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.