Posted: August 11, 2009
obert Strassler is a wonder. In school and college, he studied neither Greek nor Latin. At Harvard, for a short time, he profited from tutelage by a retired Oxford modern history don who had minored in classics. But Strassler did not major in classics, devote himself to ancient history, or go on to do a Ph.D. Instead, after finishing his history B.A., he shifted to Harvard Business School, whence he graduated as a Baker Scholar in the top 5% of the class. Then, he joined his father's turn-around business, and over the next 20 years helped manage a marine shipyard, a steel mill, a printing press manufacturer, a retail department store, a die-casting company, a plastic extrusion firm, a shoe machinery company, and, finally, a small company in the oil-field equipment business. In 1983, shortly before the oil boom went bust, he sold that business and retired at the ripe old age of 46, left Tulsa, Oklahoma, and moved to Massachusetts, where, with his brother, he ran a small capital-investments firm. Six years later, having abandoned his original vocation, he took up once again the love with which he had briefly flirted as an undergraduate—the study of ancient Greek history.
During the next seven years, Strassler devoted his spare time, which was considerable, to the preparation of an edition of Thucydides in translation—adding 114 maps (located on or near the page where the pertinent event is described); explanatory footnotes keyed to the maps; marginal notes; headers indicating the date, the location, and the events being described; an introduction by Victor Davis Hanson; a highly detailed index; and 11 appendices on technical questions arising within the text, written by Hanson and other classical scholars armed with the requisite expertise. Strassler's aim was to make a recondite work of great interest accessible to the man on the street. But, much to his chagrin and to the surprise of his agent Glen Hartley, he found that no one was willing to give him an advance and that 12 of the 13 publishers approached (including six prominent university presses) had no interest whatsoever in the project. Had it not been for the audacity and imagination of Adam Bellow at the Free Press, we might never have had The Landmark Thucydides.
In this enterprise, Strassler operated in the manner of a general contractor. He did the maps himself, and much of the rest he subcontracted out. He bore all of the pre-publishing costs, and they were considerable. But when the book appeared in 1996, there were rewards—for the Free Press and for Strassler himself—because The Landmark Thucydides sold more than 30,000 copies in hardback and an additional 40,000 in paperback, and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever go out of print. No one in his right mind, teaching a course in Greek history, would employ any other edition. No casual reader would be well-advised to look elsewhere. The maps alone are worth ten times the cost of the book. With their help, the narrative becomes intelligible to the non-expert reader for the first time. Put simply, Strassler's maps are to the study of Thucydides what wheels are to luggage. Once they are added and you see the result, you are aghast that no one had the wit to add them earlier.
* * *
Strassler's Thucydides had only two defects. Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War is not just a narrative account; it is a quasi-philosophical literary work—an extended meditation, composed with very great care, dealing with political regimes, armed conflict, politics, power, and the manifold pressure brought to bear on political communities by the horrors of ongoing warfare that seems to have no end. One gets a whiff of this in Hanson's all-too-brief introduction, but next to nothing is said on the subject in the appendices. An interpretive essay of 20 or 30 pages might have been added at the end.
Strassler's omission in this regard is a shame, but it does no great harm. Interested readers can easily enough turn to the secondary literature on the subject, which is vast and exceedingly rich. One can still read Francis M. Cornford'sThucydides Mythistoricus (1907) with profit; Leo Strauss's essay on the subject is a wonder; there are good books by Jacqueline de Romilly, Charles Norris Cochrane, John Finley, Michael Palmer, Steven Forde, and Hans-Peter Stahl; and the more recent work by scholars such as W. Robert Connor and Clifford Orwin is a delight. Thucydides has received the attention that is his due.
