In defence of Herodotus

The first historian has taken much criticism from his successors. As Tom Holland's translation shows, he deserves better

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

The Histories Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland

Allen Lane, pp.880, £25, ISBN: 9780713999778

How many writers would give their eye teeth to have a book reissued 2,500 years after their death? It certainly beats being pulped after a year or two. And who better to receive the Penguin Hardback Classic treatment than Herodotus, the fifth-century BC ‘Father of History’, he to whom historians today owe so much, whether they know it or not? This is a new translation. of a book that remains more relevant than ever. by the popular historian Tom Holland, with an introduction by the Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge, doyen of classicists, citizen of Sparta and a Herodotean to the core.

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 sixth 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 fifth.

Yet it is much more than that. 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. Chronicling the epochal encounter between Ancient Greeks and Persians, Herodotus is also the first to bear witness to the birth of the West. If that’s not enough for you, there’s lots of sex in it, too.

Herodotus may still be in print, but his 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. Herodotus 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.

For those of us who love Herodotus, he has never gone out of fashion. Yet for most of the 2,500 years since his death, history has been an almost exclusively Thucydidean enterprise: kings, generals, battles, empires and politics — a narrow field through which to observe the far wider sphere of ‘human achievements’ and ‘great and marvellous deeds’ that were, for the endlessly curious Herodotus, the historian’s proper concern.

When E.H. Carr asked ‘What is History?’ in 1961, the answer was that it wasn’t generally the seething mass of men and women who weren’t monarchs, statesmen or generals. It took years for social history — the American historian James Harvey Robinson’s ‘new history’ of 1912 — to take root, and when it did the historian’s field of inquiry never looked back. Today there is economic history, women’s history, demographic history, feminist history, gender history, sexual history, black history, attitudinal history, oral history, cultural history, psychohistory, history of history, and so on. Historians no longer blush when they say they study the history of slaves, witches, criminals, deviants, capitalists, farmers or virgins. This, I think, is the greatest posthumous tribute to Herodotus.

So Father of History, certainly, but, as Holland writes, very much more than that. I have always seen him as the world’s first foreign correspondent, investigative journalist, anthropologist and travel writer. He’s an aspiring geographer, a budding moralist, a skilful dramatist, high-spirited explorer and inveterate storyteller, part learned scholar, part tabloid hack, consistently broad-minded, humorous and generous-hearted. Unlike most historians, he manages to appeal across the generations, examining the world around him with the benevolence of a Micawber, with an unerring eye for thrilling material to inform and amuse, to horrify and entertain. As Edward Gibbon observed, ‘Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.’

So there are thrilling descriptions of the great battles of the Persian Wars; deeply moving passages, such as that in which Croesus, who has just lost his empire to Cyrus in 546 BC, is brought to explain himself before the Persian King of Kings. ‘No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace — in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons,’ he says ruefully. Would that George Bush and Tony Blair show such contrition.

The Histories is a treasure-trove of wonders. 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. This is storytelling history of the most engaging — and modern — variety.

One takes one’s hat off to Holland for learning Ancient Greek in order to update Herodotus for a new audience. He is following in some remarkable footsteps, perhaps none more elegant than those of Aubrey de Sélincourt, whose delightful translation readers have loved and admired since it appeared in 1954. The new translation, brisk, modern and idiomatic, gives greater weight to accuracy, with only an occasional loss of fluency. Thus de Sélincourt’s ‘Often enough God gives man a glimpse of happiness, then utterly ruins him’ becomes ‘the heavens will often grant men a glimpse of happiness, only to snatch it away so that not a trace of it remains’.

If history has been kind to the magisterial Thucydides, it has been rather less generous to Herodotus. The past few years, however, have done wonders for his reputation, with a growing interest in, and respect for, his great work. Holland and Cartledge deserve high praise for bringing a bristling new Herodotus to a new generation. Together they have ensured that the seismic battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Plataea, the marvels of the ancient world, the birth of history and the dawn of the West have splendidly defied ‘the ravages of time’.

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