Telling Tales

Peter Green is the author of "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age" and is visiting professor of history at the University of Iowa

In a very real sense, history as we know it begins with Herodotus. His predecessors--shadowy figures such as Hecataeus of Miletus, Hellanicus of Lesbos or Charon of Lampsacus--traveled widely and inquisitively, picked up oral traditions, retailed great-man anecdotes and genealogies but never combined their inquiries (historiai in Greek) into one great Enquiry, the critical, discursive What and Why of the past. Other surrounding civilizations still had not advanced beyond priestly records, king-lists, celestial observations or theological protocol: the obiter dicta of royal and religious authoritarianism, which left no room for free and rational debate.

It is the singular inventive achievement of Herodotus to have taken the ethnic and geographical investigations of earlier Greek researchers and fused them with the great epic tradition set forth by Homer. He hoped to do two things: save great deeds from oblivion and discover why Hellenes and barbaroi (foreigners who went "ba-ba-ba" instead of speaking Greek) came into conflict with each other, the What and the Why.

His achievement was directly challenged in antiquity and has faced bitterly hostile criticism ever since. One major reason, emphasized again and again by Plutarch in his furious essay "On the Malice of Herodotus," should really count in Herodotus' favor rather than against him: his broad-minded and cosmopolitan readiness to see both sides of an argument, to concede Persian virtue while admitting Greek faults. This quality arouses Plutarch's most splenetic attacks. For him Herodotus is, unpardonably, philobarbaros, what prior to politically correct enlightenment might have been termed a "wog-lover." Plutarch's prime historiographical principle is clearly "my country right or wrong." Those who study contemporary modern Greek historians--on the Macedonian problem, say, or Greek-Turkish relationships--may reflect ruefully that Plutarch stands more in the Hellenic mainstream than did the Father of History. The very virtues of Herodotus are, paradoxically, the chief reason why he has been pilloried as the Father of Lies, a lie being defined as what did not suit the ethnic group involved (today this tactic has acquired an uncomfortably modern flavor).

Contemporary criticism often attempts to prove not only errors in Herodotus' "Histories"--which certainly exist and in such an early work it's surprising there aren't more of them--but also deliberate falsification (one attack is bluntly titled "The Liar School of Herodotus"). Such animus suggests temperamental rather than rational hostility on the part of scholars. It is Herodotus' personality that irritates a certain type of intellect: his sunny cosmopolitanism, his open-mindedness over questions of religion, his obvious enjoyment of women (and the large role allotted to them in the histories), his addiction to anecdotes, his discursive digressions on anything from tribal couvade to the walls of Babylon and his refusal to take up any kind of ideological stance save in the pursuit of freedom (eleutheria).

Herodotus' near-contemporary and historical successor, Thucydides, is everything that Herodotus is not: obsessional, dogmatic, focused sharply on military and political affairs to the virtual exclusion of all else, a theorist trained by the Sophists and ready, as a result, to extrapolate universal generalizations from the face-off between two local city-states (poleis) in mainland Greece. There are no women in this formalized world (Pericles' advice to them, in the famous funeral oration as Thucydides reports it, is simply not to get themselves talked about at all), and the humorless historian also excludes all private life and anecdotal material, making it clear that his aim is very much instruction rather than entertainment. The enormous historiographical assumptions behind these principles are not examined as carefully or often as they should be, especially since it has been Thucydides, not Herodotus, who bequeathed to future writers a method and a template for historical research that is still very much with us today. Not by accident, I feel, the German scholar Detlev Fehling, Herodotus' severest critic, is equally passionate in his wholehearted, uncritical endorsement of Thucydides.

Herodoteans and Thucydideans, obviously, do not see eye to eye, and it is only fair, at this point, to state openly that, while trying to preserve an equable balance, I approach this subject as a convinced Herodotean--someone, as far as professional academics are concerned, who is in a minority. Intellectuals love Thucydides. He is the darling of military and political analysts, of think tank gurus. He gets the modern English-language commentaries (two big ones so far) whereas Herodotus still has nothing written about him later than 1928. It just goes to show what an effect you can have by telling your readers how objective you are and writing in the third person to reinforce the impression, because an impartial examination of the evidence shows that, more often than not, Herodotus had it right. Classicists know very well that the more hard corroborative evidence (mostly epigrammatic) shows up, the better Herodotus looks and the shakier Thucydides' claims to objectivity become.

Thucydides' stance, in any case, was always debatable. Transpose the circumstances of his life and authorship into modern terms, and this at once becomes glaringly apparent. What would we make of a World War II general fired for incompetence whose subsequent narrative of events, while never identifying its sources, crucified the politician responsible for his dismissal and depicted the enemy commander who had outmaneuvered him as a genius so brilliant that he was virtually undefeatable? The general, of course, was Thucydides. Add the Thucydidean habit of false suggestion by selective omission and the underplaying of dominant economic motives and the result is an account that must be handled with extreme caution. Thucydides, make no mistake about it, was a better historian than general, and we're lucky to have his work, even in its unfinished state: But that work contains many personal flaws and prejudices, and to use him as a yardstick by which to give Herodotus short measure does his pioneering predecessor a serious injustice.

Thus it is fitting that new and up-to-date translations of both historians have appeared more or less simultaneously: Readers can decide for themselves as to their relative virtues. This has not always been easy in the past, since one of the major differences between the two--a difference too often disguised by earlier translators--lies in their sharply contrasting prose styles. Herodotus, as Aristotle informs us (and as even a cursory study of his Greek makes abundantly clear), wrote in what was termed the "old strung-along style." This meant a sentence structure that was short on subordinate clauses, preferring brief main statements in sequence, with a corresponding narrative technique that strung episodes together like beads on a thread: an approach, I must confess, that I find highly congenial.

