BMCR 2020.08.24

Herodotus. Histories. Book V

, Herodotus. Histories. Book V. Aris & Phillips classical texts. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019. ix, 263 p.. ISBN9781789620153 £22.99 (pb).

Professor Rhodes’ edition of Book 5 is the first book of Herodotus’ Histories to appear in the Aris and Phillips series, which aims to accommodate readers with rudimentary knowledge of ancient Greek. (Rhodes plans a companion edition of Book 6 to carry the narrative of Greco-Persian conflict through the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.) The choice of this book is a good fit for the editor’s primarily historical interests, as it includes Herodotus’ accounts of the Ionian Revolt; the end of the Peisistratid tyranny and the beginning of more democratic rule in Athens; and Spartan attempts to expand its political influence in Greece beyond the Peloponnese. The book also contains some of Herodotus’ most memorable literary creations—characters, scenes, and speeches introduced to underscore important historical moments, such as Aristagoras’ brazen attempt to secure military aid from the Spartan king Cleomenes, and the Corinthian Socles’ pivotal speech opposing the Spartan re-establishment of tyrannical rule in Athens.

This edition includes an introduction with bibliography, a Greek text with facing English translation, and a commentary of approximately 100 pages.

The introduction is suitably substantial and covers essential background to orient the novice, although even Herodotean veterans will find points of interest along the way. Rhodes lucidly covers the evidence for Herodotus’ life, the ‘publication’ of the Histories (likely to have involved public recitals before full written publication in the mid-420’s), and Herodotus’ use of (primarily oral) sources. In judging the reliability of Herodotus’ hotly debated source citations, Rhodes advocates a middle course between extreme skepticism and extreme credulity, in the belief that Herodotus probably “wrote what he honestly thought he remembered” (11), although his memory may have failed him occasionally. Rhodes makes an explicit exception of the Persian Constitutional Debate, which he considers (despite repeated Herodotean claims to the contrary) a product of 5th-century Greece rather than 6th-century Persia.

In discussing Herodotus’ language, narrative techniques, and beliefs, Rhodes rightly acknowledges the importance of Homeric precedent: his epics serve as a model for Herodotus’ long narrative, set in multiple locales and enlivened by frequent speeches and occasional epic locutions. Moreover, Rhodes finds further justification for Pseudo-Longinus’ description of Herodotus as “most Homeric” at a deeper thematic level. He endorses John Gould’s view that Herodotus’ focus on the vulnerability of human existence and prosperity, his “sympathetic engagement with human suffering” (18),[1] has distinctly Homeric roots.

Other topics addressed by Rhodes include Herodotus’ political beliefs and the extent to which the Historiesacknowledge or allude to political developments in the Greek world that took place after the end of the narrative in 479. Rhodes shares the now popular view that Herodotus is neither pro-Athenian nor pro-Spartan, and in broad terms prefers free constitutional government over one-man rule (whether Oriental monarchy or Greek tyranny). As for the relationship between Herodotus’ narrative of the past and contemporary Hellenic politics (especially the polarization between imperial Athens and Sparta, with their respective allies), Rhodes defends the conservative view that Herodotus’ primary objective is the one he announces explicitly in his opening sentence—i.e., to write about great deeds of the past in Homeric fashion.

Rhodes devotes the second section of his introduction (pp. 34-43) to the history of contact and conflict between the Greeks and Persians, from the Hellenic migrations to the Aegean islands and Asian coast during the Dark Age through the invasion of Xerxes and its aftermath. The introduction concludes with an outline summary of Book 5, which helps the reader navigate the complexities of the text, with its frequent changes of place and time, and demonstrates (inter alia) Herodotus’ enthusiastic embrace of analepsis: almost half of the book consists of flashbacks into Spartan and Athenian history (chaps. 39-97), which help explain the divergent reactions of the two communities when Aristagoras comes calling in search of military aid against the Persians.

The depth and breadth of erudition that Rhodes brings to bear upon the text can be gleaned from his lists of references at pp. vii-ix (collections of inscriptions, other prose and poetic texts, and journals in various languages) and pp. 45-48 (a select bibliography of Herodotean texts, commentaries, translations, and reference works). One work that Rhodes cites often throughout his commentary is R. J. A. Talbert’s Barrington Atlas,[2] which helps to compensate for the minimal cartographic resources available in this volume: three black-and-white maps (a page each for Magna Graecia, Greece and the Aegean, and the Near East) that precede the introduction.

Rhodes describes the Greek text that he prints as his own in “all the substantial matters which seemed to call for a decision” (Preface p. v), while following N. G. Wilson’s 2015 Oxford Text with regard to the spelling of Herodotus’ eastern Ionic dialect. In terms of general editorial practice, Rhodes parts company with Wilson in his greater willingness to defend rather than emend the transmitted text. The text (like others in the Aris and Phillips series) has a minimal apparatus criticus; in his commentary Rhodes often discusses and justifies his choices, persuasively to my mind. True to his conservative textual creed, Rhodes introduces only a single conjecture of his own into the text (at 66.1).

