From The DailyTelegraph March 18
By Harry Mount
New discoveries are being made all the time in classical scholarship, as two new masterworks show.
After 244 years, the printed version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has died a death, killed off by Google and Wikipedia. It’s sad to say goodbye to any venerable institution that’s lasted almost a quarter of a millennium but, still, the writing’s been on the wall for the encyclopaedia for several years now. And now the writing’s on the screen only – the great general knowledge reference work will live on in a digital format.
The idea of printing a sort of omnium gatherum – a collection of everything of any interest – seems ludicrous these days, as well as impossible, when the job is done so much better by a tiny laptop, thinner than a single volume of Britannica. What chance then for two new mammoth publications, out this week – the fourth edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), 1,680 pages long, costing £100; and the second edition of the Oxford Latin Dictionary, with 2,344 pages, going for £275.
Is there really anything more to say about the ancient world and its most significant language? Perhaps there’s something in the old schoolboy chant - “Latin is a language / Dead as dead can be / First it killed the Romans / Now it’s killing me.” Well, the language may be dead; but the scholarship and the interpretation of that language survive, and are in constant flux. Among the new entries in the OCD are articles on vital ancient subjects, such as Hellenistic philosophy, madness and the Socratic dialogues – extraordinary that they haven’t been covered before.
Even if the language is dead, the classical world isn’t. New discoveries are being made all the time. Oxford’s papyrology department has 200,000 untranslated Greek papyri in its archives – so many that, last year, they asked the public to help translate them. Recently the department has unearthed new ancient curses, love potion recipes, and fragments of Plato, Herodotus and the Gospels.
New editions of the OCD track these developments. In the 1970 edition, there wasn’t much on the Macedonian tomb of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father, for the very good reason that it wasn’t discovered until 1977; the tomb appears in the new dictionary. What undiscovered delights will appear in future editions – much of Pompeii and Herculaneum are yet to be excavated. Not only does the classical world go on changing, but so do our attitudes to it. Until recently, a prudish thread ran through the history of classical scholarship. In the old Loeb translations – which I still used at university 20 years ago – you could feel the exquisite embarrassment of Edwardian dons converting bawdy classical literature into sex-free high art.
Even today there are acts in the ancient world that cannot be translated without ruining your breakfast. Rhaphanidoo is the Greek verb describing a punishment for adulterers in ancient Athens. Let’s just say it involves the placing of unusually large radishes in an uncomfortable area. You can imagine how tricky that word was for Victorian dons to translate. My 1889 dictionary, edited by Liddell and Scott – as in Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church and father of Alice Liddell, the model for Alice in Wonderland – opts for the word “fundament” when sketching out the radish’s destination.
There’s none of that prudery in the new OCD, which has an enthralling entry on circumcision – essentially a Jewish custom in the ancient world; apostates from Judaism occasionally resorted to epispasm, a surgical procedure to reverse circumcision. The OCD draws a veil over the exact details.
The line-up of scholars behind the project has also changed over time. In 1970, fewer than one in 10 of the contributors were women. In this edition, one of the three overall editors is a woman, and seven of the 17 chief advisers are female. This isn’t tokenism, but a reflection of the make-up of modern classical scholarship. And, more than anything, it’s the scholarship of the OCD that justifies its continued publication. There are more than 6,700 entries, by 400 contributors who represent the best of living classical thought combined with the intellectual legacy of dead contributors.
These scholars inevitably make subjective judgments, but few would argue with their credentials. And there’s the difference between Googling, say, Eutocius – the sixth-century philosopher and Archimedes expert – and looking him up in the OCD. Not only is the OCD entry longer than Wikipedia’s but you know its conclusions are based on pure scholarship, not just on peer review, admirable as it is.
Classical scholarship in this country is on the wane. Wonderful as it is that the number of pupils studying classics at state schools since 2000 has doubled, the rigour of teaching – in both the private and state sector – is not what it was. But the old standards survive on remote islands of high scholarship like the OCD. It’s telling that one new contributor is Dr Gail Trimble, 29, the superbrain and Catullus expert from Corpus Christi, Oxford, who hoovered up 125 points in four minutes in the 2009 University Challenge final.
The thoughts of Dr Trimble and her fellow contributors are just as clever on a screen as they are on the page. But such high scholarship, of such long vintage, deserves recording in its original form. The postscript to the 1940 edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek Dictionary ends: “The monument of unselfish industry is at last complete.” Monuments still look better in physical form.