Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 34.
David Asheri, Alan Lloyd, Aldo Corcella, Oswyn Murray, Alfonso Moreno and Maria Brosius (edd., trr. Barbara Graziosi, Matteo Rossetti, Carlotta Dus and Vanessa Cazzato), A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. lv + 721, incl. 44 black-and-white maps and plans and 8 tables. ISBN 978-0-19-814956-9. UK£165.00.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
The publication of a commentary on Herodotus to replace the outdated How and Wells, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1912, is greatly to be welcomed. With three authors, two editors, one contributor and four translators however, this commentary presents the reviewer with special difficulties associated with multiple authorship. The commentary was originally published in Italian under the auspices of the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla by Mondadori between 1988 and 1993 and so has been available to scholars for some time. In 1996 it was decided to produce an English translation using the example of the English translation of the Mondadori Odyssey commentary. This has resulted in a two-volume work of which this is the first. The original work of nine volumes, one for each book of the Histories, has been condensed into two in consultation with the authors. Volume I covers Books 1-4 of the Histories.
Asheri was responsible for Books 1 and 3, while Corcella ‘revised and updated his commentary on Book 4’ (p. vii). Lloyd, whose three-volume introduction to and commentary on Book 2 is familiar to all students of Herodotus, prepared a new edition for this commentary. In addition Maria Brosius was asked to provide an English translation of the Bisitun inscription, which appears as an appendix to Book 3. There is a second appendix to this book in the form of a list of satrapies and peoples in Herodotus and in the Persian inscriptions. There are also forty-four maps and city or site plans arranged in a group of eleven general maps -- for example, the empires of the Assyrians, Medes and the Persians, the Greek cities and Asia Minor, placed before the main text -- and the rest scattered throughout the text where most appropriate. The book begins with a brief account of the life of David Asheri, the Italian born Israeli Herodotean scholar, by Oswyn Murray, one of the editors of the whole work. By the time of his death in 2000 Asheri had revised the English version of Books 1 and 3, and had finished the Italian versions of Books 8 and 9. Thus Asheri will be the author of the commentary on four of the nine books of the Histories when the second volume is published. This will obviate some of the problems of multiple authorship and make for a large degree of evenness and uniformity.
As the overall editor of the project, Asheri provides an excellent general introduction on Herodotus and his work, as well as an introduction to each of the books for which he was responsible, Books 1 and 3. In the general introduction to the commentary, Asheri traces what we know of Herodotus’ life, which is in fact very little, but he brings out the idea that even so Herodotus’ ‘presence can be felt throughout: to read his work is like hearing him talk’ (p.1). There are six chapters in the general introduction dealing with Herodotus’ life and travels, the aim of his work, his intellectual development, including his sources and his methods, his spatial and chronological framework, his aetiology or theory of causation, and finally the varying reception of his work during the twenty-five centuries since he wrote it, from Thucydides, who made history synonymous with war and politics, to the twentieth-century when he has been rediscovered not only as the father of history, but also as the father of ethonography as a result of his enquiries into the customs of other peoples. Asheri does not believe that Herodotus began the Histories with ‘any sort of unifying plan’ (p. 12), but rather that he integrated several pre-existing logoi into the whole work, leaving traces of this re-working, particularly obvious in transitions between the main narrative and the various digressions, such as the famous digression on Egypt, which takes up almost all of Book 2 and which is introduced by a brief linking chapter about Cambyses and his expedition against Egypt. Asheri argues that having begun by writing separate monographs on various topics, ‘[e]ventually, however, Herodotus abandoned the conventional canons, and in two stages shifted towards a new genre to whose creation he himself contributed, that of “great historiography”’ (p. 13). Asheri believes that Herodotus’ natural curiosity was the starting point for all his travels and enquiries, and that this led to his fascination for ‘wonders’, either natural or man made.
