BMCR 2005.04.65

Noble Classics

, , , The histories. Barnes & Noble classics. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. xxxvi, 584 pages : maps ; 20 cm.. ISBN 1593081022. $6.95 (pb).

1 Responses

The history of Donald Lateiner’s new revision of G.C. Macaulay’s Herodotus arguably begins in 1453, when the nature of scholarship changed forever. Gutenberg’s invention made ancient texts eminently reproducible and available to a very wide public. Barnes & Noble Classics, among others, has taken this idea and run with it, boasting that it provides the reader with “quality editions of enduring works at affordable prices.” Moreover, the publisher claims, “Each edition presents new scholarship with commentaries, viewpoints, chronologies, notes, and discussion questions.” In the reviewer’s opinion, Lateiner’s edition ought to be judged in the first place by this standard, i.e. whether it lives up to its claim to provide quality scholarship that is also inexpensive. The second criterion for evaluating the volume ought to be the larger question of whether it is the best available edition for its presumed purpose.1 This review will address both of these concerns in turn, beginning with the edition judged on its own merits and then proceeding to a brief comparison to similar offerings.

No doubt because the Macaulay translation entered the public domain some time ago, the temptation to update his text and compete with other versions at little cost was a difficult one for the publishers to resist. When Macaulay released his translation in 1890, he offered the reader in his preface the following explanation for his method: “The aim of the translator has been above all things…faithfulness to the manner of expression and to the structure of sentences, as well as to the meaning of the Author…[H]is simplicity of thought and occasional quaintness [must not] be reproduced in the form of archaisms of language; and that not only because the affectation of an archaic style would necessarily be offensive to the reader, but also because in language Herodotus is not archaic.”2 Macaulay’s translation itself, of course, is not the subject of this review, and students of Greek and English style will no doubt have their preferences, whether Rawlinson, de Selincourt, Grene or Waterfield. Nor is there a need to review the contents of the Histories, as readers of BMCR are no doubt already familiar with them. The question is whether Lateiner has succeeded with an edition “revised throughout.” Lateiner tells us that his method has been to follow a tack similar to that of Macaulay’s: “I have generally retained Macaulay’s accuracy in the ordering of the Greek text’s phrases. I have altered many passive constructions to the active voice for tighter clauses, eliminated the archaic ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ etc. from the speeches, and removed other archaisms and obsolete words and repetitions that seem obtrusive in modern English” (xxxiii). Unfortunately, the many “archaisms and obsolete words” that remain render the result of his efforts quite mixed.

The text contains many odd choices where it seems Lateiner has not revised as thoroughly as perhaps he ought. I have selected as examples three of the more egregious instances that mar this edition.3 The first and least decorous one occurs in Book II during a discussion of the Egyptian practice of circumcision. Here Herodotus speculates as to the ritual’s origin: “[T]hat the other nations learnt it by intercourse with the Egyptians, this among others is to me a strong proof, namely that those of the Phenicians [sic] who have intercourse with Hellas cease to follow the example of the Egyptians in this matter, and do not circumcise their children” (111). It is neither prurience nor prudishness to acknowledge that the archaic definition of “intercourse” suggests entirely the wrong meaning in this context.4 A second notable instance where revision was needed but not present is found in Book IV. As Herodotus describes the peoples living within the range of the Scythians’ dominion and adopting some Scythian customs, we read: “[T]here dwell in the skirts of lofty mountains men who are said to be all bald-headed from their birth, male and female equally…” (205). The problem with this of course is that, as English usage has changed, “men” no longer regularly stands for “mankind,” which is itself considered by many outmoded, archaic, and even offensive. That realization renders the appositive “male and female” even more ridiculous. It would have been better to replace “men” with people or mankind. The last conspicuous example of insufficient revision is found in Book VIII, in Herodotus’ account of the departure of Mardonios from Greece. In section 135 Lateiner has: “A very great marvel to me is said by the Thebans later to have come to pass…” (457). As a literal rendering of Herodotus’ text and faithful reproduction of Macaulay the sentence is exemplary. But in terms of readability and freedom from archaisms it would seem to want more attention.

These examples serve to demonstrate the conflicting purposes of such a revision and the weakness generally of such projects. How is that Lateiner can both be true to Macaulay’s original translation, tied as it rightly is to the vulgar of the 19th century, and yet tolerate alterations for the sake of updating the language to remove what is “obtrusive” to modern ears?

