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Book review: “Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction” by Jennifer T. Roberts

In a real way, Jennifer T. Roberts’ Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction is a 112-page blurb for the great Greek historian’s Histories.

Written around 430 BC, The Histories — which, in Greek, means Enquiries — tells the story of the Greek-Persian Wars a few decades earlier by going back centuries to get at the root causes of the conflict, taking many digressions to explain for his Greek audience the cultures and ways of life of a great variety of peoples, and detailing every step of the way who his sources are and the extent to which he trusts or distrusts  their testimony.

In the process, Herodotus created the field of history and won the title of the Father of History.

His work, however, is a long haul for a modern audience, some 722 pages in the  Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Andrea L. Purvis, edited by Robert B. Strassler and published in 2009 by Anchor Books.

(Roberts herself is a co-editor of another seemingly shorter translation: the Norton Critical Edition of The Histories, translated by Walter Blanco who is the other co-editor. This text runs to 420 pages, but don’t think it’s a truncated version.  The Norton editions of great works always seem shorter than others, but that’s because they’re printed with a lot more text per page than is usual in publishing.)

Not only is Herodotus a long book for modern readers, it’s also told in a somewhat meandering style and contains a lot of material that might or might not be quite accurate.  Fans of modern historians such as Robert Caro or David McCullough will find The Histories harder to get into.

Hence, the need for a booklet-long blurb.

Father of…

As a blurb, Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction functions well inasmuch as it’s a breezy, peppy overview of the longer book, filled with enticements to pick up The Histories.

For instance, Roberts describes The Histories as “a profoundly democratic text” that features multi-subjectivity (i.e., reports from several sources about the same event) and is an “open invitation to readers to make up their own minds and stand always in the position of evaluators.”

Thucydides, the other major Greek historian who came a couple decades later, didn’t like Herodotus’s presentation of multiple points of view and roundly excoriated him.  Indeed, that sharp criticism has echoed down the centuries to such an extent that Herodotus has also been given a second title: Father of Lies.

Indeed, much of Roberts’s short book is aimed at countering such libel by explaining what Herodotus was trying to do and why he was trying to do it.  Indeed, she notes that, in contrast to previous important Greek works, Herodotus wrote in prose rather than poetry — i.e., wrote in “the language of people, a medium in which they could challenge other people and even the gods themselves.”

“Its openness to competing views”

This democratic aspect of The Histories, she suggests, may account for the recent rise in the book’s popularity:

Once considered frivolous when placed side by side with the didactic and relentlessly serious Thucydides, The Histories has now come to be appreciated for its openness to competing views, its cultural relativity, its interest in social history, and its acknowledgement of the existence of two sexes.

In fact, women play a multiplicity of important roles in The Histories, quite an innovation for that era (and, in truth, for many eras to come).

And Herodotus, Roberts reports, can be a lot of fun.  Consider Egyptology professor Salima Ikram who rolled her eyes when asked about putting Thucydides above Herodotus on the list of major historians, and then cried out:

“Okay, so Thucydides is a finer historian, but he’s so dull, so tedious, oh my God, I’m going to shoot myself!”

“Contagious thirst for knowledge”

Much of what Roberts is doing in her Very Short Introduction is aimed at helping the reader see Herodotus as not an old fuddy-duddy but as a smart, hip, interesting guy, very much in the modern mold:

Our roving reporter, a thinker and traveller of insatiable curiosity, catches us up in his narrative by the intensity of his contagious thirst of knowledge.

Very blurb-like.

Whether about the true story of the abduction of Helen (she was never, Herodotus says, in Troy, but remained in Egypt throughout the war), the way the Scythians buried their kings (with many retainers), how the Trausians greet the birth of a baby (mourning the sufferings it will have to endure), how the Greeks and Persians came to blows (a very long story indeed), Herodotus wants to know.

There is an intensity to Roberts’s descriptions of Herodotus and his Histories.  Part of that, of course, is that she’s working with a very limited amount of space.

Even more, though, she communicates how much she enjoys, admires and respects the Father of History.

“Master storyteller”

Indeed, Roberts argues that The Histories isn’t something we have to read, but something that is fun to read.

Herodotus intrigues in part because he was a master storyteller.  His long narrative, what the Greeks would have called a logos, a tale, consists of many shorter logoi stitched together, some just a few hundred words, some thousands, not always in strictly chronological order, ebbing and flowing and circling back around like a river whose course perpetually mystifies and delights.

The work, however, makes many demands on its readers, she notes.

The logoi represent very different genres, ranging from forays into the political history of Athens and Sparta to whimsical anecdotes clearly grounded in folk motifs or fairy tales.  Some have profound significance in the context of Herodotus’s project; others do not.

The Histories is, in fact, long and complex, and some modern historians — fans of Thucydides — don’t trust it. Herodotus even finds room for the Greek gods and/or Fate, and that’s an unsettling idea for some scholars.

One danger

In her short, punchy, often breezy chapters, Roberts deals with a variety of key topics: the context in which Herodotus wrote, his work as an ethnographer studying various cultures, his dealing with the supernatural aspects of the story, his peopling his tale with women, his storytelling and his validity as an historian.

She also gives summary descriptions of many of the key logoi in The Histories, such as the tale of how Candaules, the king of Lydia, was so enamored of his wife’s beauty that he made his bodyguard Gyges view her naked body, a vain and rash act that led Gyges to murder the king and take over at the queen’s behest.

And how the Persian ruler Xerxes built two pontoon bridges across the width of the Hellespont in order to attack Greece, only to see both destroyed by a storm — and how he had the strait itself whipped with three hundred lashes while soldiers shouted imprecations at the water.

These help liven up her book, but they also pose one danger.

My fear is that some potential readers (read: college students) will view Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction as a handy well-written kind of CliffNotes study guide.  In my experience, CliffNotes and similar offerings are often used as a substitute for actually reading the subject text.

The fear makes me want to write a blurb for Roberts’s book:

Roberts makes the winning case that The Histories by Herodotus is a delightfully meaty reading experience — and a lot of fun.

Patrick T. Reardon


For a review of Herodotus (Historians on Historians) by John Gould, click here:

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