A Scatty Introduction: The Summer of Herodotus

If you read science fiction,” she said, “you’ll like Herodotus.”–Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin

I didn’t read much science fiction until after grad school.

I was doing a crash course in classics, reading as much as possible in my years as a Latin T.A.

Herodotus Tom HollandI was halfway through my degree when the classics department added a mandatory Survey of Greek Literature class and a Survey of Latin Literature class.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the classes were developed for a few students with scatty backgrounds, i.e., one had only a year of Greek, and another had flunked out of an Eastern school.

It was a bit of a bore for some of us.

I had read everything on the Latin Survey syllabus:   Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Cicero’s Pro Caelio, all of Catullus except the epyllion, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Virgil…  the only thing I was spared rereading was that autobiography of Augustus carved on the bronze pillars, Res Gestae.

In the Greek Survey, however, I was introduced to Herodotus, the father of history.

So much fun.

I loved Herodotus.

The Histories are history, but they are also myth and legend, travel literature, oral histories, eyewitness accounts, and investigation of the causes of the Persian Wars.

Historia in Greek mean an “inquiry,” but it also means “story.”  Herodotus begins with myth, the abductions of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen.  These, he says, are the beginnings of the conflicts and wars between the Hellenes and the barbarians.

A new translation by Tom Holland of The Histories has recently been published.  I’m waiting for the paperback (next summer, no?), but meanwhile I’m reading other translations, as well as a Greek edition.

Edith Hall, in her admiring review in the TLS last fall of Tom Holland’s translation, gives a much better introduction to Herodotus than I could:

He sought to explain the nature of the world he inhabited, in the mid-fifth century BC, from the events that had taken place across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during the reigns of four Persian kings – Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes. These culminated in the victory of Greece over Persia in 480–479 BC. Herodotus, the “father of history”, often uses rational explanations, backed up by evidence. But he also includes many traditional stories and legends, with patently fantastic elements, derived from poems, fables and oral tradition. Herodotus therefore needs a versatile translator who appreciates his hybridity.

Tom Holland in an interview told the Telegraph that in the final three books, The Histories are “The Lord of the Rings stuff.”

So is it SF or fantasy?

I will occasionally (very occasionally) chime in here with reports of my Summer of Herodotus.

2 thoughts on “A Scatty Introduction: The Summer of Herodotus

  1. Just this morning I was reading the LRB’s piece on Herodotus (well worth looking up : it’s a discussion of Holland’s translation, 2 volumes of essays on H, Textual Rivals: Self-Presentation in Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ by David Branscome and The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus by Joseph Skinner). I feel inspired to return to the man himself now! Your epigraph reminds me that Tam Lin is on my list of books for this summer as well.

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  2. It looks very good! I can only read the first paragraph unless I subscribe, but I do know the reviewer Peter Green’s work in classics. What a lot of books about Herodotus!

    Yes, read Herodotus and we can both babble about it. I’m not a historian, so I’m in it for the enjoyment. And I love the novel Tam Lin . The only online person I’ve persuaded to read Tamlin is Nancy (Silver Threads), and she, too, enjoyed it.

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