A cultural catastrophe
According to the sources consulted by Wikipedia on the historical world population, there were around 225 million people in the first century AD. As uncertain any estimates for this period already are, trying to find out what percentage of this global population would have been literate is even more elusive. Whatever estimates historians do give can only be given about regions that had literate civilizations at that time. Even in 1820, only about 12 % of the world’s population could fluently read and write.
If we conservatively reduce the literacy rate for the first century to a tenth of a per cent, we’d end up with about 225,000 literate people spread across the various civilizations, of whom the Roman and Han Empires together would probably take up more than half. Rounding the share of the Greco-Roman world’s literate population further down, we arrive at approximately 50,000 people who were able to read and write.
We set out to be as thorough as possible when compiling the list of all known authors (and a few unknown of known works), but with a total of 166 we’d be more than happy to discover that our list is far from complete. Even against our very moderate estimate of perhaps 50,000 literate and well educated people, the total we arrived at is a mere 0.33 %. Compared to the estimated population of the first century Roman Empire, this number becomes even more deplorable and leaves us with only 0.000332 % of the population we still have written information from. There were a lot more literate people than that, for without them the Roman Empire could not have existed, let alone expand to its greatest extent in the first half of the second century. We think it fair to assume that the Roman senators for instance could read and write. Though Octavian reduced their number to 600, this still is four times the size of our list. It is only one example of course. All this to say that we have lost about 99.9985 % of all written documents produced in the first century Roman territories.
There is no telling if future discoveries may equal the likes of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi codices. Both these and a few lucky others only serve to illustrate the immense loss the teeth of time have caused to the fragile media of papyri and parchment. The natural decay of these forms of transfer of information is without a doubt the main culprit in the destruction of historic records. On top of that comes also the cultural environment that chooses which documents to preserve by copying them and which not. The economic and political instability of the centuries following the gradual decline of the Roman Empire, particularly its western half, have been dubbed the Dark Ages by scholars of the (European) Renaissance and Enlightenment. Though not absolute in all areas and aspects of life, they certainly had grounds to justify this description of the early and high middle ages. One consequence of the post-Roman instability, and an illustration par excellence of this academic unfriendly world, is the emergence of a lot of palimpsests (see note 1) in the manuscripts we still have.
Though I don’t intend to go into the nuances and details of it, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the deliberate destruction of ancient documents as well. These instances may not have been as common as sometimes believed, but they were there. With an increasingly tight grip on European academia and philosophy, the Christian churches of both the Byzantine Empire and the former western part of its ‘predecessor’ certainly suppressed the dissemination of “heretical” texts. Again, to do so in most cases they could simply choose not to copy any such text and its disappearance was as good as guaranteed. When discussing the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, especially with Christians, you will often hear the argument that the “vast amount” of biblical manuscripts dwarfs the extant writings of or about any other historical figure. You will hear them put this in context far less… let alone mention that for more than ten centuries it was mostly Christian institutions that decided which texts were preserved and multiplied. Even the often mentioned number of over 5,000 biblical manuscripts isn’t all that impressive when compared to what may have still existed by the end of the first century (see note 1). You would undoubtedly also have to dig into this claim a bit deeper yourself, ‘cause the same claimants will not tell you that the bulk of those manuscripts are post-6th century copies and that we simply have zero originals from the first century. Lastly, even if we would have over 1 million second century copies of the gospel of Matthew, it would not make its content more historical (see note 2).
Only a tiny proportion of authors left us with their written legacy. But of those, we only have a small part of what they wrote. In our reference list there are quite a few authors we only know by reference. In other cases, we know authors sometimes produced more than 20 books but we count ourselves lucky to still have a few citations of any of them.
