The Suda, the great tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, contains an entry for Lamprias, supposed son of Plutarch, the Greek historian. Plutarch, who often wrote about his family, doesn’t mention a child by that name in any of his known works. He did have a brother called Lamprias, and a grandfather too, which may account for the confusion, though the Suda is acknowledged to be an unreliable source for classical literary history. It is incomparable, however, as a thousand-year-old mirror, held up to a lost world. It shows us the shape of the Byzantine mind, and the intellectual preoccupations of a civilization which believed itself to be (with some justification) a living inheritor of Greece and Rome.
“Lamprias”, according to the text, compiled a catalogue – in Greek, a list written in tabular form – of his father’s works. Surviving in manuscripts from the twelfth-century, but believed to be a much earlier text, it lists 227 titles, only 83 of which exist today. It omits 18 other complete works of Plutarch now extant, and 15 which we have in fragmentary form. Mysteriously, Aristotle’s Topics, which the Byzantines really ought to have been able to correctly describe, appears as entry no. 56. These peculiarities show how ancient catalogues, now matter how desirously we mine them for evidence of lost texts, cannot be trusted.
Was Lamprias, whoever he was, a careless cataloguer? Were his assumptions and methodologies fundamentally different to our own? Not really. Our catalogues are as much reflections of our own prejudices, politics, cosmologies and wishes as was the inventory of Lamprias, or the encyclopaedia of the pseudonymous “Suidas”, for that matter. Catalogues are, and always have been, constructs which help us make sense of collections of objects and ideas, negotiations between us and the things which are important to us.
[For an edition and translation of the “Catalogue of Lamprias,” see volume 15 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Plutarch’s Moralia, edited by F.H. Sandbach, pp.3-29]