The second defect in The Landmark Thucydides is far more serious. Strassler is competent neither in Latin nor Greek, and he chose not to commission a new translation, which would have increased his costs considerably. Instead, on the advice of a number of classicists, he republished Richard Crawley's rendering, which had first appeared in 1874 and was in the public domain. With regard to the narrative, this was not a bad choice. Crawley's translation retains something of the force and power of the original Greek. With regard to the speeches and the handful of crucial digressions in which Thucydides hints at his own analysis of events, however, Crawley's rendering is grossly inadequate, for it is wildly inconsistent in its translation of the key terms that Thucydides and the Greeks of his time deployed to convey their evaluation of events, policies, and persons. The Strassler edition is almost useless to students reading Cornford, Strauss, Connor, Orwin, and the like. They would be much better off consulting the translation that Thomas Hobbes published in 1628, which, more often than not, wonderfully captures the nuance and tone of the theoretical passages in the original. Had Strassler substituted Hobbes's translation of the key passages for that in Crawley, and had he hired someone to check Hobbes against the Greek and to modernize with care and discretion his prose, The Landmark Thucydides would have been a much better book.
* * *
One might think that the success of Strassler's bold endeavor would have stimulated competition. Classicists are, by and large, an impecunious lot, lusting for lucre; the list of ancient texts crying out for similar treatment is exceedingly long; and one could easily imagine enterprising editors at Oxford University Press, at Cambridge, Harvard, or Yale, jumping at the opportunity he had opened up. But 13 years have passed. In the interim, no one else has stepped forward; and Strassler has re-entered the market—this time with an edition of Herodotus, for which he received a generous advance from Pantheon Books, and with an announcement, on the website of that commercial publisher, that it is to be followed by Landmark editions of Polybius, Arrian, and Xenophon. In my lifetime, no one has done as much for the study of ancient history as this non-academic amateur enthusiast. He is, in the fullest sense of the word, a patron of learning, and he has in the process made himself into a learned man.
Like its predecessor, The Landmark Herodotus is a treasure. The format is almost precisely the same. There is an informative introduction by Rosalind Thomas of Balliol College, Oxford; there are 21 appendices in the back dealing with everything from steppe culture north of the Black Sea to Herodotus' treatment of women and marriage; there is a highly detailed index; and there is a map every two or three pages. Moreover, the maps in this volume are drawn from The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, which was published in 2000, and they are superior to those in the Thucydides volume.
Strassler has added an outline of the text with dates to help readers grasp the structure of the book and the chronology of the period it covers, and he has provided a host of well-chosen illustrations to give readers a sense of what it is to which Herodotus is referring in a given passage. The result is exceedingly satisfying, and I have no doubt that the publication of this volume and of the other volumes that Strassler has in the works will draw to Herodotus and the other ancient historians a host of readers who would otherwise have found these works impenetrable.
The Landmark Herodotus differs from The Landmark Thucydides in one other particular. This time, Strassler hired a classicist to translate the book. This should have enabled him to avoid the one significant pitfall that he encountered with the earlier work. Like Thucydides, Herodotus is a figure of quasi-philosophic importance. His historiai—the word meansinquiries—is much more than a narrative. It is also an anthropology, which is to say that in it Herodotus investigates thenomoi—the laws, customs, and ways—of the Persians and of the various peoples they encountered in the course of carrying out their conquests, and that he does so with an eye to evaluating the multifarious socio-political regimes that exist in the world. His is a species of natural history. It is an inquiry into human diversity and into that which makes of the many nations a single human race. To do it justice in a translation, one must take great care to render the critical terms of moral and political evaluation deployed by Herodotus faithfully and consistently. This, alas, the translation does not do.
