Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.65 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.65

David M. Schaps, Handbook for Classical Research.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2011.  Pp. xxii, 466.  ISBN 9780415425230.  $41.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mark Thorne, Wheaton College (


[The author would like to apologize for the lateness of this review.]

The classical world is a really big place. Given that somebody attempting to study it can explore any dimension of life and thought covering roughly two thousand years and multiple cultures between the Bronze Age and the end of the western Roman empire (or beyond), it is inevitable that researchers at some point specialize. Thus we tend to become Hellenists or Latinists, and along the way philologists, epigraphists, historians, archaeologists, etc., finally emerging as specialists in imperial Roman epic poetry, ancient cavalry tactics, social class in Athenian drama, or gender dynamics in rhetorical progymnasmata, just to name a few possibilities. Yet when attempting to branch beyond our own established research boundaries to find productive points of connection with the many other fields and subfields of classics, it can be at times be difficult to know where to begin. It is precisely to help tackle this problem that David M. Schaps has written his new and exceedingly welcome research handbook for the study of the classical world.

This is an important book. The first five chapters address in a clear and meaningful way what the world of classics is about and how we go about learning about the classical past, and then each of the next 25 chapters tackles a different field or subfield of classical studies, briefly explaining the lines of research conducted in it, and offering along the way instructive examples in each topic to illustrate the kinds of issues researchers face. In his introduction Schaps explains that the project originated from a desire to create a book that would meet the needs of a graduate level pro-seminar, and indeed it is this audience that will find the book most immediately useful. Yet there is something in here to benefit anybody, from beginners to seasoned researchers. Schaps begins by being careful to explain what he has not attempted to do, namely write a neat summary of all available knowledge on each of the research areas he covers. This is truly a guidebook, as his desire is to produce “an orientation” (xiv) that will lay out the basics of a given field and then point people to the right resources for further study. Schaps thus fills an valuable niche, for his approach does not directly compete either with reference encyclopedias such as Pauly (old or new) or with the fuller bibliographic coverage of a work like Jenkins (a useful if sometimes overlooked book which Schaps himself urges his readers to consult alongside his own work).1 The author’s greatest desire is in fact to encourage researchers at all levels to discover the joy of working in areas outside their own entrenched specialties and thus discover how a basic understanding of, say, numismatics or ancient music might help someone working on a historical text ask more interesting and fruitful questions than they otherwise would have asked. With this in mind, although many will only read individual chapters, the full impact comes from reading the whole book. I certainly benefited greatly from doing so and found myself wishing I had owned such a book during graduate school. Future generations of classics graduate students will likely find this a welcome companion.

Schaps organizes the book according to general themes. After a brief Preface that explains the authors overall goals for the work, Part I: The Basics provides a general orientation to what the field of Classics actually is, why people bother studying classical antiquity, and how researchers go about conducting research in it, giving special attention to the types of sources we have along with the inherent limitations of those sources. Useful chapters on compiling bibliographies and using book reviews flesh out this section. In Part II: Language, chapters on grammar, linguistics, classical dictionaries, and classical texts themselves speak to the fact that interacting with ancient languages (specifically Greek and Latin) in some way lies at the core of what classicists most often do. Those from ancillary disciplines seeking to understand better the core toolset of the classicist can find here a marvelous point of entry. Part III: The Traditional Fields covers the core terrain of literature, rhetoric, philosophy, and history. The chapter “Reading and Understanding Literature” in particular stands out as one of the gems in the entire book, providing one of the best concise summaries of the issues behind literary theory and intertextuality in Classics that I have seen yet. Schaps takes a welcome middle ground, acknowledging the real value of understanding and applying the various theoretical approaches while also keeping in mind their limitations. Part IV: The Physical Remains brings us to ancient material culture, with chapters covering archaeology in general and then the more specialized fields of numismatics and Mycenaean studies; Linear A and B naturally make their appearance here, showing how texts and physical remains can rarely be separated. This very principle continues to shape the contents of Part V: The Written Word which introduces readers to the potentially intimidating fields of epigraphy, papyrology, and paleography and then leaves material culture to close with a well-written whirlwind tour of the process of creating a modern edited text. Next, Part VI: The Classics and Related Disciplines offers a journey out into the arenas of classical art, music and dance, Greco-Roman science and technology, religion and myth, law, and the social sciences in general. This last chapter looks at fruitful ways classics has interacted (and can continue to interact) with the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics, and psychology. I commend Schaps for also including a chapter on music and dance that gives proper due to rhythm and meter, a constant reality of daily life in the classical world that, as Schaps urges, more classicists would benefit from remembering. Part VII: The Classics Since Antiquity closes out the book with four shorter chapters on the classical tradition and reception, the historical development of classical scholarship, various attempts at recreating the classical past (ranging from brief discussions of opera and Latin composition to more recent efforts at computer modeling), and the rich tradition of classical translation. In the absence of a general conclusion this section speaks to the ever-growing appreciation for how successive generations continually interact with our classical heritage.