Asheri is also responsible for the introductions to Books 1 and 3. Book 1, according to him, ‘foreshadows the entire work and, in a sense, constitutes its quintessence’ (p. 59), while Book 3 is largely concerned with Persian history in the form of the stories of Cambyses’ life and death and Darius’ rise to power, and includes the catalogue of satrapies of the Persian empire. Asheri argues that Book 1 contains ‘all the characteristic features of the work’s content and form, thought and style’ (p. 59) and the two main logoi concerning Croesus (1.6-94) and Cyrus (1.95-216), while being wonderful examples of Herodotus’ skill as a storyteller, also allow him to illustrate the ‘relativity of the human condition . . . through a cyclical tripartite conception of the history of individuals and states: rise, climax and decline’ (p. 66). For Asheri, there is in this book ‘ a clear sense of unity …at the level of historical and philosophical thought’ (p. 68), which he elucidates in the introduction. The introductions to all the books end with a summary of the material contained in the particular book. Asheri’s commentary on this book is directed at the fluent reader of Greek and does not, on the whole, deal with matters of grammar. Indeed the ancient historian may benefit most from this detailed yet wide-ranging commentary, with its discussions of the identity of Gyges (1.12), the three ‘factions’ of sixth-century Attica (1.59), Persian ethnography (1.131-40) and the technique of caprification as applied to palm trees (1.193), amongst other matters.
Lloyd prepared a separate edition of his three-volume commentary on Book 2 for this volume. He too provides an introduction to Book 2 -- the famous digression on Egypt. There are six chapters in his sixteen-page introduction, dealing respectively with interactions between Greeks and Egyptians for more than two centuries up to the mid-fifth century BC, the date of and places visited during Herodotus’ visit to Egypt, the matters of interest into which Herodotus enquired, his sources and techniques, Herodotus’ own intellectual and moral background and an assessment of Book 2 as a whole. Again the introduction ends with a summary of the Book itself. The commentary gives more grammatical help than Asheri, and indeed more than in Lloyd’s earlier commentary, but the discussions of various topics such as the calendar (2.4) and a discussion of Herodotus’ account of the Egyptian class structure (2.164-68) are perforce much abbreviated from Lloyd’s stand-alone commentary. In some instances, such as the inaccuracy of Herodotus’ description of the hippopotamus, the reader is referred to his earlier commentary. On the plus side, however, this commentary also contains diagrams of the Pyramids of Giza, the Pyramid of Khufu and the temple of Bubastis as well as maps of the Fayûm and the site of Naucratis.
The commentary on Book 3 is provided by Asheri. As in the case of Book 1, he provides an excellent introduction to this book, which he divides into several topics: the reign of Cambyses and the Persian conquest of Egypt (3.1-38), the first Samian logos (3.39-60), the revolt of the Magi and Darius’ accession to the throne (3.61-88), the Persian empire (3.89-117), and the first years of Darius’ reign (3.118-60), and so on. He sees the story of the revolt of the Magi and Darius’ accession to the throne as the pivot of the main narrative of Book III, since it continues the logos of Cambyses; but also acts as a link to the description of the satrapies and the tributes of the empire, reorganised by this new Great King. The story of Darius’ accession brings out all the characteristics of Herodotus’ story telling art, through which, according to Asheri, he ‘seeks a moral and divine significance behind the individual events’ (p. 385). The centrepiece of this book is the constitutional debate held by the conspirators with Otanes, Megabyzus and Darius championing democracy, oligarchy and monarchy respectively. There has been much discussion about the Persian context of this very Greek debate and Asheri’s position is that ‘Herodotus knew very well that the empire had undergone a radical change after a severe crisis; he therefore tried to understand the phenomenon within the limits of his own frame of reference: the constitutional changes of the Greek poleis’ (p. 473). He also suggests that the placing of the debate in a Persian context allows for the possibility that the crisis in the Persian empire ‘might have provoked dissent and internal debates among the members of the restored high nobility’ (p. 472).
