Archaeology Odyssey 2:2, May/June 1999


Herodotus: The Histories

Trans. by Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998) 823 pp., $25

Some have called him the Father of History; others, the Father of Lies. His work, combining the charm of a novel and the gravity of historiography, is the most alluringly readable of all great histories. It gives the classic account of the Greeks’ finest hour, in 480–479 B.C.E., when they stood (for once) together and defeated the Oriental hordes of Xerxes, the great king of Persia who had led a mighty invasion of Greece.

Yet many Greeks resented Herodotus’s evenhanded approach to the conflict. He opens his History with a promise to record the “marvellous achievements both of the Greeks and of the barbarians” (that is, non-Greeks) and to “give them lasting glory.” He also does not fail to record the squabbles, disagreements and discreditable motives of the various Greek cities. But in regard to the triumph over Persia, many Greeks wanted to read something much simpler and more unambiguous, a straightforward eulogy of their most glorious achievement. For his irritating impartiality Herodotus was called “barbarian-lover,” a term carrying some of the venom of “nigger-lover,” familiar from the old racist days in the United States.

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