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Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

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2.5 Books and the internet as sources

Finally, let’s come back to the different types of modern sources as indicated in Figure 1. Many of these types are familiar to you in one way or another, so we can be brief. The Open University course that this OpenLearn course originated from used set books that students registered with The Open University were required to purchase. Three of them are clearly modern scholarship: The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (OCCC), A Brief History of Ancient Greece (BHAG) and Rome in the Late Republic (Beard and Crawford). The other two, The Odyssey and Pliny’s Letters, are both translations of ancient sources. You are not expected to read these books in order to complete this course, but their details have been included in the References section in case you wish to find out more about this subject.

The OCCC is an encyclopedia; it has succinct entries providing information about aspects of the ancient world, and while it rarely goes into a detailed discussion of sources, it does identify the sources and attempt to give you a reliable starting point. BHAG and Beard and Crawford are textbooks. They present a larger-scale overview of our understanding of the topics in question (Greece and late republican Rome respectively). You will shortly do a couple of activities to familiarise yourself with the particular issues involved in using these sources.

The most detailed form of modern source is the scholarly article, often in an academic journal, or book-length monographs. The difference between such specialist work and textbooks is on a sliding scale, rather than hard and fast. Perhaps the most important difference is the degree to which the work in question advances scholarship and constitutes a contribution to the sum of knowledge about the Classical world. There is little, if anything, in BHAG that is new scholarship; the aim of BHAG is to summarise existing thought and present an easily accessible account. Beard and Crawford, by contrast, are at least one step closer to scholarly monographs; part of what they do is put forward new suggestions in a way that you won't find in BHAG

Yet another, particularly problematic, modern source is the internet. Students registered on the Open University course that this OpenLearn course is taken from used some internet applications that have been designed for them, but OpenLearn is unable to provide these in this short extract of the course. However, it is possible to use the internet to find information that isn’t provided here. It is worth, therefore, pointing out the most distinctive feature of the internet as a source: anyone can publish more or less anything they like very easily. This has the great advantage of making an enormous amount of material accessible to you in a way it wasn’t to previous generations. But it has the great disadvantage that there is often no quality assurance (or at least this is the case at the time of writing). If you buy a book – and certainly if you’re encouraged to buy a book as part of a course – you can at least hope that the publisher will have done some work to ensure a certain degree of accuracy; you can assess the credentials of the author and look for a bibliography and footnotes or endnotes. This isn’t so easy to check when you use the internet. Often it is impossible to identify the author, and supporting sources may not be apparent. So you should be even more critically thoughtful about the accuracy of information if it is taken from the internet.’

Activity 3

Have a look at the OCCC entry for ‘tourism’.

Tourism [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

As you read it, note down the sources, ancient and modern, that are referred to, and try to organise them using our classifications above. (Remember: we divided ancient sources into archaeology, visual arts, literature, historiography, and documents.) You will find that many sources are abbreviated. This is normal practice in academic publications. Usefully, the OCCC has a complete list of abbreviations (which you may well find helpful when consulting other books, too). If you have access to the OCCC, for example, in your local library, you may like to look up abbreviations that you don’t understand. There will then probably still be sources left which you don't know how to classify, since you have not read them (in fact, some of them are really quite obscure). If you are pressed for time, simply add a category headed ‘don't know’ to your list of classifications. If you have more time, you could look up the cross-referenced entries to elsewhere in the OCCC and check what sort of sources they are. In any case, look up at least one of the sources you don’t know, to help you familiarise yourself with the OCCC and the quality of the information and discussion it contains.


An example list is as follows:

  • Ancient sources

    • Art history / archaeology: the colossi of Memnon and other pharaonic monuments.

    • Literature: Isocrates, Trapeziticus 17.4; Heraclides Criticus,

    • On the Cities in Greece; Pausanias.

    • Historiography: Herodotus 1.30; Pausanias.

    • Documents: Tebtunis Papyri 1.33; Greek and Roman graffiti.

  • Modern sources

    • Pfister, E (1951): an edition.

    • Austin 83: a translation.

    • Bagnall and Derow 58: an edition of a manuscript.

As already said, there is no reason why you should have been able to categorise all these sources, but hopefully you will have succeeded with a few of them! Now we'd like to add a few comments, with the aim of giving you an idea of what sort of book the OCCC is and how you will be able to use it.

