library of alexandria

5 Important Works of Literature Lost to History

Historians and book-lovers alike lament the loss of countless precious books, plays, and poems throughout the course of history. They are lost to war, to fire, to accidents, to sheer coincidence. Here are a few lost works that many a scholar would kill to get their hands on.





The Ruins of Cyrene / Image Via BBC



1. Callimachus’s Aetia



Callimachus was a Cyrene-born poet living and writing in Alexandria during the third century BCE. His most celebrated work was called the Aetia, a word meaning cause or reason. The Aetia was a significant inspiration for centuries of Roman poets – and yet, very little of it exists for study today. Interestingly, it survived intact throughout antiquity – the last recorded appearance of a full manuscript was in the fourteenth century, after which it was most likely destroyed in the fourth crusade. What remains comes to us on papyrus scraps, and through other authors who quoted it in their own writings.






Image Via Biography



2. William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Won



A hotly debated topic among Shakespearean scholars is the existence of a lost play, mentioned in more than one contemporary source and entitled Love’s Labours Won. This would most likely be a sequel to Love’s Labours Lost, which, some argue, makes a great deal of sense. Love’s Labours Won seems to end in the middle of the story, and a sequel would benefit it greatly. Others believe that the title is actually a subtitle referring to another of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a mystery that may never be solved – but will surely fascinate generations of scholars to come.





Dresden Codex

Image Via National Geographic



3. The Lost Maya Codices



The Maya people made large numbers of books out of tree-bark paper, called codices. They covered virtually every topic imaginable; the surviving books alone include information on astronomy, farming, medicine, history, religious ceremonies,  hunting, and pottery. The Spanish “conquistadors” burned countless codices. The bishop who gave the order admits to 27, but other sources suggest the real number could be in the thousands. Today, only three or four exist, and none of them are complete (the number depends on the authenticity of a recently discovered codex). These books are perhaps the most tragic loss on this list; they represent the collective knowledge of a great civilization eradicated by invasion, disease, and forced religious conversion.





Cumaean Sibyl

The Cumaean Sibyl by Domenichino | Image Via Wikimedia Commons



4. The Sibylline Books



In ancient Rome, a sibyl was a kind of priestess believed to have prophetic abilities. The last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, bought three books of prophecies from the Cumaean Sibyl (after a very intense bargaining process). For centuries after, the Roman government would consult the books in times of war and crisis. They were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, and were destroyed in a fire in 82 BCE. Ambassadors were sent to oracles around the classical world to collect new prophecies and compile a new set of Sibylline books, which were then treated the same as the originals. The replacements were probably burned in 405, for political reasons. 





The Yongle Emperor

The Yongle Emperor | Image Via New World Encyclopedia



5. The Yongle Encyclopedia



During the Ming Dynasty, the Yongle Emperor commissioned an enormous compilation of knowledge. It involved more than 2000 famous experts in every subject imaginable and when it was done it consisted of 22,877 sections (‘chapters’) bound into 11,095 volumes. It was, without a doubt, the largest encyclopedia in the world. But, with the fall of the Ming, it faded into obscurity. The original manuscript completely vanished from the historical record, and the one complete duplicate that had been made was gradually whittled down, until, in 1900, the roughly 800 sections that remained were destroyed in the Boxer Rebellion. Only 400 sections exist today, thanks to various copies having been made of individual articles. This represents only 3% of the original work.




Feature Image Via History Conflicts