From Rome’s holiest texts to a Chinese manuscript that wouldn’t have fit inside a shipping container, here’s our top ten list of the most important ancient documents that no longer exist:
1. Sibylline Books
Roman leaders consulted these oracular sayings during political crises for perhaps 900 years. The originals burned in 83 B.C. Their replacements were allegedly destroyed by a 5th-century Roman general who feared that invading Visigoths would use them.
2. Sappho’s Poems
In the 6th century B.C. she composed 10,000 lines of poetry, filling nine volumes. Fewer than 70 complete lines exist. But those have made Lesbos’ most famous daughter (as classicist Daniel Mendelsohn has called her) a revered lyric poet of erotic love.
3. Aeschylus’ Achilleis
The famed Greek dramatist’s (c. 525-456 B.C.) tragic trilogy is thought to have reframed the Trojan War as a reckoning with contemporary Athenian democracy. An estimated total of more than 80 of his works are lost to history. Seven plays survive.
4. Mayan Codices
Out of perhaps thousands of bark-cloth books recording Mayan history, culture and religion—written in hieroglyphics as early as the 9th century—fewer than five texts survive. The rest were burned by conquistadors and Catholic monks in the 16th century.
This collection of beloved Indian animal fables, written as early as 100 B.C., is known to us from early translations in Pahlavi (now lost), Syriac and Arabic—the original Sanskrit source vanished. A Hebrew translation was the basis for a popular version in medieval Europe.