Which lost ancient texts would scholars most like to recover and why?
September 29, 2016 3:35 PM   Subscribe

We know from citations and references the names of many ancient texts that are now lost. Which among these would scholars be most excited to recover and why?
posted by jefficator to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Recovering Aristotle's lost dialogues would be a great boon for ancient philosophy.
posted by dis_integration at 3:44 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

References indicate that Sophocles wrote 120 plays. We only have 7 of them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

In my old field: early (pre-100 CE) gospels (tales of Jesus' life, teachings, or other items directly related to Jesus), canonical or otherwise.

Specifically, if something was found matching the description of the theoretical Q source (Thomas doesn't), early Christian studies would lose its mind.

Evidence for the Secret Gospel of Mark other than the lost fragment would also put to rest a relatively long argument in the field. (Some think the now-lost fragment was a fraud; this is disputed.) Or, the lost fragment itself for testing.

Most of the lost works of Irenaeus would thrill heresiologists, as would anything directly rebutting Irenaeus.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:04 PM on September 29, 2016 [13 favorites]

2nding Chocolate Pickle. We have very, very few of the many hundreds of tragedies written for Athenian dramatic competitions. More Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus would be great. Many signs point to another playwright, Agathon, being as great as they were, but his works are lost completely.

I don't remember the author but there was an epic poem in Latin about the Punic Wars that is now lost. Greater risk that that's probably really boring, though.

I agree about finding the Q gospel source as flibbertigibbet mentions.

In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco makes a plot point out of the finding the (actually lost) second book of Aristotle's Poetics, which purportedly dealt with comedy.

Many ancient lyric poets (Sappho, probably most famously these days) are preserved only in incidental quotations from other authors in passing.
posted by rustcellar at 5:18 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

The prophet Mani, founder of the now extinct world religion Manichaeism, wrote seven books, all of which survive only in fragments. The history of religion would certainly be more complete if we had those works in full. (Mani even made paintings himself to illustrate one of these, which are also lost.)
posted by bertran at 5:21 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

This isn't a complete work, just a lost fragment of a larger work, but I'd really like to have Tacitus's account of the Caligula years.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:25 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

When the Spaniards conquered the Maya, there were great libraries of Mayan codices (effectively books) which they collected and burned. Only four survive even partially.

Writing was only invented four times: China, Egypt, Babylonia, and Central America. All other modern writing is based directly or indirectly on the first three of those, and we know very little about Mayan writing. It's only been possible to read it for the last fifty years. Discovery of an intact Mayan library would set the archeological and linguistic world on fire.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:58 PM on September 29, 2016 [25 favorites]

Many (all?) of the so-called "pre-Socratics" (early Greek philosophers) are known only from fragments and secondary discussions. Having complete texts would be very interesting. The occasional discovery of a new fragment is also a major event. For example, Heraclitus was apparently a towering figure and his doctrines are studied by present-day scholars, but none of his works survive intact.
posted by grobstein at 6:03 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

kevinbelt's mention of Tacitus reminds me that most of Livy's history of Rome is lost as well.
posted by rustcellar at 6:07 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia has a list of destroyed libraries and an article on book burning.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:21 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Many of the good ones have been mentioned, but also the so-called "Epic Cycle," a series of epics which tell more extensively the story of the Trojan War. Recovering them would give us insight into both Homer and classical drama as well as address more general questions concerning the distillation of an oral tradition into written form.
posted by praemunire at 8:47 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

There are undeciphered languages such as the Etruscan language or whatever language the Cascajal Block is inscribed with, which finding any further documents might enable the decipherment of.
posted by XMLicious at 9:37 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

There are five books that constitute the Confucian classics - but there used to be six. The Classic of Music has been lost.
posted by kickingtheground at 1:09 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some suggestions from Mary Beard: My five favourite Roman classics .. that we have lost.

More good suggestions in this post from 2011: The Top 10 Books Lost to Time.
posted by verstegan at 2:45 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Finding a part of the Epic of Gilgamesh was pretty amazing and it's likely there are other parts we may not have even known we were missing.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

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