A GUIDE TO READING HERODOTUS’ HISTORIES

Sean Sheehan

Bloomsbury (2018) p/b 316pp £20.69 (ISBN 9781474292665)

With ‘a cast of over 900 named individuals and nearly 700 locations’, Herodotus’s work poses a challenge to readers who enter its labyrinth. Welcome then is a guide which sets out the complex narrative structure clearly and gives the reader an insight into Herodotus’ preoccupations and the reception of his great work. 

There are two parts: ‘Approaches to Herodotus’ (p. 1-57) provides a discussion of topics such as themes, sources, methodology, ethnography, history, causation, folk tales, story-telling, logos, nomos, luck and fate. The notes to ‘Approaches’ appear on pp. 51-57, emphasising the end of this first part. The other half is a book by book commentary. Besides the use of paraphrase, description and critical comment, there are text boxes throughout this section. They offer simple diagrammatic breakdowns of the narrative alongside the continuous text of the commentary. Book 1 for example has seven boxes: abductions, Lydian kings before Croesus, Croesus as king, kings of the Medes before Astyages, birth of Cyrus, Cyrus’ genealogy, Ionia logos and Persian expansion. Thus they offer a similar service to the reader as the ‘structural outline’ in the introduction of John Marincola’s revised Penguin translation. Scattered through the text are references to other scholarship, supported by an extensive bibliography, as well as occasional literary references. Joyce’s puns ‘hairyoddities’ and ‘horodities’ on p. 151 are appositely quoted when Herodotus describes the bizarre Libyans (4.191) such as those with no head, men with dog heads, or more plausibly these days, men who shave the left side of their heads and grow hair on the right. Herodotus is not taken in, but can’t resist reporting what the Libyans told him. Discussion of Herodotus’ first person comments, use of evidence, narrative technique and other topics of scholarly interest are embedded in the commentary. There are useful cross-references that help bind the two halves together, for example the narratological analysis on p. 198 contains a reference to the discussion of narratology in the first section (p. 35).

Unfortunately there are a number of minor slips, mostly typographical errors that should have been eliminated by proof reading. The spelling of names can be erratic: Sylsson for Syloson (p. 45), Scycles for Scyles (p. 43), Dionysus for Dionysius (p. 177), Targetus for Taygetus (p. 147), Cyclon for Cylon (p. 188). Also, confusion of names occasionally occurs. At 4. 109 there is an understandable confusion between the Budini and the Geloni, since Herodotus says the Budini are (incorrectly) called the Geloni. S. has them called Budini. Some slips are more significant. Demaratus for Ariston (p. 182) makes Demaratus his own son. Hermotimus makes a random appearance in a sentence on p. 244 producing the obvious error ‘Hermotimus in pursuit of his brother’s wife (9.108)’. A comparison (p. 247-8) of the punishment of Artayctes by Xanthippus (9.120) and that of Panionius by Hermotimus (8.105-6) seems to be the context from which the name Hermotimus has escaped. On p. 19 Polycrates (at 3. 122) is not ‘named as the first of what can be called the human race’ but the first to intend to rule the waves. The statement ‘Book Two started with Psammetichus setting out to conquer Egypt’ is an obvious slip (p. 131) for Cambyses was the aggressor. On p. 3 the first section of the book begins with a tale from 3.14 in which Cambyses humiliates his prisoner Psammenitus by parading among other prisoners, first his daughter sent with a pitcher to fetch water, then his son led off for execution. The other Egyptians bewailed the fate of their children. Not so Psamennitus, but when he saw an old drinking companion (sympotēs) and comrade (hetairos) reduced to begging, he succumbed to tears. S. has used Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka to illustrate the ‘unfolding’ of this story, but has picked up an unfortunate translation. For the old ‘companion’ is rendered ‘one of his servants’ by Benjamin, and S. The change of fortune is thus lessened. Moreover, the claim that ‘Herodotus offers no explanations’ ignores the subsequent conversation in which Psamennitus informs Cambyses that his own suffering was too great, but the sight of a comrade falling from great wealth to poverty was enough to elicit tears. Such an explanation may be psychologically questionable, but it is thematically absolutely appropriate (cf. 1.5 ‘human happiness never remains in the same place’). The slip Psammetichus for Psammenitus in this context is of minor importance. As How and Wells point out, ‘The Greeks varied as much in their rendering of oriental names as English scholars do in dealing with Indian ones’ (p. 258-9, a comment of its time!). 

The commentary is not without other occasional slips. Rather strange is the failure (p. 185) to mention Eretria’s contribution to the Ionian revolt and its subsequent destruction (5.99-102; 6.99-101). S. has Datis taking an express route ‘stopping first at the island of Naxos, then Delos, before landing on the mainland at Marathon’. Carystus and Eretria are thus ignored until ‘the treatment of the captured Eretrians back in Susa’ (p. 187 on 6.119) puts them back on the map, though still not in the index. There is regular quotation of Greek words transliterated and mostly accurate, though taûta légonta for tà legómena (2.123, 130; 6.137) ‘what is told me’ is unfortunate.

It is regrettable—but necessary—that a book which offers a lively and helpful clew of thread through the inextricabilis error of Herodotus’ enquiries, should need the warning caveat lector.

Alan Beale

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