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, but of many topics. If we want a good biographical dictionary of the ancient world, Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, in three volumes, published in 1849, is still unsurpassed. Only very elementary first aid is rendered by the Penguin Who’s Who in the Ancient World, by Betty Radice, who at least in my copy of the book, a reprint dated 1973, informs her readers that the second and third plays of the trilogy called Oresteia, usually called the Libation-Bearers and the Eumenides, are called Electra and Orestes. There is a marked need for a biographical dictionary, of manageable size, compiled by competent scholars on the basis of the most up-to-date research.

Both books before me start with useful chronological tables. Both exclude mythological persons; but the Greek one is prefaced by essays on the Homeric heroes and the Dorian invasion by John Chadwick, together with a brief list of the principal Homeric heroes; the two essays give an account of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods and of the dark age that followed which is a triumph of compression. Then comes a summary of Greek history from 776 BC, the official beginning of the lists of Olympic victors, to 30 BC, the year of the death of Cleopatra. The Roman book starts with a similar summary of Roman history from 753 BC, the official date of the foundation of Rome, to the fall of the empire in the West in AD 476. In each case the summary is followed by the main dictionary, which is then supplemented by an index of persons mentioned in the articles, but having no articles to themselves; then come a bibliography, useful maps, and genealogical tables.

The average standard of the articles, especially in the Roman book, is high. The writers are with the notable exception of Dr. Chadwick young, and are mostly connected with the University of Oxford. Though they never make the mistake of swamping the reader with their learning, they are familiar with the literature of their subjects. They give some useful hints about reading, though some of them, particularly in the Greek book, are too reluctant to mention books and articles in foreign languages. The bibliographical notes in the Greek book make one wish for a history of Greek literature and a history of Greek philosophy in English equal to the splendid history of Greek art, as well written as it is learned and intelligent, by Martin Robertson. Lesky’s history of Greek literature is a very useful book in the original German, but the English translation is poor; and Guthrie’s history of Greek philosophy, though solid, is a little stodgy. Lesky’s book on Greek tragedy has been translated only from the second edition, not from the third edition of 1972, which is twice as large as the second. No one ought to quote from J.M. Edmonds’s awful edition of the fragments of Greek comedy; and it is a pity the authors have often felt obliged to quote from books by T.B.L. Webster that are as dull as they are speculative.


But the authors are well informed, and they cope most successfully with the difficulty of giving the essential information in very brief space. All write from a modern point of view; their style is clear, concise, matter-of-fact, they do not deal in anecdotage, and there is a marked absence of the faded sentimental rhetoric about the ancient world that lived so long into the twentieth century. They avoid the mistake of presenting ancient politics as a perpetual struggle between a conservative and a liberal party; Alexander is not portrayed as an idealist in pursuit of the brotherhood of man, or Caesar as a liberal reformer eager to win justice for humble citizens and oppressed provincials.

The illustrations live up to the high standard expected of a Phaidon book, and they are an important and attractive feature of the book. Sculpture and coins are used to provide portraits of many of the people listed; but a biography may also be illustrated by a picture of a work of art, a place, or a map of a territory or a reproduction of a document associated with its subject.

In the Roman book, Nicholas Horsfall writes admirably about the literature of the Republic and the early Empire, and Danuta Shanzer deals with that of the Late Empire. My only complaint is that Plautus and Terence get so little space. The periods of Roman history are assigned to various experts. Andrew Drummond treats the early period with a healthy skepticism. Graham Piddock takes over at the start of the First Punic War and continues down to Actium, supplying excellent articles on the major figures of the period: Scipio Africanus and Cato are given credit for their great achievement; the Gracchi are properly appreciated without being sentimentalized; Marius, Sulla, Pompeius, Cicero, and Caesar are excellently handled.

Nicholas Purcell, who deals with the Empire up till the death of Trajan, is entertaining as well as informative. Though he denies himself the delights of Lemprière’s Caligula, he admits that the emperor’s actions “range from the bizarre and ostentatious to the verge of the demented,” and that his military expeditions “provided an excuse for horseplay and whimsy on the largest scale” (not by consular horses, though); about Seneca he cannot resist telling us that Caligula called his writing “sand without lime,” and that President Ralph Kettel of Trinity College, Oxford, used to say, “Seneca writes as a Boare does pisse, scilicet by jirkes.”

