Short but learned friend;Subject of the week;Reference books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CLASSICAL CIVILISATION. edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press. pound;33 hardback.

Hornblower and Spawforth's magisterial 1,640-page, 6,250-entry Oxford Classical Dictionary (third edition, 1996) has established itself as an indispensable tool for the classicist. Completely rewritten and heavily expanded from OCD2 (1970), with a more international flavour and matching interdisciplinary approach, OCD3 did away with the absurd separation of "classical" and "archaeological" entries. It also brought the Near East fully into the reckoning. This was not a moment too soon, given the publication of Martin West's revelations about the impact of the Near East on early Greek literature and society in his brilliant The East Face of Helicon (Oxford, 1997). And OCD3 broke new ground with its thematic entries under topics such as imperialism, disease and technology.

The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation is a 600-entry abbreviation of this mighty opus. But unlike its parent, it includes maps and illustrations, while major entries (such as Aristotle, Christianity, mythology, political theory) are marked by a grey background and hatching in the margins. The book also includes a list of all the entries defined under subject-area, and a time-chart.

The reading lists following entries in OCD3 have been removed - although there is an odd exception in the three-line entry under "rape". This reads "see HETEROSEXUALITY, HUBRIS", and then lists two articles and a book. Possibly this entry was included because OCD3 has no entry under "rape". So here at any rate the companion improves on its noble parent, although "rape" is not in the thematic listings, and one of the two articles mentioned was cited by an unglossed abbreviation.

The companion is aimed at a more general market than OCD3, and the editors have selected entries wisely. They have even improved on OCD3 by listing Roman names by cognomen (surname) rather than nomen (family name - looking up "Cicero" in OCD3 and being told to look up "Tullius" still drives me potty). The illustrations are apt and engaging, and the maps a useful addition, although not entirely accurate.

More controversially, the editors have not rewritten the entries they have selected from OCD3. As a general principle, this is right - a watered-down reference book loses its point. But some of the original OCD3 entries that were more obviously aimed at summarising the state of play for scholars could have done with a little rewriting. If the companion has to have an entry on "closure" and "literary theory and the classics", for example, a little tempering of the wind (I use the image advisedly) to the shorn student was needed. But even uncontroversial entries (such as the "Academy" on the first page) sometimes seem unhelpful for the less scholarly market.

The OCCC is more approachable and more friendly than OCD3. But it may not have undergone enough of a transformation to serve the needs of its market. Schools and students who have the money should therefore go for the brilliant OCD3. Given that few schools and students do have the money, The OCCC is a judiciously selected and better-looking alternative.

Two niggles, easily corrected in later editions. The hatch-marked major entries cut into standard entries and lack page-numbers, irritating when they go on for more than a couple of pages; and errors have been introduced into the Greek quotations (for example, breathings wrongly located).

Peter Vaughan Jones is co-founder of Friends of Classics

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