Weekend Reading: The Love of Lost Books

Yesterday, in case you didn’t notice, was World Book Day.

I noticed.

It’s a day when people take to social media to post pictures of books and pretty libraries – so I didn’t get nearly as much marking done as I was intending to. I’m easily distracted by a library picture. And then of course there’s the dressing up. The school yard was full of wizards and BFGs and princesses and wimpy kids. I even saw a five-year-old Medusa, looking far cuter than a monster ought to be. You’ll be glad to hear that I managed to resist the considerable temptation to dress up. Apparently I’m an embarrassment to my child when I do that.

At the same time as I was drooling over library pictures, I was also reading the article in Prospect Magazine about lost works. There are few things that I find more fascinating than lost works – perhaps because, as a Tacitus devotee, I’ve spent a large chunk of my life working on a book with a missing ending.




So, in the spirit of World Book Day, this week I thought I’d talk a bit about the books we’ve lost, via a tour around my Impossible Library.

I painted this a few years ago, to resurrect some of the lost works that I would most like to see in existence. As the Prospect article points out, most classicists have a wish-list; but it’s possible that I’m the only one who’s gone to the extreme of painting mine on a wall!


The fireplace wall in my front room, full of impossibilities like an hourglass that runs upwards and a tiny doorway to an even more surreal library.


I used to do a lot of mural painting, but I don’t have many of my murals in my own house. They never quite work out the way they look in my head – so it’s quite irritating to have to see them every day! My Impossible Library is the exception, because it’s the closest I can get to owning books that don’t exist.

Tacitus is in my Impossible Library, obviously – the complete works, including the missing bits of the Annals. But while that might be top of my wish-list, my interest in lost works extends quite a lot further than Tacitus. Once you start rummaging through the references to books that once existed, it’s very easy to compile a whole imaginary bookcase.

One of my top Impossible picks is the full set of the Sybilline Books, which might have changed the course of human history if Tarquinius Superbus hadn’t been such an idiot. Naturally I have them in my Library, unburned.




I have the full set of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita too – because I would dearly love to get to the Good Bits near the end on the civil wars, Augustus’ rise to power and the campaigns of Drusus.




What else…? Well, I have Homer’s lost mock-epic, the humorous ‘Margites’, which apparently followed ‘a moron called Margites and his ludicrous misadventures, especially on his wedding night’ (OCD). Because wouldn’t that be fun to read? It may have been older than the Iliad and the Odyssey – which would make it, if it had survived, THE canonical work of classical literature. Think about that for a moment. If Fate had been slightly kinder, we might all have begun our study of Classics by reading a rude comic poem about an idiot.




I also have Ovid’s only play, a tragedy about Medea. Tacitus mentions it, and Quintilian. Although not everyone is convinced that it was a dramatic triumph, as a huge Ovid fan I choose to believe that we’ve been missing something pretty special. My volume is quite large because in my head it’s fully illustrated by Gustave Doré.





(It’s my Impossible Library. I get to pick my own Impossible Illustrators too.)

There are lots of other treats in my Library. I’ve got the full set of Suetonius’ lost History of Rome, of course – and complete volumes of my favourite Greek lyric poets, like Sappho and Mimnermus. I have the instruction book on Dice supposedly written by the Emperor Claudius, and Agrippina the Younger’s memoirs on her family’s misfortunes. I have full works by Ennius, Corinna, Naevius and others, as well as Tiro’s four-book biography of Cicero.




As with all bookshelves (in my house, anyway!), I eventually ran out of space. My Impossible Library only scratches the surface of the lost works that we know about – and doesn’t even attempt to speculate about the existence of other works which have gone unmentioned in the few books that we do have. If I started down that route, the Library would take over the rest of the walls in my house…

(Actually that sounds tempting… But maybe it’s a project for another year!)


Happy (belated) World Book Day, everyone – from me and my wishful-thinking bookcase!






This week’s links from around the Classics internet



An Interview with Me

Teaching Classics from afar – New Classicists 



Rare brooch in Lincolnshire – Lincolnshire Live 

Treasures on display at Vindolanda – Vindolanda.com 

Mary Beard blocked as BM Trustee – The Guardian

Boudica and Brexit – The Telegraph 

Minimus weekend – Vindolanda.com 

Weekly newsletter – BGS Classics 

Feb 2020 newsletter – The Classical Association 




Comment and opinion

Epic poems and recitation – JSTOR Daily 

Sex, satire and naughty boys – The Conversation 

The Battle of Cannae – The National Interest 

Ancient marches – Pursuit 

Classical plagues – Eidolon 

What have the Romans done for us? – Medium 

A new analysis of Sappho – Cambridge Core Blog 

Reading and scholarship – Sententiae Antiquae 

Coin of the month – Corpus Nummorum 


Podcasts, video and other media

Sappho – The History of Sex 

What shall we do about Claudius? –I, Podius 

Revolutionary Dionysus – Ancient History Fangirl 

Conference videos – Our Voices in Classics 2020 


Frogs at Newcastle University in May

11 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: The Love of Lost Books

  1. How about the complete works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides together with the book on ‘Judges Guidance for awarding the Tragedy prizes’ (OK that one might not have existed but perhaps….).

    On the subject of potentially fictional books – Livia’s journal.


  2. This is an excellent showcase of your painting skills.
    The trouble is that most folk who see this in real life have no idea of the provenance of the books depicted. All look SO real.
    Well done!


  3. I absolutely love this, Thankyou for sharing something so wonderful, yet so personal

    Sent from my iPhone



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