, , , , ,

Issue 7 of Ancient History magazine is now heading to subscribers. It contains something which was not quick to write, but which I think is very important: a summary of some studies in German which ask how many words of text in different ancient languages survive. Do you think that there are about twice as many words of Greek because the green Loebs take up twice as much shelf space as the red ones? Or prefer ten to one like Liddell and Scott guessed? How do Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian fit in? This article explores how those German researchers tried to find an answer, and what that answer is. To my knowledge, their work has never been discussed in plain language in English, so check it out! The article had to be trimmed for space, so in this post I would like to give the sources for a statement.

Latin literature preserves a story that when the Romans conquered Carthage, they had the books on agriculture by a certain Mago translated. Versions in Greek and in Latin circulated in antiquity but were lost long ago. What are our sources for this story? It seems to be Pliny, Historia Naturalis 18.23 and Varro, De Agri Cultura 1.1.10. Without the chance mention by writers on agriculture, the existence of these libraries would be completely unknown: it is hard enough to identify the sites of libraries in the well-preserved remains of stone cities, let alone ones which were ceremoniously razed to the ground. We know almost nothing else about what those libraries contained, although Greek literature does contain summaries of a few public inscriptions from Carthage which do not survive.

Classicists are still struggling to come to grips with the fact that Greek and Latin existed in a world of half a dozen literary languages and multilingual readers, and that such iconic works as the Iliad or Herodotus’ Histories rework metaphors and motifs which can be traced back for millennia in Mesopotamia (Aeschylus did not invent the idea of a ferocious, numberless polyglot horde from the edge of the known world which was suddenly overthrown by a small band of the people telling the story, and Homer had a crib when he sang about Achilles weeping over the body of Patroclus). Today, the study of the ancient world involves sources in dozens of languages and not just three. If you want to get a sense of what those languages are, and which languages you may not have heard of are better preserved than some which you recognize, this article is the place to start.

If you want to learn more, you can find Ancient History 7 on the Karwansaray Publishers website.

Further Reading: For Gilgameš and Achilles, see Robert Rollinger, “Old Battles, New Horizons: The Ancient Near East and the Homeric Epics” pp. 17-19. For Sumerian stories about vast hordes from the mountains, see an article by Sebastian Fink which is in one of my mounds-of-paper and may not have been published yet. I will update this post if I find it, but the stratigraphy of my office is complicated.