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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Thesaurus of History, 26 Mar 2010
This review is from: The Histories (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
When students read Herodotus for the first time, they sometimes object that they are not reading real history, only entertaining stories: e.g., the tale of Gyges, a mere bodyguard who, after being forced by King Candaules to peek at his beautiful wife as she is undressing, murders the king, marries his wife and becomes tyrant of Lydia; or wealthy Croesus, King of Lydia, who keeps pestering the Delphic oracle, finally learning that if he attacks Persia, a Great Empire will fall, a riddle that Croesus does not understand until he has been ensconced on his own funeral pyre by Cyrus, King of Persia; or Cleisthenes, Tyrant of Sicyon, who throws a big engagement party for his daughter, Agariste, only to have one of her suitors, Hippocleides, shock the guests by performing gleeful handstands (in his little short skirt) on a table, when he loses out to Megacles of Athens. Such delightful antics cannot possibly constitute history, which ought to be a strict no-nonsense recitation of 'the facts'.

And yet, Herodotus of Halicarnassus both coined the term, 'historia,' and invented the genre. History can therefore be anything that he, the very first historian, pleases. And 'historia,' to Herodotus, meant 'enquiry' or 'investigation.' It is therefore fruitless to lament that Herodotus' account of the Persian Empire and the Greek City-States does not live up to some modern criterion. We are lucky to have this treasure-house of anecdotes. Herodotus, who travelled around the Greek and Persian city states, asked questions and wrote down answers. Thanks to Herodotus, we learn that the Egyptians hunted crocodiles, respected their elders, and ate outdoors [like the Italians]. We also learn why the Spartans--called the Lacedaemonians in this edition--have two kings; we learn about Leonidas and the legendary 300, who made their famous last stand at Thermopylae against Xerxes' forces: "Stranger, tell the people of Lacedaemon/That we who lie here obeyed their commands." These are only a few examples from Herododtus' treasury.

I assigned Robin Waterfield's excellent translation of Herodotus' "Histories" for the first time last year in an undergraduate introduction to Greek History/Civilization class, and my students found it as enjoyable as I did. In addition to an excellent introduction and bibliography, the book contains copious endnotes and appendices as well as maps. The only possible annoyance is in the index, which cites passages only by Herodotus' book and chapter number instead of by pages, a detail that requires some acclimation on the part of students.

I recommend Herodotus' "Histories" for their sheer exuberance. If you accept the adventures of Croesus and the host of other characters on Herodotus' terms, you will have the pleasure of following a master storyteller willingly, as he conducts you on a wondrous journey into an antique land.
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