Drawing of a text fragment of "On rhetoric" by Philodemus of Gadara
Hercules giveth, Hercules taketh
Mount Vesuvius, possibly named after Herakles, son of Zeus, still is one of the most dangerous volcanoes, and like many volcanoes, both a scourge and a blessing to the surrounding regions. In 79 AD, the volcano not only destroyed Pompeii, but also the smaller yet wealthier Herculaneum (Heraklion), the Beverly Hills for the first century Roman elite. The 79 eruption meant disaster for the region, killing thousands and destroying cities and villages. But it also buried Herculaneum under a very thick ash layer and thus turned it into one of the best preserved Roman cities. Part thereof is also the best preserved ancient library containing the only original papyri of classical antiquity to be ever found in Europe.
Up until the 17-hundreds, we only had a few surviving medieval papyri. With the discovery of the ‘Villa of the Papyri’, that number jumped to over 1,800 complete and fragmented scrolls. Academics suspect that many more scrolls may still be found in the unexcavated parts of Herculaneum. The means of preservation of the scrolls and fragments are simultaneously the biggest hurdle to read any of them. Many of the scrolls were even thrown away before they were recognized as being what they are. Early attempts at unrolling them proved more destructive. Only a minority of the scrolls (about 10 %) have so far been deciphered and published but the most recently developed technology offers some hope that the process can be sped up while preserving more original material.
Before the discovery of the so called ‘Villa of the Papyri’, the epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara (yes, the region of the Gerasenes in the gospels, aka the Decapolis) was mostly known through his poems preserved in the Greek Anthology. This Greek Anthology of poems has long been the only source for several Greco-Roman poets and philosophers. Since then, at least 44 more works of Philodemus’ hand have been identified. Philodemus was a student of Zeno of Sidon. Of the latter no works survive and it is only through Philodemus that we still have some of his lectures. Another Gadarene and contemporary of Philodemus was Meleager, a poet and satirist. His collection of poems of 46 Greek poets, as well as 134 of his own epigrams survive only through the fore mentioned Greek Anthology, but all of his satirical prose is lost. Being a fellow Gadarene of Philodemus, who is suspected to have been its “librarian”, the 'Villa of the Papyri' may perhaps one day yield more of this author’s work. Of the far more famous Seneca the Elder, only two incomplete or abridged books have survived; until in the course of 2016-2018 Papyrus Herculanensis 1067 was recognized as Seneca’s previously considered lost work “Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium”.
Another author whose work has been found among the Herculaneum papyri is the Stoic philosopher Chrysippos. This native from Soli, Cilicia (about 25 km west of Tarsus), wrote more than 700 works according to Diogenes Laertius, of which zero have survived. Since the 2,000s however, segments of three of his works have been identified among the scrolls and fragments. As mentioned earlier, about 90 % of the scrolls and fragments so far found in Herculaneum still await further research, possible identification, reading, translation and publication… all if and when possible. Many more scrolls may still lay under the four meters of ash still covering the unexcavated parts of this one villa, containing one personal library of one individual. The famous 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius has been the catastrophe that preserved at least a few of the perhaps millions of scrolls that at one point may have filled the shelves of many libraries, both private and public spread across the Mediterranean and the Persian empire. Any next one of the regular eruptions of Mount Vesuvius may yet destroy what is still buried, or render it inaccessible.
I have perhaps elaborated on this one example more than necessary, but I can feel only sad when thinking about the immeasurable loss of so much poetry, plays, recorded history, commentaries and thoughts of thousands of people who were the first hand witnesses of an age and world that shaped and continues to shape our own. If nothing else, this post may serve as a reminder that there is always the off chance that other treasures may still turn up. With the examples of the ‘Villa of the Papyri’, the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices in mind, re-discoveries like these have helped tremendously in expanding our knowledge about classical antiquity.
