The Histories of Herodotus (trans Tom Holland). Viking. 880 pp. $40.00
For centuries, men of letters and plenty of his fellow historians took great pleasure in reducing the prototypical chronicler, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, to the status of a mere wonder-monger, the garrulous and credulous counter-weight to the austere objectivity of his younger contemporary and immediate successor, Thucydides. In fact, it was a thinly veiled slight in Thucydides’s great work on the Peloponnesian War that got the tradition of Herodotus-bashing started; after that, a bitterly moralizing essay by Plutarch kept it going, it flourished in the Renaissance, and it persisted into modern times. Even fifty years ago, the great classicist Peter Green was gently mocking the standard reduction of “The Father of History”:
Here is Herodotus: a garrulous, credulous collector of sailors’ stories and Oriental novelle, ahistorical in method, factually inaccurate, superstitious and pietistic, politically innocent, his guiding motto cherchez la femme et n’oubliez pas le Dieu
Gently mocking, and also rising to the defense: Green was certainly not the only classicist to point out that every element of that old description is wrong. Herodotus, born around 490 BC in Halicarnassus on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, has been a source of such contention almost from the moment he began researching, writing, and performing his epic historie. This massive work consists of “inquiries” in which, as his 1988 translator Robin Waterfield puts it, he “constructs a huge road-map of the known human world, past and present, in which everything is linked through story to everything else.”
Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides. (As his translator David Grene put it, “[Herodotus] is a man who probably lived easily with myths.”) Herodotus is endlessly congenial company in large part because of his reputation as never having met a digression he didn’t like; that volubility has always been what animates his enemies. However, as says Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. “Only through presumption or inattentiveness would we assert that he did not control his materials or that he ‘could not resist a good story,’” writes Donald Lateiner, in his comments on the creaky old translation of G. C. Macaulay, “The text proves repeatedly that he did.”
That text has been translated many times in the last four hundred years, of course, and now Viking provides readers with a new version rendered by classical historian Tom Holland, with an introduction by Paul Cartledge that’s engaging if a bit hackneyed (“Herodotus, that most ancient of historians, has always had the capacity to renew himself, and to seem fresh to succeeding generations,” and so on). “No one before him, ”Cartledge writes, “had ever thought to write on such a heroically panoramic scale. Herodotus understood, to a degree that seems to have been exceptional for his time, that he was living in a globalized era.”
The great subject of Herodotus is the clash of East and West, the war between the cities of Greece and the empire of Persia that culminated in the legendary battles of Thermopylae and Salamis and Plataea. He takes the long way round to get there, tracing the belligerence of Persia through the rungs of its ruling dynasties back to the Trojan War, and digressing along the way at indulgent length on many of the foreign lands the Persians dealt with or conquered or tried to conquer. Herodotus does indeed love a good story, and he assures us throughout his big book that he’s traveled extensively, seen many of the places he describes, and talked with scores of eyewitnesses, corroborators, detractors, and other concerned parties. He stresses that direct connection between his inquiries and the actual moving elements of which they’re composed; you hear the echoes of it all through the Histories, and of course all through those many English-language translations.
Two of the greatest of Tom Holland’s predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix”), while the latter’s 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, this time for the Penguin Classics series. Rawlinson and de Selincourt are mountains on the terrain Holland is entering: countless readers who love Herodotus came to that love through one of those two translations, and any version that seeks to join their ranks must take their measure. Will the Holland Herodotus be for the 21st century what the Rawlinson was for the 19th and the de Selincourt for the 20th?
Tom Holland is a natural-born raconteur, as was Rawlinson, and like de Selincourt Holland is an indefatigable fact-checker. Herodotus has no longueurs, but the same hasn’t always been true of his translators, and it’s a danger Holland risks equally. There’s also the very tricky question of tone: Herodotus has one of the strangest tones of any ancient author, an echo of the Ionian dialect in which he wrote, a fetching admixture of the conversational and the hortatory. It’s often been remarked that many English-language translators exaggerate this dichotomy in one direction or the other, either giving us a burbling grandfather or a prose Homer. In fact, it’s a testament to the very personal appeal of Herodotus that his tone tends to be the tone of his various translators.
Even so, there’s little scope for major variations, much though every publisher may hope otherwise. When Herodotus reports a story he’s heard about the Neurian people, Rawlinson renders it like this:
It seems that these people are conjurers: for both the Scythians and the Greeks who dwell in Scythia say, that every Neurian once a year becomes a wolf for a few days, at the end of which time he is restored to his proper shape. Not that I believe this, but they certainly affirm it to be true, and are even ready to back their assertion with an oath.
De Selincourt puts it this way:
It is not impossible that these people practice magic; for there is a story current amongst the Scythians and the Greeks in Scythia that once every year every Neurian turns into a wolf for a day or two, an then turns back into a man again. Of course, I do not believe this tale; all the same, they tell it, and even swear to the truth of it.
We can note small differences (for instance, there’s something reassuringly Victorian about Rawlinson’s “his proper shape”); here is Holland:
The Neurians are a people who may well possess magical powers. Once a year, according to both Scythians and the Greeks who live in Scythia, every Neurian becomes a wolf for a few days, and then reverts back to his original form. Personally, I am unconvinced by this particular story, but they insist upon it nevertheless, and will swear to it on oath as they tell it.
(His chapters are followed by dozens of generally unnecessary endnotes; the one for this passage reads: “Lycanthropy myths are widespread, for instance among Baltic peoples and in the Germanic world; H. remains the sturdy empiricist sceptic.”)
