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Landfall at Last

The Landmark Herodotus

Edited by Robert Strassler, translated by Andrea L. Purvis
Pantheon, 2007

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and again the publishing industry brings forth a book so strange or urgently useful that it immediately feels like a necessary thing, something that has always been with us. The new Landmark Herodotus is one of these books. Its advent is to be met with cheers and tumult.

The book is a long time coming. In 1996, Knopf published The Landmark Thucydides, an oversized volume that featured the 19th century translation by Richard Crawley and, as its title betokens, a large selection of maps illustrating virtually every major location or event of the Peloponnesian War. The effect was like nothing classical studies had known before; suddenly the non-specialist reader could see the distant world Thucydides was describing. Long voyages now looked long; difficult topography announced itself on sight.

The Landmark Thucydides was a hit – it sold well in stores (certainly better than could have been expected), was predictably popular with teachers, and received critical praise from all quarters. Many grateful readers, myself included, looked for an obvious companion volume in the fullness of time. This volume would feature the writer whose work is forever paired with that of Thucydides, for better or worse. But the fullness of time stretched on agonizingly, and still that volume did not appear.

The Landmark Herodotus has finally arrived, brought out by Pantheon this time and shepherded by indefatigable editor Robert Strassler (he of The Landmark Thucydides) and decked out with even more special features than the preceding volume. This edition is as benign as the Buddha, but nevertheless it thoroughly annihilates all previous editions of Herodotus.

This is a melancholy admission for those of us who’ve treasured the urbane, fluid 1954 translation by Aubrey De Sélincourt for lo, these many decades. We naturally want to believe that for as many bells and whistles as this new edition has (featuring, to the point, a new translation of the text by Andrea L. Purvis), it must pale in some way compared to the grand old Penguin Classic.


It’s a rude thing, the march of history. It disabuses us, and we must gracefully acquiesce. Every single aspect of The Landmark Herodotus – most certainly including the translation at the heart of it – is superior to anything else that’s ever been produced on behalf of the author.

That author has been sparking admiration, outrage, and new editions for nearly 2,500 years, and occasion of The Landmark Herodotus demonstrates that mankind still needs this man’s voice. The man himself is far more elusive. It’s standard practice to assert that most of what we know about him he tells us himself, in his great “inquiry,” but the truth is both more and less complex – many of the specific biographical details about him (for instance, that he was born shortly before the Persian War) come from later writers who are not above the suspicion of telling whoppers to make rhetorical points. That he died sometime before 430 B.C. we surmise mainly because there are no references to events later than that in his book. His birthplace, Helicarnassus, lay at the extreme western border of the vast Persian Empire, and passages in his book suggest he was involved in an insurrection against a Persian-appointed petty overlord and exiled for his troubles. Specifics are wanting, but we know he and his book were famous in his own lifetime. Sophocles addresses a poem to him on the occasion of his 55th birthday. Aristophanes lampoons him in his Archarnians. And of course Thucydides, at the beginning of his own work, can be referring to nobody else when he writes that he, unlike some people, will not be content with “the applause of the moment.” Down the ages from that day to this, that aspersion has clung to Herodotus’ reputation, inflaming detractors and partisans. De Sélincourt himself of course joined the fray:

…compared with Herodotus, Thucydides’ book is tendentious in matter, parochial in scope, and difficult to read from the violence it does to the beautiful and perspicuous Greek language.

Aulus Gellius, Dionysius of Helicarnassus, and Eusebius all write about him. Aristotle, Josephus, and Lucian all call him a liar. Cicero dubs him “the father of history.” Plutarch, who liked everybody, hated the thought of him. Protestant theologian Philip Melanchthon, as loathsome a man as ever drew breath, thought him excellent.

The center of all this contention, of course, is the work, not the man, and The Landmark Herodotus does much more than any other single edition to lay that work open to every interested reader. No ancient term or practice is left unexplained, no textual oddity is passed over in silence for fear of confusing, and nothing, not one single thing with any degree of corporeality is left unpictured. There’s a score of appendices with titles like “Tyranny in Herodotus,” “The Persian Army in Herodotus,” “The Continuity of Steppe Culture,” and “The Spartan State in War and Peace,” and all of them are written by leading classical scholars. There’s a 14-page dated outline of the text as a whole. There are photos, diagrams, and historical drawings. And everywhere in the supporting materials there’s a consistent note of invitation, of unpretentious work and even fun. Andrea L. Purvis writes in her translator’s preface:

The tone and style of Herodotus is alternately high and low, objective and subjective, analytical and whimsical, complicated and straightforward. My hope is that the reader will find him as engaging and enjoyable to read as he has been to translate.

And Rosalind Thomas, in her opening remarks, brings up the much-vexed question of Herodotus’ reliability and cannot resist a little jab at the present’s assumption of superiority to the past:

We need some common sense here, and we should not lose sight of an appreciation of what Herodotus was trying to achieve that was new. Scientific history was not yet invented, indeed “history” itself was not yet a discipline, traveling was difficult, geographical knowledge still mingled with what we would call mythical space, permanent notekeeping was probably difficult. Anyone with extensive travel experience knows how topography, places, and details can get inextricably confused, even (or especially) with the help of a camera.

