Sunday, August 18, 2013

My Search For The Lost Books Of Livy

[Edited 25. February 2015]

Some scholars of the Classics reading the title of this post, assuming that any such scholar ever will, might well laugh and wonder whether I'm joking or simpleminded. I hope I'm neither, but I myself smiled as I chose that title, and I know that the Classical scholars who would hear of such a search with anything other than derision might be few or non-existent. That's okay. I'm quite used to being sneered at and made fun of by Biblical scholars because they haven't convinced me yet that Jesus existed, and so being made fun of because I'm not convinced that those 107 lost books of Livy don't still exist somewhere wouldn't be an entirely new experience for me. In fact, in a way I can understand such derision, because how are academics supposed to be able to tell me apart at first glance from a fan of popular contemporary mythicists (as those who are unconvinced that Jesus existed are called) like Carrier, Price, Doherty and/or of the "History Channel"? I feel that I'm pretty unique among the non-mainstream, that I resemble an academic in many ways and that my lack of an academic career is due to my autism and not because I can't keep up with what the pros are talking about. It seems that way to me, but have I done anything so far to prove to the pros that I'm someone to be taken seriously in the field of ancient history? I have not. On the contrary, the autism, the lack of credentials, the complete lack of peer-reviewed papers, the eccentric views on Jesus and Livy's lost books are all red flags. I know this, and it's okay.

I think I respect the academic mainstream more than do most of the most popular contemporary mythicists. I don't know if there's a term corresponding to "mythicist" to describe someone looking for Livy's lost books. In fact, I don't know of anyone else at all besides me who's currently looking. And the less-than-admiring opinion of such an undertaking on the part of the academic mainstream does give me pause. I would just say to the deriders and head-shakers: a searcher doesn't have to find what he's looking for in order for his search to have been worthwhile. Successful or not, if he searches well, he will find all sorts of things he wasn't looking for.

But I must make clear, and this isn't false modesty, it's accurate, that my search for the lost books so far has been feeble and entirely amateurish. I hope that may change eventually.

The trail of the lost books goes cold in the late 6th century. There is fragmentary evidence of them up until that time:

A condensed version of the entire work, all 142 books, known as the periochae. A volume edited by Otto Jahn in the 19th century contains the periochae, 106 pages in this edition, probably about 1% as many words as the original, and then, 29 pages long, the so-called prodigies of Julius Obsequens: mentions of comets, earthquakes, famines, swarms of bees and other unusual things occuring in Livy's work.Obsequens' work itself does not survive whole: we have only his descriptions of the prodigies in Livy's books 56 through 132. Both the author of the periochae and Obsequens are thought to have worked in the 4th century.

Then there is Florus,whose history of Rome, about as long as the periochae, focusing mainly on military matters, is drawn mostly from Livy, and rarely studied today for any other reason than to learn about Livy.

11 pages of fragments from the lost books were collected and included in an out-of-print edition of books 41-45, edited by William Weissenborn and Moritz Mueller, published by Teubner.

Those 5 books, 41-45, are now known to us from a single manuscript, which was written in the 5th century, circulated for a while and then was discovered collecting dust on a shelf in a monastery in Switzerland in the 16th century. It seems that this manuscript was originally only half of a manuscript containing books 41-50. 46-50 are currently at large.

In a very famous letter from the year 401, on p 239 of the MGH edition of his works, ISBN 3-921575-19-2, the Roman patrician Quintus Aurelius Symmachus informs his friend Valerian that his entire household is engaged in an edition of Livy's works.

These are some of the clues we have to the possible whereabouts of those missing 107 books. Symmachus owned quite a number of villas in Italy. Recently an ancient villa thought possibly to be the one where that edition of Livy was made has been excavated along with its surroundings, leading to some speculation about the possibility of coming across interesting texts.

