Histories of Herodotus

Herodotus is often called the Father of History, but this is a concession Christians would hardly make—depending on perspective, that title belongs either to God or to Moses. God is the father of history in the sense that He ordains it and brings all things to pass, and Moses is the father of history in the sense that he wrote the first ancient manuscript we'd recognize as historical narrative.

In a purely secular sense, however, Herodotus deserves his appellation. His efforts were distinctly methodical: not content to rely purely on memory or hearsay, he composed his Histories using research and verification techniques, ultimately presenting an account of the Persian Wars that remains compelling to this day.

Not everything Herodotus seems to believe is viable. Students of Greek mythology will recognize many names, including Paris and Helen of Trojan War fame, the poet Arion whom Herodotus (following mythic tradition) has escaping pirates on the back of a dolphin, the woman-warrior Amazons, and many more.

Yet he also offers detailed accounts of both Persian and Greek military campaigns, historical figures, geography, and the customs and cultural life of ancient civilizations. What are we to make of such conflicting material? How do we reconcile Herodotus' claims to have verified his stories with his apparent gullibility?

Quite easily: we recognize that he was a product of his time. Scholars in recent years have spent a lot of time and effort trying to defend or attack Herodotus on this basis, but they do so on the false and self-defeating assumptions that, A) it is possible and necessary to extract pure Facts from any narrative, and B) it is possible to do this with absolute objectivity.

We must accept at the outset that not all of the historical parts of Herodotus' narrative are, in fact, absolutely factual. At the same time, we must accept our own finitude, especially in relation to our ability to know what is accurate and what is not. Does this mean we can't know what actually happened? No, but it does mean we can't know exactly what happened.

It also means that Herodotus wrote everything as an ancient Greek, and that he viewed the world as such. So even when he's recording something that appears absolutely historical and not mythical, he's writing as one who accepts the truth of much mythology, the existence of gods, etc.

History is necessarily a messy business. We can be confident accepting the Bible as completely true because by its own testimony every part of it was written under the influence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Any non-inspired human recorder of history, however, is not only at the mercy of his own fallibility, but he's also subject to the fallibility of any of his sources and informants.

So to think that we can separate the facts from the non-facts is supremely arrogant and false. To think we can do so objectively is even worse, as it implies that we can separate ourselves from our own context, and that we can perfectly understand the context of Herodotus, or any other historian.

This isn't to suggest that the Author doesn't exist (as postmodernists say), or that nothing can be known. It's simply to understand our own limitations, as well as the limitations of any author we study. In the end, though archeological research and corroborating sources are helpful, one of the best ways to interpret an author like Herodotus is by using reason and (though this is an often misused term) common sense.

It shouldn't surprise us that Herodotus writes as he does, or includes some of the mythology that he does. As one of the first historians, his narrative style is necessarily dependent on that of poets, mythologists, and other writers of fiction and purely religious material. His Histories are really the first narrative history, reading like an epic or a creation myth as much as a record of past events.

And really, perhaps this is the best way to read the book. It's the story of the creation both of the Persian Empire and the united Hellenistic world, wrought from mutual conflict and need. It's also the story of human frailty, as the beleagured Greeks demonstrate an inability to get along among themselves even in the face of outside stress and attack.

If we understand both the historical and the mythological elements of Herodotus' work, we begin to realize that it is, in fact, what modern scholars like to call a metanarrative, an extended story that interprets and lends meaning to human existence. The Histories, then, are Herodotus' attempt to interpret actual events in the light of accepted beliefs.

Again, he is anticipated in this attempt by Moses, though we may say that Herodotus represents the first major pagan attempt to unite physical and spiritual realities. Was he influenced by Moses? Had he been exposed to the Pentateuch? Since we (ironically) know almost nothing about Herodotus himself we can't know, but his project is similar to that of the great Hebrew law-giver.

Should we read the Histories as history? Yes, though (as with all history) we should read it carefully and with a measure of skepticism. We should also read the Histories as a rare example of Greek worldview unfettered with the expectations of straight myth or fiction: this is how the ancient Greeks saw the world, and how they interpreted it.

This doesn't mean we should only read the Histories to learn about the Greeks, the Persians, or the Hellenistic outlook. Unlike a lot of modern history, Herodotus' narrative is extremely entertaining, and not just because of the fantasy elements. From descriptions of battles like Thermopylae and Salamis, to the madness of Cambyses of Persia, to descriptions of foreign lands like India and Arabia, to fascinating character studies of generals, soldiers, statesmen, and others, Herodotus had a flair for writing that has been rarely surpassed.

