When Herodotus was giving a public reading to an Athenian audience from his work-in-progress, one late source relates, among those present, brought along by his father Olorus, was the adolescent Thucydides. Herodotus’ performance allegedly reduced the boy to tears, and the speaker, duly flattered, declared: “Olorus, your son has a natural love of learning.” This improving, but almost certainly fictional, anecdote invites a cynical interpretation. Its author, I suspect—knowing what lay ahead for Thucydides, and his influence on posterity—saw those tears as precipitated by furious competitiveness rather than admiration. The young paragon was all set, first to learn everything he could, without acknowledgment, from his famous predecessor, and then to work out a methodology that would bury him without trace as a gullible and frivolous popularizer.

Confronted by a broadminded, witty, and tolerant cosmopolitan, for whom the infinite varieties of human custom offered a source of inexhaustible fascination, Thucydides presented himself as a humorless nationalist, an intellectual given to political aphorisms and abstract generalizations. Herodotus in his Histories treated the international conflict of the Persian Wars between 490 and 479 BCE as a turning point in Greek history, in fact devoting most of his vast text to reconstructing the war itself and the events leading up to it, all prefaced by lengthy ethnographic descriptions of the numerous, and far-flung, provinces of the Persian empire that it involved. About the Scythians, for example, he said that they

take the seeds of…cannabis, creep [into a tent-like structure], and throw the seeds onto the blazing-hot stones within. When the seeds hit the stones, they produce smoke and give off a vapor such as no steam bath in Hellas could surpass. The Scythians howl, awed and elated by the vapor. This takes the place of a bath for them, since they do not use any water at all to wash their bodies.

Archaeology confirms this account in detail.

Thus for Thucydides, Herodotus’ reconstruction of the Persian Wars posed a serious challenge: it meant demonstrating that the falling out between two local city-states, Athens and Sparta, must be shown to eclipse both the great Greco-Persian conflict and, for good measure, the Trojan War that had preceded it.

The cleverest intellectual move Thucydides made was the severe limiting of what he deemed permissible as elements of historiography, on the grounds that everything else outside this canon was not only irrelevant but unserious. Out went personal anecdotes, most foreign ethnography, and domestic or private motivation: out, above all, went anything to do with women. Religion was women’s business, and mostly nonsense anyway, so that could be discarded too. The essence of history was war and politics, as conducted by men in authority. His exclusive privileging of the male political association, in its most public form, became accepted, and historians (being political males themselves) were not inclined to argue. His revisionism not only won out at the time, but established the basic principles of historiography for over two millennia.

During the past half-century, however, Thucydides’ almost superhuman reputation has come under severe critical scrutiny, while Herodotus’ stock has correspondingly risen—a fact to which Robert Strassler’s new Landmark volume of translation and commentary bears substantial witness. The change does little more than belatedly reflect a fundamental revolution in Western cultural values that has taken place during the last two hundred years. Greece, in particular the Athenian democratic ideal, only came to be privileged over Rome1 after the Greek, French, and American revolutions gave imperialism a decidedly shopworn look. Thucydides’ main virtue for the seventeenth-century monarchist Thomas Hobbes had been that “he made me realize how silly is democracy.” (This is hardly surprising. For true democracy Thucydides had no more time than did that aristocratic intellectual Plato; he welcomed the authoritarianism implicit in Pericles’ de facto rule as first citizen, and his favorite acknowledged form of government was in fact a limited oligarchy.) The swing toward idealistic republicanism was further developed in the English-speaking world2 by the banker George Grote’s unprecedentedly liberal History of Greece, published in twelve volumes between 1846 and 1856, which praised not only democracy but the Sophists as the true heralds of freedom.