Though the editor, not Lateiner, is responsible for typographical errors, the 502 pages of text also contain numerous typographical errors. These are of such frequency as to become a serious annoyance and hindrance to the readability of Herodotus’ careful narrative.5

Lateiner has contributed numerous notes to the text, something on the order of one per page. Most of these are quite good, as when he provides a date for an important event that the non-specialist may not know (163), helpfully connects one section of text with another (170), or explains an important Greek concept like isonomie (171). There are a few instances, however, where a more thorough explanation is wanted or where the note assumes too much knowledge on the reader’s part. In Book V, for example, Herodotus mentions the death at the hands of the Persians of the Eretrian commander Eualkides, “[A] man who had won wreaths in contests of the games and who was much celebrated by Simonides of Keos” (294). The footnote explains that “The name ‘Good Strength’ is ominous; the reference to the celebratory poetry implies the nature of archaic and early classical fame” (ibid.). Without a knowledge of Greek it would be difficult to tell whether ‘Good Strength’ refers to Eualkides or Simonides, and precisely what the reference implies about the nature of fame is unclear. Stitching the two explanations together simply adds to the confusion.6

The paperback, printed on poor quality paper, nevertheless features an attractive relief of Darius on its cover, helpful indices, and thirty-two pages of introduction. There is also an appendix on other English translations, one on literary and material works that have been inspired by Herodotus,7 a section of comments and questions,8 as well as both an index of names and one of subjects. The introduction which Lateiner has written is a fine blend of learning and popular appeal. It begins with a brief account of the 1992 film The English Patient, in which Macaulay’s Herodotus played an important role. He then recounts in brief synopsis Herodotus’ life, works, political views, and religious ideas, devoting a few neat paragraphs to each. For the Histories themselves, Lateiner touches quickly on all the major questions in Herodotean scholarship but does not dwell long on any, instead propelling the reader toward the text. In this vein he devotes space to the physical form of the Histories, their plan, use of speech and direct quotation, sources, chronology, geography, “So-called ‘Digressions,'” object, methods, merits, defects, and historical and literary achievements. Lastly, two and a half pages are dedicated to the question of the Histories’ significance. Here, as at many places in his notes, Lateiner writes relatively engaging prose: “I never read the closing chapters of the battle of Thermopylai without tears of admiration for the Spartans’ humbling courage and the historian’s quietly effective disposition of the facts, attitudes, and aftermath” (xxxi).

Arguably, the main competitor, as already mentioned, is Robin Waterfield’s Oxford translation of 1998 with its notes by Carolyn Dewald. It is based on the 1927 OCT of Hude and features an index that is longer (51 pages) and more thorough than Lateiner’s, including a helpful parallel timeline of Greek events and other occurrences in Herodotus’ history. The translation itself, as Lateiner in part acknowledges,9 is better, and there are 144 pages of explanatory notes as well as four pages of textual notes. The eleven maps which conclude the Waterfield edition are in the reviewer’s opinion better drawn and more clear than any of the eight which appear periodically in Lateiner’s edition.

There are two other editions that deserve mention in this context, namely the Penguin translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt and the Everyman reprinting of George Rawlinson’s (also 19th century) translation. John Marincola has nicely updated de Sélincourt’s fifty year old translation and added an introduction comparable to Lateiner’s, while his endnotes and index are arguably on a par with those of Waterfield.10 The Rawlinson revision done by Hugh Bowden is more modest in its scope than the other three, featuring a much more simple introduction and no supplementary aids except an index.

In conclusion, for what it attempts, in terms of affordability this volume for the most part delivers. At $6.95 it presents a small savings over its closest competitor, the Robin Waterfield translation in the Oxford World’s Classics series selling for $9.95. It is an admirable attempt to bring Herodotus to a broad audience very cheaply. For the more serious student the extra $3 would definitely be well-spent.

I wish to thank the anonymous referee of this review for several fine suggestions.

[[For a response to this review by Steven J. Willett, please see BMCR 2005.06.09.]]


1. The work’s purpose, given its price and design, is no doubt for use in an undergraduate survey course, as a supplement to a course in translating Herodotus, or for the interested non-specialist who may be reading Herodotus as part of a general pursuit of the Classics.

