Book Review: Histories by Herodotus

This is one of those classics that I knew I just had to read at some point. Given a fair few of the books I read are historical in nature, it seemed right to go back to the father of history, Herodotus.

Histories is not really one book, but 9. For that reason, it is a mammoth work to get through and I have been reading this now (interspersed with some others) for about 3 months. It is absolutely impossible to summarise, given the depth and breadth of Herodotus’ scope. He covers wars and battles, individuals, nations and geography. As the earliest major work of western history we have preserved, it stands as a remarkable work for one individual to have compiled, especially given that it was written in the 5th century BC.

The overarching narrative that Herodotus gives us in each book is textured and coloured in by anecdotes that give the reader insight into the minds of the key players. In places, he lays out different accounts of the same events as relayed to him by different parties and attempts to draw his own conclusion about which telling is most likely to be truthful. This, I think, sets out the methodological thinking that characterises later historians influenced by Herodotus.

Of course, I have to say that I read an English translation. For the most part, it was highly readable, though the extensive lists of names can be a little wearing and the turns of phrase occasionally look as though they came out of the same school of Greek translation that produced the old King James version of the Bible. The introduction states that the translation was done by one George Rawlinson and was first published in 1858. I am unaware (though I admit I haven’t looked very hard) for any more modern translations.

The one major flaw that this version has is a lack of maps. Throughout the book, cities, nations and rivers are named and characterised, yet their geographical location and proximity to one another is entirely hidden from view. Some great confusion may occur where names no longer match their modern equivalent. For example, in the footnotes, we are told that the area referred to as ‘Libya’ is in fact *south* of Egypt, rather than, as we would think today, to the west of Egypt. This then brings in further questions as to whether the Egypt of Herodotus is in the same situ as that which we know today.

Likewise, given the very central role of Greece in the whole narrative, there are cities referred to as being in Greece which are situated in what we now know as Turkey.

With that aside, I felt the book really fell into 2 parts. The opening half of the book gives the background to the wars described in the second half. Here, there are many anecdotes told over a few paragraphs, and where whole cultures are described in a few short lines. For me, one of the most interesting was a tale of forgiveness, deceit and revenge which ended up with a man being tricked into eating his own son. Such level of horridness is fairly commonplace in the book, so for that reason it is not for the squeamish.

The second half of the book I will admit to finding much more difficult to get through. This may be because I adopted it as my primary reading rather than having it as my ‘book on the side’ that I dipped into occasionally. But the wars and battles for the most part seemed very similar and not having a good grasp of the contemporary geography or politics hindered my ability to visualise what was going on. So I lost a little interest towards the end and it became more of an achievement to have finished all 700+ pages rather than a joy to read.

Nonetheless, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of history itself, as well as anyone wanting to find out about life around the Mediterranean in the 5th and late 6th century BC.

6 responses to “Book Review: Histories by Herodotus

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  2. leopold1904

    Enjoyed that Sipech. Agreed you need the maps! Historians have always argued about how reliable Herodotus was and funnily enough a recent discovery of a memorial almost certainly from Marathon indicates he was right about the numbers who died-

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