  1. The references are frequent, detailed and precise. The OCCC is very compressed, packing a lot of material into a short space. This means that you will often find it impossible to understand all the detail at first. In most cases, when working with the OCCC, it will not be necessary for you to master all the detail, but this shouldn't deter you. For example, we'd never heard of Isocrates’ work Trapeziticus before reading the ‘tourism’ entry, and we'd be surprised if many of the course team had! However, using the OCCC, you can find out more and more detail the more you dig. If you looked up some of the sources you didn't know, you have already started this process.

  2. Most of the sources are ancient. This is partly to do with the history of the OCCC, which is based on The Oxford Classical Dictionary. One of the key differences is that The Oxford Classical Dictionary gives bibliographies of modern sources at the end of each entry, while the OCCC doesn't. This observation provides a useful reminder of the privileged status of primary evidence. To support the description of ancient tourism, the author felt it necessary to cite numerous primary and no secondary sources, only editions and translations of primary sources.

  3. We noticed that there are more word-based sources than those based on material culture. The only reference to material culture we found is in general terms to the ‘colossi of Memnon and other pharaonic monuments’. To explain this imbalance, we would need to go into more detail about the subject. It might be that more sources about tourism survive from literature, historiography and philosophy than from art and archaeology. Alternatively, the author may have a preference for written sources; after all, it is the written graffiti and literary associations that get mentioned in the caption more than the statues themselves. It may be the case that the dictionary style, with short articles and little space for illustrations, makes it harder to integrate material culture. Another possible explanation is that less research has been undertaken on the material evidence for ancient tourism. Whichever of these factors come into play, we hope you, too, saw this imbalance.

  4. Finally, some sources are referred to very specifically (‘Hdt 1.30’), while others are quite vague (‘colossi of Memnon and other pharaonic monuments’; ‘Pausanias’). Why is that? The precise references are about very specific facts, so for example the paragraph ‘Hdt 1.30’ starts:

For this reason, then – and also no doubt for the pleasure of foreign travel – Solon left home and, after a visit to the court of Amasis in Egypt, went to Sardis to see Croesus.

Croesus entertained him hospitably in the palace, and three or four days after his arrival instructed some servants to take him on a tour of the royal treasuries and point out the richness and magnificence of everything.

(Herodotus 1.30; trans. de Sélincourt)

The translation indicates that the ancient text precisely reports the fact provided in the OCCC entry. Meanwhile, the more general references are about recurring facts: there are many Greek and Latin graffiti. The work of Pausanias almost entirely consists of descriptions of parts of Greece he visited and was informed about. Wherever possible, give a precise reference, but you don't necessarily need to give such precise references when you refer to a widespread and well-known phenomenon.

So much, then, for the OCCC. Textbooks like BHAG are rather different kinds of sources and require different skills in using them. The next activity is aimed at introducing these skills, at the same time as giving you some initial practice in working with ancient sources.

Activity 4

In the Open University course this OpenLearn course was taken from, there was a section on Aeschylus' play Persians, which is set in the context of the Persian invasion of Greece at the beginning of the fifth century BCE. By way of a sneak preview, we will focus in this activity on one aspect of one battle in the course of this invasion. For our purposes the merest outline of the context is enough. Xerxes, the Persian king, invaded Greece with a massive army, on both sea and land. The Greeks let him take some regions without putting up much resistance, but then confronted him at a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, called Thermopylae. In the event they lost the battle, but only after intense fighting. Most of them, including their leader, the Spartan Leonidas, died. BHAG has an account of this battle. Read this account now.


We want to focus only on the very last section in this short paragraph, starting with the decapitation of Leonidas (‘On Xerxes’ orders … ‘ up to and including the two-line epitaph). Modern scholarship, we said earlier on, are based on ancient sources, and that's why they are often called ‘secondary’. The most important ancient, or ‘primary’, source here is the historian Herodotus, whom we have already mentioned a few times. His account of the Battle of Thermopylae is lengthy, which is why we concentrate on the aftermath of the battle. Two sections of his narrative are relevant to our passage: Book 7, Chapters 228 and 238, or 7.228 and 7.238 for short.

Next read these two sections of Herodotus (below). There will be some detail (in particular names) that you might not know. This happens quite frequently when you read ancient texts, and isn't just because you may not have studied the Classical world before. The important thing is to try to use, understand and evaluate the texts nonetheless, to the degree that you are able.