Whatever reason you read Herodotus (even if you're just doing it to complete an assignment), it's important to bear in mind that his history is not infallible, but that you aren't infallible, either. The point of history isn't just to impart facts, and certainly not to impart facts wholly objectively: the point of historical records, from the Pentateuch to the Histories to a modern day account, is to interpret the past in accordance with one's worldview and make appropriate commentary in the process.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.


Translation Comparisons

Peter Levi, a professor of poetry at Oxford, shared his opinion of Herodotus translation in a New York Times Article:

To make the father of historians live, you have to write a livelier language than most modern writers, let alone professors, can command. For some authors some languages - or some ages and states of the language - are hopeless vehicles of translation. Modern English, and particularly modern American English, can just about manage ancient tragedy; it can deal more or less with Plato, and in prose or in vigorous and wild adaptation with Homer. But Herodotus wrote in an easy speaking voice, in language that looked loosely organized but was under the control of a great artist. The closest modern equivalents are the recorded interviews of early jazz musicians and John Millington Synge's Anglo-Irish. Neither of those offers much hope to a translator of Herodotus, though I have a sneaking feeling that Hemingway or Raymond Chandler might have brought him off. He certainly calls for a considerable writer.

Choosing a translation can be daunting. How many maps will you need? Are footnotes and endnotes too much? Is simpler better, or would you be better off with the most scholarly edition you can find? Fortunately, we have reviewed five Histories and two simplified kids' versions below. If you still can't decide which one you want, click here to view and exclusive comparison chart featuring the four translations of The Histories.

One of our most popular Histories is the Landmark Herodotus. Used by Veritas Press in their Omnibus program, we believe it's the most comprehensive and student-friendly of all the Histories available. To begin with, the Landmark includes an introduction by Rosalind Thomas, an editor's preface by Robert B. Strassler, a translator's preface by Andrea L. Purvis, and a dated outline of the text. This material alone could give a student a solid grasp on Herodotus' world, but it's just a start. Each book of The Histories contains footnotes and margin notes, as well as maps which are placed right next to the text. This discourages the common practice of reading a history book and resolving to dig through the maps in the back after you finish the assigned reading. The Histories is such an expansive book that you'll really want to cement the geography into your head before you get lost in a plethora of Persian and Greek names. In the back are twenty-one reseach summaries by professors at Duke, Cambridge, and Princeton, to name a few. A glossary, ancient sources, bibliography and figure credits are also included. We can't recommend this version enough.

Oxford World Classic's Histories (translated by Robin Waterfield) contains a long introduction by Waterfield, a bibliography, a timeline, extensive notes in the back of the book, ten maps, and an index of proper names (indicating which names are included in the maps). For students who feel overwhelmed by all the extra material in the Landmark edition, or readers who just want to enjoy Herodotus' stories, this is a great option. In the first edtion of The Well Educated Mind, historian Susan Wise Bauer claims that Waterfield's translation is the best, and believes it is the most enjoyable to read. To be fair, Bauer wrote this before the Landmark editions came out, but it says a lot that she singled this one out.

Aubrey De Selincourt 1954 Histories was revised by John Marincola in 1996 and again in 2003. The Penguin Classics paperback editions we carry contain an introduction by Marincola providing a basic overview of Herodus' life and method. A "Further Reading" section is included, as wells as four maps. The notes for each chapter are included in the back of the book near the index.

The Everyman's Library Histories (translated by George Rawlinson) is the only hardcover edition we carry. It includes an introduction by Rosalind Thomas (not the same introduction she wrote for the Landmark edition) a short chronology, and footnotes at the bottom of each page. No maps are included.

"The English in which Herodotus comes before us should be direct, powerful, and clear but also, I think, a little odd," says David Grene in the introduction to his own translation. More formal than some other translations, Grene's remains truer to the spirit of the original Greek. This edition includes an introduction by David Grene, footnotes at the bottom of the pages, and eight maps, four scattered throughout the text and four at the end.

Children's Versions

We carry two kids' editions: John S. White's Boys' and Girls' Herodotus, and Alfred J. Church's Story of the Persian War. Both are paperbacks. The Boy's and Girls' Herodotus is significantly pared down from the original, but White preserved the original nine-book format and added over forty illustrations. A chronological table of the principle events is included in the back. In Book 1 (titled"Clio") kids will read about the Medes, the origin of Athens and Sparta, and the conquest of Assyria. By the time they have finishedBook 9 ("Calliope") they will have hit all the major points of The Histories: the Battle of Marathon, the Battle of Thermopylae and the rule of Darius and Xerxes.

