Wednesday, April 1, 2009


John Claughton, Herodotus and the Persian Wars. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008. Pp. vii, 152. ISBN 9780521689434. $25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Abram C. Ring, Franklin and Marshall College (

Table of Contents

I. Introduction and abstract

Claughton's Herodotus and the Persian Wars provides a lively new translation of selections from the Histories, most of which come from the major battle narratives. The notes are often helpful in giving cross-references within Herodotus (and sometimes to other authors) and in explaining common Greek customs and beliefs. The numerous color illustrations and maps are valuable and laudable additions. However, the lack of variety in the selections, the omission of an introduction, the restricted bibliography, and the failure to address much modern scholarship will limit the usefulness of this text.

II. Purposes of the series and this book

According to the back cover, this book is part of a new series that is "suitable for both advanced secondary school and undergraduate study" and designed to give students "direct access to the ancient world by offering new translations of extracts from the key texts of its literature, history and civilization, and by setting them in their historical, social and cultural contexts." The back cover also highlights three features of the series: thought-provoking questions, notes on the same page as the text, and illustrations. On the website of Cambridge University Press, one can find a similar description of the series with the following features listed: "user-friendly layout," "[n]ew translations" in "approachable, readable English," and "[t]ranslations and commentaries by key scholars in the Classical field." According to this webpage, the series is appropriate for students at key stage 4 through Post A-level. For readers not familiar with the British system, this includes secondary students (from about 14 years of age) and beginning college / university-level students.

Claughton's own preface (vi) sets out his five aims: 1) to make key passages available in relaxed style with explanatory notes and questions; 2) to show Herodotus exploring historical causation in his own way--perhaps unlike modern history; 3) to guide the reader to other passages of Herodotus not included here; 4) to promote thought about the different world that Herodotus describes; 5) to make one think also about the similarities between his world and our own because "it was not only in 480 BC that East and West faced each other."

III. Clear triumphs

Cambridge and Claughton himself have made good on many of their claims. First, the layout of the book is certainly "user-friendly" in that every page has the primary text above in a large readable serif font and the commentary below in a small, yet still quite readable sans-serif font. Furthermore, the text is printed in bold blue characters whenever it receives a comment; in the commentary at the bottom of the page, the lemma is again printed in blue before the corresponding note. The numerous full color illustrations--including maps and pictures of art and archaeological remains--are likewise inserted exactly where they might be of interest and accompanied by captions to explain their significance. As this book does not provide a complete text of Herodotus, Claughton often has to summarize certain sections of the Histories, and he does so in light blue text boxes that are easily distinguished from the main text and commentary. Similarly throughout the book, Claughton has interspersed short selections of other classical texts for comparison with certain passages of Herodotus; these comparative selections are also printed in blue boxes. For example, Claughton includes Thucydides 1.22 and Livy pref. 9-11 to compare with Herodotus 1.1-5 and Bacchylides Ode 11 on Croesus to compare with Herodotus 1.86-88. All of these additional selections have been translated by Claughton. The translations are all in readable, contemporary English prose.

The footnotes are plentiful and many of them provide explanatory glosses on proper names and places such as Aea and Medea (5) or discussion of ancient customs, traditions, and beliefs (13, gods begrudging man too much good fortune; 44, Panathenaea; 64, guest-friendship). Some notes lead the reader to compare the current passage with another in Herodotus or another ancient author. As Claughton promises, he sometimes guides the reader to passages not found in this edition. Other notes suggest that Herodotus and his world are not too dissimilar from us. For example, Xerxes' claim that the Sun will "look down on no land other than our own" is compared not only with ancient Roman rhetoric (Vergil Aeneid 1.279) but also with the more recent British empire "on which the sun never set." Claughton's prefatory allusion to conflicts between East and West is developed through direct reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq (52) and in a more general remark comparing Xerxes' claims to recurring excuses for imperialism and expansionism (58).

