Tuesday, November 29, 2016


William A. Johnson, The Essential Herodotus: Translation, Introduction, and Annotations. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxii, 264. ISBN 9780199897957. $16.95 (pb).

Reviewed by N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Oxford (neilsewellrutter@btinternet.com)

Version at BMCR home site

In The Essential Herodotus, William A. Johnson presents extensive selections from the Histories in a new translation. He equips his passages with explanatory material, signposting paragraphs and copious maps and illustrations. This volume is a reliable and engaging introduction to Herodotus for non-specialists and students. Moreover, it will adumbrate to the more thoughtful among them an inclusive approach to the text: Johnson's selections and supporting matter put scope, breadth and variety at the heart of Herodotus's excellence.

The Essential Herodotus contains 'about one-third of the original' (p. 254), drawing from each Book in order. Coverage of the nine books is reasonably even, except that the selection from Book 1 is larger to accommodate both the whole Croesus-logos and much of the career of Cyrus; and, from Book 9, Johnson includes only the 'Coda' at the end (9.114–122). It is unsurprising to see, for example, Marathon and Salamis well covered. But other inclusions are more teasing or thought-provoking to the reader. Specialists will be glad to see the Constitution Debate from Book 3 and plenty of Scythian and Egyptian materials, which will challenge new readers' assumptions that Herodotus simply writes the history of the Persian Wars. The Constitution Debate ('this extraordinary scene', p. 115) will be especially puzzling to some of the intended audience. And Johnson is wise to give us the tragedy of Croesus at length (pp. 6–42): he lets Herodotus lead the audience into the Histories on his own terms with an account of the uncertainty of the divine and the inevitability of fate.

Johnson succeeds, then, in his aim 'to give a rich and balanced sense of what the whole of the history is like' (p. viii). Readers under no instruction or guidance will naturally read this kind of book through in order, which of course best serves the aim of leading us through a remarkably copious and varied mind at work. But The Essential Herodotus also has a place in some introductory and general undergraduate courses – not, indeed, as a book for deep and sustained study at an advanced level, for which purposes it simply does not contain or point to enough scholarly material; but perhaps as a key book for a couple of weeks' use in a longer course, or as a book to take students back to at several points in a term. The short signposting paragraphs before each selection serve educational ends well: they do not simply summarise, but frequently have an implicit Socratic function. They often indicate motifs and themes and their recurrence in different passages (for example on p. 68, p. 108, p. 194). Johnson is keen to point out literary features like the contrasting characterisations of Otanes and Darius (p. 112). And he alerts the reader to Herodotus's intellectual interests, his 'proto-scientific explanations' (p. 97) and his 'deep interest in what is extraordinary in other cultures' (p. 42). So the book invites its reader to interrogate the included passages of text and notice interconnections between them.

Some readers, particularly those using this book independently, will deplore the brevity of the three-page Introduction (pp. ix–xi). The decision to let the text speak for itself is understandable, but a non-specialist volume with little orientation at the front inevitably loses out in some respects to competing books like the complete Waterfield–Dewald Herodotus from the same Press.1 Johnson's footnotes to his selections are concise and helpful, definitely explanatory rather than scholarly.

Johnson's translation serves Herodotus well: it is readable and unaffected as a translation of this author should be, and accurate but not stilted or a crib. The remarkable onward flow and oral immediacy of Herodotus's Greek is what Johnson aims to capture above all, which leads him into a relatively informal English idiom. The excellences of Herodotus's style are subtle, even undemonstrative, so one hopes for no pyrotechnics from the translator, and here there are none. Johnson's 'lifetime of study' (p. viii) of the text pays dividends: nothing in the volume jarred this reviewer as blatantly erroneous or eccentric. Moreover, passages examined closely against the Greek for this review confirm in detail the impression that this is a secure and competent translation as well as a readable and friendly one: I was glad not to find a single definite error to correct.

There will naturally be infelicities of idiom and anomalies of style in 250 pages of translation from Herodotus. For example, Otanes (p. 116) says in the Constitution Debate: 'If you admire a king in measured terms, he is irritated (ἄχθεται) that you do not serve him well enough; but if you praise him to the skies, he is mad at you (ἄχθεται) for being such a flatterer.' (3.80). No reviewer should find fault with 'mad at' for being American English in an American translation, but it seems too colloquial for the Constitution Debate – unless perhaps Johnson means to hint at the memory of Cambyses' derangement that haunts the Persian conspirators.

To take a second stylistic instance, when Darius threatens the duplicitous Histiaeus of Miletus (5.106), Johnson's idiom may seem just a touch out of kilter: 'And thus he has robbed me of Sardis. Now how does this fine situation look to you? How could he have done any of this without your involvement? Watch your step, or you'll find yourself to blame.' (p. 156). Undoubtedly, this captures the tone of a Great King menacing a relatively petty tyrant who is not to be trusted: but is 'thus' really better than 'so', or does it make the flow of the sentences less smooth?

This is a successful translation, then, that is a pleasure to read. Herodotus has been well served by his English translators over the past generation and more, so what we do not have from this book is the relief of a good translation where previously there was none. But the tone of the new translation conspires with the nature of the selections from the text to give us Johnson's own Herodotus, a view that will illuminate the author for a non-specialist audience, and that is a valuable service.

In view of the plurality of available translations, it is an eccentric decision to detail only two in the Bibliography (p. 252).2 And a new translation of Herodotus ought at least to mention the recent Oxford Classical Text by N.G. Wilson, which is still too new to be fully incorporated into the literature, but seems likely to become the standard.3

None of the frequent maps and illustrations in The Essential Herodotus is in colour, and there are no separate Plates. The maps prioritise clarity over inclusiveness, for which learners will be grateful: many are small and have only a few place names, intended only to illustrate some particular piece of narrative or a military manoeuvre. Illustrations, which are thoughtfully selected, include photographs of artefacts and buildings as well as diagrams and line drawings. They are placed with care throughout the volume, and certainly add to both its utility and its pleasures. The crocodile mummies on p. 79, for example, richly deserve a whole page to themselves; and it is a good decision to let Croesus's pyre-scene brood imposingly over two-thirds of p. 39. This reviewer's one criticism is of the illustrations' production values, not their nature and placement: as often happens, the book's unremarkable paper does not lend itself well to crisp photographic reproduction, so artefacts generally do not come through at their pristine best. No photograph is hopeless or unusable, but clarity is definitely sacrificed to economy. Maps and line drawings suffer much less.

In conclusion, The Essential Herodotus is a useful volume of selections for the non-specialist in a clear and readable translation. It offers its readership a view of a copious and varied text with markedly inter-disciplinary interests: the Histories as presented here are a remarkable intellectual achievement that both informs and delights.


1.   Herodotus: The Histories, tr. R. Waterfield with an Introduction and Notes by C. Dewald (Oxford World's Classics, 1998). This complete translation has a thirty-page Introduction and much fuller notes than Johnson. For Johnson's readership, it is perhaps the best contemporary alternative: Waterfield's translation is a model of clarity, and Dewald's supporting matter is extremely helpful to the reader.
2.   Johnson mentions: Herodotus: The Histories, tr. A. de Selincourt (Penguin Classics, 1954, rev. J. Marincola: 2003); and Herodotus: The Histories, tr. D. Grene (Chicago, 1988).
3.   Herodoti Historiae, ed. N.G. Wilson (Oxford Classical Texts, 2015).

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