BMCR 2008.07.35

A Commentary on Herodotus I-IV

, , , , , A commentary on Herodotus books I-IV. Edited by Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. lv, 721 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780198149569. £165.00.

In the last decade or so, studies of Herodotus have flourished in the English-speaking world. However, apart from new commentaries for books VIII and IX in the Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ series1 and Lionel Scott’s historical commentary of book VI,2 there has been no general commentary of the whole of Herodotus’ text to support this new and exciting raft of scholarship except the tired and very outdated work of How and Wells from the beginning of the 20th century.3 As a result, the English translation (edited by Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno) of the Italian Mondadori commentary has been eagerly anticipated. The first volume, which contains a general introduction by David Asheri, and commentaries with introductions to books I to IV of Herodotus’ Histories by Asheri, Lloyd and Corcella, Herodotean scholars of some considerable distinction, certainly lives up to those expectations.

As Murray explains in the Preface, while the original task was to prepare a translation of the Italian series, the three authors also engaged in producing sometimes extensive revisions of their original texts: Asheri revised and up-dated the commentary on book III and virtually re-wrote the General Introduction and the commentary to book I; Lloyd prepared a new edition of his commentary on book II; and Corcella revised and up-dated the commentary to book IV. The main work of revision was brought to a close by Asheri’s death in 2000, but, notably, Corcella’s bibliography is current at least to 2006. The result of this effort was a volume which is enriched by its patch-work of different parts and varying styles, but which, never the less, manages to achieve an overall coherence of purpose and direction. Although there could have been a closer interweaving in some places of the different sections and commentaries of individual books, all three authors share a similar vision of Herodotus, his purposes and his techniques, so that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.

But that is not to diminish the greatness of the parts. Asheri’s General Introduction lays a strong and coherent foundation for the whole work. For Asheri, Herodotus is a ‘curious, restless, and exceptionally intelligent man’, who created a set of analytical procedures which ‘stand for what can be seen as the proto-historical phase of historical critical thought’. Yet Herodotus, in Asheri’s view, is more philosopher than historian in that he was more interested in patterns and paradigms and in what can happen rather than what did happen. As a result, while Asheri does not subscribe to a current view that Herodotus wrote the Histories as a warning specifically to the Athenian empire, he does argue (as also does Corcella) that Herodotus wrote as a general warning for all empire-builders and would-be tyrants. However, Herodotus is also a story-teller and a man of science, and Asheri bring out clearly the ways in which Herodotus needs to be located within these two intellectual fields.

Indeed, for Asheri (as also for Lloyd and Corcella), the Histories share a unified thought, that is to tell of the wonders of both the Greeks and the barbarians and to explain the causes of the war between them. One of Herodotus’ greatest achievements was his ‘discovery or invention of universal historical space’, and the task he set himself, according to Asheri, was to locate Greek culture and experience within it. This new awareness of a wider spatial and historical field is reflected in the structuring of the whole work around individual logoi. Asheri argues that these developed out of originally independent treatises, which Herodotus came to realise could be brought together to weave a larger and more comprehensive story. In line with this composition from individual logoi, Asheri also shows how Herodotus’ separate histories are basically linear after the pattern of the genealogists, so that for him universal history is also linear, as well as being cyclical, following the pattern of rise, acme, and fall of empires. Never the less, Asheri contends, the text of Herodotus that we have is not complete; or at least the end as it stands (with Cyrus’ advice to the Persians) is not Herodotus’ ending (he argues that an epilogue is missing), so we should not see in the final chapters a didactic message to symbolise and conclude the whole work.

The General Introduction on its own represents an important and original piece of scholarship on Herodotus as a whole, but also provides an important framework for the commentaries that are to follow.

Asheri was also responsible for the commentary on book I. In the introduction, Asheri argues that the unity of the book ‘does not reside in its compilation, but in the ethical, historical and philosophical spirit that pervades it’. This is particularly evident in relation to Herodotus’ understanding of the cyclical patterning of universal history, which relates to Greeks and barbarians equally. Asheri’s commentary then goes on to provide a treasure-trove of detail, both explaining points arising from the text and also going far beyond it. For example, we learn that while Herodotus calls Croesus tyrannos, Croesus seems to have at least sometimes called himself basileus in Greek (note on 6.1), that Candaules is not really a name but a cult title connected to the Carian cult of the dog (7.2), that the idea of a ‘second prize’ was non-aristocratic and non-Homeric (31.1), that in the archaic period the Delphic oracle was only open one day a year (47.1), that mina is a loan word from Semitic (51.2), that Agesilaus introduced camels into Greece in 395 BC (80.2), and that in antiquity there was more than one account of the death of Cyrus (note on 210-16). He also provides a structure for the book, defining, for example, individual logoi (the Assyrian logos, according to Asheri, contains enough material to have originally been an independent monograph). The richness of the detail is undermined by the lack of a general index, however, so that many individual points, which provide so much of the colour and vitality, may prove difficult to retrieve.

Lloyd provides the introduction and commentary for book II. In this book, Lloyd argues, Herodotus concentrates on providing an account of ‘wonders’, while the ‘moral and didactic element of the prologue is evident throughout’. Lloyd defines Herodotus’ methods of enquiry according to opsis, gnome, historie, and akoe, and he returns to each of these critical modes throughout the commentary. Furthermore, he argues that the accuracy of Herodotus’ Egyptian logos is not determined by his sources, but by his cast of mind, influenced by science, epic and a ‘Greek curiosity’.

