BMCR 2016.12.41

OCR Anthology for Classical Greek AS and A-level

, , , , , , OCR Anthology for Classical Greek AS and A-level. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. viii, 504. ISBN 9781474266024. $49.95 (pb).


This book has a very specific purpose. Upfront, I can say that it fulfils every aspect of that purpose up to, and beyond, a satisfactory degree. But the important question to be asked of such a book is whether it can find worth beyond its original intended function.

The anthology exists to gather together all of the Greek texts needed for the prose literature and verse literature components of the 2018/19 British OCR (or Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examinations), AS, and A-Level syllabus. The remaining components of the qualification exams are comprised of unseen translations and prose compositions. This compilation means that students and teachers will no longer need to carry multiple books about with them when they prepare for these exams (as they must if they wish to take OCR’s Latin A Level). The intended audience is therefore comprised of British teenagers who already have some familiarity of Greek. They would have already encountered the basics at GCSE, a prerequisite for A- Levels. The volume combines excerpts of Greek texts, commentary on those texts and specific vocabulary in one well-produced and appealing package. The prescribed texts that appear on the syllabus, and thus appear in this book, consist of Thucydides ( Histories, Book IV), Plato ( Apology), Homer ( Odyssey, Book X), Sophocles ( Antigone), Xenophon ( Memorabilia), and Aristophanes ( Acharnians).

Taylor (introduction) and Campbell (commentary) begin with Thucydides’ account of Brasidas’ attack on Pylos, and they ably guide the reader through a text difficult both in terms of its Greek and its narrative. The commentary notes are all adapted from an earlier work of Campbell’s, although he provides a shortened version here. Although the narrative is split (AS: Book IV 11-14, 21-23 and 26-28/A-Level: 29-40), Campbell does a good job so as to never lose the reader, who is not left having to reach for their own copy of Thucydides. The trial of Socrates makes two appearances in the volume; Kennedy provides the introduction and Gravell the commentary forPlato’s Apology, while Paterson deals with an introduction and commentary on Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Although this episode is of obvious importance, one cannot help wondering why OCR decided that it needed inclusion twice, especially as Paterson often has to situate Xenophon’s account against Plato’s more illustrious one. With the quality of Paterson’s commentary, it is a shame that he could not have been given a text that is not so markedly under the shadow of the other, better known text. The portion of texts needed for the verse component of the exams begins with Homer’s Odyssey, treated by Daniele (introduction), Webster (commentary, Book X) and Colborn (commentary, Book IX). Of all the introductions, Daniele’s is the one that concentrates most on discussing the Greek. Its central focus here highlights how often such discussions are missing from some of the other sections, a significant absence from a textbook about Greek language. McCullagh (introduction and commentary) takes on Sophocles’ Antigone and does a good job of explaining to a modern audience why their sympathies and expectations of character motivations may be different from those of an ancient audience. Finally, Harden concludes with Aristophanes’ Acharnians. Bearing in mind that the primary intended audience of this book is a British teenager, Harden’s approach is mature while still not shying away from the cruder elements of Aristophanes work.

Unusually for a book of many authors, the introductory notes and commentary are written in a style so similar and with a presentation so uniform that it is possible to forget that many hands lie behind the final creation. Only the further reading sections deviate significantly in approach between the different authors; while some give simple reading lists, others give more detailed descriptions. Additionally, there are some inconsistent stylistic choices, which can lead to confusion if one is not already familiar with the structure of the qualification exam. The sections of Greek texts from Thucydides, Plato and Sophocles get markings so that they may be located quickly, and it is possible to distinguish between what is expected at A-Level as opposed to AS. However, the texts of Homer, Xenophon, and Aristophanes have no such markings. In such cases, the student is given little help from the book on knowing which parts of the text relate to which level of the qualification.

