CJ Online Review: Hornblower and Spawforth, OCD4

posted with permission:

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Fourth Edition. General Editors, Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth; Assistant Editor, Esther Eidinow. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. lv + 1592. Hardcover, £100.00/$175.00. ISBN 978-0-19-954556-8.

Reviewed by Peter Green, University of Iowa

First, some comparative figures. The fourth edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (henceforward OCD4) has about 6,700 articles as against the 6,250 of OCD3. Surprisingly, it runs to only 1,593 pages against its predecessor’s 1,640, but makes up for this by having a larger page format. There are 72 new entries, and 19 replacements, the nature of which corresponds pretty well in most cases to recent discoveries and developments—by no means always the same thing—in classical scholarship. New articles are of three kinds. First, there are primarily factual items, previously either overlooked or held of insufficient importance to be included: e.g. Aegospotami, Apollodorus (the mythographer), Centuripe, Helena Augusta, and Xenion. Secondly, we find new areas of interest: e.g. aetiology, creolization, emotions, film, materiality, opera, popular culture, reception of tragedy, and a religious group including Jewish art and catacombs, sacred and cultic books, circumcision, and the Sabbath. Thirdly, and overlapping with the replacements, are areas where existing treatment has developed to a degree that demands a separate entry: e.g. Latin anthologies, ancient perceptions of color, eudaimonism, historical explanation, Hellenistic (also Presocratic) philosophy, Luwian, migration, cognitive anthropological approaches to ancient religions, and the Socratic dialogues.

It is less than a decade since the publication of a revised OCD3, but the number of articles replaced, rather than revised, in OCD4 is a striking testimony to the rapid advance of innovative scholarship, methodologies, and archaeological or related discoveries during that period. With some it is primarily a new way of looking at familiar material: hence replacements for atomism, Catullus, literary theory and the classics, kinship, or the triumph. For others, in particular Troy, it is a case of cumulative new discoveries, with Homer being a classic case of discoveries and changing approaches. Here I have to register a disappointment: in neither replacement article (on “Troy” and “Homer”) is the key issue raised of how far the new discoveries seriously affect the much-debated matter of Homer’s historicity. It is as though the historical background was off-limits for literary theorists. Professor Latacz’s brilliant synthesis of recent key discoveries in this area, Troy and Homer (2004: updated and translated from the German original Troia und Homer, 2001) may be cited under “Criticism” in the bibliography to the replacement article on Homer, but its findings, and basic topic, are carefully ignored in the article itself.

How, overall, does OCD4 serve as a useful working tool? Here one has to make a careful distinction between the needs of the specialist, of the classicist outside his or her own area, and of the general intelligent reader. I have been (as a user, variously, in the first two categories) testing this new volume for the past four or five months, and have to report mixed results. For example, Peter Parsons’ measured, and happily unadventurous, article on Callimachus is repeated unchanged from OCD3, a boon primarily for the general reader; why then do both editions studiously ignore Frank Nisetich’s useful and comprehensive book The Poems of Callimachus (2001), which provides that reader (and others) with what has for long been a prime desiderandum, i.e. a complete annotated and reasonably up-to-date translation of all available Callimachean material, including the (then) latest papyrus fragments of the Aitia, Hecale, and Iambi? When, as Callimacheans do, we turn to Cyrene, once again we find an unchanged general article, that by Joyce Reynolds, which is fair enough; but pursuit of the Battiad dynasty, while yielding the same short scrappy note on the four rulers named Arcesilas, finds, once more, no entry either on the Battiad dynasty as such, or on the four other kings named Battos who, after all, gave the dynasty its name. This seems arbitrary to a degree.

It also raises a general question of some importance. An English-language reader frustrated by OCD4 while in pursuit of the Battiads has two immediate options. The first, and most obvious, is Wikipedia. This offers both a general article on the dynasty, and separate entries on every individual king (including, for good measure, both the would-be usurper Learchos, and subsequent rulers —between periods of republicanism—such as Magas and Demetrius the Fair. Its disadvantages are, in this particular case, lack of essential documentation, and in general, inadequate professional gatekeeping. The second option is William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, published in London as long ago as 1853, but still surprisingly useful over factual matters that depend more or less exclusively on ancient literary sources, where its entries tend to be both thorough and accurate. (This is also true, though obviously to a lesser extent, of Smith’s companion Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (London 1856), where, for instance, the article on Cyrene, though outdated archaeologically, is far fuller and more detailed on the historical side than that of Joyce Reynolds.)

There is, surely, a lesson to be learned here. What Wikipedia demonstrates is the unrivalled ability of on-line media to incorporate up-to-the-minute new information; what emerges as its great weakness is lack of effective scholarly control over the matter thus disseminated. What compilations such as Smith make abundantly clear is that research primarily dependent on unchanging ancient sources has a far longer shelf-life than that which seeks to chart the course of evolving intellectual thought. To take obvious examples from the instances mentioned above: 2012 has seen several key publications in Callimachean studies—Annette Harder’s great edition of the Aitia, the omnium gatherum of important new research collected in Brill’s Companion to Callimachus, the particularly innovative work by two of that Companion’s editors, Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Susan Stephens, in Callimachus in Context: From Plato to the Augustan Poets—that at once make the OCD4 entry look dated. Here is where on-line publication scores heavily.

At the same time the understandable recent trend of print encyclopedias and similar reference works to pursue new interests and cutting-edge theories at the expense of well-established factual matters looks as though it may, in fact, have got its preferences back to front. The Smith dictionaries are long out of copyright: that on Biography and Mythology is available, free, on-line, and that on Geography soon will be. Publishers have, understandably, shied from reprinting them because of their obsoleteness: Robert Graves’ documentation of his Greek Myths is a standing reminder, and awful warning, of the traps they contain, not only through occasional errors, but in the way of long-abandoned editions (and, thus, references: old theories are fewer, but do occur) for the non-professional reader. Yet in many respects, for scholars who can take account of such pitfalls, they remain extremely useful. As the Ancient Library website understandably claims, “In detail, depth, and particularly citation of ancient texts, Smith’s work compares very favorably with its contemporary equivalent, the Oxford Classical Dictionary.” What all this suggests, very strongly, is that the future for printed classical reference works of the OCD4 type lies with the old-fashioned, slow-changing kind of text-based entry pursued (with considerable thoroughness and skill: they are well worth studying) by Smith and his contributors, while the new trends (and discoveries) so clearly evinced (and so quickly in need of updating) in OCD4 would be far more efficiently dealt with by a stable website, with stringent gatekeeping controls, but open to continuous on-line rolling revisions, updating, and editing. (This would also be a good testing-ground for potential new items—which might, or might not, prove lasting.) Meanwhile, each print edition of OCD gets a little heavier (this one came in just short of five pounds on my bathroom scales) without ever managing to stay ahead of the game for more than a year or two, if that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s