Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Simon Hornblower, C. B. R. Pelling, Herodotus. Histories: Book VI. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xv, 354. ISBN 9781107029347. £79.99 (hb); £24.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Sean Sheehan (

Version at BMCR home site


A convincing argument for thinking the book divisions of the Histories are not the work of Herodotus is the way Books 5 and 6 belong so very much together. Simon Hornblower, convinced the book divisions are Hellenistic in origin, announced in his Herodotus Book V (2013) that a Book VI companion volume would be a undertaking shared with Christopher Pelling, and the completion of their joint work has been well worth the five year wait.

The basic structure of both editions is the same—an introduction followed by the Greek text and Commentary—and Book VI's introduction kicks off by looking to the end of Book 6 and noting the inspirational and commemorative importance that so quickly attached itself to the Battle of Marathon. There follows a summary of non-Herodotean sources for the iconic status of the battle on the east coast of Attica in 490 BCE and the point is made that Herodotus, though not catering to the hyperbolic claims that were being made in his own lifetime about the battle, pays due respect to the courage of those who fought and the value of their achievement; Herodotus' treatment, say the editors, 'is measured rather than subversive' (p. 8).

This decision by the editors to begin with the Battle of Marathon, a most memorable and often referenced part of Book 6, is understandable, and it is not until their introduction's second section, 'Architecture', that the scope is widened by continuing with a topic first discussed in Hornblower's Book V: the place of Books 5 and 6 in the Histories as a whole. Though the Greek war with Persia has been present in the Histories since the Proem, it has remained in the background through Books 2-4 until the beginnings of the Ionian Revolt in Book 5 bring the Greek world back into the big picture. It stays there as Book 6 completes the story of the Revolt and returns to the histories of Athens and Sparta that were begun in Book 1 before describing the course of the Marathon campaign.

Rightly stressed are the ways in which Book 6 points ahead to what will dominate the rest of the Histories: a vengeful Persia looking to punish the Athenians for what happened in Sardis and the internecine quarrelling amongst Greek states. The seemingly perpetual feuding, both within and between Greek cities, is what complicates the reading of Book 6, and Hornblower and Pelling acknowledge Macan's exasperation at the way anecdotes on the subject break into 'a shower of spray' (p. 13). The Persians have a single objective; the squabbling Greeks have many.

Matters of a religious nature form a curious topos of their own in Books 5 and 6 and are the subject of the third section of the introduction, 'Kleomenes and Impiety'. In Book 5 a presence of the divine was peculiarly discernible in various inter-state affairs involving statues and relics of heroes, while Book 6 is more concerned with the breaking of oaths, transgressing the inviolability of sanctuaries, and other acts of impiety which are linked to the role of Kleomenes. (Other incidents, like the earthquake on Delos and Philippides' epiphanic encounter with Pan, are examined in the Commentary.)

The fourth section of the introduction, 'The Qualities of Book 6', is a masterly summation of what distinguishes Book 6 in terms of its variations in pace and tone, the distinctive speeches of Leutychides and Miltiades, the deftness of shorter passages of speech, and the vivid descriptions that conclude with events at Marathon. The introduction concludes with a 'Language and Dialect' section, written by Angus Bowie, that also appeared in Hornblower's Book V, and a brief note on the text that acknowledges the use of Nigel Wilson's new Oxford Classical Text and his accompanying Herodotea.

The Commentary is structured by main headings relating to distinct groups of chapters in Herodotus' text. For example, '50-86 Sparta and Aigina' covers the digression on the dysfunctional state of the present condition of Spartan kingship via its genealogy, ethnicity, and ethnography. A main grouping like this one has its own short preface before being broken down under as many other sub-headings as the text requires. The Sparta and Aigina chapter has some twenty odd such sub-headings (with further short prefaces where a set of sub-headings relate to a common subject matter), and each one then looks at individual items of the text which are highlighted in bold.

Navigating the extraordinary intricacy of the patterning in any book of the Histories is rarely straightforward, but the breakdown of Book 6's chapters into multiple subdivisions copes admirably well with the task and allows quick access to the context of any individual passage or chapter.

The precision that the co-authors bring to their Commentary is evident from the start when they dissect the politicking as Artaphrenes, Histiaios, and the Chians, each with their own agenda, set about reading each other's motives (6.1-5). Herodotus' choice of words, verb tenses and endings, ambiguities, divergences from Wilson's OCT, focalisations and echoes from earlier in the Histories are all scrutinised and commented upon. The same exactitude is evident when covering the Battle of Lade and its aftermath. The convoluted mini-narrative about the Samians and Sicily (6.22-25) receives over five pages of detailed annotation. The isolated story of Skythes in chapters of 23 and 24, with no mention of his son Kadmos who features later (7.163- 64), is deemed 'one of the most serious pieces of poor coordination in all Hdt.'—perhaps a little harsh in its judgement given the Histories' discursive sinuousness and the many hundreds of individual characters therein.

The microscopic analysis of chapter 40, concerning the younger Miltiades, is exemplary yet characteristic of the painstaking approach adopted throughout the Commentary. The judiciousness of the editors' negotiation of the chronological, linguistic, and historical puzzles of chapter 40 is maintained throughout the Commentary and is evident again, for instance, in their handling of the chapters on the accusation that the Alkmeonidai were a fifth column, using a shield to flash a message to the Persian fleet as it sailed around Sunium (115, 121-123). Conflicting readings are cited, but the editors refrain from entering the interpretive fray other than to accept that Herodotus' argument cannot be simply taken at face value, 'especially as his μισοτύραυυοι claim is overstated', and to note that the distinction between τύραννοί and aristocratic or oligarchic leaders was not as sharp in the period he 'was writing about (as opposed to the period when he was writing)'.

Wherever references are deemed useful or interesting they are succinctly fed in to the Commentary. There is little that Hornblower and Pelling have missed or bypassed. Herodotus Book VI is pure scholarship and an invaluable addition to the Cambridge University Press's ongoing series of nine commentaries on the Histories in their Greek and Latin Classics series. It is difficult to imagine a more detailed and comprehensive commentary to the entire text of Book 6, making this a definitive publication. Hornblower and Pelling deserve the fullest praise for their exhaustive study.

1 comment:

  1. I am delighted to read this positive review. I would just like to point out to readers that, as is usual in this series, this volume was published in paperback as well as hardback from the start and the paperback is currently priced at £24.99/$31.99.


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