(Pantheon, 2007) [c.380 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Andrea L. Purvis
I am not going to try to say very much about Herodotus’ history of the Greco-Persian wars; it is too great a work to benefit from anything that I may say about it. I took it up in an attempt to plug one of the many large gaps in my education, and I am very glad that I did.
My main interest at the beginning was in the confrontation between the Persian empire and the Greek city states, most notably at the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, but of course I got more than I bargained for. Not only did my understanding of the military history improve — I learned, for instance, about the battles of Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale, which were decisive for the Greek victory — but Herodotus fills out the background by exploring the roots of the conflict, tracing the rise of the Persian empire and its wars of conquest against other nations before culminating in the unsuccessful attack upon Greece.
When Herodotus was writing there was no established genre of historical writing to provide delimiting conventions as to what he could legitimately include, so he roams all over the map, generically as well as geographically: mixed in with (what we call) history we also find (what we call) anthropology, mythology, and geography. His long discussion of the geography and social customs of Egypt is especially interesting. He sprinkles the story with amusing (and sometimes ghastly) tales about the vanity and folly of kings, and reports, with a certain bemusement, the peculiar customs of the those living in the far-flung corners of the world. It’s a very rich text, full of fascinating characters and entertaining tales.
The edition of The Histories which I read deserves special praise. It is called The Landmark Herodotus, and was edited by Robert B. Strassler. The title works as a pun, for it is both a landmark edition, in the sense of being a big and very beautiful book, but it is also an edition that provides the reader with landmarks: Herodotus’ text is supplemented by over 100 full-page maps marked with the places named in the text. There are a lot of such names on every page of The Histories, and being able to glance quickly at a map immeasurably improved my comprehension of the narrative. Strassler has also provided brief marginal notes for each paragraph, including the date, location, and a brief summary of the action of that section. This is incredibly helpful because Herodotus jumps around frequently, in both time and space. There are also a couple of dozen appendices elaborating on various questions that might arise for the reader (“Hoplite Warfare in Herodotus” and “Classical Greek Religious Festivals” are two examples). Add to this an excellent introduction, an elaborate outline, a superb index, and a well-laid out, eye-pleasing page design, and this edition looks indispensable. Personally I cannot imagine wanting another.