BMCR 2007.09.15

The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization

, , , , The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xliv, 966. £110.00.

What’s in a mosaic? The cover of the new Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization shows the head of Medusa as it appears in a third-century mosaic from Dar Zmela, in Tunisia. But what is this particular illustration doing on the cover of a book that the dust-jacket describes as “a superb reference work and definitive companion for anyone with an interest in the ancient world”? The entry on Medusa sheds scarcely any light on the issue, though it is informative in a way. Turn to the entry on mosaics, and you learn that they “communicated powerful social messages both to members of the household and to visitors to the villa” (and cf. the entry on “portraiture”). That comment is offered up in connection with mosaics in the villa at Piazza Armerina, in Sicily, and also accompanied by an illustration, in black and white, of a polychrome figural mosaic from the villa. The bibliography, which has a single entry, refers the reader to K. M. D. Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman Worlds (1999). Turn, now, to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition, and you see that it, too, flaunts a mosaic on its cover, from none other than the villa of Piazza Armerina and that its entry on mosaics is written by K. M. D. Dunbabin herself. By the time you have completed this exercise and read the two entries, you have learned something about mosaics, and perhaps about the field of ancient Greek and Roman studies, but for a fuller discussion you are compelled to return once more to the grand old authorities, and so it is that you arrive at Paul Gauckler’s masterful article in Daremberg and Saglio (s.v. “Musivum opus”) or the entry by John Henry Middleton and Henry Stuart Jones on “mosaic” in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, both of which are available online, as well as the etymological analysis provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, also online.

The editors of the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization explicitly wish to invite comparison between their work and the Oxford Classical Dictionary. The very first page of the preface refers to the OCD and the book even contains a list of “Headwords not covered in the Oxford Classical Dictionary”. The preface states: “With about 1,630 entries (including about 100 that represent a Greek and Roman pair), the present volume is somewhat smaller than another authoritative classical encyclopedia, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, to which we acknowledge our immense debt as editors and as scholars.” The interesting word here is “another”, but let us move on: “We do not aim to compete with it in the number of entries and depth of scholarly detail, but we believe our volume breaks new ground in accessibility, and in the amount of space devoted to social, economic” — no Oxford comma here! — “and cultural features of Greek and Roman society.” The preface then notes that the CDCC contains entries on “theory and method” as well as “thematic discussions of the environment (including animals and plants), and general features of societies (e.g. assemblies, bestiality, civil strife, diplomacy, disability, fraternity, legacies, matriarchy)”, and it implies that it holds more entries on women than the OCD. In a concluding paragraph, the editors underline the importance given in their work to “the classical heritage of modern societies” in terms of the transmission of knowledge over the centuries and, “second, and more important”, in terms of “the emphasis on similarities and differences between ancient and modern ways of doing things, and the innumerable things in modern life that we owe to Greece and Rome”. While it would have been helpful to have the editors say fully, in the preface, why this second sense of “heritage” is more important and what the innumerable things are, they clearly suggest that the CDCC offers more coverage than the OCD of the classical tradition and the reception of antiquity.

With the help of selective quotation and appropriation, a reviewer could juxtapose entries from the two dictionaries in order to assert the superiority of one over the other. That is not my intention here. Like the OCD, the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization has literally dozens of marvellous entries, many of which are written by prominent experts in the field. No one will fail to encounter a new idea or new item of information in the work. Students, especially, will appreciate the efforts taken by the editors and contributors to make the analyses accessible and lively. It is nonetheless clear that the Oxford Classical Dictionary contains a greater number of entries than the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization and that it is, quite simply, a larger book, with 6,250 contributions from 364 scholars; it offers more information about more authors and its bibliographies are fuller than those in the CDCC. For example, the CDCC provides a column on Galen and lists one item in the bibliography, whereas the OCD gives more than a full column of discussion and almost another full column of bibliography (divided into four sections, one each on texts, translations, works, and literature).

