BMCR 2013.01.23

Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of “The History”

, Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of "The History". Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. xxiii, 329. ISBN 9781421406565. $29.95.


The title is to be taken at face value: this book is a paraphrase of selected passages of the Histories, put together roughly following the sequence of the Herodotean narrative. Thus we have thirteen chapters, from Croesus of Lydia to the siege of Sestus and the withdrawal of the Persians from Europe (479/8): a modern version, we could say, of the Herodotean logoi. It is clearly a hybrid of scholarly work and agreeable reading, leaning towards the latter. This book is aimed mainly at the curiosity of the layman (p. 3), the tone of the anthological selection is humorously non-academic (favourite aspects are ‘sex and violent death and divine prophecies’, p. 2), but a certain amount of bibliography is incorporated (pp. 303-316), the presence of which is notable in the passages where the Herodotean paraphrase gives way, episodically, to a sober presentation of historical and historiographic problems.

A book like this should be useful not only for the general reader, but also for university students, especially in countries where no education in classical languages is regularly provided at the level of high school. But why should the classical scholar be concerned with all this? My first answer is that the modern rewriting of Herodotus involves a process of pulling and rearranging various narratives threads, dispersed through the complex texture of the Histories, and this can highlight connections between diverse passages. Let us consider, for instance, the paragraph on the Corinthian tyrants, Periander’s Dynastic Troubles (pp. 104-106), where the substance of Socles’ speech in book 5 merges into the narrative of 3.48-53, on Periander and Lycophron (pp. 104-106). This is Hamel’s account of Periander’s last attempt to make Lycophron move to Corinth (Hdt. 3.53): ‘His father Cypselus, before he became tyrant of Corinth, had received an oracle from Delphi suggesting that while he and his children would reign in Corinth happily, his children’s children would not. Not surprisingly, then, Periander’s plans came to nothing’. Here we have the insertion of 5.92ε in the narrative of book 3, but the text is not entirely modelled after Herodotus. ‘Not surprisingly’ are Hamel’s words: in this way the modern author connects the two separate stories of the Cypselids, though in doing so she is certainly prompted by the text itself (παίδων γε μὲν οὐκέτι παῖδες in 5.92ε alludes to Lycophron’s misfortunes in book 3). A close scrutiny of the ‘legend of Cypselus’ in Hdt. 5.92 has brought to light a stratum corresponding to an archaic community tradition about Cypselus and his portentous accession to the domination of Corinth.1 The ‘unit’ on the difficult relationship between Periander and Lycophron is connected, of course, to the context of book 3 (3.50.1 ἐπείτε γάρ), but the underlying traditional stratum seems consistent with 5.92: the figure of Lycophron is quite the reverse of Cypselus, and could hardly have been conceived independently of the latter. While Cypselus is the predestined ruler who successfully moves from the margins to the centre, where he gains a dominating position, Lycophron is condemned to roam around (3.51.3, 52.4 ἀλήτην βίον) without reaching home. At the start, Cypselus is the predestined child (5.92β-γ), Lycophron is a seventeen-year-old pais, nearly neos; the former is successful in facing his obstacles, the latter is not. Cypselus is the ὄλβιος ἀνήρ acknowledged by the oracle (5.92 ε2, nr. 8 Parke-Wormell; cf. 5.92 ζ1); conversely, Lycophron’s destiny develops in a frame of ‘misfortune’ (3.50.1 συμφορὴν … ἄλλην). It should be admitted that one of the strata of this Corinthian oral tradition, from the 7th century to the age of Herodotus, included the saga of Periander and his minor son. It would be of course a 6th-century level of tradition. Hamel is very far from being interested in these details and in topics like ‘strata of oral tradition’, but her presentation of the Cypselid stories in Herodotus seems quite effective in highlighting their continuity.