Book 4 was the responsibility of Corcella and he provides a twelve-part introduction to this book, along with several maps. He suggests that Book 4 has much in common with the Egyptian logos in Book 2 and goes on to point out several points of structural similarity between the two: the age of the Egyptians and the Scythians as peoples, one purportedly the oldest and the other the youngest of the nations of the world, and the analysis and examination of their local traditions; while the Egyptian logos allows Herodotus to explore the southernmost reaches of the known world, the Scythian logos allows a corresponding examination of the northernmost regions. Corcella argues that the ‘chaotic’ nature of the Scythian logos is the result of Herodotus’ dividing up material from a unified treatise, and goes on to say that ‘We can thus catch glimpses of Herodotus’ activity before he composed the final version of his work, and perceive the sometimes difficult amalgamation of different stages’ (p. 559). With Herodotus’ account of Darius’ expedition to Scythia, according to Corcella, ‘we enter into legend’ (p. 561). Corcella points out the various inconsistencies and even impossibilities in this portion of the Histories, and says that for more than 300 years scholars have with difficulty been trying to identify the peoples and the rivers mentioned by Herodotus. Throughout his commmentary and in particular in the case of Herodotus’ description of Scythian art and culture, which has largely been confirmed by archaeological finds and Graeco-Scythian art of the fifth and fourth centuries, Corcella provides details of research undertaken since the publication of the commentary by How and Wells, some of it emanating from the former Soviet bloc and consequently not well known in the West yet. The book ends with an excursus on Libya and a brief description of the Persian campaign against Libya. It would seem that Herodotus may have collected the information on the ethnography of Libya before he had decided on the final shape of the Histories and having promised a Libyan logos in Book 2.161 he fulfils his promise here, with an announcement of a Persian expedition and then a long excursus describing the land and the people against whom the expedition is sent.
There are only two aspects of this volume that one does not welcome. The first is the horrific price, which at either $320 or £165 is way beyond the means of the ordinary scholar, let alone student, and so will restrict it to university libraries. This in turn will slow down the dissemination of new material contained in this commentary. One can understand that such a volume, with perhaps a limited circulation, would indeed be expensive to produce, but nonetheless one can only hope that there would soon be a more affordable paperback version, so that Classics departments and individual scholars would be able to add it to their collections. Second, the volume lacks a general index, which is a serious shortcoming, given the wide-ranging nature of Herodotus’ work, since the reader may find it difficult to pinpoint items in the commentary for future reference. In addition, an index to the volume would assist in cross-referencing items in the individal commentaries, thereby enhancing the unity of the whole.
In every other respect this is a volume to be welcomed and appreciated as a major contribution to Herodotean studies. The general introduction and the individual introductions may be the areas most accessible to undergraduate students, particularly as only Lloyd gives anything in the way of grammatical help to the reader whose Greek is less than fluent, but they are also the portions of the commentary that will help such students to appreciate the multiple facets of Herodotus’ work -- he is by turns story-teller, teacher, scientist, philosopher and, perhaps most obviously to the modern reader, investigative journalist. Indeed, the introductions may help to dispel the image of Herodotus as a simple-minded, credulous storyteller who, although he may be called the Father of History, nevertheless needed Thucydides to put the final guidelines in place for his new genre, thereby restricting it to the discussion of the male sphere of war and politics for the best part of two thousand years. In the twentieth century, however, the pendulum has swung in favour of the techniques and interests of Herodotus in the field of historiography and we find that anthropology and ethnography are being used to investigate the past. Herodotus’ acknowledgement of the place of women in the world, completely absent in Thucydides, finds favour not only with feminists. His capacity for examining the customs and beliefs of the enemy without dehumanising him likewise recommends Herodotus to the modern mind. It is therefore to be hoped that the interval between this volume and its successor will not be too great, since Herodotus has too long been undervalued, and his achievement is only now being fully comprehended.