It is to this second, far grander conflict that the most famous Herodotean tales of the Persian Wars belong; not for nothing do the names Thermopylae and Salamis still mean something today. In particular, the heroically suicidal stand of the three hundred Spartans—who, backed by only a couple of thousand allied troops, held the pass at Thermopylae against tens of thousands of Persians, long enough for their allies to escape and regroup farther to the south—has continued to resonate. Partly, this has to do with Herodotus’ vivid description of the Greeks’ feisty insouciance, a quality that all freedom fighters like to be able to claim. On hearing that the Persians were so numerous that their arrows would “blot out the sun,” one Spartan quipped that this was good news, as it meant that the Greeks would fight in the shade. (“In the shade” is the motto of an armored division in the present-day Greek Army.)
Herodotus’ remarkable accomplishment was to incorporate, in extended prose narrative, the fluid rhythms familiar from the earlier, oral culture of Homer and Hesiod. The lulling cadences and hypnotically spiralling clauses in each of his sentences—which replicate, on the microcosmic level, the ambling, appetitive nature of the work as a whole—suggest how hard Herodotus worked to bring literary artistry, for the first time, to prose. One twentieth-century translator of the Histories put it succinctly: “Herodotus’s prose has the flexibility, ease and grace of a man superbly talking.”
All the more unfortunate, then, that this and pretty much every other sign of Herodotus’ prose style is absent from “The Landmark Herodotus,” whose new translation, by Andrea L. Purvis, is both naked and pedestrian. A revealing example is her translation of the Preface, which, as many scholars have observed, cannily appropriates the high-flown language of Homeric epic to a revolutionary new project: to record the deeds of real men in real historical time. In the original, the entire Preface is one long, winding, quasi-poetic sentence, a nice taste of what’s to come; Purvis chops it into three flat-footed sections. Readers who want a real taste of Herodotean style can do a lot worse than the 1858 translation of George Rawlinson, which beautifully captures the text’s rich Homeric flavor and dense syntax; more recently, the 1998 translation by Robin Waterfield loses the archaic richness but, particularly in the opening, gives off a whiff of the scientific milieu out of which the Histories arose.
But in almost every other way “The Landmark Herodotus” is an ideal package for this multifaceted work. Much thought has been given to easing the reader’s journey through the narrative: running heads along the top of each page provide the number of the book, the year and geographical location of the action described, and a brief description of that action. (“A few Athenians remain in the Acropolis.”) Particularly helpful are notes running down the side of each page, each one comprising a short gloss on the small “chapters” into which Herodotus’ text is traditionally divided. And “The Landmark Herodotus” not only provides the most thorough array of maps of any edition but is also dense with illustrations and (sometimes rather amateurish) photographs—a lovely thing to have in a work so rich in vivid descriptions of strange lands, objects, and customs. In this edition, Herodotus’ description of the Egyptians’ fondness for pet cats is paired with a photograph of a neatly embalmed feline.