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Bill Thayer

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A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome
by L. Richardson, jr

The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1992
© 1992 The Johns Hopkins University Press

459pp, 20.5 cm × 28.5 cm (8″ by 11¼″)

[image ALT: The cover of a book, showing a hotchpotch of monuments in ancient Rome.]

Cover: Etching by Luigi Rossini for the frontispiece of a work titled Le antichità Romane. View E from the Capitolium: as the dust jacket puts it, "somewhat elaborated". I should say so. The huge wall-like structure to the right, presumably intended to represent Domitian's Palace on the Palatine, is pure invention. The small building in the foreground is the Temple of Caesar. The Basilica of Maxentius, the Colosseum, and the Arch of Titus are recognizable, however.

I don't know what to make of this book.

On the one hand, billing itself as "the first such dictionary since that of Platner and Ashby in 1929" on which it is based — which, by the way, is online here (as photocopies) and largish portions of which, entered and searchable as hyperlinked text, are online here — it is a mine of information and sources on several hundred monuments and topographical features of Rome, down to some of the smallest, most obscure, and even doubtfully located or existing. The typical article identifies its subject and provides a concise history, with measurements, dates, and many citations of primary sources, both ancient and modern: and does so in a sober but readable style. Sometimes it will give a plan or a map (from some other source).

Of the dictionary's accuracy, quite frankly, I'm not qualified to be a judge; in matters I believe I know, I've found no mistakes — but that's not saying much.

On the other hand, in matters that I can judge, the work exhibits some of the most glaring deficiencies, just as Platner does, except 60 years have gone by to repair them. The three worst:

1. There is no general topographical map of Rome. If I were writing such a book, the first thing I would do is provide a very good gridded map of the City, to which each article would be keyed. Fish elsewhere, I'm afraid: the 92 maps and plans, mostly quite restricted in scope, do provide some piecemeal information but are cobbled together from the dictionary's various sources, usually secondary.

2. The indexing scheme is very quirky, requiring one to be an expert before using it: Prof. Richardson, a Professor Emeritus to a named chair at a major American university, may just be too close to his subject and not realize that the rest of us are not as erudite. Yet what's a dictionary for? Look for the Germalus, for example: if you don't know (I didn't) that it is also spelled Cermalus, good luck!

3. Worse yet, the work has, thru an oversight, apparently succeeded in breeding error in a generation of archaeologists and educators not familiar with Latin. Series of similar monuments or features are sometimes entered under their generic name (the Clivus Argentarius, the Clivus Scauri, etc. are all entered under Clivus), sometimes under their specific title (the temples are entered under Diana, Mars, etc.), e.g.:
       Fides, Templum
       Flora, Aedes
— and that's where the going gets rough. The non-practitioner of Latin (and after all, Latin is not that necessary) grabs this and flies with it: such entries have migrated into a recent generation of secondary works, metamorphosed into such barbarous solecisms as *Templum Fides and *Aedes Flora, and thence to the Web, with the apparent sanction of "books". Dr. Richardson may be horrified: he teaches Latin. . . . (Of course, on the rare occasions where he uses the Latin names in a sentence, yes they do appear with the proper genitives.)

A word of explanation somewhere would have been so easy. Instead, yet other problems are created. Example: in the entry for the Fanum Orbonae, we have: "It is located by Pliny near the Aedes Larum (q.v.)". You may q.v. all you want at Aedes or Larum: you will find the reference at "Lares, Aedes". . . .

Verdict? A very useful book, chock-a‑block full of good information, filling a crying need — maybe too quickly. It should be considered a first approach, and I devoutly hope someone out there is about to give the English-speaking world a modern version of the great systematic Roman topographies of the nineteenth century. The Web may be the best place for this: for an example of just how remarkably Rome can be clickmapped and hyperlinked, have you been to Roma sotterranea?

A few years after I first wrote that, my wish was fulfilled with the publication (1993‑ ) of Eva Margarita Steinby's five-volume Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae.

Review © William P. Thayer 1998, 1999, 2022

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Page updated: 2 Jan 22