Rehabilitating Herodotus (Updated)
Karl Barth famously enjoined the preacher to mount the pulpit with “the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.” For forty years I have tried to follow Barth’s counsel, but the object of choice, held lightly in my left hand, is not the newspaper, but (chauvinist that I am) The New Yorker.
The current issue offers a striking essay by Daniel Mendelsohn on a new edition of Herodotus’ Histories. The central drama recounted by the “father of history” is the double invasion of tiny Greece by the military prowess of Persia, led first by King Darius and, ten years later, by his son, Xerxes. Here is Mendelsohn’s resume:
And yet, for all their might, both Persian expeditions came to grief. The first, after a series of military and natural disasters, was defeated at the Battle of Marathon, where a fabulously outnumbered coalition of Athenians and Plataeans held the day, losing only a hundred and ninety-two men to the Persians’ sixty-four hundred. (The achievement was such that the Greeks, breaking with their tradition of taking their dead back to their cities, buried them on the battlefield and erected a grave mound over the spot. It can still be seen today.) Ten years later, Darius’ son Xerxes returned to Greece, having taken over the preparations for an even vaster invasion. Against all odds, the scrappy Greek coalition—this one including ultraconservative Sparta, usually loath to get involved in Panhellenic doings—managed to resist yet again.
But, Mendelsohn, preacher-like, is not content merely to recount, he is intent to press the moral. So, at the end of a longish, but always stimulating, homily, we hear:
the contemporary reader is likely to come away from this ostensibly archaic epic with the sense of something remarkably familiar, even contemporary. That cinematic style, with its breathtaking wide shots expertly alternating with heart-stopping closeups. The daring hybrid genre that integrates into a grand narrative both flights of empathetic fictionalizing and the anxious, footnote-prone self-commentary of the obsessive, perhaps even neurotic amateur scholar. (To many readers, the Histories may feel like something David Foster Wallace could have dreamed up.) A postmodern style that continually calls attention to the mechanisms of its own creation and peppers a sprawling narrative with any item of interest, however tangentially related to the subject at hand.
Then, there is the story itself. A great power sets its sights on a smaller, strange, and faraway land—an easy target, or so it would seem. Led first by a father and then, a decade later, by his son, this great power invades the lesser country twice. The father, so people say, is a bland and bureaucratic man, far more temperate than the son; and, indeed, it is the second invasion that will seize the imagination of history for many years to come. For although it is far larger and more aggressive than the first, it leads to unexpected disaster. Many commentators ascribe this disaster to the flawed decisions of the son: a man whose bluster competes with, or perhaps covers for, a certain hollowness at the center; a leader who is at once hobbled by personal demons (among which, it seems, is an Oedipal conflict) and given to grandiose gestures, who at best seems incapable of comprehending, and at worst is simply incurious about, how different or foreign his enemy really is. Although he himself is unscathed by the disaster he has wreaked, the fortunes and the reputation of the country he rules are seriously damaged. A great power has stumbled badly, against all expectations.
Except, of course, the expectations of those who have read the Histories. If a hundred generations of men, from the Athenians to ourselves, have learned nothing from this work, whose apparent wide-eyed naïveté conceals, in the end, an irresistible vision of the way things always seem to work out, that is their fault and not the author’s. Time always tells, as he himself knew so well. However silly he may once have looked, Herodotus, it seems, has had the last laugh.
Once again dotCommonweal shows the way. Since dotCom declared Herodotus rehabilitated, the New York Review of Books can only echo the verdict. In its current issue Peter Green examines the new translation and commentary, and concludes:
The neophyte reader will certainly get a very great deal, even allowing for its gaps, from The Landmark Herodotus: an up-to-date translation, a superb analytic index, several background essays by experts (on Egypt, Sparta, Scythia, and the Black Sea especially) that are the last word on current scholarship, intelligent illustrations geared to the text, running lessons in Mediterranean geography, occasional useful notes, and a handy glossary. But it is a volume to consult, in study or library, rather than carry around; the latter purpose is still best served—faute de mieux, and despite its highly un-Herodotean translation—by John Marincola’s new 2003 annotated edition of the translation published by Aubrey de Sélincourt in 1954. So there remains a help-in-trouble gap to be filled, for students and common readers alike—and, of course, Herodotus’ workshop still has secrets in plenty waiting to be solved. His rehabilitation has only deepened the enigma. [Emphasis added]