This was the most radical change in Western assumptions about the ancient world since the Renaissance, and it prepared the ground for many other changes. Alexander the Great, for example, hitherto looked up to as the imperialist conqueror par excellence, now had to have his career of conquest explained and justified as a crusade designed to bring Hellenic culture to the benighted East (Victorian missionary work in Africa and Polynesia helped to support this view of him). The century-long struggle by feminists from the suffragette movement onward meant that eventually their automatic exclusion from the Thucydidean historiographical canon would be seriously questioned. Later still, first post-colonialism and then globalization meant a vast change—not always appreciated for what it was, or even, sometimes, noticed—in assumptions made about both other nations and one’s own when studying the historical evolution of ancient society.


That current trends in historiography echo, to a quite remarkable extent, the methods and assumptions of Herodotus is undeniable. The widespread use of social and ethnographic anthropology as an investigative tool is only the most obvious instance. Herodotus’ observations about different customs and cultures—which in fact take up the greater part of the first half of the Histories, as he surveyed the various regions of the Persian empire—make him a groundbreaking anthropologist. Personal motivation (as opposed to abstract trends) and the influence of women in public affairs are very much back in the picture. The new understanding of oral transmission provides a satisfying answer to those who dismissed Herodotean anecdotes as mere crowd-pleasing digressions, and sheds fresh light on his careful evidential distinction between seeing (opsis) and hearsay (akoê). Many of the Persians, despite belonging to the Barbarian Other, come off with honor and dignity in his pages, even during the final narrative of Xerxes’ invasion. Such insatiable and open-minded curiosity about the unfamiliar, including one’s (undemonized) enemies, got him labeled philobarbaros by Plutarch, but today counts strongly in his favor.3

Against these inroads Thucydideans have maintained a vigorous (and often contemptuous) defense. The positivist historians of the nineteenth century stressed Thucydides’ seriousness, his scientific objectivity, his advanced handling of evidence. (That he was exiled for military incompetence, did a hatchet job on the man responsible, and praised as virtually unbeatable the Spartan general to whom he had lost the key city of Amphipolis bothered them not at all.) Generals and statesmen loved him: the world he drew was theirs, an exclusive power-brokers’ club. It is no accident that even today Thucydides turns up as a guiding spirit in military academies, neocon think tanks, and the writings of men like Henry Kissinger; whereas Herodotus has been the choice of imaginative novelists (Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and the film based on it, boosted the sale of the Histories to a wholly unforeseen degree) and—as food for a starved soul—of an equally imaginative foreign correspondent from Iron Curtain Poland, Ryszard Kapuscinski.


Though he often, and innovatively, writes in the first person when voicing opinions, we know frustratingly little about Herodotus himself, and much of what we do know has to be deduced from his own work. His birth was dated by one ancient source to 484/3, and this—though probably arrived at by mere guesswork—seems about right. He was a native of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), on the Turkish coast south of Miletus, in what then was Caria. His parents were prominent citizens, but their names—Lyxes and Dryo (or Rhoia)—suggest Carian, rather than Ionian, ancestry, as does that of his uncle (or possibly cousin) Panyassis, a soothsayer and epic poet. Halicarnassus, like its most famous son, was in every sense cosmopolitan: a largely Greek city, part of the Persian Achaemenid empire, and ruled on Persia’s behalf by a Carian dynast named Lygdamis, grandson of the warrior queen Artemisia who accompanied Xerxes during his great invasion, and of whom Herodotus gives us an unforgettable portrait.

Brought up in this busy trading port, with access to the age-old caravan routes that ran eastward from Sardis to the Persian capital of Susa, Herodotus, not surprisingly, displays a sharp interest throughout the Histories in the practical details of commerce. In this he differs sharply from upper-class Athenians, who regarded business and economics as socially beneath them, something best left to money-grubbing resident aliens. On his own account he traveled widely—in Greece, Egypt, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, to Scythia and the Black Sea region—and may have paid his way as a merchant.

