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The Granddaddy of Inquiry
Book Review
© 2012 James LaFond
The Histories
A Norton Critical Edition
Translated by Walter Blanco
Edited by Walter Blanco and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts
1992, Norton, NY, 433 pages
The Histories represent the first attempt at narrative history that we know of. It is not perfect, and in that imperfection lies much of its charm. The author tells a wide ranging tale about the clash between the Persian Empire and the Greek communities. To him it was the World War Two of his time, and he could think of no greater tale to tell. The main portion of the tale occurred within a year of the author’s birth. The author was born to Greek parents in Persian lands. He was well-enough connected with both cultures to offer a sympathetic view of each side.
Herodotus states plainly that not everything he reports he believes to be true, in some cases leaving the reader to judge. Many of the most compelling tales are brief, the author able to summarize significant episodes in a mere paragraph. I particularly like the legendary political background and cultural notes on distant lands that occupy much of the early portion of the book, which is actually a nine volume series.
Herodotus, and the ability to read him critically, for cultural nuances and beliefs, as well as raw data [which is often suspect, like the troop strengths he offers] is a prerequisite for studying the Greco-Persian Wars, and for understanding what is widely believed to be the apex of Hellenic community life, if not Hellenic philosophy and the later export of its culture.
I have read the old Loeb editions, with the Greek opposite the English translation on the facing page. That format has its place. For Herodotus, being such a critical lightning rod for modern historians, I prefer this edition. A collection of essays in the back by authors David Hume, Isaac Taylor, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Babington Macauluy, R. G. Collingwood, Christian Meier, Oswyn Murray, Aubrey De Selincourt, James Romm, Charles W. Fornara, Stanley Rosen, Arnaldo Momigliano, J.A.S. Evans, A. T. Olmstead, Arther Ferrill, A. W. Gomme, M. E. White, Rosaria Munson, John Hart, Virginia Hunter, and Donald Lateiner offer a lot of insight, background and context.
Herodotus has proven to be a particularly nutritious bone for various critics of his to chew on for the past two hundred years. So, whether they agree that he is the father of history or not, their very attention makes his ancient claim to fame that he staked 2,450 years ago, when he wrote about the ‘greatest generation’ that had preceded his.
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