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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Robert B. Strassler

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Jun 2009)

History is the legacy of the human race, a chronicle of our success and failures passed down through generations in the hopes that the lessons of our time can be enlightening to our descendants, and preserve some shred of our existence in the future. Though our faces and names may fade into obscurity, our collected wisdom can live on, embedded within the stories we pass on. We record history because we believe that what has happened to us is important, and vital to the continued progression of humanity, like a long, thick cord made stronger by the interweaving of countless smaller threads. It’s purpose today is not much different than it was thousands of years ago, when Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote “in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done”, and created the first history.


Though written in the fifth century BCE, The Histories is a powerful and vivid narrative even today, buoyed by Herodotus’ strong voice and the tenacity with which he dissects and evaluates each bit of information he encounters. The primary topic of The Histories concerns the emergence of the Persian Empire under the kings Cyrus and Darius and their influence and impact on the Hellenic world. Herodotus is not a single-minded writer, however, and displays a wide-ranging interest in the entirety of the known world. His epic digressions include lengthy ethnographies, geographical studies, relations of local color and legends, and political analysis.


The Histories is a brilliant tour of the ancient world, impressive in its scope, surprising in its deftness, and captivating in its emotional power. All these strengths are present in the original text; what The Landmark Herodotus achieves is an amplification of the power of the original work, through the painstaking collection and reader-friendly deployment of supporting materials and contemporary views that put Herodotus’ efforts in their proper context.


The Landmark Herodotus is the latest in a series of new classical editions developed by Robert B. Strassler, a former oil executive turned academic, who has immersed himself in the works of antiquity. His first effort, The Landmark Thucydides, which chronicled the Peloponnesian War, was a surprise hit, and in addition to The Landmark Herodotus, Strassler is planning to release an edition of Xenophon’s Hellenica this November. The tomes augment the core classical text with a dizzying array of footnotes, images, and maps which help orient the reader in this distant and unfamiliar territory.


Even though Herodotus’ work is interesting enough to hold one’s attention, the reality of his stories is not always immediately apparent. For instance, the story of Gyges’ ring (also found in a more fanciful form in Plato’s Republic), is made all the more concrete by a photograph of an inscribed tablet which confirms that Gyges was indeed king of Lydia in the time period described. Sometimes, the editorial presence can cause some amusing conflicts. When Herodotus discusses several theories regarding the reason for floods along the Nile River, the one he identifies as the “most erroneous”—that the floods are caused by melting snow from deeper in Africa —is confirmed as the closest to reality by an editorial footnote.


“My entire account,” says Herodotus, “is governed by the rule that I write down precisely what I am told by everyone, just as I heard it.” Though Herodotus is determined to give all points of view a forum in his history, he’s not averse to critically examining the available evidence and providing his own opinions. For example, when the oracles of Dodona in Greece tell Herodotus that the building of their shrine was ordered by a black dove that spoke with a human voice, the great historian isn’t willing to let it pass without comment. “How could a dove possibly speak with the voice of a human?” he asks. He puts more faith in the explanation related to him by Egyptian priests: that the founding oracle of Dodona was, in fact, an Egyptian woman kidnapped by Phoenicians and sold to the Greeks. He concludes, rather aptly, that the story of the black dove is merely a poetic obfuscation of the truer, less palatable version of events, one that involves human trafficking.


The Histories are replete with fascinating little vignettes that offer little breaks from the larger conflict between the Persians and the Greek city states. These slices of life explore the various tribes and ethnic groups that occupy the known world and how they differ, be they Greek or barbarian. During his travels through Egypt, Herodotus comes off like something of an ancient observational comic, with his contention that the customs of the Egyptians are “in most respects, completely opposite to those of other people.” He explains that not only do Egyptian women go to the market while their men stay home, women in Egypt urinate while standing and their men sit. This section says more about how the Greeks view the world than it does about how the Egyptians live.


In one amusing story, Herodotus tells of a tribe of lost Amazons in unfamiliar territory who are cautiously wooed by a band of amorous local bachelors who slowly move their encampment closer and closer every day until the women can’t help but take notice of them. Though they do eventually hook up and start families, the Amazons decline to travel with the men back to their home cities, explaining that their wild, free-spirited ways would not mesh well with the local women’s domestic lifestyles.


The bulk and heft of The Landmark Herodotus may seem daunting, but once in the midst of The Histories, it’s clear that the book’s largeness is a gift. It’s an extraordinary account of a long distant past, one that provides a well-rendered portrait of the human condition in ancient times. The men and women who appear in The Histories are not rough shadows or obscure names. They are people, with personality and passion, who are served well by Herodotus’ portrayal. As Herodotus himself says, he “presents his research so that human events do not fade with time.” It’s a simple, relatable goal—simply to be remembered, to have mattered. The Landmark Herodotus proves that the people in The Histories still matter.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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