Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Book Review: History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

In my ongoing fight against ignorance, I once again return to ancient history. Having battled my way through Herodotus’ Histories last year, Thucydides seemed like the natural follow-on as the period he writes about takes place shortly after the period at which Herodotus stops. There is a distinct change in tone however, between the two, with Thucydides being far more focused on his task in hand, whereas Herodotus wrote about pretty much anything that took his fancy. The translation I read was that of Rex Warner. As far as making the ancient Greek intelligible in modern English, he did a splendid job. Whether it is the most faithful translation, I cannot tell. This was the one and only translation I picked up.

One cannot begin a review without commenting on its sheer length. It took me several months to work through the 8 books. It would have taken even longer had it not been for a very accessible translation and the help of the introduction. The title of the book really gives it away. It’s a detailed account of a war that took place some 4 centuries before the birth of Jesus, predominantly between the forces of Athens and those of the Peloponnese, though the war also brought in warring parties from other parts of the Mediterranean.

I could not hope to give a synopsis of this 600+ page tome, except to say that it’s pretty much wall-to-wall war. Thucydides gives detailed accounts of the military movements of each side as well as the discussions that took place between the various warring faction when negotiating terms and treaties.  In these discussions, there is an important point to be made regarding the accuracy of what was recorded. I wrote about this when I started the books, some time ago. So while there may be some lingering questions over the precision of some of the details, the fact remains that Thucydides is the most reliable witness and author about the events described whose work survives today.

In trying to remain as factual as possible, Thucydides doesn’t give his reader any great sense of scale. One must discern for oneself what was important and what was recorded merely for the purposes of record-keeping. Indeed, Thucydides is poignantly silent on the matter of why he wrote the history. There is no grand narrative, no lessons to be had. Or rather, Thucydides doesn’t give them to us. There is very little by way of analysis, which is in stark contrast to more modern exponents of history and even current affairs.

This is not a book to be picked up lightly and it will draw you in. There are times when it gets quite turgid, you must be warned. But if you liked Herodotus (particularly the second half) then this should appeal to you. It won’t be for everyone; indeed, talking to some people who had attempted to read it, about half gave up and the other half thought I was mad.

A book more to be admired than enjoyed, I think.

Book Review: The Iliad by Homer

Many years ago, I picked up a copy of The Odyssey and loved it. It was a great story, brilliantly told and I was riveted by it. So, having taken a short break from reading ancient Greek texts (other than the New Testament) after the mammoth effort that was needed to complete Herodotus’ Histories I returned to Homer to read his other famous work.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced I picked the best translation. Whereas the version of the Odyssey I read was written in prose form, in plain English, the translation I picked up for the Iliad was not. The translation was done over an 11 year period from 1598 to 1611 and it reads just as one might imagine if you have read much Shakespeare or The King James Bible. Only it’s not quite as clear and understandable as either of those great bodies of work.

The main trouble is that the translator (George Chapman) has attempted to keep it as an “epic poem” and so has forced the whole text to be made into rhyming couplets. In order to make each pair of lines rhyme in English, he has had to tear up the text and rearrange the sentences just to create the effect. What this does is to completely screw up the word order and to introduce all manner of odd abbreviations and turns of phrase. So in aiming to make it poetic, the whole structure has been massacred. For this reason, I would not recommend this translation to anyone who isn’t au fait with Chaucer or as qualms about reading Beowulf in its original form.

In order to try and make some sense of this, I found I had to make a conscious effort to ignore the artificial rhythm and rhyme and to try to read whole sentences. Once I managed to do this (which probably wasn’t until book 3) The Iliad became a bit more intelligible. What is then revealed is an epic story of warfare and battles. The highly anthropomorphised gods of Greek mythology fight alongside their semi-human offspring and having petty squabbles with one another. The panoply of plentiful persons which populates the prose puzzled me rather, as it was hard to keep track of them, particularly because some of them, once introduced, met a rather grizzly death.

That said, there are many moments of great poetic expression which do break through. The difficulty of the translation does make it impossible for me to give a synopsis of the plot, so this review shall be somewhat short. I may well post another review when I find the time to read a more intelligible translation.

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.