But he was also clearly imbued with the spirit of freedom (eleutheria) so prominent as a leitmotif throughout his work, and seen by him as the answer to tyranny. He and Panyassis both fought against Lygdamis’ rule: Panyassis was killed, Herodotus exiled (perhaps more than once). He went to Samos, then Athens, and in about 440 to the new international colony of Thurii in south Italy. In fact, like Thucydides, like Polybius, he spent much of his life in exile—to the great benefit of his magnum opus. As David Asheri rightly stresses in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV, “Life in exile broadens horizons, limits parochialism, furthers skepticism and impartiality.” References in Herodotus’ work to early incidents in the Peloponnesian War, principally between Athens and Sparta, which broke out in 431, suggest that he was alive perhaps until 425. Thurii showed his tomb in the agora, but both Athens and Pella in Macedonia also claimed to have his body.

Other facts are scarce. The Histories was in all likelihood his only book, and he made a good living giving public readings from it (in lengthy sessions, it would seem: “the shadow of Herodotus” became a popular phrase for lecturers who overran their time). His final departure from Halicarnassus, according to one account, was caused (after Lygdamis’ removal) by his unpopularity among his fellow citizens. After his death, however, his birthplace took great pride in him: one recently discovered inscription there lauds him, accurately, as “the prose Homer.” In Athens he is said to have been a good friend of Sophocles, and this is plausible. A surviving portrait-bust shows him with a forked beard, and there is no reason for the sculptor to have invented such a detail.


We know nothing about his private life, even whether he was married: his marked literary interest in women and sexual oddities—such as Nasomonean brides having intercourse with the wedding guests—gives away nothing on that score. In ways his great work is as enigmatic as its author. Its first four books deal with the growth and expansion of Achaemenid Persia, founded by Cyrus the Great in the mid-sixth century BCE, and contain ethnographic accounts—some, in particular that on Egypt, extremely long and detailed—of the numerous peoples either absorbed piecemeal or, like the Egyptians, reluctantly dragooned, into the Persian empire, as well as those others brought (like Athens and Sparta) into uneasy contact with it. They also contain strategically placed digressions on such things as Solonian wisdom, the genesis of Athenian democracy, and the dynastic feuding between early Spartan kings.

The last four books offer a well-planned narrative of Xerxes’ great invasion and ultimate defeat. Book 5, linking the two groups, provides a cobbled transition between broad survey and military chronicle. The enigma lies in the extraordinary fact that, to the best of our knowledge, nothing quite like the Histories had ever been attempted before. It is significant that the division into nine books (each named after a Muse) was not the work of Herodotus himself, but a desperate attempt by Hellenistic scholars to bring some visible external order to a magnum opus about twice the length of Homer’s Iliad.

We know, more or less, what models Herodotus had to help him. His greatest debt was undoubtedly to Homer, who showed him how to manage characterization, speeches, the manipulation of time sequences, and vivid description, and also gave him his first great theme, that of recording great deeds for posterity. Early geographers such as Hecataeus (circa 550–circa 475) had already begun to experiment with ethnography. Herodotus was also familiar with the work of the Milesian natural philosophers, who made him inquisitive about aitiai, causes, responsibilities: not only what, for instance, produced the Nile flood, but also, crucially, and his second great theme, why and how Greeks and Persians came to fight each other. Hippocratic physicians alerted him to the social effects of climate and environmentalism: tough lands breed tough men, a lesson which (delivered by Cyrus the Great) is the last thought Herodotus leaves us with. A vigorous oral tradition, maintained by Near Eastern as well as Greek logopoioi (storymakers), was something he had grown up with, and accounts for the polished elegance of his countless illustrative anecdotes and travelers’ tales.

Yet no one before Herodotus had ever taken all these scattered elements and combined them into a near-seamless and subtly structured whole, let alone on so vast a scale. The nearest parallel is, again, Homer, who likewise would seem to have made the jump from a mass of short epic lays to those large yet unified works the Iliad and the Odyssey. The sudden extraordinary expansion of structured size is also manifested in that group of giant Late Geometric funerary urns from roughly the same period as Homer, that suddenly emerge—vast, organic, patterned, apparently ex nihilo—after centuries of more modest-sized run-of-the-mill pots.4 Herodotus apparently achieved a similar structural leap into the void. But how?

