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New translation of ‘The Histories’ shows how Herodotus invented genre of nonfiction

A bust of Herodotus and a fragment of a manuscript of “The Histories.”
A bust of Herodotus and a fragment of a manuscript of “The Histories.” Courtesy images

“The Histories” by Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland, introduction and notes by Paul Cartledge (Penguin Classics Deluxe, 880 pages, $23, paperback)

It’s not often that an ancient Greek historian plays a supporting role in a major motion picture. But “The Histories” of Herodotus (circa 484-425 B.C.) did just that in the 1996 adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient.”

Katherine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, clutched her dog-eared and memento-stuffed edition of Herodotus’ groundbreaking work throughout much of the film. She read from it as others sat around a campfire mesmerized in the deserts of Libya. There was passion in her voice that night and epic truth in Herodotus’ writing.

Just how much truth, however, remains uncertain. For Herodotus, considered the “Father of History” (first called that by Cicero), was indeed breaking new ground, mixing fact and fable, anthropology and reportage, eyewitness accounts and the power of myth. In his inquiries, as he termed them, he was groping toward what we now take to be the standards of the historical method: systematic, critical, investigatory writing. And for him, the nonfiction story loomed pre-eminent, to be told forcefully or fancifully, with a tolerant eye toward others’ customs and traditions and with a skeptical eye toward the Greeks’ tall tales.

This makes “The Histories,” his only known work, one of the best ancient books to savor, because it is as entertaining as it is informative. Even more so now that we have Tom Holland’s vivid, vigorous new translation, an accomplishment that makes Herodotus sound like a contemporary bending our ear, celebrating great and wondrous deeds of the past to prevent their memory from fading.

Ostensibly an investigation into the start of the Greco-Persian war – which the Athenians eventually won on the plain of Marathon in 490 B.C. – “The Histories” also records Herodotus’ travels in Egypt, Africa and Asia Minor; his observations on geography and ethnography; his ruminations on the gods and oracles; and his firm commitment “to state what I am told.”

In every case, he reported what he understood to be the truth, no matter how long it took him to get to his point or how wild the story, such as seeing fox-sized ants spreading gold dust in Persia. More important, he worked hard to provide sources for his material, something that Holland calls “revolutionary.” True, often enough that source was himself, but the range of his interests seemed boundless.

Consider the opening pages of “The Histories,” in which he introduces his colorful characterization of the start of the Persian War, blamed, it would appear, on the start of the Trojan War.

“There followed next a massive escalation of what until then had essentially been nothing more serious than a bout of competitive princess-rustling – and the fault was all the Greeks’. Or so the Persians claim, at any rate – for they point out that long before they ever thought of invading Europe, it was the Greeks who invaded Asia. Granted, the Persians acknowledge, stealing women is never acceptable behaviour, but really, they ask, what is the point, once a woman has been stolen, in kicking up a great fuss about it, and pursuing some ridiculous vendetta, when every sensible man knows that the best policy is to affect an utter lack of concern?”

Herodotus no sooner begins to elaborate on the differences between the barbarians and the Greeks than he diverges from his main train of thought to expound upon the exotic treasures of Egypt and to recount a tale of a man rescued by dolphins. But once he turns his attention to his portrait of Darius, king of Persia, it’s as if he had never lost his focus. And we pick up the storyline almost without missing a beat. Holland credits this ability to create an underlying unity to a wide array of stories to Herodotus’ subtle ordering of themes.

Little is known about Herodotus the man; he wrote in Ionian Greek and was well-read; he attributes his work only to himself, invoking no divine authority; and he was committed to seeing the world through others’ eyes, offering his pointed opinions on their perceptions and seeking to explain the wonders of the world without recourse to the supernatural.

Above all, he invented a new genre of writing: nonfiction, based, in descending order, on eyewitness testimony, hearsay and tradition. From this method, the discipline of history was born.

Not everyone stands enchanted by Herodotus, however. In more recent times, he has been called the “Father of Lies” because of his blurring the lines between fact and fiction and interjecting his personal point of view into his storytelling.

Fortunately, that era has passed, as Paul Cartledge tells us in his excellent introduction. Today’s historians welcome the “inevitable subjectivity of perception and some individual freedom in retelling any story about any significant past.” The “extremely individualist and pioneering historiographical mode of Herodotus” is now found to be more congenial to postmodern scholars, he says.

For sound reasons, too: Herodotus tells a ripping good tale; his genesis of the clash of civilizations teems with vibrant scenes and memorable characters. And it is clear that in many instances of “The Histories,” he knew whereof he spoke.

In his introduction to this beautifully produced book, which includes 13 maps and an extensive glossary index, Cartledge calls Herodotus a reliable primary source for information on the ancient world. He has also proved to be no slouch in contemporary matters. After all, almost 20 years ago, he helped Kristin Scott Thomas get an Oscar nomination.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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