I originally added Herodotus’ The Histories to my Classics Club list because I am fascinated by Ancient Greece. I hadn’t read anything of – or even about, really – Herodotus at the time of choosing books, and he seemed an incredibly good choice to include. I had not factored in, however, how enormous The Histories is. I checked it out of the library without considering the sheer length of it; the Oxford World’s Classics edition runs to 590 pages, with almost 150 pages’ worth of notes. The text which has been used is rather small, and the whole is incredibly dense.
The Histories thus seemed rather daunting to begin, particularly with just a three-week timespan in which to read it. I liked the premise, however, and thought that I would start by reading the introduction and a little of the book proper before deciding if I wanted to continue.
The Oxford World’s Classics translation has been undertaken by Robin Waterfield. One gets the impression that he was incredibly comfortable with the original material, and his flawless translation reflects this. The volume’s introduction and extensive notes have been written by Carolyn Dewald, a Professor of Classical and Historical Studies at Bard College in New York.
Herodotus is known as ‘the father of history’, and The Histories was the first known work of its kind in the world. Dewald’s introduction states that: ‘the magnitude of Herodotus’ achievement as the first historian is hard to appreciate… precisely because the genre that he invented became so important a contribution to our own thought world’. She believes that the purpose of Herodotus’ writing of The Histories is ‘to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time’.
The Histories is centered upon ‘the clash between a few scarcely united Greek city states and the huge invading army of the Persian empire at the beginning of the fifth century BC, a clash from which, against all the odds, the Greeks emerged Victorians. The moment was critical, and paved the way for the Golden Age and its far-reaching influence on modern culture’.
Throughout, Herodotus addresses the Greek Enlightenment which occurred in Athens in the mid-5th century BC, and encompassed such elements as great leaps in knowledge and pioneering professional secondary school education: ‘We ultimately owe to this remarkable period many of our most basic ideas about democracy, about the importance of the individual, the importance of rational political discourse, about how we think education works and what it is for, as well as many of our basic genres of literary expression: drama, philosophy, rhetoric – and, thanks to the achievement of Herodotus himself, the writing of history’, Dewald states.
Whilst I did not finish The Histories, what I did read of it was interesting enough. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the library copy which I borrowed was rather old and a little shelf-worn, but the spine had not been cracked, and I am not quite convinced that any other borrowers made it all the way through either. There was nothing within it which really grabbed me enough to want to persevere, and time constraints certainly played a part in this too. If the work had been considerably shorter, I imagine that I would have given it more of a chance. I may come back to The Histories in future; for now, it becomes the first failure upon my Classics Club list.