An enormous amount of writing on ancient papyrus, as well as some on parchment, has been found in Egypt since the 19th century, and some continues to be found, mostly in Egypt but some to the east. Finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic Gospels make a lot of headlines, but they're a tiny fraction of all of the ancient texts found. Most of the texts are in Greek, the dominant language of the eastern Roman Empire, but some are Latin. A couple of the finds were a few dozen words each of Livy, 1 from book 1 (known) and 1 from book 11 (lost!) and a third was a condensed version of books 37-40 (known) and 48-55 (lost!).

So you see, we actually are finding parts of the lost books. There's that codex containing books 41-45 recovered in the 16th century. The most spectacular find since then is a palimpsest of about 1000 words from book 91, contained among those fragments in Weissenborn and Mueller's volume mentioned above. The most spectacular find since then was that parchment containing several dozen words of book 11. That was found in the 1980's. The deriders would say that I, along with anyone else like me, in case there is anyone else like me on this subject, am ignoring a pattern of drastically diminishing returns. I would respond that they're displaying a can't-do attitude.

What can we do? We can take all of the things I have listed above and use them as clues as to where to look for more. We can think about the time when the trail went cold, the late 6th century. The darkest part of the Dark Ages in Western Europe. The reign of Pope Gregory the Great -- not so great from the point of view of Classical scholars. Did he order the destruction of the works of Livy? If so, what we possess is what survived a deliberate destruction, and we need to think about where the books currently lost may have been hidden to escape Gregory's troops. If Gregory had nothing to do with the loss, if the books disappeared from view in the general random chaos of the wars of the time, where would they have been most well-protected from all that chaos? (Just as in the hypothetical case of an anti-Livy campaign by Gregory, so too in the general-chaos hypothesis, the lost books could have been hidden by design, or merely happened to be in the right place, away from danger.) The authors who included fragments of Livy in their works, the last people we know to have possessed the lost books -- what can we learn about their lives, about their surroundings, about what could have happened to their possessions including the books they owned? What can that palimpsest of those 1000 words from book 91 tell us about where to look for similar palimpsests? Weissenborn and Mueller included another palimpsest text, which they say comes from book 136. Most scholars today say it's not from Livy at all but a passage written by Sallust. Who's right? How many libraries and monasteries and attics and studies remain in a state sufficiently disorganized to warrant their being combed through for what we're looking for?

So. If you see me with a look on my face like I'm a million miles away, chances are good that this is the sort of thing I'm turning over in my mind. This is actually much more interesting to me than whether or not Jesus existed.


  1. I would love to find these lost works also. Have you heard about the search to recover scrolls from Herculaneum?

    1. Yes, I have. As I understand it, the current effort is not to find more scrolls from Herculaneum, but to apply high-tech methods in order to read papyrii which were found there in the 18th century, but were previously too badly burnt to be legible.

  2. cool post, good luck, dont give up

    1. Thank you. I haven't given up. I have to say though, that in the 3 years since I wrote this post, my amateurish poking around has given more appreciation for the pessimism of the professionals. I understand a little better now how thoroughly they have been searching for any sort of manuscripts of ancient texts. For example: they look into parchment which has been made into book covers; and there is more and more use made of spectral imaging: taking photographs of manuscripts which cover parts of the spectrum invisible to the naked eye. It's possible that major finds of ancient Latin will still be made. But it's more likely that the major finds will continue to be in eastern languages such as Greek, Coptic and Syriac.

      As I say, though, in looking for Livy I learn about all sorts of things i wasn't looking for. The search is definitely worthwhile.

  3. As someone who might be on the spectrum as well (my kid has the diagnosis; I was just "quirky") and who has a degree in classics, I just want to say that this quest seems like an excellent target for the laser focus of autistic obsession and attention to detail. Sorry to hear you haven't found anything interesting yet, but it does sound like a really fun project. (Nothing wrong with being an autodidact, either.)

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words. As I mentioned upthread, the more I learn about these things, the more I understand why the professionals are pessimistic about finding such things, and the more I understand how far the professionals are ahead of me. Still, I learn so many other things along the way on this search that I could never call it futile.