Darryl P.A, 11 July 2022
Notes, sources, references:
N.1. The Wikipedia page “Biblical manuscripts” expands a bit on both the number of catalogued manuscripts as well as the recycling of parchment resulting in palimpsests. Keep in mind that the mentioned total of up to 26,000 manuscripts is the entirety of some 1,475 years (which, expressed in a linear average, would mean that the entire Christian world produced 18 copies per year between 125 and 1600 AD). Notice how the oldest extant Greek “manuscripts” are a few fragments dated to the second century. The first extant (almost) complete bible in Greek dates from around 350 AD, while the first Latin version, Codex Vercellensis dates from a few decades later. This literary production rate is certainly nothing to boast about and even less if we compare it with the production of Philodemus or Chrysippos in our above examples.
To humble the ‘Christian literacy’ even further however, we have but to mention the so called Library of Ashurbanipal. This library alone consists of more than 30,000 clay tablets and fragments of cuneiform text (and being what they are, these texts could not be altered after its final production stage). A catastrophe to some can be a blessing to others as the preservation of these tablets is a second example of how a contemporary calamity to its owners can safeguard their documents for the future. To date, about 2 million of these clay tablets have been excavated and about 100,000 (about 5%) have been read, translated and published.
Laura Wilsey, “New cuneiform tablet acquired by Special Collections”, 08 January 2020, Stanford Libraries, https://library.stanford.edu/blogs/special-collections-unbound/2020/01/new-cuneiform-tablet-acquired-special-collections
Evidently, if we really had so many 2nd and/ or 3rd century copies, we’ d not only have to reassess the entire history of early Christianity, but also beyond, how this society would even be able to produce such a quantity of bible copies. We’d have to take a new look at its many aspects, such as logistics, available time spent on copying, sustaining the copyists themselves and of course literacy rates, to name but a few.
Wikipedia, “Estimates of historical world population”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estimates_of_historical_world_population
Wikipedia, “History of education in ancient Israel and Judah”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_ancient_Israel_and_Judah
“Diversity in the desert: Daily life in Greek and Roman Egypt (332 BCE – 641 CE)”, 2007, University of Michigan, Scholarly Publishing Office, https://apps.lib.umich.edu/diversity-desert/literate.html
Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Literacy”, Published online at OurWorldInData.org 2016, last revision 20 September 2018 https://ourworldindata.org/literacy
Wikipedia, “1st century”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_century
Wikipedia, “Han dynasty”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_dynasty
Wikipedia, “Roman Senate”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Senate
Reference article “Mount Vesuvius”, 2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection, https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/m/Mount_Vesuvius.htm
Wikipedia, “Villa of the Papyri”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_of_the_Papyri
Wikipedia, “Herculaneum”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum
Wikipedia, “Herculaneum papyri”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum_papyri
Wikipedia, “Philodemus”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philodemus
Wikipedia, “Meleager of Gadara”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meleager_of_Gadara
Wikipedia, “Magna Graecia”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Graecia
Carlo Marino,”Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Elder’s Histories, Rome, 21 May 2018, European News Agency Deutschland, Kunst, Kultur und Musik, retrieved through Internet Archive – WaybackMachine, https://www.european-news-agency.de/kunst_kultur_und_musik/lucius_anneus_seneca_the_elders_histories_-71128/
Wikipedia, “Chrysippus”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysippus
File: Roman Road Surface at Herculaneum.jpg, Wikimedia Commons, “Surface of a roman road in Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of mount Vesuvius 79 AD” “Strassenbelag in der 79 n.Chr. vom Vulkanausbruch des Vesuvs verschütteten Stadt Herculaneum”, Created on 12 April 2006; Retrieved from Wikipedia, “Herculaneum”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum
A drawing of a text fragment of ‘On rhetoric’ by Philodemus of Gadara
Image from Giacomo Castrucci (1794-1858), “Tesoro letterario di Ercolano, ossia, la reale officina dei papiri ercolanesi, Stamperia e cartiere del Fibreno”, Naples, 1858.
File: Tesoro letterario di Ercolano p76b.jpg, created 11 July 2011, public domain; Retrieved from: Wikipedia, "Herculaneum papyri", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum_papyri