It’s interesting to note the subtle changes in Herodotus’s relationship to his material over time. In Rawlinson’s version, it’s a matter of course that he doesn’t believe the werewolf story; in de Selincourt’s he’s likewise certain the stories aren’t true, even though the people who told them to him were willing to swear they were; and in the Holland, despite being called a sceptic by our translator, Herodotus is only “unconvinced”—there might be some truth to it all, but he’s going to need better sources in order to separate reality from dramatics.
A good deal of the best drama in the Histories comes from the empathetic and sweepingly, grandly dramatic portraits Herodotus paints of the Persians and their sequence of High Kings. By the time he was writing his histories, the Persians were a grand and safely defeated enemy; hence, the perfect candidates to be invested with some decidedly pre-Marlowe mighty rhetoric. There’s a wonderfully tense scene in Book Seven where the fiery-tempered King Xerxes rounds on the one member of his Court who dares to counsel restraint in the king’s war-mongering plans for Greece—all the more galling for Xerxes because the naysayer is his uncle. Rawlinson fulls the passage with King Jamesian thunder:
“Artabanus, thou art my father’s brother—that shall save thee from receiving the due meed of thy silly words. One shame however I will lay upon thee, coward and faint-hearted as thou art—thou shalt not come with me to fight these Greeks, but shall tarry here with the women. Without thy aid I will accomplish all of which I spake. Let me not be thought the child of Darius, the son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames, the son of Ariaamnes, the son of Teispes, the son of Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, the son of Teispes, the son of Achamenes, if I take not vengeance on the Athenians.”
The de Selincourt tones down the rage but increases the withering disdain:
“Artabanus, you are my father’s brother, and that alone saves you from paying the price your empty and ridiculous speech deserves. But your cowardice and lack of spirit shall not escape disgrace: I forbid you to accompany me on my march to Greece—you shall stay at home with the women, and everything I spoke of I shall accomplish without help from you. If I fail to punish the Athenians, let me be no child of Darius, the son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames, the son of Ariaramnes, the son of Teispes, the son of Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, the son of Teispes, the son of Achaemenes!”
Holland takes more liberties than either one of them:
“Artabanus, the only thing that spares you a punishment appropriate to the idiocy of your comments is the fact that you are my uncle. Spineless coward that you are, I hereby sentence you to the humiliation of staying behind with the women, and not accompanying me on the expedition to Greece. I can perfectly well bring my deeds to match my words even without your assistance. Indeed, if I do fail to punish the Athenians, may I no longer rank as the son of Darius, the son of Hystaspes, the son of Arsames, the son of Ariaramnes, the son of Teispes, the son of Achaemenes.”
That legalistic “hereby sentence” isn’t hinted at in the earlier versions, and there’s a curious mumbling effect in “I can perfectly well bring my deeds to match my words.” Holland’s outburst doesn’t feel angry; it feels like the relatively calm verdict of a sitting judge, which is surely not how Herodotus meant it. Holland’s note on the passages reminds his readers, “for Xerxes, as for Darius, it was crucial to be able to trace their lineage in the male line directly back to the eponymous Achaemenes,” which makes it all the more curious that, unlike either Rawlinson or de Selincourt, he decides to shorten the list of names (rather mysteriously, since by page 500 of a 700-page translation, you’d assume his remaining readers are in it for the long haul).
That same Xerxes gets quite a few choice scenes; Herodotus seems to like him as a character. One of the quickest and best of these dramatic beats happens shortly after that scene with Artabanus: Xerxes is surveying the vast ranks of soldiers he’s assembled for the humbling of Greek pride, when he suddenly becomes melancholy. A bystander twits him about it, and he reveals a surprisingly philosophic answer. Here’s Rawlinson:
“There came upon me a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.”
De Selincourt specifies some numbers:
“I was thinking, and it came to my mind how pitifully short human life is—for of all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years’ time.”
And in what we’ve seen as something of a pattern, Holland decides to embellish just a bit—his Xerxes is more than melancholy, he’s pierced:
“Yes, for I was musing on how short is human life, and the pity of it pierced me through. All these multitudes here, and yet, in a hundred years’ time, not one of them will be alive.”
Holland makes these efforts, large and small, throughout his translation. He sharpens contrasts wherever he can, heightens drama right up to the limits of what the text of Herodotus will allow, shapes encounters until they read like the best kind of historical fiction. He clearly relishes creating a voice for the Father of History. The narrative is full of conversational gestures and rhetorical throat-clearing that leans much closer to a tape-recorded tale-teller (as icing on the cake, the text is full of laddish U.K. idioms) than the studied and extremely artful public performer Herodotus almost certainly was.
Holland’s book is a performance of its own, full of gusto and flair, and in that way it beats its predecessors: this is Herodotus the pubman, taking your elbow to tell you stories about the dastardly yet fascinating tyrants of the Near East and the miraculous fables attending them. There’s far less of Homeric grandiloquence on display in this translation than in any earlier one; the enormous cast of characters virtually never declaim, as they’re forever doing in Rawlinson and still often doing in de Selincourt. The result is a Herodotus peculiarly shaped for Internet era, where demotic bluntness has taken a place side-by-side with the more traditional crafted eloquence (and in some venues supplanted it completely). It’s likely that this Holland version will become the new Penguin Classic of Herodotus in a year or two, and thus find its way into thousands of schools and become the introductory Herodotus for thousands of students. And maybe this is fitting; it’s as era-defining a translation, for good or ill, as any that’s come before it. It’s Herodotus 2.0.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and Kirkus. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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