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