The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca

The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca

If New Atheists know anything about ancient Greek and Roman learning, they know that Christians destroyed it. They will grudgingly admit that at least some ancient works of wisdom, science and rationalism were preserved in the “Dark Ages”, but generally this is quickly followed by laments that these represent only a fraction of the storied wealth of ancient learning and thundering condemnations of the Christian destruction, suppression and neglect that led to this learning’s ultimate loss. But is this accurate?

(Alleged) Bonfires of Books

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell famously observes “To lose one parent …. may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To New Atheists, much the same could be said about the loss of the bulk of Classical texts between the late Roman Era and the invention of printing. Estimates as to the extent of the loss vary, but the usual guess is that we have about ten percent of what once existed. To the shrill Lady Bracknells of New Atheism, the idea that a culture could simply “lose” a whole 90 percent of its literary corpus has to go beyond even carelessness – only wilful destruction and suppression could explain such a cataclysmic loss. Christopher Hitchens’ acerbic observations are typical, as he writes of:

“[T]he lost works of Aristotle and other Greeks … ‘lost’ because the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”(God is Not Great, p. 29)

At the other end of the intelligence scale of New Atheist polemics is the sprawling chaos of which, as the name would suggest, is mainly a tangle of web pages devoted to Jesus Mythicism maintained by someone called Kenneth Humphreys. This jumbled mess of a site does not limit itself to the usual arguments against a historical Jesus, but veers off in all directions condemning Christianity for a multitude of sins, both real and imagined. To to the perpetually hysterical Humphreys, the loss of ancient learning was due purely to a campaign of destruction by his cartoon villains:

“‘Pious monks in remote fastnesses copying the Classics’? Do not believe a word of it! Remote they may have been, pious perhaps. Illiterate and indolent for the most part, they re-used (and thus ‘preserved’) ancient parchments because of the scarcity of new parchment. Washing off ancient wisdom, and copying without understanding their biblical fables, they excelled at adding pictures and calligraphy based on pre-Christian tribal motifs. Actually, it was the neglected archives of Byzantium and the schools of Islam that preserved much of classic learning, which trickled into western Europe, particularly after the 13th century.” (Humphreys, “The Closing Mind – The Insanity Begins”)

Of course, all of the Classical works that we can be sure Humphreys has never actually read were preserved for him by those “indolent monks”. There is no evidence that such works were typically or even regularly recycled as palimpsests and the example of the Archimedes Palimpsest, which he seems to be leaning on here, actually shows that those Byzantine archives were far from “neglected” and in fact represented a vigorous living tradition of preserving ancient works. Like most of his ilk, Humphreys also seems under the impression that the texts from those “schools of Islam” must have fallen from the heavens, rather than being provided to those Islamic scholars by still more of those pesky monks’ manuscripts in Greek and Syriac.

The idea that the loss of ancient works came as a result of active suppression by “Christian authorities” coupled with ignorant neglect is the persistent element in these laments. In her recent debut book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, British popular history writer Catherine Nixey harps on this theme. “Works by censured philosophers were forbidden,” she solemnly assures her readers, “and bonfires blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.” (p. xxxii) I imagine this kind of stuff sells popular books, but if we actually turn to the evidence and the relevant scholarship, we find very little to support these ideas.  The Christian emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries were not shy about forbidding and periodically burning books, but examination of the collected Imperial edicts of the Theodosian Code reveals a total lack of any censuring of philosophers or outlawing of their books and no injunctions against Classical texts generally.

In the key scholarly monograph on the transmission of Classical works, L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literaturethe authors do note that “many influential clergy” disliked pagans and their literature and learning equally, but they go on to observe that “if this attitude had been adopted by all the clergy it would in due course, as the new religion became universal by the fifth century, have imposed an effective censorship on classical literature.” (p. 48) The key point is that there was actually no blanket disapproval of “pagan” literature and scholarship, let alone the “outlawing” of it or the Nazi-style bonfires of Nixey’s fervid imagining. Reynolds and Wilson note, correctly, that the decline in interest in this non-Christian literature did indeed have an impact on the number of copies in circulation and therefore the ultimate chances of their survival. But they also note that the fact we have any such works at all is due to a relatively benign attitude toward this material. They go on to say that despite a short period when the pagan emperor Julian’s renewed restrictions on Christianity inflamed things, “the persecution soon ended and pagan and Christian continued to use the same [Classical authors] without serious polemic or controversy.” (p. 50)  Interestingly, Nixey cites Reynolds and Wilson several times on other points, but neglects to mention these and similar observations that substantially undercut the lurid tale she tells.

As Reynolds and Wilson also note, any “bonfires” of books in this period tended to be of the works of “heretics” from non-conformist variants of Christianity rather than works of pagan scholarship. Apart from these variant Christian texts, the books that the Christian emperors were most keen on rooting out were works of divination, augury and prophecy, since all later Roman emperors, pagan and Christian, saw the private consulting of auspices or the consultation of prophetic books about their rule as a potential act of sedition. Nixey tries to claim this was merely a “pretext” for the destruction of hated Classical learning, though does so with little evidence.

What people like Nixey neglect to mention is the fact while some prominent clergy argued that the Bible and the works of the Church fathers were sufficient for a Christian’s education, others argued that all knowledge came ultimately from God and so “pagan” learning was a gift to be used. And the key point here is that these were the Christian authorities who won the debate over the use of non-Christian learning. It was not hardliners like Tertullian, Tatian or John Chrysostom who ended up setting the intellectual agenda for Christianity for the next 1000 years, it was the more liberal and open Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus. John of Damascus encouraged his readers to study “the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks” arguing that “whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since ‘every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights'”(Philosophical Chapters, 1958,5). Similarly, Clement argued that philosophy was worth study because “[t]he way of truth is therefore one. But into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides.”(Stromata, I.5). Modern polemicists may sneer that these Patristic writers still saw philosophy as ancillary to or “the handmaiden” of theology, but that is essentially just condemning ancient people for not holding modern priorities. The fact remains that these were the authorities whose view prevailed, not the hardliners who the polemicists always highlight.  Edward Grant makes the key point here:

“The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning. …. With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive. They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines. But they did not.”(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts, p. 4, my emphasis)

Stupid Neglect?

