Help with Citation Abbreviations, Part 2: Primary Sources

In my last post I explained how to decode some of the abbreviations you might find in a scholarly article. Today I’ll explain how to decode the primary source abbreviations. We’ve all seen them: footnotes that at first glance seem to be full of gibberish but in reality contain important information that you just can’t seem to decode. Let’s take a look at an example:

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On my count, there are 12 references to ancient texts in this note. Let’s break down this myriad of abbreviations. First, some general observations. The abbreviations that are NOT in italics are usually the names of authors: Cic., Liv., Dion. Hal. The abbreviations that are italicized are the titles of the works: Dom., Rep., Ant. Rom. The numbers refer to the position in the text from larger divisions to smaller: book numbers are followed by chapter numbers (for prose) or line numbers (for verse) and chapter numbers can be followed by sentence numbers.

This might seem like a very strange way to cite texts. I mean, why don’t we just cite page numbers like everyone else? Well, there is a pretty simple answer. For the most part, ancient texts are a fixed corpus. While new editions get published all the time, the texts that survive are pretty much fixed at this stage (one can hope for a windfall of lost texts, but those are often just dreams). Page numbers vary by edition, not to mention the fact that some editions are solely in the original language (Greek or Latin), some are translations, and some are both (like the Loeb Classical Library editions). By citing chapter and book numbers I can grab ANY edition of the ancient source (well, almost- more on this later) off the shelf and find the passage that is being referred to, which is a much more useful way to cite than forcing me to find the exact edition used by author in order to check the reference. Once you figure out how the abbreviations work, the system is actually quite convenient.

But how do you figure out what the abbreviations mean? Some of them are easy to guess: Cic. is obviously Cicero, Liv. is Livy. In fact, most of the authors are pretty straightforward and easy enough to guess if you’re familiar with them. The titles can be a little more difficult. For example, the abbreviation Dom. is the abbreviation for Cicero’s de Domo Sua (or, in English, On his House). For the most part, the abbreviations are based on the title of the work in Latin, even when the text itself is Greek (1): so Dionysius’ work on Roman history is the Antiquitates Romanae, rather than Archaia Rhomaia. If you don’t know the name of the work in Latin, you might not recognize the abbreviations. But even if you do, you might not recognize the abbreviations; since there are hundreds of texts, the abbreviations might be from a text that you just don’t happen to be familiar with.

All this means that you need a reliable place to look up these abbreviations when you come across them. The good news is that there is one list that will help you find your abbreviations about 99% of the time. The best place to look up your abbreviations is at the beginning of the Oxford Classical Dictionary or the OCD (another abbreviation!), as it’s commonly known. The OCD is available both online and in print, but the online version requires a subscription. You should check your library to see if you have access (I do not, unfortunately, or I would show you how to find the abbreviations on the site). But even if you don’t have access, the abbreviations list is available online as a PDF. The list is organized alphabetically by author and then by work. You’ll notice that the list is comprehensive and has abbreviations for modern works and collections as well (FRH, for example, is a collection of fragments of Roman historians, Die Frühen Römischen Historiker). You’ll notice as well that many article abbreviations are also listed here (but the list presented in my last post in L’annee is more comprehensive for modern works). This list should give you just about everything that you need to decode footnotes full of references to ancient texts.

But what happens if you find an abbreviation that isn’t in the list? I’m not trying to frighten you unnecessarily. The truth is that a very small number of the abbreviations you come across will just not be in the list from the OCD. There are a number of reasons that your abbreviation might not be in the list. For example, there are some works that have more than one abbreviation. Cicero’s oration de Haruspicum Responsis (or sometimes de Haruspicum Responso) has a few variations on its abbreviation. The oration is abbreviated har. resp. in the OCD list, but sometimes you’ll see just Har. and sometimes you’ll see Resp. Har. Very often the abbreviations are quite close to one another and you can figure out what it’s supposed to be. Sometimes the abbreviations used by the author are out of date. This is particularly common in older articles, and you might have some luck with the abbreviations page of the individual work. Sometimes individual publishers or journals will have their own set of standard abbreviations that authors are required to use. In that case, the journal will have an abbreviations page much like the abbreviations page in a book. At any case, there are very few instances when you won’t be able to figure it out.

Abbreviations of primary sources might seem at first to be overwhelming, but it’s actually not that difficult to know how they work. The best news is that now that you know how to decode primary source abbreviations, you’re one step closer to being able to cite them yourself (but more on that in future posts).


(1) There are a few exceptions to this general rule, but mostly they are in Greek poetry. For example, Hesiod’s Theogony is never cited as *de familiis deorum (or anything similar). But as a contrast, the same author’s Works and Days can be cited as either the Erga or W&D – the second example uses the English name for the poem, which is unusual.


~M

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