Trevor's Reviews > The Histories: The Landmark Herodotus

The Histories by Herodotus
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's review
Apr 10, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history

The kids bought me this for Christmas and it is a thing of infinite beauty. I’ve been meaning to read these histories for years and never quite got around to it. I had never realised quite how remarkable this book would be.

This version of the book is the third that I now own – I’ve also got a copy of the Penguin Classics and I’ve just finished listening to this as a talking book. But I am going to make my way through this book eventually, as it is hard to focus on many of the details of the wars and so on without a decent map in front of you to refer to – and this book has lots of maps and drawings and other illustrations, although, annoyingly, no illustration of the Egyptian labyrinth which Herodotus said was even more remarkable than the pyramids.

Along the way Herodotus tells some incredible stories. Some of them sound like they are straight out of the 1001 nights. Others make your jaw drop open.

There are also discussions of things like what is the source of the Nile, that really have whetted my curiosity to read more about the 19th century types who finally discovered the source. Now, why was this such a big question in the ancient world? Well, the problem was that the Nile seemed to come out of the desert and that isn’t exactly the sort of place where you would expect to find lots and lots of water. The winds that came for where the Nile seemed to flow out from were also always hot – and so the idea that perhaps the water in the Nile swelled once a year due to the melting of snow (although partly reasonable, obviously) didn’t seem to make a lot of sense when you thought that the river was coming out of a desert (deserts being the natural enemy of snow). It really is fascinating listening to Herodotus discussing these speculations about the source of the Nile and the paradoxes such speculations provided.

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring”. There are interesting asides about the Trojan war and how Herodotus speculates that Helen was probably dead by the time of the war started and so when the Greeks asked for the Trojans to hand her over they literally couldn’t. He can’t see why else they would have allowed their civilisation to be crushed for the sake of one woman, beautiful or not.

There is a woman who commanded a ship on the side of the Persians, there are women who come back as ghosts and complain about being cold (which their husband should know as the last time he tried to bake his bread the oven was cold – this would have taken me a while to understand if Herodotus did not explain that the husband had lain with her after she had died.) But this is not really a history that involves many women – this is a story about blokes doing what blokes like most – killing other blokes.

All the same, my favourite bit of this came quite early in the piece. The story of the theft of Rhampsinitos’ treasure. I’m going to give you the short McCandless version of this as it really is a wonderful story and I can’t leave this review without talking about it.

When Rhampsinitos (an Egyptian king) decided to have a place built for his treasure he didn’t know that the builder would put a stone into the works that could be easily removed. The builder told his sons about this stone as he lay dying and once the builder had died his sons nipped around to the king’s treasury and helped themselves to the riches inside. The king noticed this sudden loss of wealth and set a trap to capture those who were all too frequently popping in and stealing his goodies. The trap was quite successful and one of the brothers ended up getting caught. He told his other brother to cut off his head so that they wouldn’t both be discovered. This his all too obliging brother did. The king then had a body without a head in his treasury, but still had no idea how anyone could get into the treasury room without breaking any of the seals on the locks.

So, he had the body of the thief hung up and guarded so that whoever cried in front of it would be brought before him. The thief who had cut off his brother’s head was then told by his mother that he had better do something to rescue his brother’s body or else all hell would break lose. He came up with a plan to get the guards drunk and to steal the body, which he did and also shaved half of their beards off to make sure they quite understood how stupid they had been made to look. The king was, needless to say, bloody furious. (I did mention this reminded me of the 1001 nights, yeah?) Anyway, the king then decides to get his daughter to work in a brothel, but before she sleeps with anyone she is to ask them what is the worst thing they have ever done and if any of them say anything like they cut off their brother’s head and stole his body from the king’s guards, she is to grab hold of him and call for the police (or whatever the Egyptian equivalent was at the time). The thief decides to play along, and goes to the brothel with the severed arm of a freshly dead corpse under his jumper. When he tells the king’s daughter about his exploits she makes a grab for him and he holds out the dead man’s arm, which she holds onto while the thief cleverly makes his escape. The king is so impressed with this man’s exploits that he begs him to come forward and receive a reward, which he does and ends up getting to marry the king’s daughter – I assume the daughter he gets to marry is the prostitute mentioned earlier, but I guess no one actually ever called her that to her face.

The best bit of this is that it shows something Herodotus does the whole way through these histories. He will be telling one of these stories and suddenly they will start to become completely unbelievable and he will say, “of course, I don’t believe this stuff for a minute, but this is the story I was told in Egypt and what would you have me do? I have to tell you what I was told.”

The other story that held me enthralled was of the self-mutilation of Zopyros – honestly, this is utterly remarkable. It is worth reading the book just for this story alone.

There are lots of occasions where fathers are forced to do horrible things to their sons – my favourite is the story of a king who punishes one of his advisors by feeding him his son as the meat portion of a feast. The king then leaves this advisor in a position where he can revenge himself on the king. You know, if I was to feed someone their own child I would probably kill him straight away afterwards – call me overly cautious, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the person who has feed you the flesh of one of your kids is never going to be one of you best friends ever again, no matter what else they do for you.