So the basis for any systematic or orchestrated suppression or destruction of these works is flimsy, but polemicists like Hitchens, Humphreys and Nixey can fall back on the lesser charge of criminal neglect.  Here is Nixey again:

Other ancient texts were lost through ignorance.  Despised and ignored, over the years, they simply crumbled into dust, food for bookworms but not for thought. The work of Democritus, one of the greatest Greek philosophers and the father of atomic theory, was entirely lost. …. One can achieve a great deal by the blunt weapons of indifference and sheer stupidity.” (p. xxxii)

Again, this is the kind of sneering Presentism that mars most of this sort of prejudiced polemics. To begin with, while the works of these Christian scholars may not be to many modern reader’s taste, to pretend that thinkers of the sophistication of Augustine or writers of the elegance of Gregory of Nazianzus were simply “stupid” is pure ignorance, blind bigotry or both. Whatever it is, it certainly is not sober, objective historical analysis. And while we may be far more interested in reading any of the works of Democritus or Suetonius’ lost and intriguing Famous Courtesans over say, Eusebius of Thessalonica’s Against the Aphthartodocetae, blaming people in the past for preserving the works that interested them rather than the ones that interest us is simply childish. This also applies to non-Christian ancients. Like most such polemicists, Nixey seems to assume that if a work did not survive to us, it must be because of Christian neglect. It does not seem to occur to her that many of these works could have been lost or on their way to oblivion long before Christianity came to the fore. As interesting as the work of the “father of atomic theory” may be to us, Democritus and his school were not held in as high regard by rival philosophers, with the Aristotelians and Platonists being vehemently opposed to their ideas. Diogenes Laërtius reports that “Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he could collect” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, IX.7.40) – prejudices and trends in thought, with their impact on the survival of works, went on long before Christians appeared on the scene. While ancient Epicurean or Stoic philosophy can be, with the right pretty packaging, made appealing to modern readers, these lesser schools were already losing the race before Constantine’s fateful conversion.

But how much of the loss of that estimated 90 percent of ancient works be attributed to these changes in intellectual fashion and how much is simply due to the fact that keeping any work alive in a pre-printing world was a battle against probability? As I have pointed out here before, many modern readers – used to books that are so plentiful they are disposable objects or not even objects at all – fail to grasp how few copies of any work existed at any given time. Manuscripts were fragile, fell apart from use and, in a world where any artificial light meant open flames, prone to burning. The maintenance of even modest collections of books therefore required some level of patronage, which was not always constant or reliable, and such collections usually resided in major urban centres as a result. And major urban centres in the ancient world tended to be sacked and burned eventually. Even in the most peaceful times and in the cases of books which were revered and loved, the odds were stacked against any book’s survival in the long run. Given all this, was it really that a combination of Christian malice and Christian neglect was responsible for the loss of most of the learning of the ancient world, or were Christian books just as likely to be lost as “pagan” ones?

Photios’ Bibliotheca

One work which may give us something like an answer is the Bibliotheca of Photios of Constantinople (c. 810- c. 893). Photios was an interesting man who lived in interesting (and therefore tumultuous) times. A well-educated aristocrat, he took advantage of his family connections to the court of the Empress-Regent Theodora to rise in secular ranks, serving as captain of the Imperial Guard, then chief Imperial Secretary and he also undertook an embassy to the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. A change in Imperial administration saw his career suddenly switch to the Church and when the Patriarch of Constantinople, Ignatios, was deposed in 858 AD, he was fast-tracked into the job and so was successively ordained lector, sub-deacon, deacon, priest and finally bishop and Patriarch over five very long days of back to back liturgies. Photios’ unconventional elevation caused a scandal and set off a complex (and, literally, Byzantine) series of ecclesiastical repercussions, with several Church councils, depositions and reinstatements and a schism with the western Church and the Roman Papacy following in consequence.

Through all this and during his several exiles, Photios maintained a reputation as a scholar and prolific writer. He seems to have been friends with the polymath Leo the Mathematician and, as Patriarch, had access to the extensive collections in the Imperial Library. His most famous work is the Bibliotheca, also called the Myriobiblos or “the Ten Thousand Books”. The latter title is an exaggeration, but his work is a summary of 280 volumes of various works he claims to have read. It is part book review, part bragging and part synopsis of works he found interesting. Two things make it interesting for us: (i) he read both Christian and non-Christian books and (ii) most of the books he describes no longer survive – for dozens of them, Photios’ epitomes are all we know of these lost texts.

I have been drawing attention to Photios’ book for some years, noting that his snapshot of what an educated eastern Christian was reading in the ninth century not only shows a range of non-Christian texts by Classical writers, but also shows that all texts were in danger of not surviving the centuries. The majority of the books he mentions, both Christian or otherwise, are no longer extant. But while reading the infuriatingly polemical book by Catherine Nixey mentioned above, I wondered exactly what proportion of Photios’ Christian works were no longer extant and how this compared with the “pagan” and Jewish works on his list. If Hitchens, Humphreys and Nixey’s screeds are correct, surely a far higher proportion of his Christian books should still be in existence. So I sat down with a translation of the Bibliotheca and a spreadsheet and began to map each work mentioned.

This turned out to be a lengthy process, as Photios’s 280 volumes contained, according to his account, no less than 297 separate works. Most of these were identifiable and therefore able to be sorted into “Christian” (CH), “pagan” (P) or “Jewish” (J) – the only exceptions were three anonymous lexicons which I left out of my calculations as a result. I then sorted each group into two categories – “Extant” and “Lost”. Several works survive in incomplete form and others only as  fragments. The former I sorted into the “Extant” category if more than 60% of the work survived and the latter went into the “Lost” category. Here are the final results:

Photios’ Bibliotheca – Analysis

Total – 294 books

Christian Total – 185 books

Pagan/Jewish Total – 109 books

Extant Total – 106 books

Lost Total – 188 books

Extant % – 36.05%

Lost % – 63.94%

Christian Extant – 65 books

Christian Lost – 120 books

Christian Extant % – 35.13%

Pagan/Jewish Extant – 41 books

Pagan/Jewish Lost – 68 books

Pagan/Jewish Extant % – 37.61%

Far from being less likely to still be extant, the non-Christian works in Photios’ list are actually very slightly more likely to survive (37.61%) than the Christian works he mentions (35.13%). This is despite the fact that most of the “pagan” and Jewish works he mentions are much older than most of the Christian works. Of course, Photios only tells us about the books he has read so his list is a snapshot, not a fully representative sample. The Christian books he mentions are heavily skewed toward theological disputations, sermons and scriptural commentaries and the non-Christian works are mainly historical works, speeches and lexicons rather than philosophy or the natural sciences. But probably the other key finding here is exactly how much of the Christian material is no longer extant: a full 64.86% of the works he mentions. If it were mainly “indifference” that accounted for the loss of ancient works, this percentage would be much lower for the works that Christians cared more about. The fact it is so high indicates that while some indifference probably played a part, keeping any work in circulation in this period was a battle against the historical odds.

For those who are interested, here are the data I worked from:

Author Tile Ch Non-Ch Extant Lost
1 Theodore the Presbyter On the Genuineness of the works of Dionysius the Areopagite Ch X
2 Hadrian the monk Introduction to the Scriptures Ch X
3 Nonnosus History Ch X
4 Theodore of Mopsuestia For Basil Against Eunomius Ch X
5 Gregory of Nyssa For Basil Against Eunomius 1 Ch X
6 Gregory of Nyssa For Basil Against Eunomius 2 Ch X
7 Origen  De Principiis Ch X
8 Eusebius Praeparatio Evangelica Ch X
9 Eusebius Demonstratio Evangelica  Ch X
10 Eusebius Praeparatio Ecclesiastica Ch X
11 Eusebius Demonstratio Ecclesiastica Ch X
12 Eusebius Refutation and Defence Ch X
13 Apollinarius Against the Heathen Ch X
14 Apollinarius On Piety Ch X
15 Apollinarius On Truth Ch X
16 Gelasius of Cyzicus Acts of the First Council – Nicaea Ch X
17 Various Acts of the Third Council – Ephesus Ch X
18 Various Acts of the Fourth Council – Chalcedon Ch X
19 Various Acts of the Fifth Council – Constantinople Ch X
20 Various Acts of the Sixth Council – Constantinople II Ch X
21 Various Acts of the Seventh Council – Nicaea II Ch X
22 John Philoponus On the Resurrection Ch X
23 Theodosius the Monk Refutation of John Philoponus Ch X
24 Conon Refutation of John Philoponus Ch X
25 Eugenius Refutation of John Philoponus Ch X
26 Themistius Refutation of John Philoponus Ch X
27 Anonymous Acts of a disputation between Tritheites and Hesitators Ch X
28 John Chrysostom Notes on Death Ch X
29 John Chrysostom Homilies on the Ascension Ch X
30 John Chrysostom Homilies on Pentecost Ch X
31 Synesius of Cyrene On Providence Ch X
32 Synesius of Cyrene On the Kingdom Ch X
33 Eusebius Ecclesiastical History Ch X
34 Socrates Ecclesiastical History Ch X
35 Evagrius Scholasticus Ecclesiastical History Ch X
36 Sozomen Ecclesiastical History Ch X
37 Theodoret Ecclesiastical History Ch X
38 Athanasius  Letters Ch X
39 Justus of Tiberias Chronicle of the Kings of the Jews J X
40 Julius Africanus Chronography Ch X
41 Philip of Side Christian History Ch X
42 Cosmas Indicopleustes Christian Topography Ch X
43 Anonymous On Government Ch X
44 Theodore of Mopsuestia  Commentary on Genesis Ch X
45 Eusebius  Against Hierocles Ch X
46 Philostorgius Ecclesiastical History Ch X
47 John of Aegae Ecclesiastical History Ch X
48 Basil the Cicilian Ecclesiastical History Ch X
49 John Philoponus On the Hexaemeron Ch X
50 Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana P X
51 Andronicianus Against the Eunomians Ch X
52 Theodoret  Against Heresies Ch X
53 Theodoret Eranistes Ch X
54 Theodoret Polymorphos Ch X
55 Flavius Josephus Jewish War J X
56  Hippolytus On the Universe Ch X
57 Cyril of Alexandria Against Nestorius Ch X
58 Nicias the Monk Against the Seven Chapters of Philoponus Ch X
59 Hesychius On the Brazen Serpent Ch X
60 Anonymous Acts of the Synod of Side, 383, against the Messalians Ch X
61 Anonymous Acts of the synod of Carthage, 412 or 411, against the Pelagians Ch X
62 Various Copy of the Proceedings taken against the Doctrines of Nestorius Ch X
63 John Philoponus Against the Fourth Council Ch X
64 Theodoret of Cyrrhus Against Heresies Ch X
65 Appian Roman History P X
66 Arrian Parthica P X
67 Various Acts of the Synod of the Oak, 403 Ch X
68 Herodotus History P X
69 Aeschines Against Timarchus P X
70 Aeschines On the False Embassy P X
71 Aeschines  Against Ctesiphon P X
72 Praxagoras of Athens History of Constantine the Great P X
73 Praxagoras of Athens The Kings of Athens P X
74 Praxagoras of Athens Alexander King of Macedon P X
75 Procopius History Ch X
76 Theophanes of Byzantium History Ch X
77 Theophylact Simocatta Histories Ch X
78 Nicephorus Historical Epitome Ch X
79 Sergius the Confessor History Ch X
80 Cephalion Historical Epitome P X
81 Hesychius Illustrius History Ch X
82 Hesychius Illustrius On Justin Ch X
83 Diodorus Siculus Historical Library P X
84 Cassius Dio History P X
85 Ctesias Persica P X
86 Ctesias History of India P X
87 Heliodorus Aethiopica P X
88 Themistius Political Orations P X
89 Lesbonax Speeches P X
90 John Philoponus  On the Trinity against John Scholasticus Ch X
91 Josephus Antiquities of the Jews J X
92 Eunapius Chronicle P X
93 Malchus Byzantine History P X
94 Candidus History Ch X
95 Olympiodorus Histories P X
96 Theodore of Mopsuestia On Persian Magic CH X
97 Dexippus History P X
98 Dexippus Historical Epitome P X
99 Dexippus Scythia P X
100 Dionysius of Halicarnassus Histories P X
101 Dionysius of Halicarnassus Synopsis P X
102 Heraclian Against the Manichaeans Ch X
103 John Chrysostom Letters Ch X
104 Achilles Tatius Adventures of Clitophon and Leucippe P X
105 Gelasius of Cyzicus Proceedings of the Synod of Nicaea Ch X
106 Gelasius of Caesarea Continuation of the History of Eusebius Pamphili Ch X
107 Libanius Various works P X
108 Arrian History of the Reign of Alexander P X
109 Arrian Continuation P X
110 Arrian Bithynica P X
111 Iamblichus Dramaticon P X
112 John Scythopolita Against Schismatics Ch X
113 John Scythopolita Against Eutyches and Dioscorus Ch X
114 George of Alexandria  Life of St. Chrysostom Ch X
115 Phlegon of Tralles Collection of Chronicles and List of Olympian Victors P X
116 Zosimus New History P X
117 Herodian History P X
118 The Emperor Hadrian Declamations P X
119 Victorinus Panegyrics on the Emperor Zeno Ch X
120 Gelasius of Caesarea Against the Anomoeans Ch X
121 Philo Judaeus Allegories of the Sacred Laws J X
122 Philo Judaeus  On the Civil Life J X
123 Philo Judaeus Against Flaccus J X
124 Philo Judaeus Against Gaius J X
125 Philo Judaeus On the Essenes and Therapeutae J X
126 Theognostus of Alexandria Outlines Ch X
127 Basil of Cicilia Against John Scythopolita Ch X
128 Theodore of Alexandria Against Themistius Ch X
129 Clement of Alexandria Outlines Ch X
130 Clement of Alexandria The Tutor Ch X
131 Clement of Alexandria  The Miscellanies Ch X
132 Clement of Rome Apostolic Constitutions and Recognitions Ch X
133 Lucius of Charinus Circuits of the Apostles Ch X
134 Anonymous Against the Quartodecimans Ch X
135 Metrodorus On the date of Easter Ch X
136 Anonymous A Third Volume on the Holy Easter Feast Ch X
137 Anonymous  In Defense of Origen Ch X
138 Pamphilus & Eusebius  Defense of Origen Ch X
139 Pierius Homilies Ch X
140 Irenaeus Adversus Haereses Ch X
141 Hippolytus Against Heresies Ch X
142 Epiphanius Panarion Ch X
143 Epiphanius Ancoratus Ch X
144 Epiphanius On Weights and Measures Ch X
145 Justin Martyr Apology Ch X
146 Clement of Rome  Letters to the Corinthians Ch X
147 Polycarp Letter to the Philippians Ch X
148 Eusebius Life of Constantine Ch X
149 Lucian Dialogues P X
150 Lucius of Patrae Metamorphoses P X
151 Damascius Incredible Stories P X
152 Amyntianus On Alexander P X
153 Palladius Declamations P X
154 Cyril of Alexandria Thesauri Ch X
155 Eunomius of Cyzicus Apology Ch X
156 Eunomius of Cyzicus Against Basil Ch X
157 Eunomius of Cyzicus  Letters Ch X
158 Athanasius Commentary on Ecclesiastes Ch X
159 Athanasius Commentary on the Song of Songs Ch X
160 Athanasius Against Arius and his doctrines Ch X
161 Basil  The Six Days’ Work Ch X
162 Basil  Moral Discourses Ch X
163 Basil  Letters Ch X
164 Basil  Ascetica Ch X
165 Helladius Lexicon Ch X
166 Valerius Pollio Lexicon P X
167 Julian Lexicon P X
168 Philostratus of Tyre Lexicon P X
169 Valerius Diodorus Lexicon P X
170 Timaeus Lexicon to Plato P X
171 Aelius Dionysius of Halicarnassus Lexicon of Attic Words P X
172 Pausanias Lexicon P X
173 Boethus List of Platonic Words P X
174 Boethus On the Words of Doubtful Meaning in Plato P X
175 Dorotheus  Of New and Foreign Words in Plato P X
176 Moeris  Attic Words P X
177 Phrynichus the Arabian Rhetorical Equipment P X
178 Isocrates Orations P X
179 Isocrates Letters P X
180 Choricius Declamations Ch X
181 Sopater Various Extracts P X
182 Eusebius of Thessalonica Against the Aphthartodocetae Ch X
183 Vindanius Anatolius of Berytus A Collection of Agricultural Precepts P X
184 Galen  On Medical Schools P X
185 Himerius  Declamations Ch X
186 Antonius Diogenes The unbelievable marvels to be found beyond Thule P X
187 Stobaeus Extracts, Sentences and precepts P X
188 Basil of Seleucia Discourse Ch X
189 Cyril of Alexandria  Against Nestorius Ch X
190 Anonymous Summary of texts predicting Christianity Ch X
191 Eustratius of Constantinople On the status of souls after death Ch X
192 John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis, etc Ch X
193 Pamphila Miscellaneous Historical Notes P X
194 Theopompus  Philippica P X
195 Theodore of Mopsuestia Against the defenders of original sin Ch X
196 Dioscorides Medical handbook P X
197 Agapius Manichaean pamphlets P X
198 John the Lydian On the months Ch X
199 John the Lydian On the public magistracies Ch X
200 John the Lydian On prodigies Ch X
201 Damascius of Damascus On the life of the philosopher Isidore P X
202 Eulogios of Alexandria Against Navatus Ch X
203 Eudocius Paraphrase of the Octateuch Ch X
204 Eudocius Paraphrase of Zechariah Ch X
205 Dionysius of Aegae ‘Dictyaques’ (?) Ch X
206 Conon  Narrations P X
207 Nicomachus of Gerasa Arithmetical Theology P X
208 Alexander of Mindos Collection of marvels P X
209 Protagoras Universal Geography P X
210 Sotion Strange stories P X
211 Nicholas Strange customs P X
212 Acestorides Urban Fables P X
213 Ptolemy Hephaestion New History P X
214 Basil of Caesarea Ascetics Ch X
215 Maximus the Confessor Questions to Thalassios Ch X
216 Maximus the Confessor Letters Ch X
217 Maximus the Confessor Various Ch X
218 Maximus the Confessor Various letters and theological centuries Ch X
219 Maximus the Confessor  Letter and dialogue between Pyrrhos and Maximus Ch X
220 Ephrem of Nisibis Various exhortations Ch X
221 Cassian Three works Ch X
222 Anonymous Summary of a spiritual prayer Ch X
223 John Moschos Spiritual prayer Ch X
224 Mark the Monk Various works Ch X
225 Diadochus of Photicia Various works Ch X
226 Hippolytus of Rome Commentary on Daniel Ch X
227 Hippolytus of Rome On Christ Ch X
228 Theodoret of Cyrrhus Commentary on Daniel Ch X
229 Theodoret of Cyrrhus  Questions on the Octateuch Ch X
230 Theodoret of Cyrrhus  Commentaries on the 12 Prophets Ch X
231 Procopius of Gaza Various scholia Ch X
232 Procopius of Gaza Commentary on Isaiah Ch X
233 Eulogios of Alexandria Against the Navatians Ch X
234 Dion of Prusa Discourses P X
235 Caesarius of Nazianzen Questions and responses Ch X
236 Aenesidemus Pyrrhonian writings P X
237 Agatharchidus of Cnidos On the Red Sea P X
238 Hierocles On providence and destiny P X
239 John Philoponos Against the treatise on the statues of Jamblichus Ch X
240 Oribasius Epitome of the works of Galen P X
241 Oribasius Medical collection P X
242 Oribasius  Epitome of the Medical collection P X
243 Oribasius Euphoristes P X
244 Theon of Alexandria The Man P X
245 Aetius of Amida On Medicine Ch X
246 Job the Monk  On the incarnation Ch X
247 Diodorus of Tarsus Against destiny Ch X
248 Memnon of Heraclea History of Heraclea P X
249 Eulogios of Alexandria  Against Severus and Theodosius Ch X
250 Eulogios of Alexandria Against the Theodosians and Gaianites Ch X
251 Ephrem of Antioch Letters and sermons Ch X
252 Ephrem of Antioch Four Works Ch X
253 Eulogios of Alexandria Various Treatises Ch X
254 Sophronius of Jerusalem  Synodical letter to Sergius of Constantinople Ch X
255 Stephen Gobar Miscellany Ch X
256 Germain of Constantinople On the true and legitimate retribution Ch X
257 Methodius of Olympus On the resurrection Ch X
258 Methodius of Olympus  On creatures Ch X
259 Methodius of Olympus On arbitary freedom Ch X
260 Methodius of Olympus Banquet of 10 virgins Ch X
261 Philostratus of Tyre  Life of Apollonius of Tyana P X
262 Damascius of Damascus Life of the Philosopher Isidore P X
263 Diodorus Siculus Historical Library P X
264 Plutarch of Chaeronea  Parallel Lives P X
265 Aelius Aristides Panathenaicus P X
266 Aelius Aristides For rhetoric against Plato P X
267 Aelius Aristides  General apology P X
268 Anonymous Life of Pythagoras P X
269 Anonymous Martyrology of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus Ch X
270 Anonymous Martyrology of the apostle Timothy Ch X
271 Anonymous Martyrology of St. Demetrius Ch X
272 Anonymous  Life of the holy fathers Metrophanus and Alexander Ch X
273 Anonymous Life of Paul of Constantinople Ch X
274 Anonymous  Life of Athanasius of Constantinople Ch X
275 Antiphon Orations P X
276 Andocidus Orations P X
277 Lysias Orations P X
278 Isaeus Orations P X
279 Aeschines Orations P X
280 Demosthenes Orations P X
281 Hyperidus Orations P X
282 Dinarchus Orations P X
283 Lycurgus Life P X
284 Hesychius of Jerusalem  Eulogy of St. Andrew Ch X
285 John Chrysostom Sermon on St. Paul Ch X
286 Asterius of Amaseus  Homilies Ch X
287 Leontius of Arabissos  On the creation Ch X
288 Leontius of Arabissos On Lazarus Ch X
289 Theodoret of Cyrrhus On St. John Chrysostom Ch X
290 John Chrysostom Various Sermons Ch X
291 Hesychius of Jerusalem Homily on James the brother of the Lord Ch X
292 Nilus of Ancyra Fragments of homilies Ch X
293 Theophrastus of Eresos Extracts of various treatises P X
294 Helladius Chrestomathy Ch X