As that great ancient historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano assured me (and many other people: it was one of his favorite obiter dicta) half a century ago, the secrets of Herodotus’ workshop are not all out yet. The biggest one of all, his total, and seemingly instantaneous, mastery of structural form on an unprecedentedly large scale, probably never will be. Scholars cannot even agree on the Herodotean chicken-and-egg question: Did he write the text from start to finish as we have it (that is, fitting the ethnographies into an overall plan ab initio), or draft the invasion narrative first and then see how his earlier, and presumably experimental, writings could be reworked as part of a greater whole? Some odd, and on the face of it unnecessary, repetitions in the later narrative suggest the second explanation (further developed by Asheri), yet could, in the last resort, be no more than symptoms of Herodotus’ fundamentally conversational style: no other ancient author is so clearly talking to an audience rather than writing for readers.


The contrasting yet inseparable evolution of Herodotean and Thucydidean historiography,5 as sketched above, has had some curious results. The long-persistent Anglo-American academic bias in favor of Thucydides has in recent years given us two major commentaries, those of Arnold W. Gomme and Simon Hornblower (the latter still in progress). Herodotus, on the other hand—so strong was Thucydides’ dominant influence—has had, for almost a century, to make do with the never satisfactory and now badly antiquated volumes of W.W. How and Joseph Wells.6 Thus the appearance, at long last, of a new Herodotean commentary that in weight, thoroughness, and professional expertise yields nothing to its Thucydidean rivals is an event to be warmly welcomed as something long overdue and a major advance in Herodotean studies.

At the same time its genesis is revealing. The new Commentary in fact started life not, as would have been desirable, as the work of a historian with a single unifying vision, but as the four first volumes of a multi-authored Italian series published by Mondadori between 1988 and 1993, and thus familiar to scholars for over a decade. Of this collective project Book VII—including the famous defense of the pass at Thermopylae by King Leonidas of Sparta and his three hundred picked warriors (an episode recently popularized, and travestied, by the movie 300)—has yet to appear, while some of its later volumes were, to put it politely, of less than stellar quality. Uneven scholarship and no overall vision: not, on the face of it, an encouraging prospect. And was there really no Anglophone classicist able and willing to do for Herodotus what had already been done so well for Thucydides by Gomme and Hornblower? Seemingly not.

There were, however, powerful mitigating circumstances. Book II, the Egyptian digression, went to Alan Lloyd, an Egyptologist as well as a classicist, who had already produced a masterly separate edition of it.7 Above all, Books I and III were in the hands of David Asheri, a first-class Israeli Herodotean, who as overall editor of the project also contributed a lengthy, and brilliant, introductory essay on Herodotus and his work. The original Italian version of this essay—heavily thumbed and annotated in my copy—has now been carefully updated and elegantly translated. For the general reader it, and the excellent introductions to all four individual books, remain the most valuable and accessible matter in an advanced commentary directed otherwise, more or less exclusively, to professional ancient historians.

And there is one most welcome surprise, briefly mentioned by Oswyn Murray in his editorial memoir of Asheri. Before his death Asheri had, it seems, completed commentaries on Books VIII and IX, and these—replacing two of the least satisfactory contributions to the Italian series—will appear in the concluding volume of this two-volume commentary. Thus Asheri will be, in effect, directly responsible for almost half of the English-language version, as well as overseeing the whole. As a unifying factor this is excellent news.