Once you have read the two Herodotus passages, compare them to the passage at the end of the paragraph in BHAG (if you have access to it), and reflect on the following questions:

  1. What do you learn about the way you can use ancient sources like Herodotus?

  2. What do you learn about the way you can use modern scholarship like BHAG?


No doubt your thoughts aren't quite the same as ours. This is unavoidable in activities that demand a good deal of personal judgement (and, as we said before, that's the case for the majority of activities in this course). But we hope that there are enough points of contact between your way of approaching the question and ours to make our discussion useful to you. We will take the questions one by one.

  • 1. One obvious (perhaps all too obvious) point to make is that the two Herodotus passages treating the events in question are separate. In writing their paragraph, the authors of BHAG had to collect these two different passages and put them together. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of using ancient sources: you will need to collect different sources and put them together. In this case, the two different sources come from the same overall source (Herodotus). In other cases, they will come from different places altogether.

    Collecting, however, is only one aspect of what the BHAG authors did here. They also selected. Both passages had a lot of detail that didn't make it into BHAG: three little poems of which BHAG only prints the second one, for instance, and Herodotus' views on how Persians usually treat their enemies after battle, which weren't selected for inclusion in the textbook. The BHAG authors will have studied both passages, decided which detail is particularly important or relevant for their overall account of the battle at Thermopylae, and made their selection accordingly. This close study followed by selection is a standard practice in using ancient sources.

    Related to this selection process is the issue of evaluation. Evaluation isn't explicit in the BHAG passage but can still be felt rather faintly. For instance, the BHAG authors must have decided that some basic details in Herodotus were correct, such as the epitaph they quote and Xerxes' orders to decapitate Leonidas. Perhaps (but this is pure speculation) they decided that other aspects were less reliable and that's why they left them out (such as Herodotus' thoughts about the exceptionality of the treatment administered to Leonidas). And their rather cagey phrase ‘attributed to Simonides’ suggests that they don't have complete trust in the reliability of whatever source stated that the poet Simonides is the author of that epitaph. (That source is probably not Herodotus: he is rather vague about this issue, it seems. What do you think?) Evaluation, too, is an essential aspect of work with ancient sources. Wherever you use ancient sources, you have to ask yourself how reliable you think they are. The answer is of course different from case to case.

  • 2. What does all this mean for the way you can use BHAG? Well, perhaps the most important thing is that you should have worked out by now that even a textbook like BHAG doesn't simply tell you ‘the facts’ but makes its own choices about what to collect, select, suppress, trust, distrust and so on. The choices may be good (as they usually are) or they may be less good (as they sometimes are – no book is perfect), but they are always choices. Going back to the ancient sources will always tell you further things, and is therefore crucial whenever you want to get to the bottom of something.

    Next, you have become familiar with some of the habits of BHAG. In particular, the authors are rather silent about how they collect, select and evaluate. The reason you now know which Herodotus passages are at the bottom of their account is that we worked it out for you (you could have done it yourself, but either way the point is that BHAG doesn't tell you). Other books are different, and you, as a matter of course, should be much more explicit than BHAG. Another aspect in which BHAG is silent is the rationale for its choices. Why the second of the three epigrams? Perhaps because it is the most famous one? (There are many later imitations, both in antiquity and in modern literature.) Or because they think it captures something about the Battle of Thermopylae that the others don't? Or do they like the uplifting tone of it and want us to go away with a rather heroic version of the Greeks at Thermopylae? And why do they leave out Herodotus’ comment that the Persians usually treat their enemies with more respect? Don't they believe it? Or do they want to have only information specific to Thermopylae here? Or do they want to create a crueller image of Xerxes? Again, we don't know. Modern scholars, just like ancient sources, have a bias, and it is important to think about bias when dealing with both kinds of source.

As we have pointed to some issues to be aware of when reading BHAG, we should probably stress that none of this is intended to warn you against using BHAG. On the contrary, the last two activities were designed to get you into the habit of using both the OCCC and BHAG as much as possible, but to use them critically. In their different ways, they are a mine of information – the OCCC for condensed accounts of numerous aspects of the Classical world, and BHAG for a more expansive narrative of Greek history. As should have become clear, they can't be treated as the last word, but they can be a good summary and a pointer to where to find out more.