Scholia Reviews ns 5 (1996) 4.

G. Speake, A Dictionary of Ancient History. London and Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1994. Pp x + 758. ISBN 0-631-18069-9. UK£35.00.

Adrian Ryan
University of Natal, Durban

It may come as a surprise to many to see a new reference work appear in an area that is already well covered by such works as the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD),(1) Everyman's Classical Dictionary,(2) and Lemprie\re's Classical Dictionary.(3) A Dictionary of Ancient History aims to provide 'a layman's guide to the history of the ancient Graeco-Roman world' (p. ix) and is the result of a collaboration between 10 scholars of varying academic experience. There are a number of features which justify the inclusion of this work in what has become a saturated field, but ultimately one wonders whether these are enough to recommend it without reservation.

It is as a reference tool for the layperson that this work stands out. The average entry length is approximately 120 words, which is about the length of a very short entry in the OCD. The print is also quite large, which helps to convey the idea that one is not dealing with a text aimed at the academic. Despite the length of the entries, the language is concise and clear, providing sufficient information for the intended audience in most cases. The entries are very accessible and certainly appear more 'friendly' than those in the OCD. Occasional oversimplification (as there is bound to be in a work aimed at the general public) is a minor problem, and sometimes the impression is given that our knowledge of the ancient world is more certain than it actually is.

The biggest shortcoming of the Dictionary of Ancient History is its size. The 10 contributors (compared to well over 100 in the OCD) have set out on quite an ambitious task. The book is consequently too short (it consists of about 250 000 wordsóless than one fifth the size of the OCD). The definition of history used to determine which topics should be included is broadóthe only area consciously excluded is mythology (p. ix). Even so, certain legendary and mythological figures have been included, such as Asclepius, without whom, Speake claims, it would have been impossible to tell the story of Greek medicine (p. x). This has meant that other important figures have been excluded, such as Aeneas, Cornelius Cossus and Thrasea Paetus (who is not mentioned at all, although Helvidius Priscus has a separate entry). All of these individuals have separate entries in the OCD. The fact is, that with only 2000 entries, there is bound to be some unevenness concerning the topics chosen as entries. I think the problem would have been solved if more one and two line entries were included and the length of the work increased.

One of the features which distinguishes the book from its competitors is its referencing. The book employs a cross-referencing system whereby words in the body of an entry which have separate entries for themselves are entered in small capitals. This is a useful tool, keeping in mind the readership of the book. The other feature of the referencing which deserves mention is the bibliography of about 1000 books. At the end of each entry, the works used are cited by author and date, diverting the reader to the bibliographic section at the end of the book, in which full details can be found. The entries in the OCD offer more information concerning modern scholarship, but the nature of the works cited in the OCD is not suited to the layperson. The works referred to in the Dictionary of Ancient History range from general to academic, making it useful for undergraduates as well as for general readership. It is unlikely that Classics scholars would find too much use for it, since too few works are cited on each entry. One addition that would have been welcome would have been references to important ancient source material, especially since this could have been compiled relatively easily. The last thing that should be mentioned is that there are a number of maps and genealogical charts in the back of the book. A time chart, such as the one in the beginning of Lemprie\re and the end of Oxford History of the Classical World,(4) would have been a welcome addition. Certainly, that would have made the picture of the events in the ancient world much clearer. This aside, the charts provided certainly help illuminate what is already an accessible work.

My last complaint is a minor one and concerns naming. No fixed system is used for the entry of Latin names. As this work is intended for the layperson, I think that a fixed system would have been useful (such as nomen, cognomen) and a cross referencing system diverting attention from all other possible forms of a name to the one under which there is an entry (for example: JUNIUS BRUTUS, see BRUTUS, JUNIUS.)

This work certainly has some features to recommend it to a general reader seeking an accessible classical reference work. The book is more accessible than the OCD and the modern works cited are more appropriate for the intended audience. The maps and genealogical charts should also be useful. Although the work is suitable for undergraduates, I think they would be better served by the far more comprehensive OCD and so, I think, in the final analysis would the educated non-classicist.


(1) N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard (edd.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (London 1970 [second edition]).

(2) J. Warrington, Everyman's Classical Dictionary (London 1970 [second edition]).

(3) J. Lempriere, A Classical Dictionary. (London 1984 [reprint of ninth edition]).

(4) J.Boardman, J.Griffin & O.Murray, The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford 1986).