnum opus, Paradise Lost.

History of the Liberty of the Swiss by Edward Gibbon: While working on the highly-regarded The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 to 1789), English historian Gibbon began work on a history of the Swiss, writing it in French. He read some excerpts that received some criticism. Discouraged by that response, Gibbon tossed the nearly completed manuscript into a fire.

Read related posts: I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Power of Literature

For further reading:

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