Marcus Terentius Varro was called the most learned of the Romans. But what did he know, and how did he know it? I ask because of this quote, from Rerum rusticarum libri III (Agricultural Topics in Three Books):
“Especial care should be taken, in locating the steading, to place it at the foot of a wooded hill, where there are broad pastures, and so as to be exposed to the most healthful winds that blow in the region. A steading facing the east has the best situation, as it has the shade in summer and the sun in winter. If you are forced to build on the bank of a river, be careful not to let the steading face the river, as it will be extremely cold in winter, and unwholesome in summer. 2 Precautions must also be taken in the neighbourhood of swamps, both for the reasons given, and because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.” “What can I do,” asked Fundanius, “to prevent disease if I should inherit a farm of that kind?” “Even I can answer that question,” replied Agrius; “sell it for the highest cash price; or if you can’t sell it, abandon it.”
I get the distinct impression that someone (probably someone other than Varro) came up with an approximation of germ theory 1500 years before Girolamo Fracastoro. But his work was lost.
Everybody knows, or should know, that the vast majority of Classical literature has not been preserved. Those lost works contained facts and ideas that might have value today – certainly there are topics that we understand much better because of insights from Classical literature. For example, Reich and Patterson find that some of the Indian castes have existed for something like three thousand years: this is easier to believe when you consider that Megasthenes wrote about the caste system as early as 300 BC.
We don’t put much effort into recovering lost Classical literature. But there are ways in which we could push harder – by increased funding for work on the Herculaneum scrolls, or the Oxyrhynchus papyri collection, for example. Some old-fashioned motivated archaeology might get lucky and find another set of Amarna cuneiform letters, or a new Antikythera mechanism.