Herodotus “The Histories” – book review

Herodotus The Histories is a brick of a book. It’s 750 pages of history and ethnography with a loose Greek- Persian theme to it. It’s definitely not always a page-turner. But I am so glad I read it, because there are moments in it that absolutely illuminated my understanding of ancient Greece.

The reason I reached for Herodotus is Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus. I took Herdotous Histories on holiday in Crete as summer reading and then failed to read it. Some ten years later, I decided to give it another go. This time, I decided to read it a tiny bit of it each day before bedtime. It took me a very long time, but I got there in the end. I think it was the right approach for me. Herodotus likes his digressions and anecdotes, and it’s not exactly a straightforward narrative. It does, however, mean that I literally slept through bits of Herodotus.

I don’t really remember the overall shape or structure, but I do remember bits and pieces that I found particularly striking. Most crucially, the bits about the Persian War: Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis. These stories seem to have provided the template for Western interactions with the East for millennia. The Athenians and Spartans proud refusal to be subjugated to what they essentially see as Eastern Tyranny is echoed throughout European culture: in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example.

We have the story of Cyrus whose grandfather ordered him to be killed as a baby, as he saw in a dream that he would rule all of Asia. The child is saved by a shepherd and is revealed as the future king.  He is avenged on his grandfather and goes on to rule the greatest kingdom in the world.

Another story I remember is Darius becoming king of Asia, by first of all discussing which government is the best form of government  (oligarchy, democracy, monarchy – a Greek obsession if there is any) and then deciding to settle it by a contest on whose horse will neigh first at sunrise.  Yeah, I am not joking. Darius rigged it by getting his stableboy to basically show his stallion a beautiful mare in the spot that he would be riding the next day. The stallion neighs the next morning, recalling the fond memory of the mare and wins Darius the throne.

These are the stories that I remember the most, but I am sure at a second reading something else would leap out at me. There is just so much in this book. I understand why Kapuściński would reread it whenever he got the chance. He must have felt so much of a kinship with Herodotus, the interviewer, ethnographer, and historian. I’m not sure I will find the time to reread the whole thing again, but I could definitely see myself returning to pieces of it. Especially as my edition has both an index and a very expansive table of contents, which definitely encourages browsing. I also really loved the fact that the book includes also had a map, as it helped me orientate myself in Herodotus’s complicated geography.

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