65 thoughts on “The Lost Books of Photios’ Bibliotheca

    1. As I may have mentioned before, most of these articles are being written with one eye on re-working them as chapters in a book on New Atheist bad history. There are several big topics that I still need to tackle here (Hypatia, Copernicus, Galileo, the Papacy and the Nazis), which I hope to cover over the next year or so. This means any book will be a while off, but the continued support of my readers here means that it is likely to happen. Thanks.


        1. Yes, I wrote a couple of longish answers to questions relevant to him there. One of them, in answer to the question “What is the most misunderstood historical event?” got 3,220 upvotes. Yet, strangely, it’s the fifth highest ranked answer to that question, behind an answer about a woman who supposedly gave birth to rabbits which got 12 upvotes. Why? Who knows. The weird Quora answer algorithms are one of several reasons I’ve abandoned that site.

          The Galileo Affair is so complex and is such a central feature of New Atheist pseudo history that I suspect it will require a series of 3-4 articles, though that will probably include ones on cosmology before and after Copernicus and another on how the scientific consensus of Galileo’s time shifted to accept heliocentrism by about a century later.


  1. Thanks to those who caught a couple of miscalculations in the first version of this article. I was doing those at the end of a long day of writing and it showed. They have now been fixed – thanks again.


  2. Marvellous to see this analysis of the Bibliotheca! (And why has nobody translated the rest of this work?) Thank you. Hard data like this is great to have.

    I don’t know if you are aware that N.G. Wilson suggested 1% of ancient literature survives? He is following an estimate by Pietro Bembo. (See my note here: But all these estimates must be guesses.