Scrupulous revision by contributors, a team of bilingual translators, watchful editing throughout, and plain but elegant production make this solid volume a pleasure to handle as well as a cornucopia of useful and up-to-date interpretative scholarship. Topics well explored include (to take a random selection) the details of King Croesus of Lydia’s sumptuous offerings at Delphi—including a statue of a lion made of refined gold, and weighing nearly six hundred pounds); the myth of archaic Sparta’s philistine isolationism; the reigns of both Medes and Persians; Herodotus’ apparent antipathy to the Ionians, and his odd blend of hard factual observation and wild fantasy in describing Egypt. Also perceptively examined are Herodotus’ didactic reflections on truth and falsehood (including his comments on an alleged Persian debate on forms of government) in Book III; and the exploration of the previously unknown Scythian art and culture that dominates Book IV (though lacking, alas, the gorgeous color plates of Scythian gold artwork from the St. Petersburg Hermitage that was such a striking feature of the original Italian volume).

Only two things give one pause. The first is the truly horrendous price, which will largely restrict this commentary, despite its great importance, to major university libraries. The second is the editorial decision “that we should not interfere in any way with the views of the original authors, or seek to add anything to their commentaries.” This means that the cut-off date for Asheri is 2000, the year of his death: to look no further, his forthcoming work in the second volume of the Commentary will not, therefore, benefit from the admirable and innovative edition of Book IX published a couple of years later by Michael Flower and John Marincola.8 Here is a policy that clearly needs rethinking.

In any case, the new material, from many countries and disciplines, that—combined with the ongoing historiographical reassessment of Herodotus—gives this long-awaited commentary its peculiar value is not going to reach most people directly, but by the usual process of filtering and reduction, in the first instance via university teaching. Courses in classical civilization, popular histories (often with inflated titles) written by experts but designed for the general reader,9 TV programs, encyclopedia entries, Web sites, movies: all speed (and dilute, and distort, and oversimplify) the dissemination of original research. Sometimes this process can be shortened and safeguarded by a specialist assuming both roles: Alan Lloyd, the classicist-cum-Egyptologist responsible for Book II of Herodotus in the Commentary, was also tapped to write the relevant appendix—equally cutting-edge, but far clearer, and far punchier in its judgments—in Robert B. Strassler’s Landmark Herodotus, which presents a new translation by Andrea Purvis, plus running notes, topical appendices, and a plethora of maps.

In general, however, knowledge thus spread only catches on slowly. It is still going to take a lot of work to dislodge the public notion that the Father of History was, if not quite the Father of Lies, at any rate a simple-minded traditional storyteller, imaginative but credulous, who needed the stern corrections of Thucydides to put him straight.


Translations of Herodotus, paradoxically, are as plentiful as commentaries are scarce. Counting the new version made by Purvis for the Landmark series, there are no less than eight English-language competitors currently in print, three Victorian (ranging in date from 1847 to 1889), and four made in the last half-century, with one, the Loeb bilingual,10 as a kind of transitional hybrid between them. As Strassler sees clearly, an accurate and responsible translation is the general reader’s prime requirement. Yet current fashions, and the wish to neither puzzle nor offend the reader, will always leave their mark. The Victorian versions of Herodotus, besides converting Greek deities into their nearest Roman equivalent—one Renaissance habit that died hard—omitted or bowdlerized any passage (and Herodotus has quite a few of these) that could conceivably be regarded as indelicate.

Their modern successors, while uninhibited about sexual matters, have become racially squeamish (“barbarians” tend to appear as “foreigners,” for which there’s a perfectly good Greek word had Herodotus wished to use it). Worse, their concern for readers accustomed to short Dick-and-Jane sentences and political cliché has often led them to chop up Herodotus’ long, marvelously organized paratactic clauses, scramble his sentences, omit his oral-style repetitions altogether, pepper his text with unmarked explanatory glosses, and turn his concrete phraseology into a series of bland bureaucratic abstractions. The result at times has been paraphrase rather than translation.