All the contributors to the Roman book keep up this high standard, and its illustrations add greatly to its value. Some of the likenesses of the subjects of the articles are familiar, others are more novel. Pyrrhus of Epirus looks superbly handsome; Cato of Utica looks acid and ill-tempered; Pompeius Magnus has a somewhat Irish cast of countenance; Cleopatra VII on a coin looks alarmingly like the redoubtable wife of the great expert on Greek vases, Sir John Beazley; Claudius on a fine cameo in Vienna looks pompous and forbidding; Nero looks like a bruiser. One sees why the troops found Galba too severe; Nerva looks sanctimonious; Vespasian looks a tough NCO, Vitellius a gross guzzler. Constantine the Great’s angry countenance belies the too kind account of him given in the text; Constantius II looks dyspeptic. Maximin, like Commodus and Caracalla, looks the brute he was; Arcadius and Honorius look suitably wet.

Among the women, Poppaea Sabina is disappointing, with a face like a plump fish. There is a marvelous portrait of Trajan’s wife Plotina, in a high bonnet, showing an ugly but sensitive face. Both Faustinas look handsome, and one can guess why the younger one may have found marriage with the good Marcus Aurelius (shown of course by the famous equestrian statue on the Capitol) somewhat fatiguing. An imaginary portrait on a Renaissance plaque from the Certosa of Pavia shows a lean, foxy, tough Attila.


But many persons are illustrated by likenesses of objects or buildings; we have pictures of manuscripts for Terence and Virgil, the forum of Pompeii for the elder Pliny, his theater for the young Marcellus, San Paolo fuori le mura for St. Paul, the Pantheon for Agrippa, a relief with spoils being carried from Jerusalem for Titus, scenes from their columns for Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, a view from his villa in Tivoli for Hadrian, their baths for Caracalla and Diocletian, the walls of Rome for Aurelian and those of Constantinople for Theodosius II.

The Greek book is almost as good. The articles on archaic literature are racy and informative, those on Hellenistic literature elegantly written. It is hard to imagine a better account of Theocritus, for instance, in so short a space. Fifth-century literature is less well handled; the author responsible berates Euripides for weakness in plot construction, a judgment that seems to reveal inadequate understanding of his purposes. Still, he does not serve up the old Ibsenian or Shavian Euripides, making propaganda for the Enlightenment. The historical articles are well done, though the author responsible for archaic history can slide into anecdotage; writing on Darius, she repeats Herodotus too trustfully.

Once again the illustrations are superb. Portraits before the Hellenistic period can seldom be regarded as authentic, but it is instructive to see how people of this period were portrayed. Hellenistic princes and princesses are liberally illustrated; we get three fine specimens of the numerous portraits of Alexander, a beautiful head of the dominating queen Arsinoë Philadelphos, and a handsome coin portrait of that Berenice II who organized a coup d’étatto end the usurpation of her mother and her mother’s lover. Antiochus the Great looks dignified and almost studious; here the portrait of Cleopatra VII looks sober and respectable, like the head of a women’s college in New England.

Famous artists are illustrated by reproductions of their works or of copies of those works: Phidias by a head of Athena and by reliefs of the battle with Amazons shown on the shield of his statue of Athena Parthenos; Ictinus by the Parthenon; Euphronios by the vase in New York showing Sarpedon’s body carried from the battlefield by Sleep and Death; Myron by the Diskobolos and the Marsyas; Polyclitus by the Doryphoros. Great painters like Polygnotus and Parrhasius, whose works are lost, are illustrated by pictures of vases thought to show their influence.

Homer is illustrated by the great red relief pithos from Mykonos with scenes from the sack of Troy, Pindar by the statue of a charioteer dedicated at Delphi by his patron Hieron, Miltiades by the Athenian treasury at Delphi which housed the offerings made after his victory at Marathon, Hippodamus by the plans of the towns he laid out at Olynthus and Priene, Cimon by a potsherd used to record a vote that he be ostracized, Leonidas by a likeness of a Spartan warrior of his time.

Aeschylus is illustrated by the Dokimasra Painter’s splendid crater in Boston showing the deaths of Agamemnon and Aegisthus; but the editor of this book should have noticed that the scholar who first published the vase was wrong to detect Aeschylean influence in a scene in which Clytemnestra is killing her husband with the assistance of Aegisthus. Several papyri with important poems on them are reproduced, and so are such interesting inscriptions as some epigrams on the dead of the Persian Wars attributed to Simonides and a financial decree in which the Athenians of the time of the Athenian empire regulated the tribute they levied on their subjects.

The books may lack the enchantments of Lemprière, but their attractions of a different kind will fully compensate their readers. They will be a valuable acquisition for anyone interested in the ancient world, and for undergraduates they are ideal.

This Issue

December 16, 1982