    1. I’m glad you’ve found it interesting Roger, as I’ve often found your writing to be very useful over the years. And thanks for your analysis of Bembo’s estimate. Catherine Nixey’s awful new book, which I am reading through gritted teeth at the moment, uses the “1% survival” claim in her slightly crazed introduction. It’s one of several claims she backs with no evidence and doesn’t footnote, and I wasted some time a couple of days ago trying to find out where it came from. She said that we only have 1% of all Latin literature (Nixey, p. xxxii), so it may not be based on Benbo’s estimate. Elsewhere she gives the more common estimate I refer to in my article above of 10% survival for both Greek and Latin literature. For this her endnote cites “Gerstinger (1948) and Bardon (1952/1956), quoted in Rohmann (2016)” (p. 166, n. 35). So that’s Hans Gerstinger, Bestand und Überlieferung der Literaturwerke des griechisch-römischen Altertums (Graz: Kienreich, 1948) and Henry Bardon, La littérature latine inconnue, (2 vol. Paris: Klincksieck, 1952/56). Checking Rohmann, whose book she seems to lean on very heavily, it seems both the “1%” estimate for Latin literature and the 10% for Classical works overall come from him. He writes:

      “Most of the literary works of Antiquity are lost. For example, it is estimated that for Latin literature less than one per cent of titles survive in total.²⁴ The ratio of extant titles to titles lost but known from secondary references is less than 10 per cent for both the Greek and Latin literature.²⁵” (Dirk Rohmann, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity; Studies in Text Transmission (Boston: De Gruyter, 2016, p. 8)

      The second note is to Gerstinger and Bardon. The first, on the “1%” claim, cites “Fuhrmann, (2005), 17”, which is a reference to Manfred Fuhrmann, Geschichte der römischen Literatur (Reprint. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005). Google Books doesn’t give me a preview of Fuhrmann’s book and it’s probably beyond my non-existent German anyway, so perhaps someone else can take up the trail from there. I am learning to be wary of Nixey’s citations and Rohmann’s book, while much more cautious than Nixey’s, is also riddled with problems of interpretation.


      1. Thank you for your very kind words. I try to be useful.

        These estimates of loss are all interesting. Thank you.

        I was looking at Catharine Nixey’s twitter feed this evening, and found an interesting quote she attributed to Chrysostom. This turns out to be from Rohmann, whose book I found online, quoting a work not translated which I’ve thought about having done. Must read his book.


        1. Reading Nixey’s book is a chore, I can assure you. I only write notes in the margins of books I dislike and so far my copy of hers has an average of three asterisks with exclamation marks per page.

          She completely misrepresentss a statement of Chrysostom’s:

          “Far from mourning the loss [of Classical works], Christians delighted in it. As John Chrysostom crowed, the writings ‘of the Greeks have all perished and are obliterated’” (Nixey, pp. 165-66)

          Except in the Latin edition what Chrysostom actually said was “ac Graecorum quidem opiniones exstinctae deletaeque sunt.” “Opinions“, not “writings”. Yet again, Nixey is depending on Rohmann for thsi quote and didn’t bother to check the original. Her book is absolutely riddled with this kind of stuff.


          1. I see in her replies to your tweets Nixey is offering to educate you about ancient texts Roger. How kind of her!


          2. I was tempted to comment “LOL. Catherine Nixey offering to school Roger Pearse on ancient literature – classic!” but I’m resisting the urge to get into a Twitter spat with her. I’ll keep my powder dry for my critical review of her book.


          3. I think you are wise to hold off until you can do a proper response. I would guess that her claim is backed up by quote-mining. I see that she didn’t display any interest in whether Rohmann had quote-mined Chrysostom Contra Judaeos et Paganos (although I think his prose is merely confused, and she misread it on top of that). But I’m too busy this week to engage seriously with her. Will she be the new Acharya S, one wonders?


          4. She’s a hell of a lot smarter and more articulate than the late “Acharya S.” Smart enough to get a mainstream publisher and some slick marketing for example.


          5. She has a good editor in George Morely, that’s for certain. Morely queried some of my recent Twitter comments about Nixey and seemed genuinely mystified as to why I would have a problem with her book. That some people actually care about objective historical analysis seemed a revelation to her.


          6. I am not aware that there is a “Latin edition” of the works by John Chrysostom. To be sure, there is a Latin translation of the works (1718-1738) by Bernard de Montfaucon, reprinted in PG, but I have not so far heard of any Latin edition.


      2. I can read Fuhrmann’s book for you. Consider that a substitute for a Patreon support (are you on Parteon at all? Sorry if you already said that, I must have missed it).


        1. That’s very kind. I hope I’ve given sufficient bibliographical information above for you to locate the passage in question. I’d be interested to know how he supports the “1%” claim. And no, I’m not on Patreon. This blog is my gentlemanly hobby and so is funded by my vast personal wealth (and yes, that was a joke). Thanks in advance.


          1. “I hope I’ve given sufficient bibliographical information above for you to locate the passage in question.”

            Page 17, or?

            At any rate, there will be a chapter specifically on textual transmission and the passage in question will be there.


          2. I ordered the book almost a month ago and it hasn’t arrived yet. Just so you know I haven’t forgotten my promise.


  3. Tim what would you say is a motivation of Catherine Nixey? Carrier is a narcissist so I get him. What do you think Nixey is doing?


    1. It’s always hard to tell these things. Thirteen years ago she wrote a (I assume) tongue-in-cheek piece for the Independent called “What’s the point of a classics degree?” that basically said her degree from Cambridge was a self-indulgent waste of time. Recently she wrote a piece for The Sunday Times telling the story of how her father went from being a monk to marrying her mother, who had been a nun. It’s an interesting account of the fallout from the Second Vatican Council and a reflection on the reasons people stay in or leave religions. But there are details in it and in the introduction to her book that indicate she has a rather weird perspective on the Catholic Church.