This book is fantastic and the Landmark edition is like its name implies, really something special.
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03/24/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14)

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message 14: by Manny (last edited Apr 10, 2009 01:53PM) (new) - added it

Manny I just can't understand why I've never read this! Great review.

message 13: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I've just never read Herodotus. As I said, I don't understand why either. I must see at least one tantalizing reference every year. Trevor, thank you for reminding me!

message 12: by David (new) - added it

David I'd sooner gnaw off my own arm and bake it in a pie than read any more Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, that's right, Manny. I'm using Trevor's thread (another exceptional review - thanks, Trevor) to goad you.

Because secretly I am eight years old.

Scampers off to bed. (because I am coming down with something, and trying to beat the bug).

message 11: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny Well, I clearly must review Winnie-the-Pooh. As Jan Kjaerstad would say, I just haven't found the right angle yet.

And I must read Herodotus! It's ridiculous, it's constantly mentioned in both Dance to the Music of Time and The English Patient, both of which I love, and somehow I've just not got around to checking it out. Oh yes, and Kingsley reads it on the train in The Black Cloud. Sigh.

message 10: by Richard (last edited Apr 10, 2009 02:42PM) (new) - added it

Richard I've read Travels with Herodotus... does that provide partial credit?

BTW, Trevor, what prompted you to write this review after so long?

message 9: by Trevor (last edited Apr 10, 2009 02:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Thank you all. I've only just finished listening to it while glancing over the Landmark book for maps when I got lost. Like Manny, it was getting to the point where it seemed odd not to have read it. I have spotted the other Landmark and will need to get that for next Christmas perhaps. Yet another of the infinite books I seem to have not read yet.

Helen (Helena/Nell) Lovely review.

message 7: by AC (new)


Grasping the structure of the Histories is essential to understanding what's going on in this book. The work is structured, in true archaic fashion, around gnome and illustrative myth. The gnome is set out in the opening section (the cyclical nature of history - that those who were great yesterday, have become low today; while those who were low before will someday be great). This is then followed by the great illustrative story (which points the moral - that is, which illustrates the gnome) = the rise and Fall of the Persian Empire. The story of the Rise and Fall of Croesus gives this same moral in a shortened, preliminary form, like the antechamber to a great hall. These are all common devices in archaic Greek prose writers.

As Herodotus traces the rise of the Persians, at each point of conquest he introduces a lengthy digression filled with geographical/ethnographical/mythographic material on the people or regions that the Persians have just come in contact with. All of Bk. II, for example, is one such digression. LIke rings hanging from a large necklace. It is these geographical/ethnographical reports, in fact, that were called 'historia' in Greek (the word comes from the same root as the latin 'video', "to see"), and which gave the book its name. In fact, the 'historiai' were geographical writings known as the 'periplous', which were descriptions of the coastline of the Mediterranean as seen from the edge of a ship - starting from the Straits of Gibraltar and moving clockwise. To this, Herodotus introduced a war narrative (the rise and fall of Persia) that ultimately derives (in a formal sense) from Homer. The 'historia', however, refers to the geographical/ethnograhical material -- not to what we would nowadays call the historical material.

Think of the story of Croesus (writ small -- in the destiny of a single man) and the story of Pesia (writ large - in the destiny of a nation or people) are nothing but the illustrations (like a myth) of the opening gnomic passage - and you will have a bead on this. Then observe how the geographical/ethnograhical material functions as formal digressions (the entries and exits are usually clearly marked) as the Persians come in contact with each new people.

Immerwahr's book is must reading.

message 6: by AC (new)

AC One other point -- most of Herodotus' information came from oral sources (logioi) - and is not very reliable. He did not have written documentary evidence of the Persian Wars, contemporary documentary evidence in Athens only taking shape later, starting around 440. Thucydides was a much more critical historian -- though his "lessons" are quite different (and more complex) than those of Herodotos.

Either way -- nearly all writing in ancient greece -- certainly writing of this particular genre -- was didactic. The only exceptions were some lyric poetry, erotica, and the like. Though even there, the didactic element is strong.

Trevor Thanks for this AC - I'm not sure when I will get around to reading the book you suggested, but it does sound interesting.

message 4: by AC (new)

AC Trevor wrote: "Thanks for this AC - I'm not sure when I will get around to reading the book you suggested, but it does sound interesting."

It's a bit academic. But unlike most academic books, it does have the advantage of getting it right.

David Sarkies There are a few stories of fathers being fed their sons. Thyestes was one I believe, though I cannot quite remember the other one ATM.
I was also fascinated by the labyrinth, though I suspect that it no longer exists. I have attempted to locate it through internet searches to no avail. However, the labyrinth in Crete still exists.

Trevor You made my heart skip a beat there David - I thought you meant that THE labyrinth in Crete, the one built by Icarus's dad, Deedalus still exists. The home of the Minotaur. I'm assuming that can't be right.

David Sarkies That Labyrinth is the product of myth, however Minos' palace is a pretty labyrinthine construction, and wondering around it one can quite easily imagine Theseus running through the narrow twisting hallways attempting to defeat the bull that is hot on his tales.

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