The survival of records. In spite the best and worst of human intentions; our hatreds, prejudices and sheer stupidity….
Obviously, there were mechanical hazards to the survival of literature such as the ordeal of transference of script from one type to another and from one format to another. However, there was another, far more destructive, which depended on the will of men. This was censorship.
In pagan Greece we hear very little of censorship: although the emissaries of Antipater brought Demosthenes to his death, they made no effort to destroy his speeches. The emperors of Rome were more touchy. Even the clement Augustus felt himself compelled to exile the orator Cassius Severus and burn his books, which were full of personal attacks on the Roman aristocracy and the imperial court. Labienus’s history of the civil war, which treated Julius Caesar as a traitor to the Republic, was destroyed; and, rather than survive his work, the historian killed himself.
The Christians, although considered an antisocial group by the authorities, were at first not known to possess any books worth destroying. But in the last of the pagan persecutions, A.D. 303 , Diocletian ordered the scriptures to be burned. That persecution, however, soon ended; and we know of no Christian books which were irrevocably lost in it.
A generation later the Christians came to power. Soon they were destroying the books of the pagans. Because of this policy, although we possess a good deal of Christian propaganda from the early centuries, no pagan counter-propaganda is preserved intact. The great Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry wrote a destructive analysis of the Christian doctrine and the Christian scripture in fifteen volumes. It was burned by the imperial order, and only a few fragments, quoted by his Christian opponents, now remain.
In the Chrsitian church there was always a sharp division between those who thought all pagan literature vicious and dangerous and would gladly have consigned it to annihilation, and those who believed that some of it was potentially good so that it could, under proper guidance, be used for teaching and study. Christians of the first type were responsible for much wholesale abolition of the Greek and Roman classics. Christians of the second type selected most of the books we now possess, copied them, taught them in schools, and so reserved them for the age of printing.
Of the many thousands of plays enjoyed by Greeks and Romans, all were allowed to rot away except eighty-one: forty-three tragedies, thirty-three of which were Greek, and thirty-eight comedies of which twenty-seven were Roman. One more complete Greek comedy and large fragments of others have been found in the modern era: these were not, however, transmitted through the ages by copying, but preserved as though in a time capsule. Drama was particularly repellent to the early Christians, for many reasons. They therefore banned plays. The professional theater ceased to exist: for a thousand years men forgot the full power and meaning of drama, and the few plays that were permitted to survive were preserved mainly as models of fine Greek and Latin poetic and conversational style.
The pagan Greeks and Romans had also loved lyric poetry, which embodies or evokes song and dance. Many of their lyric poems were loving glorifications of carnal experience: an invitation to drink or rapturous desire for a beautiful body. Other were hymns doing honor to pagan deities. Such poems were particularly hateful to devout Christians, so that the vast majority of them were allowed to perish. In Latin we have four books of songs by Horace and half a book by Catullus. In Greek almost all lyric poetry has vanished, or at least until the discoveries were made; only Pindar survived, and only his Victory Odes. The rest disappeared, and even the Victory Odes came through the Dark Ages in one manuscript alone.