Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1849, originally published 1844 under a slightly different title) is an encyclopedia/biographical dictionary. Edited by William Smith, the dictionary spans three volumes and 3,700 pages. It is a classic work of 19th-century lexicography. The work is a companion to Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities and Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.[1]

Authors and scope

Excerpt from Philolaus Pythagoras book, (Charles Peter Mason, 1870)

The work lists thirty-five authors in addition to the editor, who is also an author for some definitions and articles. The authors were classical scholars, primarily from Oxford, Cambridge, the Rugby School, and the University of Bonn, but some were from other institutions. Many of the mythological entries were the work of the German expatriate Leonhard Schmitz, who helped to popularise German classical scholarship in Britain.[2]

With respect to biographies, Smith intended to be comprehensive. In the preface, he writes:

The biographical articles in this work include the names of all persons of any importance which occur in the Greek and Roman writers, from the earliest times down to the extinction of the Western Empire in the year 476 of our era, and to the extinction of the Eastern Empire by the capture of Constantinople by the turks in the year 1453.

Samuel Sharpe thought Edward Bunbury had plagiarised his work, as he wrote of in his diary entry on 3 September 1850:

I certainly felt mortified on reading the articles on the Ptolemies in Dr. Smith's " Dictionary of Classical Biography." They were all written by E. H. Bunbury with the help of my " History of Egypt," and with-out any acknowledgment, though he even borrowed the volume from my brother Dan for the purpose.[3]

Many of the Dictionary's definitions and articles have been referred to in more recent works, and Robert Graves has been accused of "lifting his impressive-looking source references straight, and unchecked" from it when writing The Greek Myths.[2]

Charles Peter Mason wrote on pages 304–305:[4]

It appears, in fact, from this, as well as from the extant fragments, that the first book (from Philolaus) of the work contained a general account of the origin and arrangement of the universe. The second book appears to have been an exposition of the nature of numbers, which in the Pythagorean theory are the essence and source of all things.

Use and availability today

The work is now in the public domain, and is available in several places on the Internet. While still largely accurate (only rarely have ancient texts been emended so severely as to warrant a biographical change), much is missing, especially more recent discoveries (like Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, or the decipherment of Linear B) and epigraphic material. Perhaps more seriously, the context in which ancient evidence is viewed has often changed in the intervening century and a half.

See also


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), 25: Sir William Smith
  2. 1 2 Nick Lowe (20 December 2005). "Killing the Graves myth". Times Online. London. Retrieved 2016-02-26.
  3. Clayden, PW. Samuel Sharpe. p. 82. Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  4. Sir William Smith (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. p. 305.
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