Books interview: Herodotus’s ‘The Histories’

Tom Holland has spent almost nine years producing a new translation of Herodotus's The Histories, widely credited as the founding work of non-fiction in the western world. Here, he talks to Matt Elton about its importance, and the insights it can offer us into the classical age

Bust of Herodotus.

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Are we right to see Herodotus’s work as genuinely revolutionary?

Yes. Not only is it the first work of history, it’s also the first work of non-fiction, so it’s the first attempt to portray the reality of the world. And so, in that sense, it’s the start of the process that has culminated in the enormous array of information that we now have on the internet. Wikipedia’s ambition to contain all the knowledge of the world begins with Herodotus.

What is moving about it is that we are so habituated to the presumption that we can understand the world in terms of non-fiction that it takes an enormous leap to understand that what Herodotus was doing had never been done before, and so the revolutionary quality of his work cannot be overestimated.

What was Herodotus’s ambition when he started writing?

In the very first sentence of the very first work of history ever written, Herodotus says that his ambition is to explain what it was that led the Greeks and the barbarians to go to war. But ultimately what he demonstrates is his understanding that he lives in a world in which something like that requires an explanation, essentially, of the entire world. He sees it as a world war: a world in which Asia and Europe, barbarians and Greeks, and the imperatives that drive them into conflict, cannot be summed up without reference to the entire sweep of world history.

Do we get a sense of how he went about writing the work?

We do. He is at pains to demonstrate how it was that he came by his evidence, and in the course of his history alludes to the different types of evidence. For instance, he tells us that he had spoken to someone who had sat next to a Persian just before the battle of Plataea, the last great battle in which the Persians were defeated. And with that he gives us a sense of what the state of Persian morale was on the eve of this battle, and it sends a shiver down the spine. Because what you have there is access to someone’s speech, someone’s opinion, 2,500 years ago.

Herodotus’s history is also ethnographic. He’s the first travel writer: he gives us detailed accounts of Egypt, of Scythia, of Babylonia. There has been much debate, and some scepticism, as to whether he actually went to these places. It seems to me indisputable that he was indeed a widely travelled man. He must have gone to Egypt, and probably to Babylonia. That he sometimes gets things wrong is proof to me, not that he was a liar, but of the authenticity of his experience as a traveller in foreign and bewildering lands.

You’ve said that the work shows how alien Greek culture was

Herodotus is amazingly alert to the relative quality of custom. He has this famous story in which he describes Darius, the king of the Persians, summoning people, Greeks and Indians, from the margins of his empire. Darius says to the Greeks, who burn their dead: “What would it take for you to eat your parents when they’re dead?” And the Greeks throw their hands up in horror and say nothing. Then he turns to the Indians, who eat their dead as a matter of custom – so Herodotus says – and asks: “What would it take for you to burn your dead?” and they also throw their hands up in horror.

Now there’s a further dimension to that: Herodotus is taking as his standard not a Greek, but a Persian, which is amazing.

It’s really important to emphasise that he is amazingly alert to how various human culture is: far more so, I would suggest, than many a columnist writing now.

Such tales occur throughout the work. Are there any similar diversions that you think are particularly instructive?

I first read Herodotus when I was very young, because I got obsessed with the Persian wars. I got the two volumes from the library, and read that opening sentence and thought, “Brilliant, it’s going to tell me all about Marathon, and Thermopylae, and this is what I want.” And I was slightly gobsmacked that he was veering off all over the place, like a huge shaggy dog story. He does say within his narrative that digressions are part of his plan, however he makes no apologies for it.

When I was young, I was frustrated: I wanted to cut to the chase, to get to Marathon and Thermopylae. Now, I just wish that there had been more digression, because there’s not one that isn’t interesting. And put together, the effect is to give us an absolutely unrivalled portrait of a world that has been dead and gone for 2,500 years. We would just know infinitely less about that period without Herodotus and his digressions.

How much of a surprise was it that the Persians lost in 479 BC?

Well, on the one hand, Herodotus gives a sense that the whole of Asia is coming against Greece. The figures he gives for the invasion are astronomical, running into the millions. So in that context, the fact that the Persians do not conquer comes as a remarkable fact, and Herodotus essentially attributes it to Xerxes’ pride: the gods have been angered, and his defeat really is willed by them.

There’s an alternative perspective, which Herodotus is honest enough to acknowledge, which is that, man for man, the Persians are just as brave as the Greeks. So it’s not as if Herodotus is chauvinist in any way. He’s not saying that the Persians are feeble, or soft, effeminate: he says they’re just as tough as the Greeks, but that they lack the equipment. So in the account of the battle of Plataea he says that essentially it’s not just Spartan courage, it’s military equipment that enables them to win. And I think that there you have the sense of a different tradition in which you can see that what is against the Persians is essentially the physical conditions: the fact the landscape is hard, that there are storms, that these things combine to whittle down what would otherwise be an overwhelming numerical superiority.

Do you hope that readers come away with a new impression of Herodotus?

I just hope that I can persuade people that it’s worth picking up a book that might seem off-putting. I mean, it’s very big, and was written 2,500 years ago by a bloke with a long white beard. But I can’t emphasise enough, this is a hugely readable book: so entertaining, and inexhaustible, with surprising and unexpected things on every page.

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Tom Holland is the author of Herodotus: The Histories – A New Translation (Penguin Classics)