The second main reason why a classical scholar should be interested in Hamel’s book is less positive, and concerns the image of the Histories emerging from her choice of ‘juicy bits’ (p. 3). This is not only because a narrative ‘filled with sex and violent death and divine prophecies’ (p. 2) is hardly a correct representation of Herodotus’ Histories for any kind of reader. The real risk in a ‘good parts’ version of Herodotus lies elsewhere. Though Hamel correctly depicts the general frame of the Histories (the ‘inexorable expansion of Persia that led to its collision with Greece’, p. 7), a non-specialist reader will hardly be able to perceive the grand Herodotean structure with the sole aid of her guide: the anecdotal approach of Reading Herodotus does not allow for a clear and adequate appreciation of the ancient text. The Herodotus that emerges from these pages is a bipolar, or multipolar, personality, shifting from the oriental adventures of Gyges and Candaules to the striking Scythian customs or the Indian habits of copulating in public, culminating incongruously with the great battles of Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale. But this criticism is not aimed exclusively at the popular approach chosen by Hamel. It contains an implicit warning, perhaps valuable for every modern student of the Histories. The habit of using them in nuggets, the practice of micronising Herodotus – in both the literary and the historical-philological lines of interpretation – are pernicious; therefore Hamel’s book is the mirror where scholars can see their own, if deformed, face. The starting and the final point of a Herodotean research must always be the overview of the text as a whole. Hamel aims very honestly at providing a personal view of the ancient historian, and does not claim completeness; however, she fails to notice and emphasise some important structural facts, such as the pivotal role of Socles’ speech within the framework of the Histories : what this Corinthian says against tyranny gains its full sense from the standpoint of political debates in the age of Herodotus, as everyone knows since the publication of a famous study by Hermann Strasburger (not in Hamel’s bibliography).2 The dangerous growth of empires is the main concern of Herodotus, underlying every part of his work: the Ionian revolt or Xerxes’ expedition, of course, but also the ethnographies in the first five books. Are these ethnographies anything else than Herodotus’ monumental praise to the diversity of cultures, to the identity of communities which are both separate bodies and strands of larger networks intertwined through enriching contacts? These cultures preexist and in some measure resist the expanding force of the Persian empire; the Greek resistance to the Persian invaders is simply the most conspicuous chapter of that history. Within this framework Herodotus developed his historical thinking in the second part of the fifth century BC, inspired by the rise of another empire, that of the Athenians themselves. A selection of passages based on these criteria would account for the conceptual architecture of the Herodotean enterprise, but it could be too complicated: it would virtually coincide, I believe, with the entire extension of the Histories.3


1. M. Giangiulio, ‘Tradizione storica e strategie narrative nelle Storie di Erodoto. Il caso del discorso di Socle corinzio’, in Erodoto e il ‘modello erodoteo’. Formazione e trasmissione delle tradizioni storiche in Grecia, ed. by Id., Trento 2005, pp. 91-122; Id., ‘Oracoli esametrici a Corinto arcaica tra epos e tradizione orale’, in Tra panellenismo e tradizioni locali: generi poetici e storiografia, ed. by E. Cingano, Alessandria 2010, pp. 411-431; O. Salati, ‘Cipselo nel discorso di Socle (Hdt. 5.92): indagine sulla stratigrafia di una tradizione’, forthcoming in QUCC.

2. H. Strasburger, ‘Herodot und das perikleische Athen’, Historia 4 (1955), pp. 1-25.

3. Some observations on minor points. As a translation of ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις from the proem, Hamel adopts ‘the researches … which he publishes’ (p. 1), which is far from obvious (see Lexicon historiographicum Graecum et Latinum, II, Pisa 2007, pp. 65-73). The division into paragraphs, of course, does not date back to antiquity, as one might understand from what is written at p. 5. The most detailed bibliographical discussion is that of the appendix (pp. 291-292, on the return of the Persian heralds in 7.131-132), but one cannot help wondering why this topic in particular is chosen to be deepened, while some major problems are treated quite superficially in the course of the exposition (cf. in particular pp. 11-13 on true history and false history).