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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