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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magical ride around the ancient Mediterranean world, 13 Nov. 2010
This review is from: The Histories (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The thrilling story of the battle for control of Europe between Persia and Greece coupled to a beautifully and simply written travelogue loaded with astonishing anecdotes and reports. Herodotus brings history alive.

If you have seen the 1962 film The 300 Spartans or the 2007 movie 300 (or read the graphic book on which it is based) then you will know the story of how a small group of 300 Spartan soldiers held back the largest army the world has ever seen, led by the Persian king Xerxes at Thermopylae. That battle and the wider war between the independent Greek states and Persia is at the core of this book and it's an incredible piece of history. The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of Persia which rules the whole of Asia and Xerxes assembles an army said to be four million strong, which he crosses into Europe by the remarkable feat of building two bridges across the Bosporus. Herodotus gives a superb account of the campaign, not just the battles and individual acts of folly and bravery, but reports great speeches and discussion held in the general's camps and relates the politics, treachery, double-dealing and loyalty between the various factions on both sides. It's not a spoiler to say that the tiny Greek army wins and in a world dominated by big bullying organizations it's a great reminder that determination can win out despite the odds.

But there is more to Herodotus than the war between Asia and Europe. Herodotus traveled extensively around the Mediterranean and both saw much and collected stories from others about how the ancient world was organized. Before he comes to the military campaign proper he spends much of the book discoursing on everything he has seen or heard, some of this is fantastic, some delightful, parts gruesome and a great deal very funny.

This is a surprisingly easy book to read. There are occasionally parts where lists of strange names are given but for the most part this is a modern and entertaining script. Partly I suspect that straightforwardness is a characteristic of the ancient Greek language, and partly this was written to be performed orally and it appears to have been conceived of in chunks that would hold the attention of an audience.

If you know absolutely nothing about the ancient world then this book is a great introduction although I suspect that watching 300 would be helpful just to get a little bit of period feel - the film is quite faithful to Herodotus. For a more substantive but still very readable background I suggest Tom Holland's brilliant Persian Fire, which describes how the Persians came to rule Asia and their succession of great kings. If you only want to read about the Persian invasion then this is available as Xerxes Invades Greece - also in Penguin Classics.
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