In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prosopography

  • Introduction
  • Origins, History, Significance
  • Roman Republic
  • Controversies in Approaches to Roman Republican Prosopography
  • Regional Studies
  • Neighbors of the Classical World
  • Byzantium and the Middle Ages

Classics Prosopography
Matthäus Heil
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0077


The tongue twister “prosopography” literally means “descriptions of persons”; it is a learned neologism derived from the Greek prosōpon = “face, mask, dramatic character, person” and graphein = “write.” In current use, the word means two interrelated things: (1) an auxiliary discipline collecting and organizing all evidence relating to the individuals who make up (regularly large) groups of historical persons and establishing the connections among them; and (2) an analytical approach that makes use of those collections. Originally, prosopography was a way of study that was very specific to classics. Meanwhile, it has also been applied with increasing success to other branches of historical research. The following bibliography focuses on general collections, reference works, and comprehensive studies. Much of the practical work on details is published in numerous articles of scholarly journals (e.g., Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik).

Origins, History, Significance

To humanists of the 16th century, prosopograpy simply meant a work offering a series of literary portraits of famous persons (e.g., Göbler 1537). Later, the word was used for an ample index of persons mentioned in a single work or text corpus (Groen van Prinsterer 1823). It acquired its modern meaning not before the late 19th century. At that point, the Berlin Academy commissioned lexicons to collect all available information on persons: one for all Athenian citizens (Prosopographia Attica; see Greece: Reference Works) and one for the high dignitaries of the Roman Empire (Prosopographia Imperii Romani; see Roman Empire; for the early history, see W. Eck in Cameron 2003, pp. 11–22, and T. D. Barnes in Keats-Rohan 2007, pp. 71–82). In substance, these were works of a new type though they retained the old name “prosopography.” They became increasingly desirable as archaeological excavations and scholarly surveys produced masses of monumental inscriptions and papyri containing a huge amount of new information on persons. Meanwhile, prosopography has developed an international and multilingual identity, treating nearly all epochs and sectors of classics and many fields beyond. The primary concern was and is to organize knowledge about historically attested persons. Two broad patterns can be discerned: the prosopography of elites and works that include all persons of an area for a certain time. The collections provide the groundwork for social, administrative, and military history, and make visible the social profile of classes, patterns of careers, and personal networks, particularly within elites. Furthermore, attempts have been made to use these data to interpret political history presupposing that personal relations are the key for understanding, but the results have not always been conclusive (see Controversies in Approaches to Roman Republican Prosopography). Stone 1971 provides a critical evaluation of what prosopography is; the present state of the art is represented in Cameron 2003 and Keats-Rohan 2007; for introductions, see Hornblower and Spawforth 2016, and Fossey 1991. The task of gathering and organizing data is still not finished. Particularly for the Hellenistic age and the Roman Empire, much new evidence comes to light every year. Hence, a steady supplementation is needed, which complicates the use of printed reference works. In the meantime, computers, databases, and the Internet increasingly offer new and better ways to make knowledge accessible. The transition to information technology (IT) and Internet-based work has begun, but is not yet finished. It appears that the possibilities of IT have facilitated the considerable growth of a new interest in prosopography outside of classics.

  • Cameron, Averil, ed. 2003. Fifty years of prosopography: The later Roman Empire, Byzantium and beyond. Proceedings of the British Academy 118. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An instructive collection of papers on the history of prosopographical research and the state of the discipline, originating from a conference in 2000 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire project (see Late Antiquity: General); mainly referring to Late Antiquity and Byzantium.

  • Fossey, John M. 1991. The study of ancient Greek prosopography. Chicago: Ares.

    An introduction to Greek prosopography offering an extensive bibliography.

  • Göbler, Justinus. 1537. Prosopographiarum libri quatuor in quibus personarum illustrium descriptiones aliquot seu imagines ex optimis quibusdam authoribus per Justinum Goblerum selectae continentur. Moguntiae (= Mainz).

    The first work titled “prosopography.” In Latin.

  • Groen van Prinsterer, G. 1823. Prosopographia platonica: Sive expositio judicii, quod Plato tulit de iis, qui in scriptis ipsius aut loquentes inducuntur, aut quavis de causa commemorantur. Lugduni Batavorum (= Leiden), The Netherlands: Luchtmans.

    A prosopography in the old sense: a study (continuous text) compiling what Plato said on persons he mentioned. In Latin. Reprinted 1975 (Amsterdam: Hakkert).

  • Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony J. S. Spawforth. 2016. Prosopography. In the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Digital ed. Edited by Sander Goldberg. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.5382

    A useful summary of what prosopography means, markedly influenced by the controversy on prosopography of the Roman Republic (see Controversies in Approaches to Roman Republican Prosopography). Originally published in 1996, in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed., edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, 1262-1263 (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press).

  • Keats-Rohan, K. S. B., ed. 2007. Prosopography approaches and applications: A handbook. Prosopographica et Genealogica 13. Oxford: Unit for Prosopographical Research, Linacre College, Univ. of Oxford.

    A collection of articles on what prosopography is, on its history, and on current projects. It also gives guidance on how to proceed in prosopographical works. It gives a good overview of the current state of the field even outside of classics.

  • Modern History Research Unit, Univ. of Oxford. Prosopography Research.

    Offers an online bibliography that in major part refers to research outside of classics.

  • Stone, Lawrence. 1971. Prosopography. Daedalus 100:46–79.

    An influential and often-quoted article on prosopography. Its information on the origins and the use of prosopography in classics is incomplete.

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