The Oxford Classical Dictionary by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth

Book Review by Ursus

In a previous review I outlined Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by the Adkins husband and wife writing team, as well as their companion volume on Greece. Those two books together constitute a handy and affordable compendium on classical society.

However, if you want to get really serious, consider buying the latest edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary. This a monster of a reference that leaves no stone in antiquity overturned. There are no pictures, no diagrams. Just 1640 pages of articles written by the very best experts from around the world. The reader will find hundreds of entries in alphabetical order. Topics are taken from the major areas of the classical world: Politics and History, Military, Economy and Society, Religion and Mythology, Geography, Science, Law and Government, Philosophy and the Arts.

The dictionary obviously focuses on ancient Greece and Rome, but other cultures receive attention as they pertain to Greco-Roman society. There is mention of ancient Egypt and the Near East, as well as the Romanized Celtic world.

The third and latest edition takes into account the ever-burgeoning research that has occurred in classical studies since the 1970's. The reader will now find articles covering once forbidden topics, like gender and sexuality. The editors have also attempted to correct the lack of attention paid to Near Eastern and Semitic contributions to classical history.

The editors claim that the OCD is unrivaled in any language, and I have seen nothing to counter that claim. This well organized tome of information should impress even a graduate student with its remarkable erudition.

The are four downsides.

  • 1) The book is large and heavy. This is not something you can simply curl up with under a tree on a lazy afternoon.
  • 2) No illustrations, photographs or anything else in the way of visual aid. This is simply a vast literary reference.
  • 3) A lot of terms are given in the original Greek or Latin. Those without an elementary exposure to classical languages might find this annoying.
  • 4) Cost. A new copy can ask for more than $100 US Dollars.
  • I would consider all these points minor except the last one, and not significantly detracting from the obvious worth of such an exhaustive source of information. As for the cost, I suggest looking in the used books sections of your chosen vender.

    I found a copy on for under $25, the only defect was a black publisher's mark on some of the pages. If you can find this book in good condition for under $50, consider it a steal.

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    Union Jack Oxford Dictionary for the UK