      The Times piece talks about how pop music made her uncomfortable as a child because she wasn’t allowed to listen to it at home. Apparently lipstick and high heels were also forbidden and even at university she was disturbed by the fact a friend had never been baptised. She characterises her upbringing as very happy, which I’m sure is true, but also seems to think the forbidding of pop music and lipstick was normal for a Catholic upbringing, which I don’t think any Catholics I know would agree with. In her book she assures her readers that her parents faith was “never dogmatic” and supports this by saying if she asked them about the origins of the world “I was more likely to be told about the Big Bang than Genesis” or “told about evolution than Adam”. This seems to imply that she thinks more dogmatic Catholic parents would be inclined to do otherwise, which is a very odd view of Catholic teaching.Perhaps she’s never heard of Georges Lemaître.

      It seems pretty clear that she is still working through this rather peculiar upbringing and has emerged with no great love of Christianity, as some of we apostates do I suppose. Perhaps she’s worked out what to do with that pointless Classics degree after all and is using it to belatedly work through her teenage angst.


  4. What is depressing is that Nixey’s book won an award from the Royal Society of Literature, whose judges called it “riveting” and “a powerful corrective to our view of Christianity as a religion of peace, showing how it triumphed through violence, philistinism and wholesale barbarity”.

    At least on Amazon there are some 1* reviews.

    Tim, if I can call you that, if you do write your intended book, you’ll have to come up with a snappy title so it will fall off the shelves.


    1. I just had a look at some of the reviews. I loved the one that declares “Every Christian should read this book, and then demand a response from The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian Churches.” Yes, I can image the churches will be rocked to their very foundations by a biased little book written by an arts editor for a newspaper.


      1. I wonder if the Primate of All England is getting such demands, & what he would have to say about events that supposedly took place centuries before the founding of Anglicanism? ” Oh, so you do not care for Catholics, that is quite low church of you, I suppose”?


    2. The whole anti-theist “movement”/cult and anti-Christian sentiment (history has shown the extreme results of that) is depressing. Straw-manning various faiths & beliefs (Christianity in particular), synchronizing science with materialism, propagating the far-leftist ideology, and even going so far as to butcher history; that I cannot forgive.


      1. The New Atheist “movement”, especially in the US, is currently going through paroxysms over the number of Alt Right-style people who are becoming prominent in its ranks. So you may want to modify that “propagating the far-leftist ideology” stuff. I also find that what many conservative people call “far-leftist ideology” would actually be called “normal, fair and sensible” by most other people, especially those of us who live outside the weird political maelstrom that is the USA. But please stick purely to discussing history here.


        1. I was particularly referring to third-wave feminism and all that bs. Hey, I’m normal :p I’m not conservative either, just a history buff who’s rather disturbed with the direction the world is headed into, thinking out loud.
          And good idea, haha. The Catholic Church is no saintly institution (pun intended), but other than preserving the ancient works (that which the Golden Age Muslims didn’t get a hold of), what other good would you say it has done to the world overall?


          1. “Good” is so subjective I can’t see a way to make that kind of assessment. I’m not comfortable with value judgments about history, apart from history that is within living memory and part of our world and culture. Even that can get tricky.


        2. > The New Atheist “movement”, especially in the US, is currently going through paroxysms over the number of Alt Right-style people who are becoming prominent in its ranks.

          Well, New Atheism was a product of president Bush junior and his Evangelicals. Makes sense that the movement is falling apart now that Evangelicals are toast (Trump is crazy but he is secular crazy). It was only a question whether the movement would be taken over by SJWs (Carrier wing) or Alt-right folks.


  5. Tim, Just wondered how many of the extant Christian and pagan works on P’s list were being preserved in Moorish libraries before being re-introduced to Christian Europe?

    And would that matter?


    1. None of the Christian works he mentions were preserved by Muslims, who had no interest in that material. Virtually none of the pagan works he mentions were passed from Spain to western Europe via Arabic translations that I can see. They all seem to survive because they were preserved in Greek in the Byzantine Empire or they were works the western Europeans already had in Latin.


      1. This question is about the transmission of Greek texts via Arabic translations. The ones made for Abbassid rulers tended to be of technical texts, especially medical works such as Galen, but also works of Aristotle. Some of these passed to Latin Europe during the middle ages. But although Christian works were indeed translated into Arabic, which don’t survive in Greek, I am unaware of any being transmitted via Muslims to the Latins. Not sure if any of Photius’ lost texts fall into either category.


      2. No, the Arab-speaking world improved on Classical knowledge, as did the Latin world, as an continuation of that tradition. The Byzantines did have the Greek source texts, but did not go beyond them, even though, according to adherents of the “Chart”, they ought to be romancing space-babes/hunks on Alpha Centauri by now.


        1. Did I say somewhere that the Arab world didn’t improve on Classical learning? Where do you think I said this? And the Byzantines did go beyond them in some respects – John Philoponus’ work on physics and dynamics would be one clear example. But they inherited the earlier Roman idea that, overall, there really wasn’t much to go beyond.

          “The great men of the past have said everything so perfectly that they have left nothing for us to say.”
          (Theodore Metochites, 1270–1332)

          Why medieval natural philosophers and their successors in the Scientific Revolution did not have the same attitude is one of the key questions in the history of science. In brief, I’d say it was precisely because the medieval westerners were acutely aware of how much they didn’t know and also aware that the ancients had not been right about everything. Yuval Noah Harari makes an eloquent case in his book Sapiens for this awareness being heightened by the discovery of the New World and the “blank spaces on the map” that this made prominent in western European thinking. Europeans started being aware of conceptual “blank spaces” in their knowledge in the Twelfth Century Revival and the lure of “blank spaces” became a driving intellectual force in western Europe as a result. Cultures that considered everything pretty much settled, like the Romans, the Byzantine and, particularly, the Chinese were really never going to come up with the scientific method in its full form.


          1. Yes, the discovery that the ancients had neither seen nor known about the New World did compel curiosity, as did the invention of clear glass lenses that allowed humans to see the macro and microscopic worlds that had remained unseen for so long.

            “Fifteenth-century Europe was still essentially medieval, living in a geocentric and finite cosmos, the fixed stars bounding the universe beyond the crystalline planetary spheres [and beyond the fixed stars lay the abode of God and angels, as seen on tidy maps of the entire cosmos ]. No celestial objects invisible to the naked eye were known, nor, at the other extreme, any organisms or structures smaller than the naked eye could see. In the natural world, maggots generated spontaneously from rotten meat, the heart was the seat of the emotions, and the arteries carried air. Less than two centuries on, much of this had become what C. S. Lewis (1964) aptly called ‘the discarded image.’