2. As a matter of information, Macaulay’s original translation was based on Stein’s text (Berlin, 1869-1871).

3. Some of the other obsolete words and expressions, archaisms, and malapropisms include, by page number: “[W]ould not allow him have it” (26); “[M]aladroit” (50); “Him, when he had brought his life to an end by reason of the wound, the priests buried without the knowledge of…” (152); “Tell me then, what must I do with these when they shall be grown to manhood, whether shall I settle them here…” (201); “So then these named rivers and many others…” (213); “Of these all the Scythians have the worship established…” (215); “This is to them instead of washing…” (219); “[O]f what nature are these two things which you sayest [sic] are utterly hostile to me?” (364); “[A]nd the sound of voices which you hearest [sic]…” (434); “[B]ut ye [sic] shall see them fighting a battle by sea with one another, those who are disposed to your side against those who are not.” (438)

4. Robin Waterfield’s Oxford World’s Classics (1998) translation is clearer here as elsewhere: “What convinces me that other peoples learnt it as a result of their contact with Egypt is that any Phoenicians who have come into contact with Greece have stopped copying the Egyptians with respect to their genitalia, and do not cut off their children’s foreskins” (134).

5. These include misspellings: “…and the are [sic] of shooting with the bow” (27); “…did you discern in me and [sic] offense…” (42); “a man or [sic] reputation” (134); “…who was a physician and practiced his are [sic] better than any other man of his time.” (184); “…which shall ruin [sic] down on the heads…” (289); “…did not venture to declare and [sic] opinion contrary to that which had been proposed…” (349); “…judging so because the garments are your [sic]” (353); “Of the grain-slaying [sic] transports and other vessels which perished…” (404) There are also instances of a word missing: “…occupying the country towards West as far the [sic] island of Platea…” (249). Sometimes the fault is extra punctuation (“two garments, each and…” 91), or the extra semicolon (“…and fall to the “earth;” 180). At times a comma is wanted but not present: “…to have its name from Libya a woman of the country…” (211). In another instance there is mistaken repetition: “…and here the road parts into two, and that which goes to the left towards Caria, while that which goes to the left leads toward Caria, while that which goes to the right leads to Sardis” (359). The footnote to the story of hemp growing among the Scythians in Book IV (219) seems placed a few sentences too early, as it explains the plant’s intoxicating properties, while Herodotus’ mention of that practice does not come until the next section. One section heading is not in bold-face as it ought to be (section 126 in Book V, 300), and the footnote to the story of Demeter and Persephone appears incorrectly on the following page (434).

6. Likewise on p. 280 Lateiner informs us in his note to the story of Cleisthenes consulting the oracle about Adrastos that concerning the word “stoner,” a “pun is probably buried in the Greek.” Since the Greek λευστῆρα is not provided for those who with the right knowledge could conceivably guess at the pun, and Lateiner does not explain how “stoner” in this context is funny, the note is practically worthless. Does Lateiner have a guess as to what the pun is? If so, why not include the guess? If not, why include the note at all, as it does not explain anything? Similarly, in Book VII, during Mardonios’ discussion of the Greek resistance to his march on Athens, Herodotus writes: “[W]hen they have proclaimed war upon one another, they find out first the fairest and smoothest place, and to this they come down and fight; so that even the victors depart from the fight with great loss, and as to the vanquished, of them I make no mention at all, for they are utterly destroyed” (349). The note that Lateiner attaches to this reads as follows: “A humorous if uncomprehending critique of Hellenic modes of warfare and political disunity. A hoplite was a heavily armored warrior who fought alongside others in a compact formation called a phalanx.” This is true enough and helpful, except that the text itself mentions neither of these terms. Thus one would need to know something about Greek warfare beforehand to make sense of it.

7. This starts with a quote from Shelley and Cicero and concludes with a list of actors in The English Patient and the film’s success in the Academy Awards.

8. These comments are helpful, gathered and arranged in chronological order from Thucydides to Momigliano. The questions, however, four in all, provide little stimulation.

9. “This [Waterfield’s] sometimes superior and always fluent translation remains most valuable for its impressive annotations and recent bibliography” (Lateiner, 504).

10. Lateiner’s verdict on the de Sélincourt edition: “Chatty, somewhat journalistic in tone, flat to some ears; now with extensive and useful annotations” (504).