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Monday, May 4, 2015

“The Histories”, by Herodotus, edited by Carolyn Dewald, translated by Robin A.H. Waterfield

848 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN13: 978-0192126092

Herodotus, called The First Historian by many, has always appealed to readers interested in more than mere geopolitical struggle with his blend of easy, witty charm and profundity, and his virtuosic gift for folding entertaining but somehow also relevant digressions into his main narrative. In narrating the Greek victory at Marathon in 490 B.C., he decided that he needed to explain the origins of the wealth and influence of a great but unpopular Athenian family, the Alcmaeonidae, as they were suspected of treason and the leading politician of Athens, Pericles, was a member of this family on his mother’s side, giving the allegation topical importance. So Herodotus goes back a long way in time to explain that Alcmaeon, the namesake head of the family, had once visited the fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, who invited him to take away as much gold as he could from his treasury; Alcmaeon duly stuffed his pockets, his boots, his hair, and even his mouth with gold dust, causing Croesus burst out laughing when this ludicrous apparition emerged – and double the total. Thus does how Herodotus writes history, in a manner the typical modern-day history prof. would deem inappropriate (and then wonder aloud why so many think history is “boring”).

How many writers would give their eye teeth to have a book reissued 2,500 years after their death? And who better to receive the Oxford University Press treatment than Herodotus in this is translation by Robin A.H. Waterfield, the one-time lecturer at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities, editor for Penguin Books and, lately a self-employed writer, and edited by Carolyn Dewald, Professor of Classical and Historical Studies at Bard College. But Herodotus’ journey through the centuries has not always been plain sailing; ever since Plutarch put the knife in with his mean-spirited book The Malice of Herodotus (which branded him the ‘Father of Lies’) Herodotus has always suffered from the slur that he was a bit of a fibber and a fantasist, an elegant charlatan, an ancient-world Walter Mitty who told whoppers. The trashing by Plutarch was unfair, as Herodotus himself made clear his own distrust of some of the more far-fetched stories he repeated: “My own responsibility, as it has been throughout my writing of this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever I may be told by my sources”, he notes.

The Histories is a masterpiece on the grandest scale, a chronological history of the Persian Wars from the invasions of the empire-building Cyrus in the middle of the 6th Century BC through the stories of the ill-fated Cambyses and the opportunist regicide Darius to the depredations of that arch-megalomaniac Xerxes in the early 5th Century BC – and yet, it is also the world’s first prose epic, a thrilling discourse on war and empire, the frailty of the human condition, fortune’s ebb and flow, freedom versus tyranny, the immutability of fate, the vanity of power, religion, love, the importance of custom and the capriciousness of the gods – not bad for a dead white guy, eh? Chronicling the epochal encounter between Ancient Greeks and Persians, Herodotus is also the first to bear witness to the birth of the West (and if that’s not enough for you, there’s lots of sex in it, too). The Histories is also a treasure-trove of wonders, with speculations about the source of the Nile, the peculiar post-coital habits of the Babylonians who fumigate their genitals with incense after love-making (!), the “most curious incident” in Egypt of a goat having sex with a woman in public (?), a dolphin rescuing a shipwrecked, lyre-playing musician…and on and on.

The main problem with this volume is that there’s no way to go access a particular section, other than by ploughing through it from start to finish, which is fine if you’re not looking for a particular section and are happy to read it from the beginning, but less so if you need a specific topic. Also, the referencing system adopted is more than a little baffling; for instance, on page 179 there is a passage about Ethiopians and coffins made of transparent stone – hmmmmm, me thinks, now isn’t that interesting, I’d like to find out more, so I turn to the references at the back and it says, “For the crystal coffins, see Strabo 17.3 and Diodorus 2.15” Strabo? Diodorus? Not being a PhD in Greek history, I don’t know who either of these gentlemen are, and I can’t reference back to the text as there isn't a book 17 – and there’s no Strabo or Diodorus in the surrounding notes or listed in the bibliographies. Just what is the note referring to? Your guess is as good as mine, but I sense a Google hunt upcoming.

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