Monday, September 30, 2013


Roger S. Bagnall (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History (13 vols.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Pp. cxliv, 7492. ISBN 9781405179355 (print edition); 9781444338386 (online edition). $2,495.00 (hb). Contributors: Additional editors: Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, Sabine R. Huebner.

Reviewed by John Vanderspoel, University of Calgary (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Page

Without question, the project under discussion here was a large undertaking. It comprises thirteen volumes of articles covering a wide coverage of ancient history, defined not so much as the history of the classical world as the history of the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea between prehistory and, approximately, the 8th century CE. The project is cross-disciplinary in that the ancient Near East, the classical world and Pharaonic Egypt are elsewhere often regarded as separate disciplines, with ancient history typically defined as the history of the Greek and Roman worlds. The thirteen volumes include 7188 pages containing more than 5000 articles written by nearly 2000 scholars; 23 area editors assisted the general editors of this massive project. Most articles offer internal cross references (in small caps), are followed by a list of other relevant articles, and include suggestions for further reading; many include one or more illustrations. The project offers a large series of maps, available online in the preliminary material and a second time via a link in the alphabetical sequence of the online edition at 'Maps of the Ancient World'. These maps are under-utilized, since few articles steer readers to them; some entries include their own maps, which naturally serve these articles well enough. The preliminary material also offers lists of editors, area editors, advisory editors, contributors and entries, all available in the online edition as well as the printed edition.

In the 'Introduction', the editors claim (2) that they are comfortable with the idea that not every general topic required treatment in every geographic or temporal area, partly because the project can be expanded online as desired (though presumably the printed edition cannot be updated regularly). Nevertheless, readers will naturally look for treatments in a range of times and places, because the articles themselves create that expectation. And, one may add, the highly laudable goal of addressing a broad geographic and temporal scope is partially diminished when readers cannot pursue topics across the full geographic range or across time. To give only a few of the possible examples, there are discussions of 'Roads, Byzantine' and 'Roads, Roman, Empire', 'Roads, Roman Republic', but not of 'Roads, Greece' or of any other roads. Despite sixteen specified articles, including 'Religion, Celtic', 'Religion, Dacian' and 'Religion, Roman', there is no entry on 'Religion, Greek'. Similarly, among the many articles on coinage, none treats the coinage of pre- Roman Europe. How Rome conquered Italy, Carthage and the west, and also the East without an 'Army, Roman Republic' remains a mystery, as does the diet of Egyptians, in the absence of an article on 'Agriculture, Ptolemaic Egypt' among the several articles devoted to agriculture in other times and places. At times, of course, a topic is not relevant to certain times and/or places, but many are, and their absence will be noticed. Surely, Greece, Egypt and the Near East were not as free of murder as a single entry on homicide ('Homicide, Roman') might suggest; assault ('Assault, Greek and Roman') was apparently a little more widespread, but still limited. Obviously, articles limited to a period or locale cannot be regarded as general entries, but on occasion a single limited article is paired with a general one; for example, 'Pigs, ancient Near East' and 'Pigs', where the latter includes all other pigs and, indeed, offers a few additional words about ancient Near Eastern pigs. Neither article explains why some pigs are more important than others. A related issue is the appearance of an apparently general article that, however, treats only a subset of a full range of times and places; thus, 'Altar' includes only Greek, Etruscan and Roman altars.

On another point, articles specified as treating Late Antiquity will often include the 6th century of the Roman East, while articles on the Byzantine period will treat the East from the early fourth century onwards. That creates overlaps between such articles as 'Persia and Byzantium' and 'Persia and Rome' (which also repeats part of 'Parthians, rulers'); similarly, 'Navies, Late Antique' and 'Navies, Byzantine' cover some of the same material, as do 'Armenians' and 'Armenia'. In short, the project often follows the principle outlined in 'Hellenism, Byzantine': "There is no clear distinction between Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, although both are now independent subjects of historical research." True enough, but the articles might have been assigned in a manner that avoided some of the overlap. Possibly, this double coverage of the Late Roman East creates the impression that the Latin West from the 5th century onwards is less thoroughly treated than the Greek East in the same period (though it too is weaker than it could be). Among articles devoted to writers, the easterners John Lydus and Corippus appear, but not Sidonius Apollinaris or Rutilius Namatianus, and not even the historical writers Gildas, Fredegar or Nennius. No western emperor after Valentinian III, except Romulus Augustulus, has an article; neither do several of the significant post-Roman kings. Naturally, every reader or reviewer will find 'missing' entries, and this is not the place to offer a large list of them; the examples above are intended to illustrate a point about coverage. On a related point, Mommsen ('Mommsen, Theodor (1817–1903)') is said to be the second greatest Roman historian after Niebuhr; odd, then, that Niebuhr is not given an article of his own. In fact, the small selection of scholars with articles devoted to them is excruciatingly random.

