Discovering new works from ancient Greece or Rome?
May 19, 2008 5:20 PM   Subscribe

When was the last time scholars discovered a previously unknown piece of literature from ancient Greece or Rome? Has it happened at all in modern times? If you were to speculate on the chances we'll ever rediscover another play from Euripides, Sophocles, et al, are there any relatively recent discoveries of new works from ancient Greek and Roman authors you could use as examples?
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
A new poem of Sappho discovered a couple of years ago:

Here's languagehat:
posted by Rain Man at 5:27 PM on May 19, 2008

That's exactly the kind of example I'm looking for, thanks! I'd love to see others from, say, the last 50 years - specific examples of the accidental ways ancient texts have come down to us, and possibilities for uncovering more new work in modern times. Btw, I wondered what "recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage" meant, searched and found this:

Cartonnage is a type of cardboard-like material. It was used by the ancient Egyptians in a manner similar to how we would use papier-mâché today...When Petrie examined the cartonnages found on the mummies of Gurob, he found, to his surprise, that the cartonnages were not made from layers of linen, but layers of papyrus. Further examination revealed something even more exciting. On some of the papyri, traces of Greek writing were visible...We owe a great debt of thanks to the ancient Egyptian undertakers. Their reuse of waste-papyrus to make cartonnage, has provided us with a wonderful window into many aspects of life in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period and rescued a few classical works from oblivion.

So it's fair to hypothesize there are possibly other mummy cartonnages with similarly important texts?
posted by mediareport at 5:50 PM on May 19, 2008

It's happening constantly. At Oxford, for instance, researchers are busy assembly papyri from the Oxyrhynchus site, which was discovered in the 1890s and which contained thousands of boxes worth of papyrus fragments. As these fragments are reassembled, new works are being discovered. There's a lot of assembly left to do, too. The discipline is called "papyrology".
posted by mr_roboto at 5:55 PM on May 19, 2008

If you look at the "The Papyri" link on that Oxyrhynchus web page, you can see discoveries of new works by Parthenius of Nicaea and Archilochus, as well as a fragment from a previously unknown version of the Revelation.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:03 PM on May 19, 2008

The Archimedes palimpsest is another example, more science-y than literary.

Lots on that site of interest, particularly the imaging techniques which allow study of lower layers of text.
posted by nat at 6:10 PM on May 19, 2008

mr_roboto beats me to it. The Oxyrhynchus project is awesome, and it's not the only one. There's also Herculaneum, which should be juicy pickings for Greek goodness.
posted by mumkin at 6:11 PM on May 19, 2008

Another example of a papyrus being found (albeit with a brand new ancient Egyptian literary text rather than Greek or Roman), is Papyrus Queen's College Oxford which was found in 1998 wedged between the pages of an old book in the library!
posted by Kirjava at 6:11 PM on May 19, 2008

There is a fantastic, easy-to-read book about the Oxyrhynchus project: The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Keep in mind that project did not recover much literature per se, but rather a lot of documents relating to quotidian life: to-do lists, and so forth.
posted by Rumple at 6:49 PM on May 19, 2008

nat got the one i that first comes to mind. it's the best example of what you're looking for.

As far as the chances for new discoveries, i'd think that examining the codices produced by medieval monasteries would be the most promising. Parchment and vellum were expensive and in short supply; Monks would often recycle older materials by scratching off the writing to create a fresh writing surface.
posted by buka at 7:17 PM on May 19, 2008

I'd love to see others from, say, the last 50 years

The Derveni Papyrus - found in 1962 - from the fifth century BCE. It was found in the remains of a buried funeral pyre. Amazing any of it survived at all.
posted by lysistrata at 8:12 PM on May 19, 2008

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Menander yet.
posted by Acetylene at 8:30 PM on May 19, 2008

The Oxford Papyrology site includes a helpful list of lost Greco-Roman literary works rediscovered in modern times. You might also be interested in this earlier AskMe thread, which discussed the likelihood of major new discoveries in the next few years.

Specific examples? There is the Charition mime, a bizarre piece of burlesque which turned up among the Oxyrhynchus papyri. No one really understands it, but you can read a partial translation here:

A GREEK MAN: Mistress Charition, celebrate these things with me that I have escaped.

CHARITION: Great are the gods!

CLOWN: What gods? Moron!

(A fart.)

CHARITION: Stop it, mister!

Then there are the poems of Cornelius Gallus, who was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the great Latin love poets, up there with Ovid and Propertius. For centuries all that was known of his work was one single line, 'uno tellures dividit amne duas'. Then in 1979 a papyrus was discovered at Qasr Ibrim, in Egypt, giving us a precious scrap of his poetry, which you can read here (with a translation here):

Fata mihi, Caesar, tum erunt mea dulcia, quom tu
maxima Romanae pars erit historiae,
postque tuum reditum multorum templa deorum
fixa legam spolieis deivotiora tueis.

We know it's by Gallus because one fragment ends 'tristia nequitia .. Lycori, tua' ('I am sad, Lycoris, because of your debauchery'), and we know from ancient sources that Gallus's love poems were addressed to a girl called Lycoris. Some scholars find it suspiciously convenient that the one surviving piece of Gallus's poetry should happen to mention Lycoris, and have suggested that the Qasr Ibrim papyrus might be an ancient forgery (someone else riffing off Gallus's poetry and borrowing the name Lycoris) or else an anthology of 'Gallus's greatest hits' which doesn't copy the poems out in full. But it's still a great discovery.
posted by verstegan at 10:31 PM on May 19, 2008

Here is another helpful list of new Latin texts discovered between 1961 and 1995. The major discoveries have been in early Christian literature, where some really sensational things have turned up in recent years. Only last month it was announced that six unknown sermons of St Augustine have been discovered in a 12th-century manuscript at Erfurt. Given how intensively Augustine has been studied, and how widely his works were copied, it's truly extraordinary that new writings by him should still be turning up. As Peter Brown has commented, it seems 'as unlikely as finding a first edition of the works of Shakespeare in an ordinary secondhand book store', and yet this is the third time in thirty years that lost works by Augustine have come to light. (Read Brown's article if you want to find out more about the other two, and how they change our understanding of Augustine and his world.)

You might also enjoy Mary Beard's recent blog post on lost works of classical literature. Contrarian as ever, she suggests that we don't really need any more classical texts, when so much remains to be done on the ones we've already got. But she goes on to nominate the five lost texts that she'd most like to rediscover, including Cicero's poems and Ovid's play Medea.
posted by verstegan at 2:23 AM on May 20, 2008

Wow, this is great. Every single answer is a best answer. Y'all are wonderful. If anyone has recommendations of other books that trace how classic texts have come down to us (I know it's often accidental, but also that there were, e.g., specific late antiquity folks who made choices as to which plays of Euripides and Sophocles got copied for use in schools), I'd love to see them.
posted by mediareport at 6:28 AM on May 20, 2008

A very nice general survey is Scribes and Scholars by Reynolds and Wilson.
posted by Rain Man at 1:41 PM on May 20, 2008

That looks perfect, Rain Man. I just ordered it via inter-library loan. Thanks! And thanks again to everyone for the fantastic info and links; I marked a couple as 'best' but would mark them all if it didn't look so silly.
posted by mediareport at 6:11 PM on May 20, 2008

Just discovered this relevant thread from a couple of years back and figured I'd add it for anyone who comes to this one later: How do we know so much about Roman history?
posted by mediareport at 7:21 PM on June 10, 2008

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