New Herodotus translation a worthy successor

Battle of Salamis

It would be a gross generalization to say that the average adult today spends much of his or her free time in a mind-numbed torpor, whether it be induced by watching television, surfing the Internet or yapping away on cell phones.

However, even those who regularly challenge themselves intellectually can’t help but be impressed by Tom Holland, a British popular historian.

Over the past decade Holland has produced acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction about the classical world by adapting Homer, Virgil and Thucydides for the radio.

Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that he has translated Herodotus’ “Histories” at the rate of a paragraph a day; an endeavor termed a labor of love. The effort was released by Penguin Classics last month.

Anyone who has read or simply picked up Herodotus’ work knows this is no mean feat.

Called the Father of History, Herodotus is believed to have lived from 484 B.C. to 425 B.C. He is cited as the first individual to systematically collect material, attempt to test its accuracy and arrange it in a well-constructed and vivid narrative.

The “Histories” – Herodotus’ only known work – investigates the origins of the Greco-Persian wars and includes an array of geographical and ethnographical information.

Far from being the dry, drab litany of events one might expect from the man acclaimed as the world’s first historian, Herodotus is engaging, indeed “as entertaining as anyone who has ever written,” according to Holland.

Herodotus The histories tom holland“His account is full of rattling good yarns: Xerxes ordering his men to whip the waters that have destroyed his ships; Spartan soldiers disdaining the teeming enemy by stating that their arrows would provide them with welcome shelter from the sun; the defiant last stand at Thermopylae,” The Economist writes in its review of Holland’s translation. “At the same time the ‘Histories’ have ‘something valuable to say to enlightened people … who believe that it is both desirable and possible to learn from history.’”

Of course, Herodotus had at least one thing in his favor: he was writing about the pivotal time in world history, the conflict between the powerful Persian Empire and the city states of the Hellenic world, including Athens, Sparta and Thebes.

When your subject matter includes such battles as Thermopylae, Salamis and Marathon, and individuals such as Darius, Xerxes and Leonidas it’s hard not to craft a compelling work.

“Herodotus wrote the ‘Histories’ around 440 B.C., in the middle of the most important and exciting century in the history of ancient Greece,” according to The Economist. He describes victories “that preserved the liberty of the people of Europe and sent what was left of the huge armies of invaders scuttling home across the Hellespont.”

To be fair, Herodotus wasn’t without fault as a historian. His work contains fanciful tales of mythical griffins, flying dragons and gigantic heroes.

“The Histories were littered with snippets that beggar belief,” according to the website Strange Science. “He wrote that pacifist Argippaeans were born bald and stayed bald all their lives and ate only the fruit of one type of tree. He argued that a lioness could have only one cub in her entire life since the cub’s claws would tear up her womb, and he wrote that the hippopotamus had the mane and tail of a horse. He wrote that ibises were useful because they killed ‘winged snakes.’”

Herodotus often distanced himself from such claims by stating that he was not certain he could believe what he had been told.

Before passing judgment on Herodotus’ flaws one should remember that we today have more than two millennia of historical canon to draw upon, where Herodotus was blazing a new trail.

In addition, more than just being a historian, he was also a travel-writer, anthropologist and geographer.

As such, one would like to think that Herodotus himself would consider the talented Tom Holland a worthy successor.

(Top: The Battle of Salamis, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868. Credit: Wikipedia.)

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2 thoughts on “New Herodotus translation a worthy successor

  1. “He wrote that ibises were useful because they killed ‘winged snakes.’”

    Have you ever seen a winged snake?

    Ibises must have worked pretty well, then.

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