First published in 1884, nothing seems dumbed down or overly-simplified in this version. Parents should be aware that while this is a children's edition, not all of the violence has been censored: White includes the section recounting the Sythian custom of scalping their dead enemies, among other barbaric practices. This book isn't really for young kids anyway-- it's far more appropriate for middle schoolers or high schoolers who don't have the time or attention to tackle the entire Histories. Ancient History: A Literature approach (written by Rea Berg and published by Beautiful Feet Books) recommends this book for highschoolers.

Story of the Persian War (originally published in 1881) is part of the Yesterday's Classics Series, a collection of high-quality paperback reprints with easy-to-read text. Church included a few illustrations taken from various Greek scuptures and vases. Zoning in on the events of the Persian War, Church forgoes many of the fascinating cultural observations of Herodotus in favor of dedicating more time to military drama. The narrative begins with the revolt and fall of the island of Miletus,and ends with the Battle at Mycale. Although you could use this as a read-aloud for mid to upper elementary grades, it's intelligent enough to be appealing to older high schoolers and adults as well.

A professor of Latin at University College of London, Rev. Alfred J. Church published a number of adaptions including Stories From Ancient Rome, Stories From the Greek Tragedians, and the Iliad for Boys and Girls.Click here to read more about Church and view more of his books we carry.

For a short "autobiographical" sketch of Herodotus, check out Herodotus And The Road To History, by Jeanne Bendick. A contemporary of Old Testament Malachi, people often overlook the fact that Herodotus did not merely write about exciting things, he did exciting things. No, Herodotus was not dependent on Wikipedia or the Library of Congress Archives. Travelling may have been dangerous, but the only way for Herodotus to procure those eyewitness accounts and learn about local legends was to actually go to the culture he was writing about. Full of charming pen-and-ink illustrations by the author, Herodotus And The Road To History is an excellent addition to your child's bookshelf.

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Parent Categories
Teaching Resources
Wikipedia Article
Wikipedia Article
The Battle of Marathon
Wikipedia Article
The Battle of Thermopylae
Xerxes I of Persia
Wikipedia Article
The Battle of Salamis
Classical Writing
Herodotus-themed essay writing book from the Classical Writing curriculum.
Herodotus Encoded Space-Text-Imaging Archive
Not quite released yet, HESTIA uses geo-referencing techniques to map The Histories.
Herodotus' Originality
An 8-part article on Herodotus and his life work.
Study Questions
Questions from the University of Arkansas Classics Department page.
G.C. Macaulay's Translation
George Rawlinson's Translation
Herodotus Takes It Easy
NYTimes review of David Grene's Histories by Peter Levi.
'Omnivorous Curiosity' and Double Vision
Edward Rothstein's NYTimes review of The Landmark Herodotus.
The Landmark Herodotus Review
Critics' reviews on WritersReps.com
11 Items found Print
Boys' and Girls' Herodotus
by John S. White
from American Home-School Publishing
Ancient History Reference for 4th-8th grade
in Ancient Greece (Location: HISW-ANGR)
Boys' and Girls' Herodotus
by John S. White
Facsimile Edition from Kessinger Publishing
Ancient History Reference for 4th-8th grade
in Ancient Greece (Location: HISW-ANGR)
$12.00 (1 in stock)
Travel and Adventure Library for Young Folks
by Gordon King, editor, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff
1930s edition from Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc.
for 5th-8th grade
in Vintage Fiction & Literature (Location: VIN-FIC)
Herodotus and the Road to History
by Jeanne Bendick
from Bethlehem Books
for 4th-6th grade
in Biographies (Location: BIO)
Penguin Classics
by Herodotus (translation by Aubrey De Sélincourt)
from Penguin Classics
Historical Non-Fiction for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$11.05 $6.00 (1 in stock)
Everyman's Library
by Herodotus (translation by George Rawlinson)
from Everyman's Library
Historical Non-Fiction for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
Penguin Classics
by Herodotus (translation by Robin Waterfield)
from Oxford University
Historical Non-Fiction for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
$9.31 $4.80 (1 in stock)
Penguin Classics
by Herodotus (translation by David Grene)
from University of Chicago
Historical Non-Fiction for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
Landmark Herodotus
by Herodotus (translated by Andrea Purvis & edited by Robert Strassler)
from Random House
for 10th-Adult
in Ancient Literature (Location: LIT1-ANC)
Stories of the East from Herodotus
by Alfred J. Church
Ill from Yesterday's Classics
for 5th-8th grade
in Classics Retold (Location: FIC-RET)
Story of the Persian War
by Alfred J. Church
from Yesterday's Classics
for 7th-10th grade
in Ancient Greece (Location: HISW-ANGR)