Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.01.09

Michael Grant, Atlas of Classical History. Fifth edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 7 pp. front matter, 92 maps on 116 pp., 8 pp. index. $16.95. ISBN 0-19-521074-3.

Reviewed by Roger S. Bagnall -- Columbia University

Once called Ancient History Atlas, then (at least in the U.S.) Atlas of Ancient History, this revision of a 1971 work has now rather confusingly adopted for its fifth edition a title identical to that of the atlas published in 1985 by Routledge under the editorship of Richard Talbert. In any event, this aims to be, as the title says clearly, an atlas of history. Anyone looking for topography--the sort of thing one looks for in major atlases and maps--will find nothing here aside from some rivers (no basis for their inclusion or exclusion is visible; why the Axios and Haliacmon are the only rivers shown on map 5, Mycenaean Greece, for example, is obscure) and occasional markings of hill-country relief rather reminiscent of the playing boards of war games. (Nor is there any color. But this is hardly to be expected in a clothbound book offered at $16.95.)

The maps provided range from the Near East in 1700 BC to the empire of Justinian as it stood in AD 565. The novelties compared to the fourth edition are maps 72 and 73 (more detailed representations of the Rhine and Danube frontiers), 86 (persecutions of the Christian church), and 88 and 90 (the empire in 395 and the eastern empire in 476-an odd date to choose for the East). Some maps show broad spans, others smaller areas (Rome, Athens, Pompeii, etc.). Many are topical (products, migrations, populations, mints, military and naval units, etc.). The range of material is considerable; a map on the origins of Greek writers (map 37) shows authors (as always, in boxes) tagged to their birthplaces in order to provide "a corrective to the common view, based on the glories of Athenian literature and art, that Athens was the only Greek cultural centre that mattered." Never mind that many--most--of these authors did most of their writing somewhere else than their birthplaces.

The previous edition of this atlas was discussed along with eleven others in an excellent and detailed review article by Clive Foss ("Classical Atlases," CW80.5 [1987] 337-65). There is no need to rehearse Foss's analysis again here in detail, for the relatively minor changes mentioned in the preceding paragraph leave Foss's judgment still applicable: "It would be hard to find one map which was altogether dependable. . . . In all cases, the maps have been drastically simplified to their detriment, and new errors have frequently crept in. Basically, this atlas could be recommended because of its price and range of maps, but its inaccuracies and deficiencies are so pronounced that its value is greatly reduced. Perhaps a student could get some basic information from it; but he should use it with care" (362).

The pertinent questions, certainly, are what kind of history this book is meant to teach, whether it does it well, and if it is the kind of history one might wish to teach or learn. The maps are not for the most part intended to convey very much geographical information (although there are exceptions, like map 49, the roads of Roman Italy), but rather nuggets of historical fact conveyed in little boxes. The book is in fact a compendium of such "facts" displayed as tags on maps rather than in some other format (running text, lists, timeline, etc.). Overall, I fear, the approach reminds me of nothing so much as my long-ago high school American history class, in which factoids jostled one another in an amiably egalitarian fashion, with the (supposed) inventor of toilet paper next to the Compromise of 1850.

It would not be hard to pick away at inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Tone varies, too. On map 62 Bethlehem is "Birth-place of Jesus," on map 85 "Honoured as the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ." Either Egypt as a whole or Oxyrhynchus (I cannot tell which) is marked "Population may have been 50% Christian by 300" (also map 85), an almost certainly false claim in either event. "The Rise of Macedonia under Philip II" (map 35) labels Stagira as "Birthplace of Aristotle 384" (but does not tell us why this is relevant to Philip). But this kind of enumeration is not very interesting and endlessly expandable.

It is more interesting to compare this work to the work mentioned above edited by Richard Talbert from the work of twenty-five contributors; of the atlases discussed by Foss, this was the one most similar to Grant's in overall design. It also came in for severe criticism from Foss, partly because of the lack of color and relief (the maps are indeed hardly models of graphic design, but they have much more relief than Grant's), partly because of its devotion of about half the space to textual material. Foss also pointed up the relative lack of material pertinent to peoples other than the Greeks and Romans. Foss notes, however, that it has far more (about 50 percent more) maps than Grant, with more than triple the places (to judge from the gazetteer of the Routledge volume vs. the index to Grant).

In direct comparisons, Grant's maps are more boldly drawn but lacking in detail. If, for example, we compare the march of the 10,000 (Grant's map 33, Talbert's p. 58, by C. J. Tuplin), we notice that Talbert includes rough representation of relief (entirely lacking in Grant, as Foss notes), more than dozen rivers and several lakes lacking in Grant, and more than twice the place names: all at virtually the same scale (1:10,000,000). Talbert's atlas has the accompanying prose deplored by Foss and a bibliography, but the maps themselves are blessedly devoid of "narrative." Routledge prices the hardback version at $60.00, but the paperback at $18.50 is reasonable. In a head-to-head matchup, the vastly greater body of places included in Talbert's atlas seems to me the decisive point, and I cannot see why anyone would prefer Grant's volume to save just a dollar and a half.