  The debate about reliability was probably inevitable; in crafting his great narrative of the war between Greeks and non-Greeks (which of course culminated in the war between Greece and Persia), Herodotus consulted far more living sources than written ones, and in addition to the fact that he himself could sometimes be a credulous listener, he also openly states that his purpose is in relating conflicting versions of events is to set them all down, not necessarily to believe any of them. He says consistently throughout his work that this is his duty, but the reader knows at once that a great many of the stories in question have been included because they’re rattling good yarns. When you read Herodotus, it’s impossible not to like the author. It’s the main difference between him and Thucydides.

But few can read him anymore, which is why any discussion of The Landmark Herodotus must always return to the translation at the center of everything. In translating Thucydides’ dry, choppy prose, Crawley had little to work with; but Herodotus spreads before his readers the whole banquet of life, and Andrea L. Purvis splendidly rises to the occasion. So much so, in fact, that the easiest way to show her superiority is also the most painful for fans of the Penguin Classic: set them up side by side. Here, for instance, is Aubrey De Sélincourt’s account of the death of the bloodthirstily headstrong Pheretima at the end of Book Four:

Pheretima’s web of life was also not woven happily to the end. No sooner had she returned to Egypt after her revenge upon the people of Barca, than she died a horrible death, her body seething with worms while she was still alive. Thus this daughter of Battus, by the nature and severity of her punishment of the Barcaeans, showed how true it is that all excess in such things draws down upon men the anger of the gods.

And here’s Purvis:

The final strands in the life of Pheretime were woven with misery, for as soon as she had achieved her revenge on the Barkaians, she left Libya and returned to Egypt, where she died a miserable death from worms which teemed within her body and crawled out from it while she still lived. Thus the gods manifest their resentment against humans who execute vengeance violently and excessively. Such was the brutal vengeance wreaked by Pheretime, wife of Battos, against the Barkaians.

Purvis’ superiority is evident on many levels. She cleaves closer to the Greek, leaving in all the details De Selincourt, perhaps in pursuit of a cleaner line, leaves out. Only in Purvis do the worms crawl out of Pheretima’s body – a telling detail that 1) conveys the full horror of the death and 2) suggests witnesses, whose accounts Herodotus might have seen. In De Selincourt, Pheretima shows the meaning of her hideous end; in Purvis, the showing is rightfully the province of the gods. Even without the aid of superior secondary materials, the Purvis translation is a marked improvement on the old standard-bearer.

When those secondary materials are included, the gap widens immeasurably. Consider this exciting passage, describing the fate of a Persian naval squadron in Book Eight, here given by De Selincourt:

For the Persians at Aphetae it was a bad enough night, but it was far worse for the squadron which had been ordered to sail round Euboea, for they were at sea when the storm caught them. Their fate was miserable: just as they were off the Hollows of Euboea the wind and rain began, and every ship, overpowered and forced to run blind before it, piled up on the rocks. Heaven was indeed doing everything possible to reduce the superiority of the Persian fleet and bring it down to the size of the Greeks. So much for the disaster off the Hollows.

Purvis has it this way:

That is how they passed the night, but for those who had been detached to sail around Euboea, this same night was much more savage still, as it fell upon them while they were sailing out on the open sea, and their end was grim indeed. The tempest and the rain descended upon them as they were sailing off the Hollows of Euboea; they were carried along by it without being able to see where they were going, and were wrecked on the rocks along the coast. All this was the god’s doing, so that the Persian side would be equal to instead of much greater than the Greek side.
Thus these men perished at the Hollows of Euboea.

Purvis’ translation is again superior; De Sélincourt elides the line about the Persian sailors being unable to see where they were going in the tempest – by including it, Purvis enhances the atmosphere of the incident. Her construction of the penultimate line is smoother and avoids the Edwardian anachronism of “Heaven.” And her final line is starker and more in accord with Herodotus’ instincts as a showman.

But even if all this weren’t so, there would still be no contest, because the unequalled supporting materials of The Landmark Herodotus cluster around this passage as they do all others. There’s a photo of a replica of a Greek trireme that was launched by the Greek navy in 1987. There’s a gorgeous map. And most importantly, there are footnotes aplenty. One of them reads:

Heavy rainstorms are extremely rare in summer in Greece.

Another says:

Hollows of Euboea: location unknown; probably on the southwestern coast of Euboea, which is rocky and dangerous for ships.

And a third, speaking of that penultimate line, says:

This remarkable statement deserves attention! Despite Herodotus’ totals elsewhere, he seems here to be saying that the two naval forces were equal when it came to battle.

That exclamation point is most certainly not added by me, and it’s hardly the only one the reader will encounter. Everywhere in The Landmark Herodotus there’s a palpable air of enthusiasm shining through, the sense that a large group of very passionate people spent a long and wonderful (if no doubt sometimes nerve-wracking) time on a labor of love.

The result is something that may very well have dazzled the author himself. No personal library should be without it.

Panagiotis Polichronakis is a graduate student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He divides his spare time disproportionately between playing bocce ball and working on a new translation of the odes of Pindar. This is his first English-language publication.