* * *
Near the beginning of the book, Herodotus introduces us to Croesus, the ruler of Lydia, who was, he tells us, the first Asian monarch to subjugate Greeks. Then, he digresses, as he is wont to do, to tell us how the Mermnad dynasty to which Croesus belonged came to the Lydian throne; and it is in this context that he tells us the story of Croesus' ancestor Gyges, a bodyguard in the house of the Heraclid ruler Kandaules, who overthrew his master, married his wife, and seized his throne. Herodotus refers to Kandaules as a turannos (1.7), and he later describes the rule of the Mermnads as aturannis (1.14). In Herodotus' day, as a glance at Sophocles' Oedipus Turannos will make clear, the term turannos was employed to distinguish a usurper from a basileus or legitimate king. Herodotus was certainly aware that he was deploying a loaded term. Later, in the so-called Persian Debate (3.80-83), the earliest surviving example we have of political theory, he has Otanes, who had led a conspiracy against a usurper, lay out a fierce critique of monarchy on the grounds that themonarchos ("the one who rules alone") is likely to become a turannos. It comes, then, as a disappointment that Strassler's translator, Andrea L. Purvis, renders turannos as "monarch" in describing Kandaules and turannis as "kingship" in describing the Mermnad regime. Carolyn Dewald, in her appendix in the back of the volume on "Tyranny in Herodotus," suggests that "the semantic field of the word" may originally have "implied little more than ‘reigning monarch.'" But even if one were persuaded of this, it would be illegitimate to translate the Greek term and its cognates in such a fashion as to make the question of Herodotus' own deployment of the word simply disappear. Had Purvis translated turannos andturannis consistently as "tyrant" and "tyranny," she would have left it to readers to sort out Herodotus' meaning with Dewald's help. As it stands, she has imposed her own interpretation on the pertinent passages and denied to Dewald's careful citation of the passages any correspondence with the English text.
This is not an isolated instance. In translating the Persian Debate (3.80-83), where Herodotus repeatedly uses the termhubris and its cognates, she engages in elegant variation, sometimes translating the word as "arrogance" and sometimes as "insolence." Had she been consistent in translating the term and its cognates, especially had Strassler added a note to indicate the underlying Greek term, readers would have been able to see the shape of the argument with some clarity. As it happens, clarity has been sacrificed for the sake of an elegance alien to the original.
Purvis is also fast and loose with the English word nature. Here is a matter where clarity and accuracy is absolutely essential, for the distinction between phusis or nature and nomos—meaning convention, custom, or law—was central to philosophical debate in Herodotus' lifetime, and Herodotus himself is profoundly concerned with the status of nomos and with the assessment of rival nomoi. It may make sense to introduce the word "nature" into the translation where Herodotus uses the etymologically related verb emphuetai to indicate that hubris and envy are likely to "grow up" within a monarch (3.80.4), although this is a stretch. But there is no sanction whatsoever for the use of the term in translating the subsequent passage (3.80.5: "his character is most inconsistent in nature") where the original Greek (anarmostaton de panton) merely indicates that, in being "at odds with himself," he had no rivals. In short, the translation that Strassler commissioned for this volume is of no more use to students of classical literature, philosophy, and political theory than is Crawley's rendering of Thucydides.
* * *
Here again, there is no interpretive essay, looking at the book as a book. Had Strassler commissioned such an essay, he would have been able to alert the readers of this volume to the literary qualities of Herodotus' Inquiries and to its philosophical significance as well. Moreover, the author of such an essay would have been in a position to make him aware of the grave defects in the translation.
Of course, here, too, one can turn to the secondary literature. One can still learn a great deal from John L. Myers's Herodotus, Father of History (1953); Seth Benardete's Herodotean Inquiries (1969) is penetrating, if difficult of access; and there is much of value in the books by scholars such as Henry Immerwahr, François Hartog, Stewart Flory, Ann Ward, and Rosalind Thomas (to name just a few). Unfortunately, however, none of these works—apart from Benardete's cryptic account—comes to grips in a systematic fashion with Herodotus' intention and with the purpose underpinning the design of his historiai. In this important particular, Herodotus has not been as well-served as Thucydides—perhaps because his charms as a storyteller hide his incisiveness as an analyst. One can only hope that the publication of Strassler's Landmark Herodotus redirects scholarly attention to this relatively neglected figure. If it does so, however, scholars will have to prepare themselves for tackling Herodotus by reading him in the original with the help of the massive commentary on his text published in Italian in recent years by David Asheri, Alan Lloyd, Aldo Corcella, and others, which is being translated into English and republished by a team of young scholars directed by Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno.
