Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

I’m becoming quite attached to this series of brief overviews (100-120 pages) of important topics in Western culture, from Roman Britain and Mormonism to racism and medical ethics. There are more than three hundred now, many of them the work of recognized experts, and of the dozen or so I’ve read, only one has failed to impress me. Not a bad average at all.

Herodotus, often called the “Father of History,” is near and dear to my heart. When I first began buying “serious” books in about 8th Grade, I quickly discovered Modern Library’s inexpensive editions of the great classics. And one of my first purchases was The Persian Wars. I was already a budding historian and I spent many fascinated hours exploring the ancient world through Herodotus’s eyes — he loved to leaven his narrative with folklore and what we would call ethnography — and then working through his detailed account of the defeat of the invading Persians by the enormously outnumbered Greeks. If they hadn’t managed it, all of Western history for ever after would be completely different — and the Greeks knew it, too. Their amazing victory was an absorbing topic for them; how had they ever managed it?

Roberts, a specialist in war in the classical world and in Herodotus and Thucydides — the other “Father of History,” but not nearly so much fun as Herodotus — does a very good job in the limited space available to her. She lays out the key features of Herodotus’s world, and of what “history” meant to the Greeks. She divides the anthropology from the military history and compares his methods in pursuing both — most of which were original with him, and all of which we now take for granted as being the “only” way to do history. She includes an excellent chapter on the place of women in that world, too — Herodotus being virtually the only writer of the time who even recognized their existence as a force in society and politics. And she replies forcefully to the canards that have been around for twenty-four centuries, that he was “only a storyteller” — the “Father of Lies.” As with all the titles in this series, there’s a good selected bibliography at the end. A highly recommended and easily consumed volume for anyone who needs to learn more about the ancient world.


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