Alex B's answer to a recent question mentions that we have no extant texts from Ovid before the high middle ages. As books are perishable on the timescale of centuries, having extant material today often relies on a long unbroken tradition of copying ancient texts. Some of these copy chains must have been broken; I have to imagine that this has happened to several classical Latin books for reasons of religion, preference, fashion, or chance.

I also imagine that we do have some records of what has been copied even when the copies themselves have been lost. Perhaps the records are not systematic, but there must be some mentions out there. (Please let me know if there is anything wrong with these premises.)

These two ideas lead to a question: When have we last lost an ancient Latin text? More precisely, what are (some of) the most recent examples of texts that we know to have been copied but have since been lost? What is the most recent date of such a loss? Did, for example, all texts that made it to the year 1800 make it to our day?

I prefer classical Latin, but all eras of antiquity are welcome. I would like to exclude texts that have been salvaged by other means (like recent papyrus findings) and focus on texts that have actually been lost in the past half a millennium or so. (Salvaged texts would also be interesting, but they are best taken to separate questions. We could also have a question on the different ways texts have survived: copy tradition, papyri, palimpsests…)

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    Just as a starting point / terminus post quem, many now lost Greek texts and presumably some Latin ones are known to have been in existence until 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Byzantium.
    – TKR
    Dec 30, 2021 at 22:37
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    @TKR If you (or anyone else, of course) can find some specific examples lost at the Ottoman conquest, that'd make a nice first answer. I expect the true date is later than 1453, but a solid terminus post quem is always good and will likely be of interest to those who end up reading this question.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Dec 30, 2021 at 22:59
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    I know many (most?) of the works of Plautus were recovered from a palimpsest, and a few are (at least partially) beyond comprehension.
    – brianpck
    Dec 31, 2021 at 1:39
  • I think it will be difficult to find examples of legitimate works lost after the printing press. They were prolific in copying manuscripts after that point. I was digging through Reynolds and Wilson's Text and Transmission, but nothing immediately jumps out. That would be the place to find examples, though.
    – cmw
    Jan 4, 2022 at 3:16
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    This question might be relevant to you.
    – cmw
    Jan 10, 2022 at 2:21

1 Answer 1


Very likely there are more recent examples, but since none have been posted so far:

Petrarch, the 14th-century Italian scholar, claimed that he once had in his possession Cicero's two-book treatise De Gloria, which is now lost. If so, that work survived at least until the 14th century. Apparently, though, there is some disagreement about whether Petrarch's story is accurate. A detailed discussion can be found in this blog post on the Quintus Curtius website.


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