The questions periodically interspersed throughout the text often ask students to consider similarities and differences between Herodotus' world and their own. After selections from Book I, Claughton asks: "How does Herodotus tell his story? What are the strengths of his method? How does it differ from a modern historical method?" Later, after the selections about the Battle of Marathon, he asks: "How does this narrative compare with oral accounts of any modern war?" and "With what other battles in history can Marathon be compared as an embodiment of a nation's identity? What impact does that aspect have on the narrative?" The latter question seems to be hinting at a reader-response criticism of the text and could certainly stimulate interesting discussion.

Another useful feature is the brief bibliographic essay in which Claughton describes several books that students may consult to find about more about Herodotus and his Histories. Likewise, the short index may prove useful because it lists many of the major people and places mentioned in the text.

IV. Shortcomings

This book has much to offer novice students of the classical world, but it will not work for all courses. At $25 it seems overly expensive for a short paperback (a trait shared by all volumes in this series), though perhaps the abundant color makes this unavoidable. Still, there are less expensive, well-annotated translations of Herodotus such as the Oxford World Classics edition by Waterfield ($10.95) and the abridged Focus edition by Shirley ($8.95) with which Claughton's book must be compared. Furthermore, the paperback edition of The Landmark Herodotus is similarly priced ($24.95) but includes a new translation, an introduction, maps, illustrations, notes, and numerous useful appendices, whereas Claughton's edition does not include an introduction or appendices. Readers must plunge directly into Claughton's selections without any clear overview of Herodotus' ideas, methods, and subject matter. Furthermore, since Claughton focuses on Herodotus' introduction and battle narratives, you will not find some well-known passages such as the story of Gyges or the Persian constitutional debate. None of Herodotus' books are presented complete, and books 4 and 5 are omitted entirely. These omissions are to be expected owing to the size of Herodotus and the Persian Wars (152 pages) but will make it less attractive to some. I have recorded the specific section numbers in the table of contents at the end of this review for ease of reference.

Though the translation has been thoroughly modernized, an American reader may occasionally be distracted by Briticisms such as "rubbished it" (p.17), "lay up glory" (91), "it is all to play for" (117), " his head" (129), and "stickability" (131). Similarly notes and questions comparing ancient events with the Battle of Britain (38) and Battle of Hastings (48) will baffle many American students, though Claughton sometimes gives multiple points of reference as when he compares Thermopylae with Dunkirk and the Alamo (80).

Claughton often defends Herodotus against charges of dishonesty and error (10, story about Solon meeting Croesus; 34, explaining his descriptions of gold digging ants; 128, Pitanate company). He sometimes cites charges by Plutarch (47, 90, 92 ) but never specifically addresses criticism by modern scholars. In the bibliography he says (149): "I remain deeply antipathetic to Fehling's argument". However, neither there nor elsewhere does he explain what Fehling's argument is. It would have been more useful to explain at least briefly the nature of Fehling's criticism, to note that other scholars similarly question Herodotus' truthfulness, and to answer at least a few of these charges explicitly in the notes so that students could have an opportunity to follow both arguments on their own.

Although the many comparative references to Homer (46, 68, 84, 93-4, 120-1, 140, ...) are instructive, the comparisons with Marco Polo (23, 29-30, 34) and Shakespeare (66) are perhaps interesting but not very helpful for understanding Herodotus himself. On the other hand, there is no mention of Hecataeus of Miletus, arguably Herodotus' most influential predecessor, in connection with Herodotus' prologue which has clearly been modeled on Hecataeus'. Since Claughton also includes neither of the later episodes involving Hecataeus (Hdt. 2.143, 5.36), he never provides an opportunity to assess Herodotus' attitude toward this predecessor whose rationalization of the "silly stories" (FGrH 1 F 1) of the Greeks profoundly influenced Herodotus' logical methods.

