Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.14

Michael A. Flower, John Marincola, Herodotus: Histories Book IX. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 357.  ISBN 0-521-59650-5.  $24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Ancient History, University of Amsterdam (
Word count: 1379 words

In the series 'Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics', the Cambridge University Press presents a commentary on Herodotus' book IX, edited by Michael A. Flower and John Marincola (henceforth F/M). The publication of any commentary is to be warmly welcomed. In the case of Herodotus' Histories this is even more so because the prevailing commentaries in English, those by Sayce and Macan1 and the more current by How and Wells,2 though still valuable, are, understandably, not always in line with modern research. The only more recent commentary (in English) on one of Herodotus' books is the impressive and in many aspects exemplary study by Lloyd on book II.3 It is obvious that a new commentary on (one of) Herodotus' books is an important event which is, actually, long overdue.

Why F/M have chosen for a commentary on book IX is explained in the preface: "Book 9 is the climax as well as the completion of the work, and the major themes of Herodotus' Histories are all here echoed, modified, and revisited. If one is to explore the meaning (or range of possible meanings) of the Histories, one simply must look to the end" (p. ix).

The structure of this commentary is conventional, beginning with an introduction (pp. 1-50) covering the following themes: life and times of Herodotus; narrative manner and technique; characterization; historical methods and sources; the battles of Plataea and Mycale; themes; dialect; and manuscripts -- including a list of the major differences between the text of F/M and that of the editions in both the Oxford Classical Texts and the Teubner series), then follows the text (pp. 51-100), the commentary (pp. 101-314), (four) appendixes (pp. 315-326), a bibliography (327-345), and indexes. The appendixes are on Simonides' poem on Plataea (his representation of the events, difficult to interpret as it often is, differs in places from Herodotus'), on an epigraphic dedication of the seer Teisamenus (the Spartan diviner, notably at Plataea), on the so-called 'Oath of Plataea' (which is, according to F/M, most likely a later invention), and on the battle lines of the Greek and Persian armies at Plataea. It is striking, both in the table of contents and the header of the text, to read that the text refers to ΗΡΟΔΟΤΟΥ ΙΣΤΟΡΙΩΝ Ι instead of ΗΡΟΔΟΤΟΥ ΙΣΤΟΡΙΩΝ Θ (if the numeral was meant to be presented in Greek) or IX (if a Roman numeral was intended). It is not a major issue, but among the readers it may lead to some confusion.

In the preface F/M indicate that the commentary is intended for a wide audience: "We have envisioned our audience as advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars, although we are certain that not all constituencies will feel fairly treated" (p. ix). I believe that this commentary, as it aims "to bring together grammatical and syntactical help, literary appreciation, and historical criticism" (p. ix), will be of enormous benefit primarily for advanced undergraduates. For the two other constituencies much of the contents may be considered, more or less, familiar and not really challenging. Let it be clear, this is not intended as a reproach to F/M: the opposite is true. It is a titanic achievement to present so many clear answers on so many questions regarding Herodotus' text and its backgrounds as F/M have done, especially since from the early nineties of the 20th century interest in Herodotus has grown. Over the past years this has resulted in a wide variety of studies on various aspects of Herodotus' works. Many of these studies, including some published as late as in the first months of 2002, and certainly the most important, are referred to in the commentary and included in the bibliography. In the quickly shifting field of Herodotean studies where the appreciation of Herodotus' work and its merits differs still widely, it is hardly possible to serve such a wide audience as F/M envisaged simultaneously. It would have required a book at least twice the size of the present one to do so: it was, therefore, necessary to make choices. F/M have done so consistently and have aimed at the right group of users, i.e. those who are not yet too familiar with Herodotus. Moreover, whenever they touch upon a point of controversy, recent or not, they carefully and summarily present the different views, avoiding the trap which sometimes may lie hidden for every commentator, i.e. to present one's own views as general background information, especially if he is on familiar terrain.4

Ideally a commentary provides answers to questions a reader might have regarding the text. It may be clear that it is impossible to foresee all potential questions and equally impossible to answer all questions fully. Checking for some specific historical issues, e.g. regarding IX.114.1 and IX.116.1, I found the answers to be correct but rather summary (in the case of IX.116.1 perhaps even too summary5) as regards the details: here, too, this commentary suits the needs of the (advanced) undergraduate better than of those who want to explore the history beyond Herodotus' Histories. The same may be stated regarding the presentation of events by Herodotus, which differs quite consistently from that of, e.g., a writer like Ctesias. On that issue some interesting secondary literature exists, which might have benefited the scholarly user.6 Within the context of the commentary as a whole, however, these remarks are only marginal and a confirmation of the initial observation by F/M that not every group of users could be served fully.