Several areas of coverage might be regarded as somewhat unusual for an encyclopedia of ancient history. One area that is treated very thoroughly is the legal phraseology of both the Greek (in fact, Athenian) and the Roman worlds. Dozens of legal phrases and terms have individual articles, which are relevant to ancient history, but many of them are highly detailed and abstract, and they will be read, or at least understood, by at most a few specialists. This project includes numerous articles on religious documents, especially Jewish and Christian apocryphal and pseudepigraphic material. Often, these documents, which may be only a few pages long, receive lengthy treatments of authorship, language, content, scholarly disputes, and more, while other, more traditional, sources for ancient history are covered in a few sentences or less. Perhaps familiar material can be treated more briefly with a degree of impunity, but that procedure does allow a conclusion (particularly on the part of introductory readers) that writings at the fringes of Christianity and Judaism are more important than the classical authors. History of science and history of medicine are treated quite thoroughly; here, the basis for inclusion in not always self-evident, not because the articles are not important somewhere, but because the importance for ancient history is not clear. Take, for example, the article on 'Cardio- vascular system': why is it in this encyclopedia? Because ancient medical writers wrote on the topic, engaged in disputes? They also wrote on the brain, the heart, and many other things which are not treated in individual articles. Similarly, 'conic sections'. The topic is, of course, important to a history of geometry or of science more generally. But does it belong in an encyclopedia of ancient history? On what basis? Because it was somehow part of the ancient world? So, too, were sheep, not treated separately (except as 'Wool'), even though every other farm animal is. At times, the articles in this project give the impression that the goal was an encyclopedia of the ancient world. While the inclusion of a broad geographic and temporal (and even topical) scope was a laudable goal, the project's inclusiveness seems at times to have gotten a bit out of control, without even addressing the other ancient histories that might have been included, the Far East, for example, and the Americas.

Not surprisingly, a project of this scale is not without its little problems. Since each type appears in several or more articles, it would be unfair to single out individual articles and thus individual contributors; for that reason, only the kinds of problems will be noted. Somewhat unfortunately in a work of reference, errors of fact do appear in a few articles. Problems with grammar and punctuation appear, as do infelicities of expression. There are, as is to be expected, typographical errors and problems seemingly introduced in the process of formatting the text. At least for the pdf versions, some of the hyphenation is startlingly awful—even given a modern tendency to abandon syllabic hyphenation. A little more attention to copyediting and proofreading might have prevented many problems. On rare occasions, articles assume too much prior knowledge, and a few articles are highly theoretical, without establishing a basic starting point. No doubt, readers with expertise in areas not familiar to me will find examples of errors that did not catch my attention; in my assessment, problems of various types appear but do not abound. In fact, the overall quality of the articles is very high, in terms of scholarship, understandability, and usefulness to readers, including, most often, introductory readers. The greater issue is the definition of ancient history. Even if the etymological origin of the term 'history' could allow coverage of any research, two and a half millennia of scholarship have generated a definition that counsels a level of hesitancy in supposing that discussion of 'Asthma' should be regarded as ancient history.

The online material offers unique possibilities and problems. In the HTML versions, cross-references are hyperlinked to the relevant articles; that will certainly be easier for many readers than finding an article in a different volume of the print edition. To the extent that I have tested them, the links seem to be accurate. The online version could easily have offered links in many articles to relevant maps, but does not do so. Naturally, users of the online version can search the material, to find discussions of Leo and Clovis in articles on 'Isaurian emperors' and 'Merovingians' respectively; the printed edition offers an index for this purpose (see the editors' remarks, p. 2). To assist citation, the html and pdf versions of each article list the relevant page numbers of the printed edition; that is highly useful, though expansion of the online edition alone may create variations of pagination in relation to the printed text. The alphabetical list has a few problems: 'colonies, Roman and Latin (Republican)' appears between 'Art, Egypt' and 'Art, Greece', and 'Sobeknefru' shows up between 'Peloponnesian League' and 'Peloponnesian War'; 'Pharnakes I of Pontos' is in the list twice consecutively: the first links to 'Patron, patronage, Byzantine', which is not in the list anywhere else. A few additional errors when the project first came online have now been corrected.

In the final analysis, many readers will notice an inconsistency in treatment and coverage, and some will wonder whether this project might better be described as an Encyclopedia of the Ancient World (in which case, however, the project is short by thousands of articles). Despite the coverage of areas outside the traditional equation of ancient history with classical history, the project remains heavily classical. Diminished coverage of the fifth century CE is a classical approach, and, in accordance with a typically classical outlook, what happened in Athens did not stay in Athens, but is extended to all of Greece (articles might have been specified as 'Athens' or 'Athenian' instead of 'Greece' or 'Greek'). General articles, those without specification, tend to discuss mainly Greek (i.e., Athenian) and Roman material, sometimes with a token nod to other places and times. Despite such remarks, it bears repeating that the scholarship and writing in this project is of a high standard. But in a significant sense, the editors have chosen to be broaden the scope of ancient history too far beyond the reasonable limits. What emerges is a project that at times seems to lack focus.

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