BMCR 2003.11.15

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Third edition revised

, , The Oxford classical dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xxii, 1176 pages ; 26 cm. ISBN 0198691173. $110.00.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary is the most important and accessible basic reference tool in English available to lovers of the Classics. The third edition of 1996 marked a vast improvement over the earlier ones and was the subject of an exemplary review by Markus Sehlmeyer for BMCR in 1997. Nevertheless, something useful can still be said about this important book on the occasion of the appearance of its revised third edition (hereinafter OCD). After discussing the requisite technical matters, I will focus on how the book can serve the liberal arts teacher and the larger audience outside the profession.

To begin with the obvious and obligatory, changes from the 1996 edition are few. The editors state in their preface that they have corrected many small slips, the latter mostly having been signalled by J.W. Roberts in preparing the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World, an abridgement of the work under review. Despite these corrections some errors remain, my favorite being the listing of both Tullus Hostilius and Servius Tullius as the sixth king of Rome. I understand the desire not to alter the pagination of the lemmata, but surely the immensely useful (and separately paginated) section with standard abbreviations for authors and books could have been brought up to date (to reflect, for example, the appearance of all the volumes of Steinby’s Lexicon Topographicum) without incurring excessive additional expense.

Owners of the 1996 edition will want to know what is new. The answer is: not much. One new two-line lemma has been added, on p. 546, for ‘epinician poetry’: “victory odes for athletes and equestrian victors; see agones; Bacchylides; Pindar; Simonides.” Pagination is unchanged from the 1996 edition; the book has lost a little weight because thinner (though quite acceptable) paper has been used. A brief necrology has been added in the form of daggers beside the names of deceased contributors to the 1996 edition, while the names of N.G.L. Hammond and Don Fowler, whose editorial contributions merit it, are justifiably singled out. No one with a functional copy of the 1996 edition in their possession need purchase this book.

If so little has changed, what need of a review? I think it’s worth saying more about OCD‘s pedagogic value, especially in those liberal arts environments which present problems because of tight staffing and low student numbers. Where I work, undergraduates frequently choose a classics major rather late thanks to delays typically caused by an extensive general education requirement, a predilection for preprofessional studies, and sheer ignorance about classics until they happen to bump into us (does this sound familiar?). As a result, our majors need as much upper-division coursework as they can get in order to satisfy our requirements in perhaps two years, often less. Naturally, we offer the usual range of upper-division courses to satisfy student needs, but we cannot at present justify staffing a broad lower-division survey of ancient culture to bring (or force) all newly-declared majors up to the same basic level. As a result, some students remark upon leaving that they have at times experienced difficulties seeing the forest for the trees. In my view, OCD is one of the best tools to attack this sort of problem, and I aggressively push my students to use it and buy it if possible. (The costly book can be found at a substantial discount from a large online dealer.)

The above-mentioned section of OCD (xxix-liv) listing “Abbreviations used in the Present Work” is a substantial resource crammed into 26 two-column pages (even though its “small print” is potentially off-putting). My lecture courses are usually populated by intelligent young people having little experience with our profession-specific modes of encoding data, but like students everywhere they are naturally expected to read articles and use the notes to pursue further scholarship in writing their own essays. The result is that I am often approached by the more diligent students wanting me to help them decode the scholarly apparatus of argument. I’ve been asked to explain “Cic. Q. Fr. 1.1,” for example. A student who has been carefully trained (and pushed repeatedly) to use OCD can easily track down this reference. OCD‘s abbreviations will get them to Cicero, identify the work in question, and even provide background information and some bibliography in the lemma. There is no need to give students a fish day after day when they can be taught to fish for themselves (this is not a good use of an overworked professor’s time, either). It is a rare occasion that I find colleagues making efficient pedagogical use of OCD, perhaps because of the sneaking suspicion that a professional shouldn’t be too familiar with an elementary reference work as well as the invisibility that obvious things in plain sight naturally have. But if we can force ourselves to forget what we have learned over years of professional experience and look at an article and its citations with the fresh eyes of the young, would we not be intimidated by unexplained abbreviations such as Bruns 7, P Oxy, FGrH, MRR, and most of the others? And a student who knows where to look for such information (especially in a resource with a teacher’s imprimatur) is going to be that much likelier to pursue more leads, if only because the task is easier.

As to OCD‘s encyclopedic lemmata, students easily appreciate their value once they know of the book’s existence. OCD stands out as an easily accessible source with bibliographies more reliable than most web resources (not all: but I am thinking of what students find on their own with a Google search). The students looking for the big picture can find solace in the broader lemmata, e.g., “Greece (prehistory and history)” and “Rome (history)”. A middle category of lemmata are what I have (since the appearance of the 1996 edition) considered perfect first-stopping places for students interested in writing papers on a variety of common topics: “disease,” “homosexuality,” “literary theory and classical studies,” “ritual,” and many others, all with pretty adequate first-step bibliographies. Indeed, these “thematic” entries were deliberately added to OCD by editorial policy with an eye to a general audience, and a North American one in particular (viii). These are the lemmata which make the third edition so outstanding with comparison to the second. While it should be no good teacher’s goal to make a homo unius libri out of anyone, it should be every teacher’s goal to put as much useful material at a student’s fingertips as possible as a bridge to deeper resources, and (for English readers) this book is the best.