Resource Review: The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies.

April 28, 2011

The UGA Libraries has The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies in the Main Library stacks (4th floor, DG209 .O94 2010) and the Classics Department also purchased a copy for the Alexander Room.  I looked it at a few months ago, but the recent Bryn Mawr Classical Review by Angela Kühr (which includes full publication data and the list of contributors and chapter titles, all 55 of them) prompted me to look again, and more closely.

As a librarian, I find “handbook” to be a fairly squishy category; my first question is always “what do they mean by handbook”?  One could quibble about this category for such a hefty book – it’s certainly bigger than my not-very-dainty hand, and heavy enough that it cannot be consulted one-handed; with the index it’s nearly 950 pages.  Plus there’s a foot (the colossal one of Constantine) on the cover!  Not a handbook at all, by my lights.  The copy on the front cover flap admits as much:

It is intended less as an encyclopaedia of the well-established, and more a research tool to aid the development of the subject: a guide that does not just inform but inspires.

The essays that make up the volume are diverse, divided into five sections (Tools, Approaches, Genres, History, and Ideas) and given broad titles like “Archaeology” (as Henry Hurst, the author, reviewer Kühr and I all note with sighs, a “Tool”), “Power” and “Spectacle” (both “History”) and “Roman Identity” (an “Approach”).  There’s no major topic glaringly absent to me, but then, over 950 pages and 55 essays it’s easy to cover a lot of ground.  The authors are an international bunch, and big-name senior scholars predominate.

Who is this book aimed at?  It is not really a reference work, although like many non-reference works one can consult it usefully for ideas and bibliography.  One might assign relevant sections of it to entry-level undergraduates, but I find the approaches the authors take tend to be nuanced and sophisticated; their observations are more suited to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.  More senior scholars will find it thought-provoking as well I suspect, a chance to step back and look at a big-picture overview of Roman Studies, not a synthetic one, but a mosaic of scholarly voices and approaches. I doubt many will read through the entire volume, preferring to dip into the essays of most relevance to one’s own work (as I myself have done in preparing this review.)

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