However, of all the commentaries, the one for this book is the least satisfactory. It represents, to a disappointing degree, a distillation of Lloyd’s earlier commentary on Book II (seminal though it was).4 Sometimes the reader is explicitly referred to the earlier text (for example, the complications involving Herodotus’ account of the hippopotamus are not repeated from the first commentary), though often an abbreviated or summarised account of earlier explanations is provided (for example, an explanation of the myth of the phoenix). Nevertheless, corrections are made (at 76.1 the name of the ibis is corrected to geronticus eremita), new material is added (for example at 81.2 new material on Orphism is added, later the discussion of the pyramids is fuller than in the earlier treatment, and the discussion of the Hellenion at Naucratis is up-dated), interesting and helpful comment on grammatical points are made (the earlier commentary provided no grammatical assistance), and the bibliography is brought up-to-date.

With book III we return to Asheri, who argues that the book was put together from a series of Persian logoi, ‘sometimes moral or symbolic in content, purposefully chained together by means of chronological links’. Two of the central themes of the book, Asheri claims tyranny and freedom, though (as he had set out in the General Introduction) this should not be equated with the continental division between Greece and Asia. Rather freedom and slavery are human problems and both Greeks and Asians can desire freedom or be brought under the influence of tyranny. In this way, book III prepares the way for the parallel accounts of Greeks and Persians in the last three books of the Histories.

The centre-piece of the commentary, however, is Asheri’s brilliant account of the Constitutional Debate at chapters 80-82. As Asheri notes, there are a number of puzzling aspects concerning the debate, not least the fact that it is to all intents and purposes a ‘Greek’ debate on Greek ideas given to Persians. There were other occasions which might have obviously been more appropriate for rehearsing such arguments (particularly, the events surrounding the rise of Peisistratus, for example). Asheri explains, however, that its significance here is complex, and is based on the fact that Herodotus comes to terms with and explains a Persian constitutional crisis through Greek eyes. Although the alternatives open to the Persians would not have been those presented, Herodotus, on the one hand, needed to understand the problems through a familiar framework, and, on the other, wanted to record the ‘wonder’ (the thoma) that this crisis produced. He also had a general project and methodological purpose of shortening the distance between Greeks and barbarians and showing that it was not only Greeks who needed to resolve these kinds of problems, and that ‘democracy’ and freedom were not specifically Greek inventions.

After book III, the commentary on book IV is a further triumph. Corcella argues that the Scythian logos of book IV has much in common with the Egyptian logos of book II, and in fact suggests that the two books originally formed a pair (a fascinating and immediately plausible argument which unfortunately is not really developed). He also argues that the account of Darius’ invasion of Scythia was interwoven into this original monograph, and that Herodotus not only did not check all the details of Darius’ campaign, but also allowed a certain amount of narrative invention in Darius’ wanderings in order to provide an excuse for an exposition on the furthest reaches of Scythia. Indeed, by allowing himself this license, Herodotus remains true to the overall purposes and themes of the work as a whole, and that book IV can be taken as a paradigm of Herodotus’ approach, and continues to fulfil brilliantly the task he had set himself — to tell of the wondrous deeds and to give an account of the causes of the war.

The commentary in book IV then moves effortlessly through Scythian landscapes and customs, as well as Libya and north Africa, and shows itself informed not only of (difficult to access) eastern European bibliography on the Black Sea region, but also current discussions of ethnography and conceptual geography. Furthermore, the account maintains a deep sympathy for Herodotus and his purposes, while at the same understanding that he is moving between often different, and even contradictory, conceptual frameworks (for example, Herodotus can think of Scythia according to one schema divided by rivers, and at another time as a square). However, he also demonstrates the ways in which book IV, although, problematic, makes a clear link to book V, and opposes Scythian freedom to Ionian slavery.

There is no doubt that this commentary provides a monumental and enduring contribution to the study of Herodotus and his Histories. It is magnificent both in the general and in the particular. The General Introduction is written with an awareness of the whole and provides a framework for it. Themes of Herodotus as story-teller, scientist and teacher are introduced here, as well as ideas about structure, and analytical framework. The individual commentaries of books, in their different and idiosyncratic ways, then work this through. In fact, one of the strengths of the volume as a whole is the joint vision of Herodotus as an investigative journalist who, according to what is open to him, tries to find the truth, but also as a philosopher and story-teller, who wants to set these small truths within a larger framework of truth about what the world is, how it works, and what will be. On one level, it is not a volume for undergraduates. Only Lloyd makes concessions for the undergraduate reader of Greek. Nevertheless, the ideas presented, especially in the introductions, are those undergraduates working on Herodotus need to understand. Further, as a coherent volume it has some problems — there could (and probably should) have been more inter-locking referencing between commentaries. As a whole, however, it presents a striking unity of thought, and is all the more persuasive for that. This is a vast and complex volume and represents a major contribution not only to the study of Herodotus, but the ancient world (east and west) as well. I had my doubts along the way, but my heart was glad at the end.


1. A. M. Bowie, Herodotus: Histories Book VIII, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008; M. A. Flower and J. M. Marincola, Herodotus: Histories Book IX, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.

2. L. Scott, Historical commentary on Herodotus Book 6, Brill, Leiden, 2005.

3. W. W. How and J. Wells, A commentary on Herodotus, 2 vols, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1912.

4. A. B. Lloyd, Herodotus Book II, 3 vols, Brill, Leiden, 1975-88.