Ancient Biggies

Who Was Who in the Roman World: 753 BC-AD 476

edited by Diana Bowder
Cornell University Press (a Phaidon Book), 256 pp., $28.50

Who Was Who in the Greek World: 776 BC-30 BC

edited by Diana Bowder
Cornell University Press (a Phaidon Book), 227 pp., $29.95

When at the age of about ten I began to show an interest in the ancient classics, my father bought me a book called A Classical Dictionary, “containing a copious account of all the proper names mentioned in ancient authors, with the value of coins, weights and measures used among the Greeks and Romans, and a chronological table.” The book bore no date, though the copy I was given had obviously been printed not long before, and it was only long after that I discovered that it had first appeared in 1788. Its author, the Rev. John Lemprière, DD, records the doings of characters of myth and of history alike in the same ceremonious Gibbonian prose and in the same grave tones of judicious appraisal; Priapus and Elagabalus, Medusa and Messallina seem to inhabit the same world. Ancient biographies are nothing if not anecdotal; no less a person than Aristotle held that anecdote was illustrative of character, and this gave license to hordes of minor writers. Lemprière feasts his readers on the rich stores of ancient tittle-tattle: Aeschylus died when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and tried to crack on it the shell of a tortoise it had captured; Euripides was torn to pieces by dogs; Lucretius was poisoned by a love philter.

Fanciers of Lemprière usually turn first to his lives of the more outré Roman emperors and empresses. Caligula made his horse high priest and consul, and constantly fed wild horses with human victims; the emperor “appeared in public places in the most indecent manner, committed incest with his three sisters, and established public places of prostitution.” The horse story, like the story told of Nero that he served one of his retainers as a catamite, is also told of Elagabalus, who was “not satisfied with following the plain laws of nature.” “Few men at Rome,” Lemprière tells us, “could not boast of having enjoyed the favours of the impure Messallina.” I was delighted with the book, which was probably responsible for my becoming a classical scholar; I learned later that it had had the same effect on Housman. But it cannot be said to incorporate the results of the most recent research, so that a parent in my father’s situation would be unwise to present it to his child as an instrument of study.

What handbooks could one recommend to him? At an advanced level there is Der kleine Pauly, a condensation into five small volumes of the gigantic German encyclopedia of the ancient world in more than a hundred volumes, still not complete, that is known as Pauly-Wissowa; but there is no English version of this at present, though owing to the energy and enthusiasm of Erich Segal we are likely to have one before long. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (first edition, 1948; revised second edition, 1970) is a great deal more scholarly and up-to-date than Lemprière; but like the Kleine Pauly it is a dictionary not merely of persons and places,…

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