A few notes are misleading, erroneous, or emotive rather than informative. For example, Claughton strangely implies that the oracle about Athens's "wooden walls" was truly prophetic, and that Themistocles was the only one who rightly understood it (100). Surely many ancient Greeks would not have read this story so credulously. In comments on the talents and daric staters of Pythius (64), Claughton implies that silver talents must consist of Greek denominations and says that staters were silver coins weighing 130 grams (.287 lb). Talents were used by virtually all Mediterranean societies, so the talents of silver need not be Greek. Daric staters were gold coins weighing 130 grains or 8.4 grams. Thus Pythius' fortune is divided into silver and gold, not Greek and Persian, portions. Elsewhere Claughton implies that Herodotus' remark about Athens being the most ancient city would have insulted the Spartans (41), but this cannot be true. Sparta had never claimed to be very old because the Spartans were supposed to be immigrants to the Peloponnese, while Athens was generally thought to be very ancient. When Herodotus comments on Egyptians preventing embalmers from having sex with corpses, Claughton jests (32): "there is a kind of comfort that even Herodotus can succumb to sensationalism and a ghoulish fascination with necrophilia." While notes often mention recurring themes in Herodotus, they do not draw attention to many structural and verbal aspects of his style. For example, one finds no significant discussion of oral features, ring composition, frame narratives, and meaningful word play in the logoi (e.g. Tellos = telos, "end"; Adrastos = "inescapable").

Though it is useful to have an index, the two pages (151-2) might have been expanded. For example, we find no references to the notes in the index. Furthermore, the following list illustrates some persons and places mentioned by Herodotus that do not appear in the index--Claughton's page numbers in parentheses: Helen (5), Cleobis and Biton (11), Homer (26), Libya (27), Pindar (33), Harmodius and Aristogeiton (43), Epizelos (47), Perseus (91), Simonides (95), Mnesiphilos (98), Asopus (127), Cithaeron (130), and Callicrates (138).

V. Conclusion

Some of the issues outlined above may discourage secondary and university-level instructors from adopting this book, especially since there are a number of other choices if one is looking for a modernized, annotated edition of Herodotus. Still, Claughton's translation is smoothly readable, his notes often helpful, and the format quite pleasing and easy to use. The rich color maps and illustrations are well done and may stimulate much interest especially in more visually inclined readers.

VI. Table of Contents

Claughton's page numbers are in parentheses. The corresponding section numbers in Herodotus are in square brackets. An asterisk (*) indicates where Claughton has omitted part of the numbered section of Herodotus--one should note that in the text these omissions are often indicated neither by notes nor by ellipses. If preceding the section number, an asterisk indicates an omission from the beginning of the section; if following, the omission is from the end. For example, *1.29-34* marks one omission at the beginning of Hdt. 1.29 and another at the end of 1.34.

1. Introduction and the kidnapping of women (1-8)

Introduction (2) [Book 1, prologue]

The kidnapping of women (3-7) [1.1-5]

2. Croesus, the king of Lydia (9-22)

Croesus and Solon (10-14) [*1.29-34*]

The fall of Croesus (15-20) [1.86-91]

3. Egypt and the wonders of the world (23-37)

The Nile and the reason for its flooding (23-27) [2.19-27]1

The wonders of Egypt (27-28) [2.35]

Cats and crocodiles (28-30) [2.66-70]

Mummification (30-32) [2.85-89]

Darius and the treatment of the dead (32-33) [3.38]

India, Arabia, and the far north (33-37) [3.101-106, 111, 113-116]

4. The battle of Marathon, 490 BC (38-48)

Preparations for battle (39-41) [6.102-103*, 104-108*]2

The battle (42-48) [6.109-117, 120]

5. The coming of the Persian invasion (49-78)

The decision to invade Greece (49-62) [*7.4-18]3

Xerxes and Pythius 1 (63-64) [7.27-29]

The bridge at Abydos (65-66) [7.33-36*]4

Xerxes and Pythius 2 (66-67) [*7.37-40*]5

Xerxes and Artabanus at Abydos (68-73) [7.43-53]

