Herodotus: The Histories

February 24, 2012

The Histories
(Pantheon, 2007) [c.380 BC]
Edited by Robert B. Strassler
Translated from the Greek by Andrea L. Purvis
1024 p.

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.

11 Responses to “Herodotus: The Histories”

  1. Jim Says:

    Funny, I was just listening to an Ideas podcast about Herodotus yesterday. It does sound like a fascinating read. The interesting tidbit that turned up in the program (in which he appears) is that Strassler did the landmark edition as a retirement project after 25 years in the oil industry — if its as good as you make it out to be, evidence that gentlemen scholars are not entirely extinct!

  2. cburrell Says:

    I missed the Ideas broadcast, but that is a nice coincidence. It is true that Strassler, who I gather studied classics before embarking on a business career, returned to his true love after retirement. He has now overseen wonderful editions of Herodotus, Thucydides (which I am currently working on), and others. I read that his next project is an edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I will certainly try to get when it is published.

  3. Janet Says:

    I love Herodotus. I haven’t read it all, just the parts that my son had to read for a class, but I’ve always wanted to go back and read the rest. Thucydides isn’t as amusing. I’ve read even less of him.

    I had just gotten to the point of my Latin studies where I thought I might, albeit with great travail, read Caesar in Latin, but I put it aside, and now it would take me forever to get back to where I was.


    • cburrell Says:

      Amusing, no, but Thucydides is in many respects more to my liking: more organized, more thorough, more careful in his judgments.

      Your Latin must have been quite good if you were ready to challenge a bona fide Latin author. I, alas, never got much beyond the simple declarative sentence stage. Mind you, I haven’t had opportunity yet to teach it to our kids. (We are still working on Greek.)

      • Janet Says:

        I did teach Latin to my kids and several others. That’s probably why I remember more Latin than Greek. I’ve had serious Greek classes, but probably don’t remember enough to teach Michael, much less Iona. Do you call him Michael?


  4. Janet Says:

    I think that you can assume that for today, at least, I am not fasting from the internet.


  5. cburrell Says:

    The nested replies maxed out. In answer to your question, Janet: yes, we are quite strict about the name. No Mikes or Mikeys. This morning he stood up beside a chair on his own; he had done it a few times before, but I had never seen it until today. Tremendous!

    Iona’s Greek is coming along quite nicely. I’d say that she can read and write it about as well as she can English.

  6. Janet Says:

    We always called our son Michael, but now his wife calls him Mike. What can I say?

    Obviously a couple of prodigies.


  7. cburrell Says:

    I didn’t know that your son is named Michael as well! It is a very fine name. The temptation for people to turn it into “Mike” seems irresistible, but so far we have done fairly well training family and friends. Girlfriends and wives, well, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

    Even worse is when people actually refer to the archangel as “Mike”. I cannot endure it.

  8. Janet Says:

    Ugh! I’ve never heard that, thank goodness.


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