Thucydides, on the other hand, has a dense, thorny and infinitely complex prose style, loaded with difficult abstractions, offering Chinese boxes of subordination in enormously protracted, often page-long sentences that are made to balance on subtly rhetorical nuances involving clause and counter-clause and straining at the same time to avoid any hint of repetition, whether verbal or constructional, in either his narrative or, more particularly, those elaborately wrought speeches on matters of political debate that he puts into the mouths of his leading public figures and that have always proved so mind-numbing a hazard to students hacking their way through his text in the original Greek--rather like this sentence, in fact.

Reading Burke, Hobbes, Clarendon, Gibbon or Macaulay today, it is easy to see what classical influences have been at work on their styles: They are Thucydideans to a man. But the present generation has seemingly developed an aversion to elaborate tricolonic sentences, not to mention the rhetorical curlicues that go with them. Herodotus may well be due for a comeback.

Before Robin Waterfield tackled Herodotus, there were three translations in circulation. Aubrey de Selincourt's durable 1954 Penguin edition, now plumped out with notes and other historical aids by John Marincola, too often reads as though the Sophists had had a hand in it. George Rawlinson's starchy Victorian prose, heavily influenced by the cadences of the King James Bible, not only introduces clause-subordination more appropriate for Thucydides but also practices a regrettable kind of fake archaism in direct speech, and David Grene's 1987 version, while opting for light, running prose, similarly believes that Herodotus' Ionic Greek should have a flavor both literary and archaic. The equation of the Ionic dialect with Homer (where a good deal else was mixed in) and with old-fashioned literary trends--what R.L. Stevenson called "tushery" and W.E. Henley "Wardour Street English"--I can only regard as particularly unfortunate, since the supposition is plain wrong. In fact, Ionic was, first and foremost, the language of scientific investigation, of Hippocratic medicine, and what Herodotus presents is, as he tells us, the "exposition of his research." Far from being quaintly old-fashioned, he was right on the cutting edge.

How, then, does Waterfield make out? His prefatory comments are encouraging: He has aimed, he says, for fluency while remembering that Herodotus wrote before the various rhetorical devices introduced by Gorgias and his Sophist colleagues, and so energetically exploited by Thucydides, had passed into general use. Waterfield tries to steer a midway course between stilted awkwardness and excessive modernism and on the whole makes a fair job of it with one excruciating exception: the speeches. In his version of these, the chatty, laid-back British colloquialisms are so out of place that they set this Brit's teeth on edge.

Waterfield also departs further from Herodotean idiom than readability requires and is not above doing a little censorship for delicate sensibilities. A nice example of both catches one's eye on the very first page, where he translates the historian's declared purpose as being:

. . . to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.

What Herodotus, in fact, wrote is:

. . . nor may great and marvelous deeds, performed by Greeks and barbarians alike, lack renown: much else, and the reason for which they warred one against the other.

Waterfield's prose is bureaucratese; nouns now do duty for verbs, while "barbarians" has been euphemized into "non-Greeks" (with the phrase gratuitously repeated). The result is the near-total loss of Herodotus' idiosyncratic and appealing style. Mark you, for long passages of dramatic narrative, it's hard to go wrong with Herodotus, and when it comes to the great set-pieces of the Persian Wars, Waterfield does well enough. But overall, de Selincourt, for all his faults, still holds a comfortable lead.

Thucydides presents an even greater challenge. His prose can be a translator's nightmare: We have to untangle not only extended sentences but also interwoven word order, startling abstractions, a cavalier way with the niceties of grammar and syntax, a distaste for the obvious and a Flaubertian horror of repetition. "No author," asserts historian Michael Grant, "who writes like Thucydides is trying to scare away readers." Oh? As Steven Lattimore, son of that superb translator Richmond Lattimore, knows well, only a radical restructuring and paraphrasing could ever make Thucydides' prose easily accessible. His motivation in tackling this most impenetrable author was, he says, "to convey to the reader with little or no knowledge of Greek a comparably accurate impression of Thucydides as an artist, in all his demanding originality."

To a striking degree Lattimore has succeeded, though his silent glosses of the text sometimes startle (for example, "the fabulous" emerges in his version as "patriotic fiction"). He gets closer to the Greek than either of his two available rivals, Richard Crawley and Rex Warner, and the result does not make for comfortable or easy reading. But then no one who has meditated on Thucydides' analysis of civil war or digested the bleak sophistries expressed during the Melian Dialogue is likely to expect anything but cold comfort from him in any translation. Lattimore's uncompromising version now leads the field. Like father, like son.

The ancient sculptor who did a common bust of Herodotus and Thucydides, leaving them joined at the occiput like a pair of Siamese twins, facing in opposite directions yet inseparable, had a shrewder sense of their relationship than many historians have displayed. The truth is they have much more in common. Between them they evolved all the fundamental principles of historiography--a preference for autopsy, close scrutiny and comparison of sources; the use of ethnic and geographical evidence to create background perspective; the systematization of chronology; the delineation of character; the evaluation of reported speech. Unfortunately, since the Renaissance it has been the Thucydidean contributions to this legacy that have firmly established themselves. Only in recent times, with new emphasis on such elements as the sociology of environment, even on psycho-history, has Herodotus' original and far-sighted historiographical achievement begun to win the recognition it so strongly merits.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°