Book Review – The Oxford Classical Dictionary

by Erin on December 10, 2011

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If I could have only one book in my personal reference library for mythology, it would be the The Oxford Classical Dictionary. It’s just that good. This book is often called the OCD colloquially, by the way. Edited by N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard, the The Oxford Classical Dictionary features a plethora of information about the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Do I have a question about, say, food and drink in the Classical world? Well, I can simply grab the book and read an enlightening entry on that topic.

Over the years, various editions have been released. I happen to have the Second Edition. This book has been my companion both as an undergrad and through grad school. And while possibly slightly the worse for wear, I still rely on my copy for relevant, accurate information.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary is organized alphabetically, the list of entries beginning with abacus and ending with Zosimus. My hardcover Second Edition has 1176 pages.

The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses are of course discussed in this dictionary, from Aphrodite to Zeus. Classical heroes and heroines are also covered. And finally, the poets and playwrights who wrote about these mythological figures are explored as well. There are substantial entries on such favorites as Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, and their major works are also identified and summarized.

There is more to the The Oxford Classical Dictionary than just a long list of names and descriptions of figures both historical and mythological. Entries cover all aspects of the ancient Greek and Roman world. The passages devoted to Aristophanes and Aristotle, for example, are followed by a couple of compelling articles about the Armies of Greece and Rome, respectively. This information relates to the entries about Arms and Armour - again, both Greek and Roman.

In Arms and Armour, Roman, for example, I learned the following :

“In the regal and early republican period the Roman infantry was equipped on the Greek model (possibly under Etruscan influence). The hasta or thrusting spear was the chief offensive weapon, and the defensive armour varied with the individual’s means. The richest soldiers had corselets (loricae) and light round shields (clipei), greaves (ocreae), and helmets of leather (galeae) or of bronze (cassides).”

I’m thinking this type of information would be invaluable to someone who is interested in conveying an historically accurate depiction of ancient Roman battles.

Most of the entries in the book are followed by a list of sources. These sources not only provide the reader with details about the works cited, but also serve as a sort of suggestion for more information about the subject. Since the entries themselves are generally concise, having this further reading feature is genuinely helpful. Please be aware, however, that some of the books cited are rather obscure, scholarly tomes.

A couple of comments. If you don’t know any Greek – not even the alphabet – you may miss a little. There are numerous Greek words scattered throughout the book. Most are self-explanatory. For example, the name of the goddess Athena is followed by variations in Greek. Some, however, are not so well translated. It is certainly not a big deal. I am simply mentioning it in the interests of full disclosure.

The Appendix has two additional useful features. The first is a General Bibliography and the second is called an Index of Names, etc. The Index of Names includes figures who don’t have an entry, but are still of some relevance to the ancient world. If, for example, I decided I wanted some information about the Gratiae, I would initially be disappointed that there is no entry about them. However, flipping to the Index of Names, I would be relieved to discover that they are listed under Charities.

In summary, the The Oxford Classical Dictionary is a scholarly resource, meant for people who are serious about studying the Classical world. If you happen to find yourself in that category, I highly recommend that you acquire your own personal copy of the OCD. It’s useful for historians, writers, and everyone who has an interest in ancient Greece and Rome.

This book is available at

The Oxford Classical Dictionary

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