In its favour, the CDCC has numerous drawings, photographs, tables, and charts, while the OCD resolutely avoids illustrations altogether. This feature of the CDCC (185 line diagrams and 342 half-tones accompany 740,000 words of text) is one of its strengths, and the maps, tables, and charts will be especially welcomed by students and teachers of ancient Greece and Rome. However, the photographs are so poorly reproduced that Cambridge University Press should brace itself for readers’ complaints. The low quality of the reproductions, which is a scandal given the book’s high cost, detracts from one of the real advantages this volume has over the OCD. It would also have been useful to have a full list of illustrations (many of which have been borrowed from other published works), though the lack is partially compensated for by a section on sources and acknowledgements at the end of the book. In an era when students rely increasingly on the WWW, moreover, the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization will find it hard to attract a sizeable readership unless it is placed online. In that sense, the book’s competition is not the Oxford Classical Dictionary, New Pauly, LIMC, Daremberg-Saglio, or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all of which are on the internet, and much less the old Pauly-Wissowa, but the whole range of resources that reside in an ever-expanding World Wide Web. The student who wants to undertake research on the subject of mosaics is as likely to look it up on the internet as s/he is to consult books in a library.

When thinking about the organization of the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization, the reader will need to bear in mind the difference between headwords, sub-headings, and headings. According to the editors, the main headwords in the Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization fall into one of many sub-headings (e.g. “poetry”, “empires”, or “family, sex, gender”), which in turn belong to one of eleven broad headings at the top of the chart: Approaches; Archaeology; Belief Systems; Classical Heritage; Environment and Economy; Geography and Ethnography; History and Institutions; Literature ; Persons; Science and Technology; and Social Relations. Thus, the sub-heading “poetry” falls under the heading for Literature, the sub-heading “empires” under the heading for History and Institutions, and the sub-heading “family, sex, gender” under the heading for Social Relations. The only outward sign of this classification occurs in a section entitled “Classified List of Headwords”, which comes early in the book; by far the bulk of the dictionary consists of 1,630 main headwords arranged in alphabetical order.

For all its limitations and over-schematization, however, the classified list is a convenience, and opens up potentially fruitful analytical opportunities for the interested student. So a reader seeking to learn more about Greek and Roman religion can consult the headword on religion but also turn to the classified list and see what other headwords pertain to the topic (in addition to the article’s cross-references); similarly, someone aspiring to brush up on the ancient economy can read the entry on the economy and also obtain a list of relevant headwords from the classified list. Thanks to the classified list, it will be possible for readers to explore connections between and across headwords, sub-headings, and headings. For instance, the list will be particularly useful for students or so-called general readers as they begin to perceive how different elements of ancient religion influence or represent each other, to understand overlaps across varied rituals, or indeed to relate religion to other belief systems in Greco-Roman antiquity. Likewise, others might be encouraged to investigate how technologies connect with each other or to compare how power operates among different professions and status groups.

The editors, who are responsible for about 15% of the headwords themselves, have been served well by an advisory board of nine distinguished scholars: Susanna Braund, Averil Cameron, Helene Foley, David Furley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Beryl Rawson, David Sedley, Richard Sorabji, and Roger Wilson. Some of the entries are immensely detailed, and some of the best are the longer entries by the editors themselves. The entries on methods, approaches, social issues, and cultural questions clearly differentiate this book from many other comparable works of reference, and enhance its value. However, many of these entries are too brief, and suffer from relatively short bibliographies. If subjects such as post-colonialism and post-modernism, race and racism, are too complex to be presented in 500 words, then the very advantage this book offers over the competition risks losing its edge. Other entries contain statements that veer between the obvious and the banal (“To understand the ancient world, it can be helpful to examine the modern”). I discovered from one entry that “clothes dyed purple were the equivalent of a black Armani suit today” and from another that longer tunics were “the designer outfits of the day” for Mycenaean women.

The CDCC avoids the kind of triumphalism that naively and, sometimes, crudely inflates the accomplishments of Greece and Rome. The volume is characterized, rather, by methodological care, and it attempts to address complexities in the historical record, questions of intellectual genealogy, and the difficulties involved in the study of the past. It places social and cultural issues squarely at the centre of the research agenda, explores material culture in some detail, and readily investigates the many peoples and places with whom the Greeks and Romans had contact in one form or another. While the books enters an already crowded field, it offers an accessible and inviting point of entry for students and general readers. The Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization will not answer all their questions, but it makes practical suggestions and gives some pointers for future study.