Only a small fraction of ancient literature survives—less than one percent, estimates reveal. While the reasons vary, it is an irony that Christianity, often regarded as responsible for the proliferation and spread of books and book culture, was likewise active in suppressing and destroying books in Late Antiquity.
Author Dirk Rohmann assembles the evidence for the role played in book-burning by Christian institutions, writers, and saints during the Roman Empire. Rohmann analyzes a broad range of literary and legal sources, paying special attention to which genres and book types were likely to be targeted. Rohmann concludes that, in addition to heretical, magical, astrological, and anti-Christian books, other less obviously subversive categories of literature were also vulnerable to destruction and censorship through prohibition of manuscript copying. These texts included works from materialistic philosophical traditions, texts that were to become the basis for modern philosophy and science.
While book-burning functioned as a recognized cultural practice, and Rohmann acknowledges the wide variety of motivations at work in the various practices of censorship, he ultimately asks to what extent Christian book-burning and accompanying practices negatively affected the survival of pagan and pre-Christian literary and philosophical texts. Christianity’s rejection, even obliteration, of books—so contrary to its own worldview—testifies both to the perilous nature of texts in transmission as well as to the enduring cultural and ideological power of the written word.
See also: Baylor University Press