I recently asked, What percentage of clay tablets found in Mesopotamia contain literature? and was only able to define an upper limit of 4% literature in the overall corpus texts from the Ancient Near East. However, the corpus of Latin texts from Antiquity that have come down to us has been researched over a much longer period of time and has been passed down under circumstances that are very different than those for clay tablets and other cuneiform texts.

This probably means that the percentage of literature in the overall corpus of Latin texts is very different than for clay tablets. (Medieval monks made conscious decision when selecting works they would copy by hand, whereas physical and chemical processes (and occasionally worms) make no distinction between the content of clay tablets.) This leads me to the question, What percentage of Latin texts from Antiquity constitute literature? For the purpose of this question, literature (see Wikipedia) may also include non-fiction such as essays and history works. When I write "Antiquity", I mean texts from the Old Latin period until the end of the Classical Latin period, i.e. until the third century AD.


To give you a proper answer, we need to define a few more terms than simply "literature". Such as what is meant by "texts".

Defining "text", we need to understand whether or not inscriptions -- anything written or painted on walls, stones, or other objects -- are included. This extends the range from an illiterate person's scribbling what he thinks are letters (& there are examples of exactly this) to the Emperor Augustus' Res Gestae Divi Augusti, one of the longest inscriptions to have survived down to modern times -- & arguably a work of literature. One authority estimates there are about 400,000 inscriptions known, so whether these are included is not a trivial question.

For sake of argument, let's exclude inscriptions. Next, since the Wikipedia definition is a bit vague on this, what kinds of non-fiction writing would we exclude from the category "literature"? Is the Elder Pliny's Natural History literature? He was not trying to write in eloquent language -- as his adopted son Pliny did with his letters -- but to inform people. Yet his Natural History helped establish a genre of literature, the encyclopedia. And then there are a number of howto guides or handbooks that have come down to us of questionable practical value, such as Cato's De Agri Cultura. (Recent studies suggest it was not intended as a guide to farmers, but rather was an essay about a partly imaginary or idealized farm life.) The ancients didn't clearly divide their published writing into "literature" & "practical guides for the general audience" as we do today.

So, again for the sake of argument, let's exclude all texts that were private -- by this, meant to be read by one individual (such as personal letters, financial records, legal records, etc.) -- from the category of literature. What we have left is, by any measure, overwhelmingly literary. What private texts that survive are few: a few hundred pieces from Britain (most of which comprise a few, disjointed words), maybe a hundred more from Pompeii & Herculeneum, & a similar number from Vindonissa (a Roman military camp in what is now Austria), Dacia (a series of miners' contracts), & North Africa (a number of letters on ostraca). These private texts (without critical apparatus & commentary) would fill maybe a couple of printed volumes at most, as compared to the 50+ Latin titles of the Loeb Classical Library which comprise close to 100 volumes. This should not be surprising: transmission of texts before printing was done through copying by hand, & few people will bother to copy theirs or other peoples' private papers.

In other words, where maybe 4% of the cuneiform texts are literary, with Latin it is the opposite situation: maybe 4% are non-literary, not counting inscriptions.

And to anticipate your next question, the situation with ancient Greek texts is complicated, due to the survival of so much writing on papyrus from Egypt: on the one hand, there are hundreds of volumes of published papyrus texts (which is still only a fraction of the surviving texts); on the other, there are hundreds of volumes of "literary" Greek writings that have survived to today. And there remains the question how do we categorize all of the inscriptions in Greek, which are at least as abundant as those in Latin...

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    The dividing line between literary and non-literary texts is problematic for any text corpus, as far as I know, including the corpus transmitted on clay tablets. Anyone trying to quantify the share of literature in the Latin corpus would use a specific dividing line, which may not find consensus, but that is OK for the purpose of this question. And Michael P. Streck's estimation for Mesopotamian texts was based on word counts instead of "text" counts, since even texts on clay tablets vary in size. – Tsundoku Mar 9 at 18:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.