Lost Latin Poetry

A fter the collapse of Rome in the fifth century a.d., the survival of many Ix. Latin authors was largely a matter of chance (see page xv). Many quotations from lost poetic works were preserved in prose writers. Cicero, for example, was fond of quoting from Ennius and other early poets in his letters and philosophical treatises. Still, the main source of information on what has been lost is grammarians and writers on antiquities, who quote from earlier literature to illustrate the meaning of a word, a point of grammar, or some facet of Roman history or society. These quotations, which may consist of a single word or run to several lines, have been collected by scholars and classified under the original authors' names.

The possibility exists that a medieval manuscript of an otherwise lost work may still come to light, although the chances are slim, since monasteries and old libraries where it might be preserved have long since been thoroughly searched. Over the past 200 years, however, many ancient papyri have been discovered in Egypt, where dry conditions have protected them from disintegration. The majority of these have been of Greek authors and have yielded many works previously thought lost. The most interesting of the Latin finds has been nine lines from a poem of Cornelius Gallus (d. 26 b.c.), a contemporary and friend of Vergil who introduced the love elegy to Rome. Although celebrated as a poet during his lifetime and after his death, he was previously known only by a single line quoted by a later writer.

The other source of ancient papyri is Herculaneum, one of the towns destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in a.d. 79. Nearby Pompeii was covered with hot volcanic dust, which destroyed most material of a combustible nature, but the ash that engulfed Herculaneum solidified into rock, and some objects made of organic matter, such as wood and the papyrus plant, were preserved. Since the first excavations in the eighteenth century, over 1700 rolls have been found. Because of their charred and brittle state, these could only be opened by breaking or slicing off successive pieces from the outer end of a roll. This unsatisfactory method, which was attempted on several hundred rolls, has for the most part produced prose works in Greek by a minor philosopher and rhetorician, Philode-mus. Among the few Latin finds is a 52-line fragment from a poem on the final phase of the civil war between Octavian and Marcus Antonius after the former's victory at the naval battle at Actium in 31 b.c. About 900 rolls remain unopened, and it is possible that scanning technology (for example, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) will allow these to be read without damage. Perhaps some treasures of Latin literature are still waiting to be revealed. <-: :->


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