            “The new universe was infinite: Pascal in the seventeenth century felt himself lost ‘entre les deux abîmes de l’infini et du néant,’ terrified of ‘les espaces infinis.’ It was also heliocentric; the earth was terra INFIRMA and God was no longer literally looking down out of heaven at the lowermost unmoving piece of real estate in the cosmos. The sensory horizons were broadened in both directions: Galileo had seen the moons of Jupiter, and Leeuwenhoek had seen spermatozoa. Ah, what enormous vistas were opened to the human eye via the careful grinding of clear glass into lenses, boosting human curiosity a millionfold.”

            Source: The Cambridge History of the English Language. General editor Richard M. Hogg, volume iii 1476 to 1776 [with some edits]


          2. St. Albert the Great’s book on the earth and geography (really, it’s just a short commentary on stuff) includes a lot of announcements that Aristotle got this wrong, Avicenna got this other thing wrong, and Augustine was totally wrong about that thing over there, nyah! It’s easier to get hold of his book on animals, which is less gleeful about how wrong everybody else was, but has a lot more personal stories about “Darn it, I climbed up the freaking cliff and looked at raptor nests, and this is what I saw.” Some people find this egoistic, but I think Albert’s got more of a sporting attitude toward finding errors. It is fun to find something missed by the greats.

            So yeah, there were a lot of medievals having personal experiences and observations that conflicted with classical and even patristic writers, and they weren’t afraid to talk about it. There were also a lot of medievals traveling around a fair distance, rummaging through other people’s libraries and seeing weird plants and animals.


          3. A “cultural cringe”, in fact, on the part of the Latinised Germans. They did not regard it as an excuse for underachievement, though, but a spur to learn from any source they could get their hands on. And at the same time, as SB says, a bold willingness to argue the toss with anybody they thought was getting it wrong.


    1. Given that the number of Jewish works on Photios’ list totals just three, this is hardly a “problem”. And by “Classical” texts, we’re talking about pre-Christian and non-Christian works, so those three Jewish works count. So no, no problem at all, actually.


  6. Many thanks for naming the ‘scribes & scholars’ book – that’s going to be very useful! On the to-buy list.

    “The great men of the past have said everything so perfectly that they have left nothing for us to say.”
    (Theodore Metochites, 1270–1332)

    There was a similar sentiment in Baghdad in the 11th / 12th century as it was starting to slow down: “The old have left nothing for the young”.


    1. You would think Wilson would know better, but many Classicists seem to have a blanks spot in their knowledge after about 400 AD and retain the old prejudices about “the Dark Ages”. Dame Averil Cameron, on the other hand, has written a succinct but witheringly critical review in The Tablet that is worth a read if you can get past the paywall. ON Twitter this morning she has called it “a travesty” and “simplistic and wrong”. Fighting words from a historian who really knows the relevant periods.


  7. So finally I have received Fuhrmann’s book. On p. 17 he just says that we are justified in assuming that less than 1% of all works of Roman literature are lost. “Roman literature” means to him that between 250 BC and 250 AD (after that we have late antiquity, of whose literature much more is conserved, as much as 20 times more works than from the “Roman” period). Also, scholars of Classical Latin literature have a wider concept of “literature” than usual: it includes philosophical, scientific works and the like, so anything that is in any way formal writing. This works precisely because very little is preserved. Quintilian lists 55 authors whom he considers the greatest, but only around 1/3 have left behind works that we can still read today.

    So his argument seems to be: we have so little, there must have been at least 100 times as much. Not exactly exciting.

    I haven’t found anything on the subject in another passage in the book so far.


      1. To him, “Roman” literature is that between 250 BC and 250 AD. Anything that comes later is “late antique” literature – or Medieval lit., modern lit. and so on.


        1. I hope this answers your question. Fuhrmann explicitly says a lot of late antique literature is Christian stuff. This is nothing new. either; in Greek the vast majority of manuscripts that contain ancient works contain Biblical and other Christian writings. Thus, the “Classics” make up only a relatively small fraction of what is conserved of ancient Greek and Latin literature.


          1. He mentions the “eye of a needle” of the 7th century AD, where it was decided (not consciously!) which works from antiquity would be preserved.


  8. Anyone who calls Democritus the “father of atomic theory” knows nothing about at least one of those two things. Classical atomism doesn’t really resemble modern particle physics. At. All. Presentism indeed. *Nobody* back then was doing science as we recognize it, and you can’t just play this sort of “that-then looks like this-now” game and proclaim you’ve found the origin of the latter.

    If anyone deserves that title, it would be Bohr and Rutherford (for any definition of “atomic theory” meaningfully connected to current knowledge).


    1. “Classical atomism doesn’t really resemble modern particle physics. At. All. Presentism indeed.”

      Indeed. That was what I meant by “Nixey is quite a fan of Greek ideas that seem to fit with our own.”


  9. Regarding Catherine Nixey’s allegation “Works by censured philosophers were forbidden”–ancient civil governments, even those as powerful as the Roman Empire, did not have the time, resources, or energy to micromanage what the small percentage of their literate population read. If a book was causing civil disorder, riots, and rebellions the Emperor may “ban” the book as part of their more general response to preserve order/the government (which you acknowledge when talking about divination and sedition). Burning the books of heretics, if it happened, was probably more symbolic than a Munich-style “find every copy and destroy it.” Recent totalitarian states make Byzantine polity look like Chuck E Cheese’s.
    But the notion that the Emperors had some Index Librorum Prohibitorum and could afford to go house to house (or into bookstores) confiscating and destroying texts is nonsense on stilts. In fact, the Index itself did not arise till after the printing press, when literacy was more widespread AND printers provided a nexus of book production that could be policed in ways that slaves in private homes copying by hand simply cannot.
    For the sake of brevity, I’ll also simply point out the inherent contradiction between saying Christians gleefully burned texts they disagreed with on the one hand, and carefully scraped the ink off to re-use the parchment in others. Either the parchment is expensive and we want to preserve it, re-using it where we can, or it’s cheap and can be used as firewood–not both.



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