Herodotus, The Histories
Walter Blanco and Jennifer T. Roberts (eds.), New York & London, W.W. Norton & Co., 1992, pp. xxi & 433. ISBN 0-393-95946-5. Ray Nyland, Department of Classics & Ancient History, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia. email: email@example.com
Herodotus, The Histories is part of the Norton series of Critical Editions in the History of Ideas. The stated purpose of the book is to offer an introduction to Herodotus for students making their first approach to the history of Western Civilisation or classical Greece. The volume is divided into three main parts. The first part (approximately one-half, or 237 pages) consists of a new translation by Professor Blanco of long selections of Herodotus. The second part, of 37 pages, provides a Greek background to Herodotus by way of selections from five ancient Greek authors from Aeschylus to Plutarch. The third part (145 pages) contains commentaries, selected by Professor Roberts, on various aspects of historiography in general and Herodotus in particular. Included are sections on the intellectual background to the Histories, the nature of history, Herodotus' life and world, the Persian Wars and different approaches to the Histories. The book also includes a glossary, mostly of names and places with some Greek terms, and a short bibliography. The table of contents also lists an index but this was not present in the review copy.
As noted, the first half of the book consists of selections from all books of the Histories. These are of different lengths and the approach has been to include large self contained sections rather than a more piece-meal approach. For example, Book I is included in its entirety and there are large sections of Book II (Chapters 1-98, 112- 120), Book VII (Chapters 1-57, 89-105, 138-152, 172-239) and Book VIII (Chapters 1-125). On the other hand, Book IV (Chapters 36-44), Book VI (Chapters 98-117) and Book IX (Chapters 51-64) receive little attention. The editor has attempted to provide a balanced sample of Herodotus' work as a narrative historian, his skill as a story-teller and his interest in the culture, geography and customs of various peoples. For example, the chapters on Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis are included; Egyptian customs are included in detail, but Scythian excluded. Overall the approach works well.
Any selection is really a matter of choice but many will look for their favourite chapters in vain. Personalities seem strangely missing. Thus, while the deeds of Themistocles are covered in the selection from Book VIII (on Salamis), the chapters on the madness and death of Cambyses (in Book III) and of Cleomenes (in Book VI) are absent. Both are lively reading and deal with individuals who had a major impact on the Greek world of Herodotus. Another concern is that important chapters where Herodotus outlines his historical methodology, such as Book II.99, are not included. This is not crucial in itself but becomes more of an omission when many of the commentaries included in the third part of the book discuss the reputation of Herodotus as an historian based, in part, on his methodology.
Overall, however, the selections provide an excellent, balanced sample of both the narrative skill and the scope of the interests of Herodotus.
Introductions are given to the translated chapters from each of the books but these are varied in value because they sometimes relate to the selections but on other occasions instead provide a commentary on chapters which have been omitted. The selections from Book III provide an example. Here, two thirds of the introduction concern the mad deeds of Cambyses of Persia and one paragraph discusses the so called 'Constitutional debate'. None of the Cambyses passages are extracted; instead Chapters 39-43 about how Polycrates attempted to avoid his fate by throwing away his ring, Chapters 61- 88 on the accession of Dareius to the Persian throne (including the 'Constitutional debate') and Chapters 98-105 on the customs of the Indians including the story of the gold-digging ants are translated.
The second part of the book includes selections from various Greek authors, each newly translated by Professor Blanco, again with an introduction before each extract. Included are lines 334-514 of Aeschylus' The Persians containing the description of the battle of Salamis; lines 10-62 of the Bacchylides' *Third Epincian Ode on the miraculous escape of Croesus of Lydia from his funeral pyre; a long extract from Thucydides (I.1-23, 89-118 and III.104); a section from Aristotle's Politics on tyranny (1313a, 34-1314a, 14); and, finally, an extract from Pseudo-Plutarch's On the Malice of Herodotus. These have been well chosen to contrast or highlight sections of Herodotus which appear in the first part of the book Aeschylus, Herodotus' description of Salamis (in Book VIII), Bacchylides, the escape of Croesus (in Book I), and Aristotle, the 'Constitutional debate' (in Book III) while it is good to have the criticisms of Pseudo-Plutarch on Herodotus in such an accessible form.
The final part of the book is harder to evaluate given its scope and content. The first section reprints some early modern criticism. Included are extracts from David Hume, 'An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding' (1748), discussing oral information and miracles, Isaac Taylor, from his preface to Herodotus (1829), outlining a Christian view of the consequences of the Greek victory over Persia for Western civilisation, John Stuart Mill (1846), giving a secular view of that victory, and Thomas Macaulay (1828), who discusses the purpose and method of history by comparing Herodotus and Thucydides. To Macaulay, Herodotus is the best of the romantic historians, Thucydides the master of skilful selection and disposition who does not resort to invention.