Andrea Purvis was well aware of these hazards while making her new version (“I have tried to remain faithful to the text in sense, tone, and style while striving for clarity,” she writes), and the result comes appreciably closer to Herodotus than do the translations of her most recent rivals. It might have come closer still had it not been for Robert Strassler’s editorial concern that the text should be “comprehensible to the modern reader,” even if that meant losing some fidelity (and, I suspect, Herodotean style). Purvis’s prose is flat and unadventurous, at times (when grappling with Herodotus’ more idiosyncratic usages) a little awkward; but for the narrative of the Persian invasion of Greece in particular her version comes off at least as well as anything on the market.

The important question raised, but not fully answered, by The Landmark Herodotus is, of course, just what aids in understanding the Histories are most important for that not-quite-mythic figure, the intelligent—but Greekless and largely ahistorical—general reader.11 The first essential requirement, something handy, portable, and reasonably cheap, this Landmark volume disregards on principle. Strassler complains vigorously about the lack, in rival translations, of full background information, adequate maps, informative appendices, complete indexes, and accurate chronologies. Apart from the chronologies (the months, weeks, even days of Xerxes’ invasion campaign in 480 are still fiercely debated by scholars: Strassler seems to think, by and large, that getting the right year is enough), to make good the other deficiencies—sometimes, as in the case of the maps, with overkill seemingly aimed at the geographically illiterate—has resulted in a weighty volume of nearly a thousand large pages.

Paradoxically, these pages have two-inch-wide outer margins, empty except for a brief précis of each numbered paragraph of Herodotus’ text as it comes: ideal for a student aiming to skim the contents without actually reading the text, but otherwise merely taking up space better allocated to the all-too-brief running notes crammed in at the bottom of each page. An extraordinarily high percentage of even this limited space is devoted to map references. The maps, no less than 127 of them, and to a great degree repetitive, are “designed to support every episode of the narrative.” This they do, but only in the oddly limited sense of telling you roughly where each episode took place. None of them provide battle plans, or even large-scale surveys, for the major engagements (Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, or Mycale), though Marathon and Salamis do at least get (unannotated) aerial photographs. Nor, even more surprisingly, are these battles, the core and center of the Greco-Persian Wars, directly analyzed in any of the twenty-one appendices (though we get general pieces on hoplite and trireme warfare, the Persian army, Xerxes’ logistics, and the Ionian Revolt). To do so would demand a discussion of non-Herodotean sources (most importantly Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus), and we aren’t given that either.

These are puzzling omissions. From years of reading the text with students, I know, all too well, that among the biggest problems confronting a first-time explorer of Herodotus is the difficulty of getting a clear picture of the strategy and tactics involved in each engagement, and the same is almost certainly true, a fortiori, for the general reader. Here Michael A. Flower and John Marincola, in their text, noted in footnote 6, score heavily: they know exactly what the beginner wants, and needs, to know, from battlefield topography to Herodotus’ life (a topic barely touched on by Rosalind Thomas in her otherwise illuminating Landmark introduction). Their informative little edition also shows up a certain high-level indifference in David Asheri’s Commentary to explication of basic matters. Rather too often for comfort, when reading the latter, I found myself recalling A.E. Housman’s acerbic put-down of one unfortunate professor: that one turned to his commentary for many things, but not for help in trouble.

The neophyte reader will certainly get a very great deal, even allowing for its gaps, from The Landmark Herodotus: an up-to-date translation, a superb analytic index, several background essays by experts (on Egypt, Sparta, Scythia, and the Black Sea especially) that are the last word on current scholarship, intelligent illustrations geared to the text, running lessons in Mediterranean geography, occasional useful notes, and a handy glossary. But it is a volume to consult, in study or library, rather than carry around; the latter purpose is still best served—faute de mieux, and despite its highly un-Herodotean translation—by John Marincola’s new 2003 annotated edition of the translation published by Aubrey de Sélincourt in 1954.12 So there remains a help-in-trouble gap to be filled, for students and common readers alike—and, of course, Herodotus’ workshop still has secrets in plenty waiting to be solved. His rehabilitation has only deepened the enigma.

This Issue

May 15, 2008