A new look at ancient history

18th July 1997 at 01:00
THE OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY. Edited b y Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. OUP Pounds 70

The Oxford Classical Dictionary is the largest single-volume reference work on the classical world in English, and one of the most consulted in the world. The preface to this edition confidently, and with some justification, states that it has "no competitor in any language".

It is a quarter of a century since the last edition appeared, and a considerable part of that edition was written and compiled in the mid-Sixties or earlier; some had in fact been transferred with little updating from the first (1949) edition. In this "complete overhaul" the editors have revised about half of the entries, and a distinguished international team of scholars has taken account of the extensive research of the last few decades, as well as the redefinition of many important subject areas. Very few articles have been left as they were, and factual updating has been combined with more "accessibility", by which is meant a preference for plain English; but challenges will still be encountered in areas such as literary theory.

As well as updating, there is a widening of horizons: there is coverage of regions and cultures beyond the "core" of what is commonly thought of as the classical world, but with which Greece and Rome interacted. There is also a clear move to embrace subjects which reflect the inter-disciplinary nature of present-day classical studies: an earlier distinction between "archeological" and "classical" has been dropped, and the editors have brought together the various sources of evidence - literary, anthropological, archeological - which are now widely used in classical scholarship.

A list of the new articles makes interesting reading as a "perceptual statement" in itself - a document, as the article on "reception" might have it, of the "never-to-be-stilled reception history" of the classical heritage. Here we find subjects we might not have thought of looking for: breast-feeding ("a proof of maternal devotion and, according to some philosophers, a good woman's duty"), childbirth ("generally the concern of women"), decision-making in Greece. There are also many which, surprisingly, were not treated separately in previous editions - Ionian Revolt, Hymettus, Old Oligarch, and so on.

An index of names and references which are not the titles of articles was included in the second edition but has now disappeared. The result may be more browsing, but browsing will be well rewarded, and there are generous cross-references. Maps and illustrations have been excluded on the grounds that they would have vastly increased the price.

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