The remainder of the book contains selections from twentieth century criticism, divided into further sub-sections. Under the heading 'Background' are R.G. Collingwood, 'History's Nature, Object, Method and Value', Christian Meier, 'The Origins of History in Ancient Greece' and Oswyn Murray, 'Greek Historians'; under 'Herodotus' are Aubrey de Selincourt, 'The Life of Herodotus', James Romm, 'The Shape of Herodotus' World', Charles Fornara, 'Herodotus' Perspective', Stanley Rosen, 'Herodotus Reconsidered', Arnaldo Momigliano, 'The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography' and J.A.S. Evans, 'Father of History or Father of Lies: The Reputation of Herodotus'; under 'The Persian Wars' are A.T. Olmstead, 'Persia and the Greek Frontier Problem' and Arthur Ferrill, 'Herodotus and the Strategy and Tactics of the Invasion of Xerxes'; and under 'Aspects of Herodotus' Work' are A.W. Gomme, 'Herodotus and Aeschylus', Mary White, 'Herodotus' Starting Point', Rosaria Munson, 'The Celebratory Purpose of Herodotus: The Story of Arion in the Histories 1.23-24', John Hart, 'Themistocles in History', Virginia Hunter, 'Homer, Herodotus and the Egyptian Logos' and Donald Lateiner, 'Five Systems of Explanation'.
The scope of the issues covered is obvious and space prohibits a detailed consideration of these commentaries. In the main, the commentaries have been carefully selected to supplement those sections of the text of the Histories, or the other ancient authors, printed in the earlier parts of the book. For example, Fornara and Hart both discuss the character of Themistocles (Book VIII), Rosen refers at length to Herodotus' account of Croesus (Book I) and Dareios and his accession (Book III), and Romm's examination of Herodotus' geographical reports ties in well with the selections made by Professor Blanco from Books II and III. In addition, certain themes appear and reappear, such as the view that Herodotus' history embodies a moral purpose and shows that those who overreach themselves or vie with the gods are doomed to destruction (Meier, Lateiner). The relationship of Herodotus to Homer is discussed by Hunter and Rosen.
The commentaries selected, however, are generally positive about Herodotus' qualities as a historian and point to Herodotus as a diligent seeker after the truth who may have been misled by his sources Thus, the important articles by Momigliano and Evans rehabilitating Herodotus' reputation from ancient and modern criticisms are included, as is Ferrill, who argues that Herodotus did understood the strategy and tactics of the Persian War (a view very much disputed), and the generally positive views of Rosen, Meier and Lateiner. In contrast, while the more negative views of Psuedo- Plutarch and Macaulay are given, absent are modern criticisms of Herodotus such as those advanced by O.K. Armayor (who doubts Herodotus claims about his travels to the Black Sea and Egypt: HSCPh 82 (1978), pp. 24-62, JARCE 15 (1978), pp. 59-73, TAPhA 108 (1978), pp. 1-9, HSCPh 84 (1980), pp. 51-74, Herodotus' Autopsy of the Fayoum: Lake Moeris and the Labyrinth of Egypt (Amsterdam, 1985), or Detlev Fehling, who argues that Herodotus' source citations are inventions: Herodotus and his 'Sources': Citation, Invention and Narrative Art (trans. J.G. Howie) (Leeds, 1989). Whatever one's own perspective on Herodotus' historical acumen, balance is required even in an introduction to Herodotus and perhaps, if Armayor or Fehling were considered by the editors too difficult or strident, an extract from, for example, Stephanie West, 'Herodotus' Epigraphical Interests', CQ n.s. 35 (1985), pp. 278-305 could have provided that balance.
What audience will find the book useful and valuable? This presents a problem. It is pleasing to find so many influential essays about Herodotus so conveniently collected. As well, the translated chapters of the Histories are a good introduction to the range, concerns and techniques of Herodotus. The translations are lively and readable and the short notes at the bottom of the page offer brief, if sometimes self evident, comments on places or people of interest without jarring the flow of the narrative. However, individual chapters of Herodotus are not marked (the chapter numbers appear on the top of each double page as in the Penguin edition of the Histories) and this, plus the small bibliography, will exclude serious researchers. This is not unreasonable given the aims of this volume. However, it is likely that introductory students will have little interest in some of the finely argued commentaries discussing the nature of history and historical enquiry or some of the more complex aspects of Herodotus' work.
For introductory readers of Herodotus many of these pages are of limited interest. My guess is that the book will be most valuable for courses which survey the field of historical enquiry in which case extracts from the author, plus discussion about his techniques and speculations upon the nature of historiographical methods and ideas, are relevant. Students making their first approach to Herodotus as literature or as a source for the history of Western Civilisation of classical Greece may do better just to read more Herodotus.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 1 - June 1993 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606