Herodotus, the Homer of European prose

The Hellenist John Herington once called Herodotus a literary “centaur”, because from the front he looks like a rational intellectual, but his rear parts belong to a primitive creature of the wild. Herodotus’ pioneering prose treatise sought to explain the nature of the world he inhabited, in the mid-fifth century BC, from the events that had taken place across the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during the reigns of four Persian kings – Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes. These culminated in the victory of Greece over Persia in 480–479 BC. Herodotus, the “father of history”, often uses rational explanations, backed up by evidence. But he also includes many traditional stories and legends, with patently fantastic elements, derived from poems, fables and oral tradition. Herodotus therefore needs a versatile translator who appreciates his hybridity. Enter Tom Holland, a distinguished and highly readable author of both historical non-fiction dealing with ancient empires (Persian Fire, Rubicon, Millennium, The Shadow of the Sword) and popular fantasy novels. He knows more than most of us about how to evoke both real and imagined scenarios with economy, elegance and gusto. Although there is no shortage of rival translations on the market, the Herodotus of Holland has therefore been eagerly awaited.

This is a twenty-first-century Herodotus. It is a Herodotus whose tongue is often in his cheek: the conflict between Greeks and Persians began long ago with “a bout of competitive princess-rustling”. It is a Herodotus who can speak directly to modern capitalism: the Phoenicians “began investing heavily in the long-distance shipping business”, exporting goods “to a wide variety of markets”. Arion, the travelling poet, “raked in an absolute fortune”. It is a Herodotus who knows the language in which powerful men are described today: Peisistratus the tyrant was attended by a retinue of “heavies”. Cyrus is described as “eye-balling” Croesus from his rival camp.

But this is also the Herodotus of a translator who respects the old-fashioned niceties of rhetoric and prose style. Herodotus was the Homer of European prose, who almost single-handedly dragged writing without the aid of metre from pedestrian parataxis to an exquisite art form. He was criticized even in antiquity for being factually unreliable, but his literary style was universally praised by eminent critics, including Longinus, for its sweetness and charm. Many sentences in Herodotus are breathtakingly beautiful; he mirrors content in aural effect (long plangent vowels when people are bereaved; crescendo as the Nile rises) and is a master of delicate insinuation of his own reserve or bafflement. Holland works tirelessly to do justice to Herodotus’ easy flow, dazzling diction and intermittently faux-naïf tone. He preserves the different rhetorical styles of Herodotus’ diverse speakers. We gain a strong impression of Herodotean hyperbaton, rhythm and chiasmus often ignored by previous translators: “In peacetime it is sons who bury their fathers – but in times of war, it is fathers who bury their sons”. Judicious parentheses steer us deftly through some of Herodotus’ more convoluted sequences. One crucial Herodotean stylistic feature is almost impossible to translate – the use of lonely, elevated polysyllabic words near the beginning or end of a sentence, anchoring the reader’s emotional reaction. But Holland ingeniously substitutes an arresting or unusual locution. He rarely forgets that Herodotus wrote in order to deliver live performances, rather than to be pored over in a library. Much of his translation is ripe for oral delivery.

From the respectful reproduction of the first, sonorous period with which Herodotus announces his objectives, to the ironic flashback to the glory days of Persian army discipline under Cyrus with which the History concludes, Holland’s text makes for energizing reading. He has understood that Herodotus’ protean work is united by the philosophical question of human happiness, and in particular the demonstration that happiness cannot be guaranteed by power or wealth. This ethical grip on the overarching storyline makes Holland’s unquestionably the best English translation of Herodotus to have appeared in the past half-century, and there have been quite a few. It knocks out of the water the colourless, trudging “Landmark Herodotus” of Andrea Purvis (2007). It is more pleasurable to read than Robin Waterfield’s worthy but slightly flat 1998 translation for Oxford World’s Classics, and is comparably accurate. David Grene, a fine Hellenist, prose artist and judge of translation, should have done better with Herodotus than he did in 1987 for the University of Chicago Press: his Herodotus sometimes archaizes painfully (“It is sweet to hear of the good hap of one who is a friend”) and is mystifyingly reluctant to translate the ancient Greek word for tyrant (turannos) as “tyrant”.

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