Students of Thucydides have long profited from A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, which was begun in the 1930s by Arnold W. Gomme and finished off some decades ago by Antony Andrewes and K.J. Dover, and they can now take full advantage of the Commentary on Thucydides published in three volumes over the last two decades by Simon Hornblower. Until quite recently, however, students of Herodotus have had to make do with the two-volume Commentary on Herodotus published by Walter Wybergh How and Joseph Wells in 1912. Things improved when Cambridge University Press began commissioning scholars such as A.M. Bowie, Michael A. Flower, and John Marincola to edit the Greek text of individual books of Herodotus and write circumscribed commentaries thereon. But, valuable though the two volumes thus far published in this series may be, these do not bear comparison with what Asheri, Lloyd, Corcella, and their colleagues have done.
The volumes edited by Bowie and by Flower and Marincola are full of useful information, but they are aimed first and foremost at undergraduates assigned to read the individual books. They provide philological pointers and help in evaluating historical claims, but they do not provide guidance with regard to the secondary literature. This Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella do—and more. Their volume, soon to be followed by another, rivals in quality the commentaries on Thucydides produced by Gomme, his colleagues, and Hornblower. It begins with a 56-page essay by Asheri on Herodotus and his work as a whole, which will serve as the starting point for all future scholarship. It is meticulous, thorough, and sensible—even where one might be inclined to reach different conclusions. This essay is followed by Asheri's brief, incisive introduction to the first of Herodotus' nine books and, then, by his detailed commentary on each of the paragraphs of that book. Lloyd does the same for the second book; Asheri, for the third book; and Corcella, for the fourth book.
The commentary that they provide is especially useful because it is in these books that Herodotus discusses the history and culture of ancient Lydia, Persia, Babylonia, Egypt, and Scythia; and Asheri, Lloyd, and Corcella are exceedingly well-informed concerning the scholarship on the ancient Near East and Scythia produced by those who work in the pertinent sub-fields. In consequence, they are in an excellent position to determine the accuracy of Herodotus' account, to judge his veracity, to clarify where he was mistaken and why, and to make sense of some of his more cryptic claims. The level of their erudition is breathtaking, and the translators who produced this volume did a remarkable job of rendering their Italian into an English noteworthy for its clarity and precision. It makes one anticipate with bated breath the publication of the succeeding volume.
* * *
It would, of course, be easy to quibble with their judgment in particulars. Asheri is, I think, too quick in passing by the evidence suggesting that Sophocles and Aristophanes drew on and responded to material in Herodotus, and his contention that Herodotus' Inquiries is incomplete suggests on his part a lack of literary imagination with regard to the point of its abrupt conclusion. But his great virtue is that he always makes one aware of the argument on the other side. My only serious regret is that Asheri and his colleagues adopted a separatist perspective in their commentary. They may, of course, be correct that Herodotus visited Babylonia, Phoenicia, Egypt, and the Pontus and began writing ethnography before he decided to do a history of the Persian Wars. These are not places of central importance for understanding the events that took place in the Aegean in the years stretching from 500 to 479 B.C. But, while Herodotus acknowledges the presence within his historiai of a multitude of distinct accounts (logoi), he also insists that, taken together, they somehow constitute a single logos. Had the contributors to this volume taken this claim with greater seriousness, they would have been in a position to help us better understand the crucial question: what is it that makes Herodotus' historiai a single inquiry? What Asheri and his colleagues have done, however, is to make straight the way for someone else to address this question. Thanks to them and to Strassler, we stand, I suspect, at the beginning of a Herodotus Renaissance.