For many, the greatest ongoing benefit this book offers will be the “Major Resources” section found at the end of each chapter which covers (helpfully in narrative format rather than bland lists) not only the well-known but also many lesser-known resources. Also provided is an selection of core online resources. Furthermore, the summary bibliographies in the back are worth the price of admission alone (397-444), split into current websites (as of time of writing) and print sources; only those works and sites mentioned in the book are listed, but this covers so much ground these sections should be read by every Classics graduate student. All the major languages of scholarship are represented.

One of the enjoyable aspects of Schaps’s writing is his thoroughly engaging and personal tone. Here is no functional but dry compendium of facts; rather, reading the book feels a bit like listening to your favorite uncle sharing a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience on a topic he cares about deeply. This personal tone may be off-putting to some who would prefer the more traditional detached scholarly voice, but I for one found it a breath of fresh air. In this spirit he includes the occasional personal anecdote (e.g. the amusingly haphazard beginnings of his doctoral thesis, 26) and frequently infuses the text with some very welcome wit and humor.2

It is perhaps inevitable, however, that in a book like this one can find a few missed opportunities. Breadth of coverage is a predictable target, since in a book that aims at covering as many research avenues as possible, anybody could point to something that Schaps overlooks. I for one noticed the absence of any Latin and Greek composition resources or of any mention at all of the Second Sophistic in the chapter “Oratory and Rhetoric.” I was also disappointed to find foreign cults meriting one single paragraph in “Ancient Religion and Mythology” with no mention at all of mystery cults; Judaism and Christianity do get better treatments than expected, however. Furthermore, in the “Mycenaean Studies” chapter, Schaps mentions only the traditional period divisions of Early/Middle/Late Minoan but neglects to introduce the more recent terms Prepalatial, Protopalatial, etc., that are increasingly used in the literature now. A few images are scattered about to support various chapters (mostly in the more technical areas like palaeography or epigraphy as well as art), but more would have been welcome. Inexplicably, neither “Numismatics” nor “Papyrology” contain a single picture of a coin or papyrus fragment. The book is well-edited and bound.3

These quibbles should in no way detract readers from enjoying the book themselves or recommending it to their students. Schaps has written a remarkable book whose sum is actually greater than its individual parts—the greatest benefits here await those who read widely across multiple chapters and actively look for ways to integrate among the disciplines. As Schaps himself puts it, “The undisputed fact that nobody can conquer all of the realms so briefly outlined here should not prevent a person from entering them. I do not think that it is necessary or desirable for classicists to entrench ourselves within the confines of our specialty, fearing to venture beyond them for fear of breaking the illusion of omniscience that we can project in the subjects we have studied closely.” (xiv) In short, Schaps wants his reader to discover (or remember) the joys and benefits of building a broader base of competence and thinking more like a generalist. In this reviewer’s opinion, Schaps succeeds in making a very persuasive case. This book thus represents a significant achievement, one that will likely find a regular place on researchers’ shelves and in graduate seminars for years to come.


1.   Jenkins, Fred W. 2006. Classical Studies: A Guide to The Reference Literature, Second edition. Libraries Unlimited.
2.   In discussing the need for a better theoretical understanding of classical grammars, Schaps writes, “If prolixity is the sign of a person who has not grasped the essential point, there are grounds for uneasiness when Kühner and Stegmann, Ausfürhliche Grammatik der lateinischen Sprache take more than sixty pages to explain the genitive” (83). Elsewhere he wryly notes, “In a scholarly book like this one, of course, rules of grammar can never be violated. To do so would be, well, you know” (92n8).
3.   I only noted three typos: ‘Trauptman’ for ‘Traupman’ (80); ‘IGNI’ for ‘IGNIS’ (247); ‘particularly’ for ‘particular’ (247).

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