Herodotus’ Histories, Apollonius’ Argonautica, Euripides’ Medea. Most of us can name at least one or two ancient works. If you’re a churchy-type you might even be able to name several of the books in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (the Roman Catholic Church uses Latin, and the New Testament was written in Greek, so I’m totally counting these as part of my field). But are these the actual titles for these works? Is this what they were called when they were written? Shockingly, even the titles for certain works are historical problems, which make you wonder how much of ancient history we’re just bullshitting (hint; a lot more than expected). Worse, sometimes the title for a work is all that we have left.
The Gallic Wars, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Commentaries on the Gallic War, De Bello Gallico. Just what do we call Caesar’s work on his conquest of Gaul? Well, what did Caesar call his work? Might seem an easy task, just look at a manuscript for the title, right? Seems like a simple process, but even for someone as famous as Julius Caesar sometimes the manuscripts we have were not printed with titles, or the titles are missing, torn off, or lost due to the wear and tear of time. Usually, as in Caesar’s case, the manuscripts we have are from hundreds of years after the autographs (the author’s original documents), so what we have might be the tradition’s title, rather than the original title. If that’s the case, can we figure out what the actual title is? This guy seems to think so. He basically looked at other similar literature, the manuscripts, and Caesar’s likely audience to answer the question.
How about an even more popular piece of literature, the Bible? First of all, “the Bible” is a collection of books, not a single work. These works, which all come together in the convenient single package we read, were written over a thousand year period, by upwards of 60 different authors. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll say that is fairly common knowledge. Moving on; who are the authors of the four canonical gospels? If you answered Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, congratulations, you’re wrong! The gospels are technically anonymous; tradition and the evidence point to these four as the authors, but it’s no guarantee. Same goes with their titles. We tend to call them the “Gospel According to XYZ”, but this is more based on tradition than hard, concrete proof. The problem here is that the “according to” part, “kata” in Greek, doesn’t necessarily mean “written/authored by”, but can also mean something like “under the authority of”. It wasn’t uncommon to attach one’s work to a higher authority, authorized or not, in order to give the work more credibility. This is how we end up with all our pseudo authors, pseudo-Xenophon, pseudo-Herodotus, etc. Wouldn’t people take this blog more seriously if I posted it as written by a prominent scholar in the field, or said the site is authorized by a major research university? Same goes with the gospels, where it’s suspected “Gospel According to” is not the title and author, but sets up the genre and authority or influence. Similarly, there is now a decent body of work based on the suspicion that some of Paul’s epistles weren’t actually written by Paul, in part due to the same issue of author vs authority.
So we can’t necessarily trust the titles of some of these works, but at least we have them complete, and can read them. On the other end of the spectrum there are lots of works and authors where all we have is the title. Not every work has survived in full, or even part; sometimes a mere reference or single line exists. For example, take Aristophanes. He was an Athenian comedian; a master of political humor 2400 years before John Stewart. Check online for some of his plays. Now check for The Babylonians. If you’re good at Google-fu, you’ll be able to find some translation of the couple fragments we have. Nothing else exists except the fragments and the title. Likewise, feel free to look up the works of Pliny the Elder or Polybius. Prolific authors, but not much survived. The reason we know about these works and their titles is because they are cited by other authors. One fantastic source that lists works and authors is the Deipnosophistae. It reads terribly, but offers a wealth of fragments from otherwise completely lost authors and their works. So many, in fact, that sources vary on just how many works and authors are cited. If you’ve ever heard that we only have 5% of what was written in Greece and Rome, the Deipnosophistae helps lend some credence to the claim.
What does any of this matter? We could call Caesar’s work “The Great Cheese Adventure” for all the difference it makes. True, the content is always going to carry more weight. But titles still have some power. How we approach content in part depends on what we call it, and this can be seen everywhere in life. In the North, we refer to the “American Civil War”, in the South, it’s the “War of Northern Aggression”. Whether you call it the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare tells a lot about you. And don’t even think of labeling Justin Bieber as a “musician”. The reason titles are important is because they can reveal our biases, or color our perspective of literature in ways we might not expect.
So we’re missing 95% of the ancient world, of the 5% we do have, a lot is fragmentary, and even of the complete works we have, we don’t even know if the freaking titles are correct. Ancient History isn’t entirely the fantasy of scholars though. These works are in the minority. Most of the works known to us do not face such lasting problems, and in the larger world, titles are a minor detail. We might have to work a little harder to figure out the titles to Caesar’s works or the gospels, but at least they’re extant. Besides, simply knowing there could be an issue will help improve objectivity and our ability to think critically about ancient history. And knowing is half the battle.