BMCR 2012.08.34

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Fourth edition

, , , The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Fourth edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. lv, 1592. ISBN 9780199545568. $175.00.


We live in an age of ‘Companions’, ‘Handbooks’ and guides to most ancient genres, periods and topics. Nevertheless, there is still a place, in this Wikipedia world, for a concise and authoritative general guide to classical antiquity, handily placed between one set of covers. This is the niche that the Oxford Classical Dictionary has filled since 1949, when the first edition appeared. Revisions have been issued at roughly twenty-year intervals. Now in its fourth incarnation, the OCD ’s entries still run from ‘abacus’ to ‘Zosimus’ – neither Strabo’s Aarassos ( Geog. 12.7.2) nor his Zuchis (17.3.18) have ever achieved inclusion – but, in between, the original total of 5,000 entries has increased to 6,700, each with its own concise bibliography. The editors continue to stoutly resist the inclusion of any illustrative matter.

Besides the alphabetically arranged content, there has always been a scholarly bonus in the form of the ‘Abbreviations used in the Present Work’, a listing (mostly of ancient sources) whose authority and usefulness has come to be recognized far beyond the pages of the OCD. However, the increasing number of modern works in the list (many of them journal titles, for which L’Année philologique ’s ‘Liste des périodiques dépouillés’ has long been preferred by most) has taken it from 14 pages to 28, and the fact that some of these abbreviations do not appear to have been used by the dictionary’s contributors suggests that the list is ripe for pruning.1

OCD 3 saw the demise of the ‘Index of names, etc. which are not titles of entries in the dictionary’, on the grounds that it was “not much used in practice” (p. x). As far as I can see, no reviewer ever complained about this handy search tool, and I, for one, regret its passing. The editors claim to have superseded it by the use of in-text ‘signposting’. However, it appears that this has not always been successfully achieved. Readers of OCD 2 would know – as readers of OCD 4 will not – that information, for example, on the Roman cursus publicus may be found in the entry on ‘postal service’; or on the classis Britannica in the entry on ‘Cantiaci’ (curiously, there is no mention under ‘navies’); or on conubium in the entry on ‘marriage law’. Some other terms that previously appeared in this Index, such as ‘catapults’ (but not ‘ballistae’) and ‘China’ (but not ‘Hyrcania’), have been converted into dictionary entries consisting simply of the relevant cross-references (e.g. ‘catapults. See artillery; siegecraft, Greek.’) – presumably the editors’ ‘signposts’ – at the cost of far more page space.

Reviewers of OCD 3 have already noted the editors’ embracing of interdisciplinary approaches and their acknowledgement of gender studies, economics, linguistics, and political theory, and an expanded coverage of ecclesiastical history.2 This trend is continued, with new entries on ‘film’, ‘gender’, ‘opera’, and ‘popular culture’ amongst others. However, although we find ‘Acts of the Apostles’, there are still no entries (nor even ‘signposts’) for the Gospels or their individual authors.

Following a somewhat arbitrary browse through the entries from my own areas of interest, some constructive criticism might respectfully be offered, of the sort that a previous reviewer called ‘winkling out small flaws’.3

One of these flaws relates to the specialist bibliographies that accompany each entry and upon which many readers will be relying for guidance. The editors and their fourteen ‘area advisors’ might be expected to have ensured that balanced and relevant coverage was given. However, I found occasional oddities, such as the bibliography for ‘ cohors ’ (the Roman infantry cohort), which includes François Bérard’s 1988 article about ‘cohortes urbaines’, the subject of the subsequent entry on ‘ cohortes urbanae ’, where it surely belongs instead. The entry for ‘ alae ’ (the Roman cavalry units) wisely points the reader to the more generous bibliography for ‘ auxilia ’, a strategy that should perhaps have been followed for ‘ cohors ’, as well. The editors could then have transferred Lawrence Keppie’s excellent Making of the Roman Army from ‘ cohors ’ to ‘ auxilia ’, where it is unaccountably missing.

Equally, there are occasional lapses of judgement, as when the bibliography for ‘legion’ includes Yann Le Bohec’s La troisième légion Auguste but not the same scholar’s co-edited updating of all (or most) of Ritterling’s legions;4 or when the bibliography for ‘armies, Roman’ includes Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, surely of questionable relevance to the subject.

Another flaw relates to accuracy. The remark of one previous reviewer, that ‘a work of reference should be faultless’, 5 is perhaps over-optimistic. On the other hand, shouldn’t contributors be able to sketch brief overviews of their specialist subjects without courting controversy? Shouldn’t they be able to summarize their expertise without committing error?

