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The History of Herodotus
translated by George Rawlinson

The History of Herodotus

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For anyone with even the slightest interest in ancient history, Herodotus’s History is compulsory reading — an authentic voice from the past that takes us back into the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, to let us witness the epoch-making confrontation between the Greeks and the all powerful Persian Empire.

But you do not have to be interested in history to read the History — this book will easily entice your interest! Far beyond being a mere account of dates, battles and names, it abounds with full-blooded tales of human virtues and vices, of honor and cruelty, of visions and nightmares, of achievements and defeats, of lives and deaths. In this work, which spans the scope of three continents and several centuries, the factual blends with the mythological and the fantastic. Herodotus never loses sight, though, of the actual historical events, and the people behind them, who so dramatically shaped history some 2500 years ago.

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About the Author

Very little is known about the life of Herodotus, but the central fact is undisputed: that he has indeed lived, and is the sole author of the History — or Histories, as the work is also known (the original title, transcribed as istoriai, literally means “enquiries”).

As far as we know, Herodotus was born around the year 485 BCE in Halicarnassus, a Greek city on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. The latest historical events that are referred to in the History date from 430, or possibly 427, which leads to the assumption that Herodotus died not long afterwards, but neither date nor place nor circumstances of his death are known.

There are no contemporary sources that tell about Herodotus’s life, so all we have is the History itself, and, except for a few references, texts that were written many centuries later. It is probable that he visited Egypt some time after 454, traveled from there to Tyre in Phoenicia and to Babylon, migrated to Athens around 447, and from there to the Athenian colony of Thurium at the Gulf of Tarentum (southern Italy) around 443 — later he may or may not have returned to Athens.

Fortunately, his work, as the earliest Greek prose to survive, has come down to us complete — or at least a large part of it did. There are several references in the History to passages that are not found in the text; whether they are lost or have never been written, we do not know. Be this as it may, what we do have is a stupendous work of literature and learning that opens an unparalleled window through which to look into the ancient world of the 5th and 6th centuries BCE.

The History is full of historical facts and fantastic tales, the work of a great writer, who strives to give us an authentic picture of his world, but who also loves a good tale, and knows that his audience does, too. His knowledge of the world is naturally limited, and, as he himself is fully aware, his own sources are not always reliable — he relates what has been told to him, and, where it seems necessary to him, voices his own doubts.

The more distant in space and time his topics are, the more fantastic, from our point of view, they get — to him, though, the events and characters of the Iliad, or the mythological figures of even earlier ages, are as real as are the gods and their involvement in the affairs of men. There is no indication that Herodotus consciously made up anything he writes about, except for the historical novelist’s technique of livening up descriptions of historical events by an extensive use of fictitious direct speech.

Despite an apparent partiality towards Athens, and, naturally, towards the Greek in their conflict with the Persians, Herodotus remains remarkably unprejudiced, and tells us of both noble and ignoble deeds on all sides — still, not all the events of and surrounding the Greco-Persian wars have necessarily happened exactly as they are described.

If you want to try to draw the line, or the many lines, between the factual and the fantastic in the History, you are in for a hard work — it has been tried, with varying and sometimes surprising results, for almost two and a half millennia. If you are interested, you will easily find abundant material to study. But first, though, you may just want to visit this strange and still so familiar distant world as it is offered to you on these pages, and see it come to life for you, magnificently, terrifyingly, entertainingly, through the eyes of one of the great writers of all times.

George Rawlinson was born on November 23rd, 1812, in Oxfordshire. Unlike his elder brother, Sir Henry Rawlinson, who spent many years in military and diplomatic service in India, Persia, Arabia and Mesopotamia, where he did groundbreaking archeological field work that helped him become one of the major contributors to the decipherment of cuneiform script, George Rawlinson led a sedentary life. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1838, where he stayed until his retirement at the age of 77, holding the distinguished Camden Professorship of Ancient History from 1861 to 1889. He was also a man of the Church, becoming Canon of Canterbury in 1872, and rector of the All Hollows Church in London in 1888. In 1846 George Rawlinson married Louisa Wildman Chermside, with whom he had five daughters and four sons.

In the translation of the History, George Rawlinson collaborated with his brother Sir Henry Rawlinson and with Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, an eminent British Egyptologist.

George Rawlinson died on October 7th, 1902, in his house in Canterbury.

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