Apart from the passages mentioned above I have checked some 75 chapters at random throughout the book: in these I did not find any fault, misspelling, or any other flaws. The annotations are, moreover, to the point. The background provided in the preface, e.g. regarding Plataea and Mycale (pp. 22-35), proves its value throughout the commentary: by giving some more elaborate information beforehand the commentary proper remains surveyable. All this is an indication of the attention and accuracy with which the editors have compiled this commentary. The positive impression is reinforced by the typefaces used, the Baskerville (12 points for the run-on matter and 10 for the notes) for the English text and the New Hellenic (12 points standard and bold) for the Greek: it offers a readable and convenient picture, reinforced by a well chosen type.

This commentary is, therefore, a valuable and welcome asset in the field of Herodotean studies. Unfortunately the user-friendliness is not in every respect excellent. Using a commentary next to the text I prefer the commentary to lie open, and remain open, on a specific page. This commentary, at least the paperback copy I received, is bound so tightly that laying it open proved to be virtually impossible, causing a lot of juggling to remain on the chosen page. It appears that, to strengthen the back, the binders have applied an extra layer of glue to ensure the perfect binding. Hopefully the printing and binding department of the Cambridge University Press will be able to find a compromise between strength of binding and user's convenience on this point in a new printing of this commentary.

To sum up, this commentary is a valuable new tool in the field of Herodotean studies, especially for (advanced) undergraduate students. Both graduate students and scholars will benefit less from this commentary, though also for them it may, at times, prove useful. The bibliography is excellent; the indexes, a short one of Greek words and a more extensive one of English words, are sufficient. The book lacks an index locorum of other ancient authors than Herodotus, the more missed because F/M frequently refer to other classical sources.

I would like to end with an exhortation to either F/M and/or the general editors of the 'Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics' to publish in the not too distant future similar commentaries on Herodotus' books I-VIII (yes, also on book II, since Lloyd's commentary focuses on historical rather than grammatical and syntactical issues) and to fill the existing gap: after more than three quarters of a century of waiting, while plenty of research in the field of Herodotean studies has occurred, the English speaking and reading public urgently needs updated commentaries on those books as well. F/M themselves provided with the commentary in hand the best possible evidence for this view.


1.   Herodotus (I-IX) with introduction, text, maps etc. by A.H. Sayce and R.W. Macan, London 1883-1908, 6 vols.: here especially R.W. Macan, Herodotus: The Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Books (2 vols. in 3), London 1908, repr. New York 1979 in 2 vols.
2.   W.W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus, Oxford 1913 (2 vols); repr. with corrections Oxford 1923.
3.   A.B. Lloyd, Herodotus Book II: Introduction and Commentary, Leiden 1979-1988 (3 vols.).
4.   Naturally, there should be room for the commentator's own views, but it is the duty of any commentator to present references to all relevant literature available, in whatever form, at that time, even (or especially) if it is at odds with his own views.
5.   IX.116.1 is one of the key passages in Greek classical literature in the discussion whether European Thrace was ever to be considered as a real and formal Persian satrapy, i.e. the satrapy of Skudra. Many believe it was, others do not, like Z.H. Archibald, The Odrysian Kingdom of Thrace. Orpheus unmasked, Oxford 1998, pp. 79-90. Regarding this passage How and Wells, vol. II, p. 335, ad IX.116.1, are far more careful than F/M.
6.   E.g. H. Melchert, Ktesias' "Persika", Books 7-13, Providence, RI, 1996 (dissertation Brown University). In this dissertation Melchert compares known fragments of Ctesias' Persica both with Persian sources and the events as related by Herodotus. Melchert shows that Herodotus' account frequently appears to be in line with official Persian views.

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