Tom Holland on Herodotus’ Histories

This evening I visited Daunt Books in Marylebone to listen to Tom Holland talk about his new translation of Herodotus’ Histories with the editor of History Today*.
I first met Herodotus in 1996 after watching The English Patient. If you haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece, I thoroughly recommend it to you; it is a powerful story of love, betrayal and the fluid nature of identity. Herodotus’ story of Candaules and Gyges plays a small but central part in the unfolding drama of Almásy and Katherine’s relationship.
Tom Holland’s engagement with Herodotus began at the age of twelve. Back then he read the book to learn about the Persian Wars. As anyone who has read the Histories knows, Herodotus is not only the Father of History but the Master of Digression. Holland admitted that when he was young they made him impatient but now he regards them differently; as legitimate, I suppose, a part of the book as the ‘gripping’ accounts of the Persian Wars themselves.
The Histories is not, technically speaking, a history. The Greek word, historia, from which we derive ‘history’, meant ‘enquiry’ or ‘research’ to Herodotus. Historia did not come to mean ‘history’ for another hundred years (Holland referred to the ‘Alexandrian era’). The title, though, is well chosen as Herodotus was perennially interested in everything around him. Thus, the book contains history, ethnography, information about cultural customs, religious practices, and so forth. Holland made the entertaining point that when we use Google we are following in Herodotus’ inquisitive footsteps. Imagine if Herodotus had had Google; I imagine he would have been stuck to his laptop!


Alexander to Herodotus (note the scratch on the cover. The book should have had a dust jacket!)

Holland told us that Herodotus was an ‘utterly charming’ writer; he was the kind of man you would want at a dinner party. But Herodotus’ was not an empty charm; he was also a very sympathetic man. This is seen in the respect he gives to the Persians who were, after all, the Greeks’ enemy. I think Holland said that Herodotus admires them. That really is the mark of a truly civilised man. I wonder if our modern day equivalent would be to respect and admire countries and religions to whom we are opposed or do not believe in.
Holland said that it took him five years to translate the Histories. While working on it, he followed the practice of translating one paragraph a day. Of course, some of the paragraphs are very short – a sentence long – while others are equally long – being pages in length. Holland’s practice here was not to ‘bank’ his sentence and then go and do something else but carry on so that he wouldn’t fall behind his schedule whenever he came to a long paragraph. I wonder how Herodotus wrote?
One thing that came across very strongly tonight was Holland’s love for Herodotus. I suspect he really was sad when he finished translating the book.
During the Q and A session, a man asked if we could also call Herodotus the Father of Journalism. The man said he hoped so as he was a teacher in that subject and taught his students to follow Herodotus’ practice of declaring the source of his information when writing stories; for example, by writing ‘this is what I was told [by]…’, ‘I got the story this way’ so that, I guess, people knew with what caution to approach it. Holland agreed that there is a sense in which Herodotus is a journalist.
Finally, I must mention that Holland suggested that Herodotus gives us the earliest joke that we can still genuinely smile at. He was referring to the story of the small pyramids at Giza. Herodotus says the Egyptian priests told him they were built by a pharaonic princess who paid for them by prostituting herself. Well, she was a princess so was able to charge a lot of money! In case you are wondering we know for a fact that that is not how they were built – as if a princess would ever prostitute herself (or indeed make enough money to pay for pyramids of any size).
After the Q & A finished, those of us with books queued to have them signed. I have already started reading my copy and am enjoying it a lot. The only disappointment I have with it, is its physical appearance. It is a thick book (833 pages) but came with no book mark. Also, the spine and front cover have – within days – started to become worn. The book was not sold with a dust jacket, which surprised me. I suppose this was to keep the price down but am still disappointed.
After the event concluded, I stepped out into street filled with the kind of satisfaction that only a glass of nice red wine, an hour with a friendly author, good convo and questions, and the knowledge that I am lucky enough to have his translation of Herodotus to read, can give. Take that Croesus.
* You can hear Tom Holland talk about his translation in a podcast at the History Today website here

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Tom Holland on Herodotus’ Histories

  1. How wonderful for you to hear Mr. Holland in person. I hope you put your own clear cover over the translation to keep it from further deterioration.


  2. Oh my goodness! Herodotus on Google. What an image and what an imagination to visualize that.

    I fear the engaging art of digression is fast fading in our world of sound bites.


  3. Penina – It was certainly a privilege. A cover might well be a good idea!
    Jamie – As the years go by our world seems to become more and more utilitarian and atomised. On of the beauties of Herodotus is that he shows us a different way to do things in a very convincing manner



  4. Pingback: Are bloggers journalists? – Geneva Business News | Actualités: Emploi, RH, économie, entreprises, Genève, Suisse.

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