The correct balance is often struck in both commentaries and introductions between providing enough background and parallels with other texts without inundating students with too much extraneous information. However, the lack of references to further works can leave the reader at a loss if trying to pursue his or her own personal research outside of that endorsed by OCR. The commentaries themselves use an even balance between explanations of grammar, direct translation of some of the more complex Greek and providing historical context. They always give reasonable help, appropriate to the student’s level, though at times they might do more to indicate that Greek simply does not always have an easy English equivalent. The Greek is largely impeccable, and I only was able to find one missing accent on διελέγχω (page 105). The writing style throughout is engaging, at times even funny, although often information is repeated between the sections. Greater co-operation between the authors might perhaps have reduced the number of times one had to read of the political makeup of Classical Athens or a description of Alcibiades’ mutilation of the Herms. Rather the reader is often left wishing that more time and space could have been devoted to greater discussion of the peculiarities of each ancient author’s Greek, which is often touched on, though not always in great enough depth. Although the repetition can at times be tedious, it does mean each section works independently. Greater co-operation might also have prevented the frequent times the reader is directed to a non-existent pp. xx or pp. 000 in order to read further discussion on Socrates’ jury composition or on the diectasis form of ἀλάομαι. The frequent references to an accompanying web resource do not make clear what exactly this entails.

No doubt those readers with specialist interests will find particular faults with how some topics are presented and discussed. At times hotly debated ideas are presented as orthodoxy among Classicists, as if no difference of opinion exists. For example, Greek historical writing is boldly presented as ‘secularizing’ over time from Homer, through Herodotus, and on to Thucydides. Or some Aristophanic jokes are found to have English equivalents with too much ease. This confident approach to difficult subjects can also lead to contradictions between the authors. For example, Troy is a ‘real place’ on page 12 (Taylor on Thucydides) but by page 259 (Daniele on Homer), its historicity is being questioned. The lack of references or discussion of contemporary scholarship further exacerbates this problem. However, to criticise such issues would not be to evaluate the book on its own terms. It does not pretend to contain rigorous academic argumentation. It is an anthology to be used by A Level teachers and students, and for this it meets its intended purpose exceptionally well.

To return to the original question posed at the start of this review: does the book have an audience outside of those British students taking OCR A Levels? If a teacher is happy to teach the Greek texts that this volume contains, then any intermediary Greek course could benefit from such a volume. This book does perfectly well what it is supposed to do, that is, provide all the information needed to prepare for OCR’s Greek A Level or AS Level examination. It is a welcome resource to students and teachers in the British system, and potentially those beyond. Though it is tailored to the needs to the particular qualification, providing enough contextual information, engaging stories and help with the trickier aspects of the Greek, its high quality means that it could easily be adapted for use in an intermediary Greek course.

But what is of more interest within this volume (especially for the BMCR audience) is not so much what the volume contains but what it says about the current position of Classical Greek in the British high school. Since 2004 OCR remains the last exam board to offer Greek at GCSE or A level. AQA still offers a more general Classical Civilisation course while the others examination bodies offer nothing. Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, teachers wishing to offer Greek for exams are left only with the texts contained in this anthology as the sole ones to be taught. The schools from which the authors of the OCR Anthology hail should also give an indication as to the state of Greek in British education. Only one author is from a non-fee-paying school, that is Drayton Manor High School, and even this school no longer appears to offer Greek as a subject. Indeed, it was in 2015 that the last comprehensive school, Camden School of Girls, stopped offering Greek to school students in the UK. Children in the state sector are no longer given the option to engage with Greek, though some may be lucky to come across Latin. Yet in certain public (that is fee-paying) schools, all heavily represented by the authors of the OCR Anthology, Greek is thriving. An ancient language is compulsory for students attending most of the schools represented in the OCR Anthology (Abingdon School, Winchester College, Harrow School, Eton College, Tonbridge School, St Swithun’s School), usually Latin but always with Greek as an option. It does not require a great leap of imagination to see why Classics has found it hard to shake the stigma of being seen by outsiders as elitist. Government policy has not helped, as the Conservative education secretary Justine Greening, and previously Nicky Morgan, seem to have little time for ancient languages, instead preferring to promote STEM subjects. For those familiar with British politics, the opposition Labour party has also undervalued ancient languages, seeing them as emblematic of the privileged class. For example, former education secretary Andy Burnham would frequently make pronouncements along the lines of “It’s indefensible that Latin is promoted above ICT, engineering, business studies or economics”. Once placed within this wider societal context, it is more a pity that such a valuable teaching tool as the OCR Anthology will not be available to everyone, just a privileged few.