In the Preface (p. v) Rhodes declares that the primary task of his translation is “to express the meaning accurately in good English,” which has resulted in his changing Herodotus’ sentence structure on occasion. To give readers some small sense of the result, here in Rhodes’ rendition is the opening of the speech given by the Corinthian Socles to the Spartans and their allies at 5.92:

”Indeed heaven will be below the earth and earth up in the air above the heaven, and mankind will have a life in the sea and fish the life which mankind previously had, when you, Spartans, are prepared to overthrow equalities of power and restore tyrannies to the cities, something than which nothing is more unjust among mankind or more bloodthirsty.”

For comparative purposes, here is the same passage as translated by Robin Waterfield:[3]

“Whatever next?” he said. “Will the heavens be under the earth and the earth up in the sky on top of the heavens? Will men habitually live in the sea and fish live where men did before? It’s a topsy-turvy world if you Lacedaimonians are really planning to abolish equal rights and restore tyrants to their states, when there is nothing known to man that is more unjust or bloodthirsty than tyranny.”

However brief the sample, the juxtaposition underscores both strengths and weaknesses of Rhodes’ approach. On the one hand, and despite his stated concern about infidelity to Herodotus’ text, Rhodes in this instance (and as a general rule) reproduces the sentence structure of the original almost without deviation. The result is unquestionably accurate if occasionally awkward (“something than which…”). By contrast, Waterfield’s translation is freer and livelier, turning a long single declaration into a series of indignant questions that are truer to the spirit than the letter of Herodotus’ text. Rhodes’ more conservative approach is appropriate, however, given the purpose and the audience of this edition.

In his commentary (as in his introduction) Rhodes claims to have been “particularly but not exclusively concerned with the subject-matter: the history which Herodotus narrates, and how and why he narrates it as he does” (Preface, pp. v-vi). Of course the “history” that Herodotus narrates is famously wide-ranging, which requires that an editor be well versed in a wide variety of fields: not just history in the modern sense but also “deep” history (legend or myth), ethnography, geography, prosopography, epigraphy, and religion, among others. In short, Professor Rhodes has a masterful command of this wide spectrum of knowledge, and a gift for expressing it clearly and concisely. Rhodes serves the needs of readers new to Herodotus in various ways. For example, he consistently notes how Herodotus organizes his narrative by means of ring composition and analepsis. His descriptions of the nuts and bolts of the Athenian and Spartan governmental systems are clear without being reductive. He intervenes as necessary to explain potentially mystifying aspects of Greek religious practice, like the status of the local gods Damia and Auxesia, whose theft explains the origins of the hostility between Athens and Aegina (chaps. 82-86); or the hero cult established for the decapitated Cyprian rebel Onesilaus after a swarm of bees builds a honeycomb in his head (chap. 114).

At the same time, seasoned Herodoteans will appreciate his even-handed citation and assessment of previous scholarship, including frequent references (some approving, some dissenting) to Simon Hornblower’s recent edition of book five in the Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ series.[4] A sample passage where Rhodes must entangle all manner of scholarly problems is the post-tyranny transition in Athens to Cleisthenes’ rule (chaps. 66-81), where his discussion is informed by a wide range of primary witnesses (Thucydides, Plutarch, and the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians for starters) and secondary scholarship from the likes of Sarah Forsdyke, Ernst Badian, and Josiah Ober. Rhodes wears his learning lightly, and seldom lets his scholarship impede intelligibility.

On occasion Rhodes’ historical focus prevents him from acknowledging points of broader narratological and literary interest. I have in mind especially one of my favorite scenes in book five, Aristagoras’ visit to Sparta and King Cleomenes in search of allies in the Ionian Revolt against Darius. In this scene (5.49-51) Herodotus gives his readers yet another reason to dislike Aristagoras: he attempts (unsuccessfully) to pass himself off as an enquirer, like Herodotus, armed with geographical and ethnographical knowledge to inform a crucial political decision. He brandishes a map (recalling Herodotus’ own cartographic interests), describes the various foreign peoples en routeto Sousa in much the same way that Herodotus describes non-Greek populations, and even adapts Herodotus’ signature superlative phrase in describing the Phrygians as “the richest in flocks of all whom I know, and in crops” (49.5). And yet Aristagoras repeatedly exaggerates the ease of conquering all of Asia, and ultimately defeats his own purpose by telling Cleomenes that the trip from Sardis to Sousa would last three months. As Herodotus wryly observes, Aristagoras “slipped” in this regard: “for he ought not to have told the truth, if he wanted to lead the Spartiates to Asia” (50.2). Rhodes declines to comment, when he might have called attention to both Herodotus’ humor and the crucial difference thus drawn between Aristagoras’ misleading historiē and its truth-based Herodotean counterpart.[5]

Nonetheless, this scarcely diminishes Rhodes’ impressive achievement throughout. This edition marks an auspicious beginning for Herodotus in the Aris and Phillips series; it provides a lucid and learned introduction to an author whose boundless curiosity requires informed explication by a “wise advisor” indeed, and Professor Rhodes unquestionably fills the bill. It is difficult for me to imagine, on this scale, a more informative historical commentary on book five.


[1] J. Gould, Herodotus(New York, 1989) 132.

[2] R. J. A. Talbert, ed., Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton 2000).

[3] R. Waterfield, Herodotus The Histories, with introduction and notes by C. Dewald (Oxford, 1998).

[4] S. Hornblower, ed., Herodotus Histories Book V (Cambridge 2013).

[5] D. Branscome, Textual Rivals: Self-Presentation in Herodotus’ Histories (Ann Arbor, 2013) 105-49.