Book Review: “Histories” by Herodotus (Landmark)

January 3, 2010

This review pertains to The Landmark Herodotus, published by Pantheon Books. Translation by Andrea L. Purvis; edited by Robert B. Strassler. This edition is monumental and contains prefaces, all nine books, a dated outline, a couple of dozen appendices on relevant topics by eminent academics, a glossary, and extensive bibliographies. The books of the histories themselves are extensively (one might almost say ruthlessly) footnoted. Reference maps pepper the text and are accompanied by photos, diagrams and illustrations. The core content itself is over 700 pages long.

Reader’s Preface

This is my own preface, which I shall add to the many in the book itself. I consider Herodotus a duty; to be broadly educated, he seems an essential read. I chose this edition because of its massive scale of coverage; I am geographically inclined, so the maps alone were worth the hefty price of admission (at the time, I paid some $50 for a new copy; at time of this writing it is available for under $18 on in paperback). It took me about eight months to read the entire text. Toward autumn of 2009 I executed on  plan of “ten pages a day,” read generally fireside in conjunction with the other titles I was (more avidly) consuming.

“I believe that perhaps present-day Egypt was a gulf like [the Red Sea]… Now then, if the Nile’s flow were diverted into this Arabian gulf, what would prevent it from filling up the gulf with silt in 20,000 years? For my part, I suppose it might fill it up in only 10,000 years. Well, then, given all the years that passed before I was born, why could not a gulf much larger than this have been silted up by a river as great and powerful as the Nile? And so I believe what I have been told about the land of Egypt, and I found myself convinced when I saw how the Delta of Egypt juts out from the adjacent lands, the seashells that appear on the mountains, and the salt coating the surfaces…”
—Herodotus, Histories, 2.11 – 2.12


Herodotus, author of the first major surviving written accounts that look something like historical narrative. Oft credited as the Father of History, he is also derided as the Father of Lying: brilliant insight like the quote above is often followed immediately by descriptions of winged serpents and goat-footed giants.

We can watch as Western Civilization of the 5th century BC grapples with the nature of fact. Passages from plausible military accounts fade into mythological metaphor—it is beyond Herodotus’ limits to consider outcomes untouched by the hands of gods and fates. And so, in this world, Athene did give the victory to a favored warrior, or a profaned sacrificial rite led to the downfall of a great city. Omens and portents are considered causal.

One can roughly sort Herodotus’ story arcs into about three ragged categories: travelogue, military history and a sort of synthesis of what he has observed or heard. The most rollicking parts are his notes on the customs of far-flung societies: this accidental sociologist gives living glimpses into the rites of obscure tribes. Both these accounts and his renditions of military campaigns are highly geographic—it is hard to imagine that there ever was an edition not stuffed full of maps. The number of place names and human groups listed off by Herodotus are staggering; sometimes chunks of several pages go by that are just lists of the names of groups of people. One learns to let those flow by a bit; it would be madness (or a lifetime’s devotion) to try to absorb and recall every detail.

Indeed, the edition. It has been well received, critically, and has been lauded as a ambitious undertaking. The New York Times notes that some of the intimidation of Herodotus is relieved (albeit concomitant with the loss of some of the work’s mystique) by its comprehensive explanation and glossing of its subject matter. The footnotes and maps do, indeed, add a wealth of context and information.

The footnotes come at a bit of a cost, however. The footnoting system is precise to the point of confusion: arcane fusions of numbers, letters, and sometimes Greek symbols seem somewhat over-designed for the task. Although there are rarely more than three or four discrete passages per page, sometimes the precision seems like a burden. Additionally, all footnotes are grouped together and given equal precedence. Thus, the footnotes for Athens (the location of which you probably already know, and by Book 2 of Herodotus, you certainly know) and Sparta (ditto) and the Nile are given as much weight as far more interesting asides about linguistics, archaeology, or historical background. Thus time is lost (and reading comprehension suffers) by jumping between text and footnotes and back again. It is not uncommon for a single page to have over a dozen footnotes. Probably this glut (my opinion) is someone else’s treasure trove of data. It depends on how comprehensive you really want to be.

A wonderful touch: each passage is briefly summarized and dated in the margin. This is utterly useful.

Of the subject matter: Entire academic careers are based on making heads or tails of Herodotus’ tales. I can barely feel that I should add even a peep to the existing cacophony. All I can offer is opinion: it is mine that the stories of Egypt, the stories of customs, the stories of the geography of the then-known world far outshine (in terms of page-turning) the stomp and pomp of the military showdowns. Yes, we get splendid tapestries of Marathon and Plataea and Thermopylae and Mycale (and this really builds one’s crossword-clue arsenal, let me tell you!) but, honestly, bleh, I cannot stand military history. This is not the fault of our man from Halicarnassus. It just is. So it leaves me wary of The Landmark Thucydides.

Rating this is difficult—Am I rating the literary skill of a man writing so long ago that his frame of reference is out of my reach? Am I rating the clarity or the apparent accuracy of the accounts? Am I rating the footnoting and mapping structure of the Landmark edition? I don’t know. All I can do is chart my own experience here.

“And neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night keeps them from completing their appointed course as swiftly as possible.”
—Herodotus, Histories, 8.98 (Sound familiar?)

3.5 stars

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