My review of The Landmark Herodotus ran today at PopMatters.
Truly an amazing read. I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient world, and The Histories is a first hand account of what life, culture, and politics were like in the cultures that flourished around the Mediterranean and beyond. Herodotus is a fair-minded analyst and clearly possessed a curious mind. He delves into his subject with a supreme attention to detail, and his writing is augmented nicely in this edition with a bevy of informative footnotes, maps, and photographs, giving life and context to the lands he describes. The Landmark Herodotus is large, and daunting, but worth the effort.
Thought the main narrative involves the interactions between the Greek city states and the growing Persian empire, much of The Histories is a travelogue, full of far-flung peoples, local color and gossip, and speculation of what lies past the fringes of the known world. When reading primary sources, it’s striking to realize how similar ancient humans were to modern peoples, how our motivations, desires, and beliefs are interconnected.
I’m also struck by how Herodotus is quick to dismiss much of the more legendary or poetic explanations he receives when inquiring about the remote past. On several occasions, he is presented with an outlandish story that relies on myth, and is quickly able to ascertain that the truth is more mundane (and sometimes more embarrassing), and that the myth is merely a means of conveying the reality in a way that inspires rather than disturbs. Modern people might look back at the silly things that they think ancients believed with disdain, but it’s clear that even then they took their myths only half seriously, and usually only when it served their interests. It’s not an unfamiliar arrangement.