Consider this example. The entry for ‘ equites singulares Augusti ’, revising H.M.D. Parker’s original 1949 piece (entitled ‘equites singulares imperatoris’), retains his supposition that the Roman imperial horse guard was “probably established by the Flavians”. Certainly, this was Marcel Durry’s opinion. However, the new entry no longer cites Durry; instead, we are directed to the work of Michael Speidel, who holds the contrary belief, that the imperial horse guard was “probably founded by Trajan”. Surely the OCD entry could be worded in a less confusing, more informative way?6

Equally, it might be hoped that contributors would seize the chance of a twenty-year update to ensure that their entries remain accurate.7 For example, the entry for ‘Alesia’ erroneously informs us that “modern research has concentrated on the public and private buildings” within the Gallo-Roman town, and only mentions in passing that “siege-works were uncovered in the 19th cent.” The entry mentions neither the seven-year Franco-German research project on the Roman siege-works during the 1990s, nor the exciting results of René Goguey’s aerial reconnaissance across the site,8 both of which have transformed our understanding of both Caesar’s account of the siege and Napoléon III’s excavations of 1860-65. More seriously, the entry for ‘Gergovia’ even casts doubt on the identification of the site with the plateau of Merdogne (present-day Gergovie), despite the fact that Napoléon’s excavations there in 1861-62 revealed traces of two camps linked by an earthwork, corresponding to Caesar’s description of his siege- works; a modern re-examination of the site during the 1990s broadly confirmed Napoléon’s findings, and added the colourful details of two catapult arrowheads and three ballista balls.9 The entry mentions none of this.

My final example highlights a different type of problem. Eric Marsden’s masterful entry on ‘artillery’ for OCD 2 was tweaked for OCD 3 by the inclusion of archaeological material unknown in 1970, and again for OCD 4 by a minor adjustment to the new bibliography, but (unlike other tweaked entries) it no longer carries the originator’s initials. Sadly, the revised text suffers from poor copy-editing. Marsden’s explanation that Hellenistic arrow-shooters were designed with “main calibres from one-cubit bolt to four-cubit bolt” has, through successive editions since OCD 3, inexplicably read “(main calibres: one to four bolt)”, which is quite meaningless and potentially misleading. Similarly, through the same editions, Marsden’s careful remark that “by the fourth century AD, artillery comprised the one-armed stone-throwing onager, powerful arrow-shooting ballistae, and small non-torsion arrow-shooting arcuballistae ”, has been clumsily recast, and now carries the implication that the onager was a late development. The same editions have consistently misspelled Cheiroballistra (the name of a technical treatise) as “ chiroballistra ”. At the same time, Marsden’s belief that Onomarchus had fielded artillery in 354 BC (based on a controversial reading of Polyaenus, Strat. 2.38.2) has unfortunately been retained, although the proposition is highly unlikely; readers of OCD 2 could check for themselves, but (again, since OCD 3) the Polyaenus reference is no longer cited. Nevertheless, despite all of this, the entry still manages to retain the balance that Marsden brought to it.10

Whether these examples are isolated glitches or representative of the general standard, only time and prolonged use of the volume will tell. However, to end on a negative note would convey the wrong impression of the OCD ’s excellent new edition. While it should certainly be hoped that, in the future, corrections will be incorporated in a revised OCD 4, current readers will still find much stimulating content to pique their interest, and the editors richly deserve our gratitude.


1. For example, ‘Parker, Roman Legions ’, which since OCD 2 has stood for ‘H.M.D. Parker, The Roman Legions, 2nd edn, 1958’. The book is cited in full in (e.g.) the article on ‘armies, Roman’. It is perhaps worth noting that the 1958 publication was simply a reprint of the original 1928 edition, with a list of corrigenda and a new bibliography supplied by G.R. Watson; Parker never produced a second edition.

2. The third edition was reviewed in BMCR 1997.09.06, and the revised third edition in BMCR 2003.11.15.

3. J.C. Mann, Britannia 2 (1971), p. 314, reviewing OCD 2. The attempt may be futile, as the editors of OCD do not appear to read Bryn Mawr Classical Review. ‘Hostilius, Tullus’ still appears as “the sixth king of Rome” although the error was flagged here in 2003.11.15.

4. Y. Le Bohec and C. Wolff (eds.), Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire (Lyon, 2000).

5. M.L. Clarke, Classical Review 21 (1971), p. 125, reviewing OCD 2.

6. M. Durry, Les cohortes prétoriennes (Paris, 1938), p. 31. Parker’s bibliography listed only Durry’s book; OCD 4 cites only Speidel. M.P. Speidel, Die equites singulares Augusti (Bonn, 1965), p. 93 (“vermutlich von Traian gegründet”); slightly modified in M.P.Speidel, Riding for Caesar (London, 1994), p. 36 (“we cannot say for certain, then, whether it was Domitian or Trajan who took the great step of bringing a horse guard of frontier soldiers to the city”). There is not yet any clear evidence supporting a Flavian date.

7. In fact, contributors to OCD 3 were already afforded the opportunity of a mid-term update for the ‘revised edition’ of 2003. The editors claim that, for OCD 4, “all entries have been scrutinised and if necessary updated”, apparently by “the vast majority of living former contributors” (p. vii).

8. M. Reddé and S. von Schnurbein, Alésia. Fouilles et recherches franco-allemandes sur les travaux militaires romaines autour du Mont-Auxois (1991-1997) (Paris, 2001). Many of the results already appeared in Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission 76 (1995), pp. 73-157.

9. Y. Deberge and V. Guichard, ‘Nouvelles recherches sur les travaux césariens devant Gergovie (1995- 1999)’, Revue archéologique du Centre de la France 39 (2000), pp. 83-111.

10. The choice of bibliographic references is perhaps poorly judged. The entry still refers to the work of Erwin Schramm, who has been removed from the bibliography; at the same time, Bishop and Coulston’s Roman Military Equipment adds little to the subject, and Rihll’s The Catapult is a rather unreliable guide. In general, see now D.B. Campbell, “Ancient Catapults. Some Hypotheses Reexamined”, Hesperia 80 (2011), pp. 677- 700.