Xerxes and Demaratus at Doriscus (74-78) [*7.100-105*]6

6. The battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC (79-96)

Thermopylae and Artemisium (80-81) [7.175, 177]

The Persian numbers (81-82) [7.184-187]

The battle's preliminaries (83-86) [7.201-204*, 206-209]7

The battle (86-94) [7.210-225]

The glorious dead (94-95) [7.226-228, *238]8

7. The battle of Salamis, 480 BC (97-118)

The debate amongst the Greeks at Salamis (97-101) [8.56-63]

The sons of Aeacus and the Eleusinian Mysteries (102-103) [8.64-65]

The situation amongst the Persians: Artemisia' Advice (103-105) [8.66-69]9

The Greeks before the battle (105-109) [8.70-72, 74-6, 78-82]10

The battle (110-115) [8.83-95]

8. The battle of Plataea, 479 BC (119-147)

The banquet at Thebes (119-120) [*9.15-16]11

Mardonius and Artabazus (121-122) [9.41-42]

The night mission of Alexander (123-124) [9.44-45]12

Greek manoeuvres before the battle (124-130) [9.46-57]

Mardonius' speech and the Persian attack (130-132) [9.58-59]

Pausanias' message to the Athenians (132) [9.60]

The battle (132-137) [9.61-70]

After the battle (138-142) [*9.72, 76, 78-80, 82]13

The end of it all (142-146) [ 9.116-122]


1. Section 2.27 is incorrectly included as part of 2.26.

2. 6.103 ends in mid-sentence without any indication of omission; the beginning of 6.108 is marked as part of 6.107.

3. The end of 7.4 marked as 7.5; sections 7.10a-h = 7.10 alpha-theta.

4. A large part of 7.36 is missing but is summarized in block.

5. Large parts of 7.37 and 7.40 are missing.

6. A small part of 7.100 and a large part of 7.105 are missing.

7. 7.204 is missing the statement that Leonidas became king unexpectedly.

8. 7.238 is missing a short phrase.

9. The Greek-lettered subdivisions of 8.68 are not marked.

10. Here omissions include the list of Peloponnesian peoples (8.73) and Herodotus' quotation of and comments on an oracle of Bakis about Salamis (8.77). Claughton's section heading on p. 105 misleadingly reads "8.70-82." As elsewhere, there are no ellipses to mark the omissions.

11. A very large part of 9.15 is missing.

12. In the omitted 9.43, Herodotus asserts that Mardonius wrongly thought the oracle in 9.42 referred to the Persians and then quotes another oracle that he claims actually refers to the Persians. There is no note explaining the content of this omission.

13. A small sentence is missing from 9.72.


  1. Leofranc Holford-StrevensApril 1, 2009 at 4:09 PM

    >Though the translation has been thoroughly modernized, an American reader may occasionally be distracted by Briticisms [etc.]<

    Do your American reviewers never stop to think how offensive such comments, of which I have had the misfortune to encounter several in BMCR reviews, may be to British readers, as if British authors were obliged to ask themselves at every turn what idiom might or might not lie within the evidently limited linguistic capabilities of American undergraduates? Such truckling to ignorance is even more intolerable when expressions or allusions that American or any other readers have not understood are so easily researchable on the Internet, of which said undergraduates are likelier to have a second-nature understanding than their paper-world instructors.

  2. I am sorry to have upset you, but the reality in many American colleges and secondary schools is that students often have problems understanding even early American English much less British English. Thus in a review of a volume clearly meant to be user-friendly and intended for beginning students I feel that this comment is totally appropriate. I would not have made such a comment if I had been reviewing a scholarly monograph or even a book intended for advanced undergraduates. Finally, I certainly would not be offended if a reviewer noted Americanisms in anything that I wrote (were it an introductory translation such as this), since that information would be useful to many readers. I am guessing that your students are more capable than mine, since my students are always far less able to conduct research on the internet than I. Many of them have problems following links I email them or posting on my class blog.
    -Abram Ring